I must confess that I haven’t been very active in social VR and virtual worlds this week, glued as I have been to the news media, Twitter, and Reddit, since Wednesday’s U.S. Capitol riot.
In the past 48 hours, many Big Tech companies have acted to ban or impose restrictions on Donald Trump’s accounts (a step which should have been taken long ago, in my opinion). In a deliciously ironic twist, even TikTok (a platform which Trump threatened to ban) has banned the soon-to-be-ex-president!
Notably, Twitter permanently suspended Donald Trump’s account, cutting him off from his millions of Twitter followers at the push of a button. When Trump tried to evade that by tweeting from other accounts, those were also quickly suspended.
Buh-bye, Donald Trump! Don’t let the door hit you on the way out…
UPDATE 9:26 p.m.: The New York Times is reporting that three Big Tech companies have acted to take down a platform where many speculated Donald Trump would land up after being evicted from Twitter, the right-wing social media app Parler (original version of the NYT article; archived version). Yesterday, Google removed the Parler app from its Google Play store, and today Apple followed suit, removing Parler from the Apple app store. Apple’s and Google’s actions mean that users would have no way to install or update the Parler app on their mobile devices (although Android device users could theoretically still sideload the app). And later today, Amazon, bowing to pressure from its employees, decided to remove Parler from its web-hosting service, effectively crippling a service which had relied on Amazon Web Services to operate. It looks as though Parler is doomed; even more reason to rejoice!
Centralized Big Tech platforms have been the defacto police of dangerous speech and harassment. They’ve historically done a terrible job reining it in (ask any woman, LGBTQ, BIPOC, etc). But it’s also a cultural issue not solvable via purely technological, deterministic means.
As soon as anti-democratic populists move to completely decentralized networks and encrypted, peer-to-peer communication networks, there isn’t going to be any technological deterministic “ban hammer” method of mitigating dangerous speech, aside from banning underlying peer-to-peer tech.
I invite you to join the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the world’s first cross-worlds discussion forum! Almost 500 people from around the world, representing many different virtual worlds and social VR platforms (such as VRChat), meet daily to chat, discuss, debate, and argue about the ever-evolving metaverse, and the companies building it.
Virtual Market 5 starts today, and runs until January 10th, 2021, and the phenomenally popular avatar and avatar accessories shopping event is bigger and better than ever, leaping from strength to strength with each iteration! (I blogged about my previous excursions to Virtual Market 2, 3, and 4 here.)
I am seriously impressed by all the companies exhibiting at Virtual Market 5, including some big real-world name brands! Other social VR platforms would absolutely kill for this kind of corporate attention!
HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: I realize that when I talk about High Fidelity now, I could be talking about two entirely separate platforms:
the old, social VR platform High Fidelity, which of course is now essentially shut down (although those of us with accounts can still visit it); and
the new platform, a 2D virtual world with 3D audio.
Because of this, from now on I will always refer to “the old High Fidelity” and “the new High Fidelity” on this blog, to make it clear which platform I am referring to. I will also create a new blogpost category called The New High Fidelity. Of course, High Fidelity is the perfect name for this new platform, with its primary feature of spatial audio! (This is one of the reasons why it’s a good idea to have a separate platform name from your company name, however.)
I created a map for High Fidelity with 21 audio zones (9 big and 12 small), tagged with different contexts to facilitate emergent conversations. Audio-falloff is annotated with speaking & lurking rings. I’m hoping to test and iterate on it more this weekend.
Now, I really have to hand it to Kent. Many days, I seem to be operating in a pandemic-lockdown-induced brain fog, but he took Philip Rosedale’s new platform and ran with it.
Basically, Kent took his taxonomy of social VR and created a diagram for people to inhabit, complete with chat circles indicating the sound fall-off! It’s a novel, even genius, way to frame a conversation in a virtual world, and it was so simple to do; all he had to do was create and upload an image and embed it in the invitation URL he sent around. The following diagram gives a sense of scale:
And, after spending half an hour or so conversing with the people he invited to his world, I am now beginning to see some of the benefits of such a platform. As I said before in my initial, somewhat negative first impressions of the new High Fidelity, I am primarily a visually-oriented person, as opposed to an audio-oriented person. In fact, I don’t even own a set of headphones! Instead I used the microphone on my webcam, and I still found that I was able to join and leave conversations easily.
One of the things that Kent really likes about the new High Fidelity is the ability to break off into side conversations easily, by physically moving away from other groups. For example, Jessica Outlaw (a social VR researcher whom I have written about before) and I had such a conversation, talking shop about various social VR and virtual worlds in the Social & Mental Presence circle:
Jessica (who was also planning to attend an engagement party in the new High Fidelity later today) mentioned to me how she had difficulties getting people to use even simpler social VR platforms like Mozilla Hubs, and how she thought that this would be a much easier way to introduce inexperienced people to virtual worlds. And yes, I agree: even the dead-simple Mozilla Hubs can be a somewhat steep learning curve to somebody that is brand new to virtual reality and virtual worlds, let alone much more complicated platforms like Second Life, where newbies need to spend at least an hour getting their bearings!
Among the guests was Alex Coulombe (whose work I have written about before), who in another side conversation, talked about how he could see offering a choice for people attending a theatrical production in VR: higher-end users could choose to watch and hear the play in a VR headset, while lower-end users might opt to just hear the play in 3D audio via the new High Fidelity platform, maybe even while out on a jog!
So, I am slowly warming to the potential applications of the new High Fidelity! Thank you to Kent Bye for inviting me to the conversation.
UPDATE 3:51 p.m.: Kent Bye gave me permission to quote from our discussion afterward on Twitter:
Thanks for coming out! Glad you were able to get some new insights for how High Fidelity might fit into the ecosystem. I’m personally really excited for it as a way to rapidly prototype 2D blueprints of spaces that facilitate specific social dynamics.
The interstitial hallway conversations and serendipitous collisions are some of the hardest things to recreate in VR and embodied virtual worlds — at least so far. Setting and maintaining deep context across a large number of people is hard, even at conferences where there’s a pretty specific context already. Connecting people with their problems to solve and innate interests is a persistent problem across all mediums. High Fidelity has the opportunity to start to do something different that other solutions haven’t yet. I think of it as a potential portal into an embodied experience, but also to facilitate these more ephemeral threshold spaces where a lot of the best conversations end up happening.
It starts to solve the problem of: I want to talk about this topic, but I don’t want to sit in an empty VR/virtual room until someone comes about. So you can hang out with the audio while doing other things and be more patient with waiting folks to drop by. Setting a deeper context for gathering usually happens with Birds of a Feather: Meet at Location X and Time Y and we’ll talk about Z. This sets an intention to have a very focused and productive conversation with deep and meaningful shared purpose. By annotating spaces, then you can start to potentially remove the “at Time Y” part of the equation, and have a persistent location where people will organically gather around topics. Mixing the planned and unplanned will go into my next design iteration.
I need a lot more iterations to be able to set the proper context and rules that facilitate this, but having the context deeply embedded into the architecture of a space has the potential to create a hub where people go to meet and collide with others in the industry, kind of what happened today based upon who saw my few Tweets about it.
I’m really sorry I missed this event (I’ve been busy conducting library training sessions for various classes at work all this week at the university, and I just came home last night exhausted, so I gave this a pass). But thankfully, someone has posted a YouTube recording of Kent’s entire presentation and his conversation with Jesse afterwards.
Kent Bye is an extremely information-dense speaker who hops from topic to topic with alarming ease, so you might want to set aside some time and watch this video is small bites, so you don’t get complete information overload! His twenty-minute overview presentation about virtual reality is an absolute must-watch, and the conversation afterward with Jesse Damiani is also very informative, engaging, and wide-ranging. The last half of this YouTube video is a question-and-answer session with members of the studio audience.
So set aside an hour and 40 minutes, and watch the whole thing. It’s amazing. I think that Kent Bye is one of the most informed and articulate speakers about virtual reality that I have ever encountered! Bravo, Kent. And thank you for bringing him onto the show as a guest, Jesse.