We’re in a metaverse déjà vu moment. Companies are spending billions of dollars creating new metaverses, imagining a 3D virtual future. But there’s a metaverse that’s already been around for decades. In this world, people have started businesses, built homes and fallen in love as avatars.
In a new four-part series from The Journal, producer Annie Minoff heads back into that largely forgotten metaverse – Second Life – to tell the story of the metaverse we already have and what it can reveal about the one that’s coming.
Start listening to How to Build a Metaverse on Friday, September 23rd.
UPDATE Sept. 27th, 2022: I listened to the first instalment of this podcast on Sunday, and I can recommend it highly! Annie Minoff interviews many different people—including former Linden Lab senior staff like Philip Rosedale and Cory Ondrejka—and it’s clear that she has immersed herself into Second Life and its culture a lot more than most reporters! I look forward to listening to future episodes of this podcast.
I have been trying (dear Lord, how I try!) to stay away from what seems to be an unending litany of bad news lately, but last night I slipped up and opened the Apple News app on my trusty iPad, which promptly spit up the article which is the topic of today’s cranky editorial. (It’s a bit old now, but it’s the first time I read it.)
The piece, written by Katie Underwood on July 7th, 2022, for Canadian Business magazine, is the perfect example of metaverse bullshit that is currently circulating in the news and social media, and I have had it up to here with what passes for accurate reporting on the topic. Honestly, I swear, if this keeps up, I fear that the word metaverse itself will become so tainted that the general public will run the other way when it is mentioned! (And Mark Zuckerberg and his many missteps trying to pivot Meta into a metaverse company are not helping, either.)
The title of the article is Your Next Home May Be in the Metaverse (although the web page itself is actually titled Buying Real Estate in the Metaverse Isn’t Cheap; if you should hit a paywall, here is an archived version). The article starts with a profile of digital artist Krista Kim, who built the home of her dreams—and then apparently promptly minted an NFT of it and sold it:
“I imagined creating a house that would heal me,” she says. She also hoped she’d find a buyer. “The question was: Would anyone else understand what I was selling?”
As it turns out, someone did. Kim’s futuristic dreamscape sold for approximately US$512,000 in March of 2021. The metaverse is a loosely but increasingly understood shared virtual space, accessible via smartphone, goggles or headset—and it’s the newest frontier in the global real estate blitz. The sale of Mars House, a 3-D file rendered using the video game software Unreal Engine, marked the metaverse’s first-ever NFT-based residential transaction.
Already, at the very beginning of the article, I am ready to tear my hair out. First, THIS IS NOT THE METAVERSE! The artist built a home using Unreal engine, but it is simply a three-dimensional object, which needs to be imported into an actual metaverse platform (e.g. VRChat) in order to be used! A CNN article about this transaction correctly reported:
The new owner paid digital artist Krista Kim 288 Ether — a cryptocurrency that is equivalent to $514,557.79 — for the virtual property.
In exchange, the buyer will receive 3D files to upload to his or her “Metaverse.”
So yeah, the fool who paid half a million U.S. dollars for this house still has to find a place to park it before inviting his or her friends over for a virtual barbecue.
Second, it is far from “the first NFT-based residential transaction”, which Katie Underwood would have known if she had bothered to do a little research before writing this article. Blockchain-based metaverse platforms have been buying and selling NFT-based virtual land parcels for years now! Decentraland, for one, began selling land back in 2017, and yes, some people have built virtual homes on that land.
With my teeth firmly set on edge, I continued reading, to find yet another section of Katie’s article which raised my blood pressure a notch:
Like terrestrial homebuyers, users keen to buy or sell real estate in the metaverse will have to go through a rigmarole not unlike the one for bricks and mortar. Right now, land sales in the metaverse are typically concentrated within the “Big Four” platforms—Decentraland, The Sandbox, Somnium Space and Cryptovoxels—which are developed and owned by users. (To date, their combined total of virtual plots is just under 300,000.)
Even in the metaverse, location is everything. In Decentraland, neighbourhoods are designated for specific activities; for example, there’s Festival Land (for live music events), University (for education) and District X (for clandestine dating adventures and adult-themed e-stores). Its fashion district is of particular interest to the Metaverse Group, a Toronto-based virtual-real-estate company that scooped up more than 100 of the area’s 16-by-16-metre parcels for US$2.4 million last November.
Also, “last December, one of Snoop Dogg’s most ardent fans dropped US$450,000 for a plot next to the rapper’s mansion in The Sandbox, a popular gaming platform.” Again, these quotes make me want to tear my hair out! Listen to me, people: LOCATION IS NOT EVERYTHING. For example, in Decentraland you can click on a URL with the exact coordinates of the parcel of land that you want to visit, which will take you directly there. Any metaverse platform worth its salt offers you some form of teleporting from place to place.
The idea of one virtual piece of land being “worth” more than another due to its location is patently absurd, an idea first brought you by the NFT-based metaverse companies who were only too eager to incite FOMO-driven bidding wars during the crypto bull market which has now cratered so spectacularly!
I could go on, citing other parts of the Canadian Business article that drive me insane, but I’m done enough ranting for today, and you get my drift (you can go read the rest of the article yourself if you want). I need to go put my feet up and listen to some Enya to calm down. If I sound absolutely and completely fed up about all this, it’s because I am. THE METAVERSE BULLSHIT HAS GOT TO STOP, NOW.
Look, I have no problem with the idea of a blockchain-based metaverse, but the entire ecosystem and environment around it have now become a toxic cesspool of scams, frauds, and rugpulls. And all that negative attention is dragging down even the legitimate players in the metaverse space. Frankly, things are now getting to the point that whenever the general public hears the words crypto, NFT—even metaverse—they start gingerly backing towards the exit door, because so many scammers and other bad actors in the blockchain space have tainted the concepts themselves!
It doesn’t matter if there are actually working blockchain-based metaverse platforms out there, like Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space (soon to be joined by The Sandbox)…the bad actors are like a pervasive rot that has set in, damaging their credibility merely by association, and potentially negatively impacting their future operations. (And God help those companies who are trying to set up new blockchain-based metaverse platforms during this crypto winter!)
For example, NeosVR is the perfect example of a truly wonderful, cutting-edge metaverse platform that has been effectively hamstrung by what happened to Neos credits (NCR), NeosVR’s associated cryptocurrency.† The resulting deluge of attention of the cryptobros earlier this year completely changed the tenor of the Neos community, causing great divisiveness and conflict, and finally, a cynical pump-and-dump by a cadre of investors (who were impatient for profits) eventually led to NCR becoming near-worthless. I had started what was intended to be a multi-part series of blogposts to cover the entire sad saga at length, but unfortunately I got too busy to complete it in a timely way.
However, the prolific VR YouTuber ThrillSeeker has done an excellent 20-minute overview video, which does a much better job than I could do to explain what befell Neos:
See what I mean? I swear, between what’s been going on in the crypto crash, and companies like Meta stumbling around trying to build the metaverse and getting roundly criticized for not getting it, I’m afraid that the term metaverse is going to get an extremely negative connotation…and then all of us will be the poorer for it.
Think about it—what do you want the average person to think of when you talk to them about the metaverse? Because I can tell you, pieces like this article from Canadian Business are not helping matters out there, in the general public’s minds. More and more people are starting to ridicule the entire concept of the metaverse, either ignorantly equating it with Meta’s soulless Horizon Worlds platform, or else associating it only with the NFT metaverse platforms, many of which are now facing tougher times as greedy speculators (who thought they could make a quick buck) get burned and flee the market, never to come back.
And, ultimately, those people (Joe or Jane Average on the street) are the people we are going to need to the sell the metaverse to in order for it to eventually take root, and take off, in any way beyond existing uptake.
Feh, enough bullshit! Time for some Enya…
† UPDATE Sept. 7th, 2022: I had originally written that Neos credits had not even been implemented yet as an in-world currency in NeosVR, but I have been told that this is not strictly true. Apparently, Neos credits, while underused, had been implemented and usable for user-to-user transactions (e.g. tipping) for years, and a bit more recently Neos had added features like buying and gifting storage space using Neos credits. So I stand corrected! Thank you to the person who reached out to me to correct my mistake.
This afternoon, Linden Lab (the makers of virtual world Second Life) made an announcement:
Wouldn’t it be cool if you could animate your avatar in real time? What if you could wave your arm and your avatar could mimic your motions? Or imagine if your avatar could reach out and touch something in-world or perform animations? Linden Lab is exploring these possibilities with an experimental feature called “Puppetry.”
We have been working on this feature for some time and now we are ready to open it up to the Second Life community for further development and to find out what amazing things our creators will do with this new technology.
The code base is alpha level and does contain its share of rough edges that need refinement, however the project is functionally complete, and it is possible for the scripters and creators of Second Life to start to try it out.
The animated GIF I copied from the Linden Lab announcement didn’t work in my blogpost, so I downloaded the video from their tweet below:
Now, Second Life is not the first flatscreen virtual world to announce such a feature (that would be Sinespace; I wrote about their Avatar Facial Driver back in 2018). At that time, Sinespace said that facial coverings such as glasses might interfere with the tracking. However, four years have passed and I have zero doubt that the technology has improved!
Linden Lab goes on to explain how the Puppetry technology works:
Puppetry accepts target transforms for avatar skeleton bones and uses inverse kinematics (IK) to place the connecting bones in order for the specified bones to reach their targets. For example the position and orientation “goal” of the hand could be specified and IK would be used to compute how the forearm, elbow, upper arm, and shoulder should be positioned to achieve it. The IK calculation can be tricky to get right and is a work in progress.
The target data is supplied by a plug-in that runs as a separate process and communicates with the viewer through the LLSD Event API Plug-in (LEAP) system. This is a lesser known functionality of the Viewer which has been around for a while but has, until now, only been used for automated test and update purposes.
The Viewer transmits the Puppetry data to the region server, which broadcasts it to other Puppetry capable Viewers nearby. The receiving Viewers use the same IK calculations to animate avatars in view.
To my knowledge, this marks a major change in how avatars move in Second Life. One of the things which the newer generation of metaverse platform users (much more used to social VR platforms like VRChat) have found odd is that SL avatars rely so much on the playback of pre-recorded animations. (Keep in mind that SL does not support users in VR headsets, as it cannot reach the necessary frame rates to avoid VR sickness! There have been valiant attempts made over the years, however.)
If you are intrigued by this development and want to test it out for yourself, here are the details (it does sound as though you will need to be a bit of a computer geek to participate, at least in this open beta test period!):
The Puppetry feature requires a project viewer and can only be used on supporting Regions. Download the project Viewer at the Alternate Viewers page. Regions with Puppetry support exist on the Second Life Preview Grid and are named: Bunraku, Marionette, and Castelet.
When using the Puppetry Viewer in one of those regions, if someone there is sending Puppetry data you should see their avatar animated accordingly. To control your own avatar with Puppetry it’s a bit more work to set up the system. You need: a working Python3 installation, a plug-in script to run, and any Python modules it requires. If you are interested and adventurous: please give it a try. More detailed instructions can be found on the Puppetry Development page.
We look forward to seeing what our creators do with the new Puppetry technology. Compared to other features we have introduced, it’s quite experimental and rough around the edges, so please be patient! We will keep refining it, but before we go further we wanted to get our residents’ thoughts.
We will be hosting an open discussion inworld on Thursday, Sept 8 1:00PM SLT at the Bunraku, Marionette, and Castelet regions on the Preview Grid. We’re also happy to talk about this at the upcoming Server User Group or Content Creator meetings. Come by, let us know what you think, and hear about our future plans!
I for one will be quite excited to test this new feature out!
As somebody who writes about social VR and flatscreen virtual worlds on this blog, with a popular Discord server packed with metaverse fanatics and a front-row seat on pretty much everything that has been happening in this space, let me tell you, the past twelve months have been a wild ride. You can even see it in my blog statistics of the number of visitors and views the RyanSchultz.com blog has attracted over the past year:
Together, these events sparked a greater awareness among the general public of the metaverse (as indicated by a corresponding increase in traffic to my blog). However, it would appear that the ongoing crypto crash, combined with Meta’s recent woes and missteps, are causing people to sour on the concept. (And by “people”, I mean the general public, not the metaverse fanatics, content creators and world builders whom I tend to hang out with!)
As an illustration of this, I would like to focus on a recent announcement made by Mark Zuckerberg, about the expansion of their flagship consumer social VR platform, Horizon Worlds, from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. into two new countries, France and Spain:
The first thing I think of when I look at this picture is: hoo boy, somebody working in Meta’s PR department is gonna get fired! You’re trying to sell people on Horizon Worlds with this unappealing, uninspiring, and frankly ugly image on Twitter?
The response to this on two different subreddit communities on Reddit, r/technology and r/Buttcoin, proves to be quite illuminating. (By the way, r/Buttcoin is the blockchain, crypto, and NFTs snark community, where we cryptoskeptics and critics love to discuss and dissect the latest shenanigans, antics, and scams in that world!)
It looks like Mark Zuckerberg watched Ready Player One and thought he would be able to recreate that universe with MS Paint.
“Looking forward to seeing people explore and build immersive worlds!” :: “Work in my content mill, peasants.”
The more money they dump into this dumpster fire, the better chance Facebook finally collapses into the abyss. So keep doing it Zuck.
One much-upvoted comment reads as follows:
No one is building a $1500-2500 PC with [a] dedicated GPU to add a Facebook $600 VR headset to attend work meetings in a virtual space that looks like a kids CGI series from 2004 at a mass adoption level, where the majority of the public would use it daily for 8 hours at work then again for another 4-6 hours “for fun” at home, as the Meta dystopian dream suggests.
Meta has already been subsidizing the costs of their currently meh headset, which they just increased the prices of, as they were losing too much money.
For this to work, the hardware has to be good enough for grandma to be able to buy it on a pension, put it on out of the box and it just works, and it does not make her sick to her stomach in 5-20 minutes due to the low frame rates and quality.
That’s the barrier of entry to the space you need to be able to target… if that old guy at your office struggles with getting their mic to work on MS Teams for a video call every day, as the manager he is not going to order $100,000 worth of gear for your department that is hard to setup and use to meet in the metaverse.
This thing is dead on arrival, but Facebook is also dying/dead in it’s current form, so this Hail Mary [pass] is all they have.
The thing is, this happens all the time with Zuckerberg and his metaverse because Horizon Worlds has looked terrible since its inception and has barely gotten any better over the years, where its avatars still look like Miis from 2012 and they still don’t have legs.
Granted, I understand that showing 2D screenshots of VR is difficult, and that VR generally lags behind traditional console and PC gaming in terms of graphics. And yet that doesn’t change the fact that even within VR, Horizon Worlds is one of the worst-looking offerings I have seen, and that Meta has spent something like $10 billion chasing its Horizon, VR-centric version of the metaverse, even embarrassingly changing their company name to reflect that. And…this is the result.
If I was a Meta stockholder I would be selling the minute I saw that screenshot.
He (and many others) are hoping that nobody remembers Second Life ever existed, let alone that it still does. It has a dedicated audience of somewhere between half to one million users and that’s kinda it. I suspect the future for “the metaverse” is similar.
One r/Buttcoin member posted the following detailed comment:
This is the part I don’t understand. Any “meta” style environment will be incredibly limited in terms of graphics and gameplay due to the need to have a high number of players at once. So who is the target audience?
• Someone looking to play a game is going to go with something like Grand Theft Auto V (and continue to move on to the next biggest thing when they come out). • The live concerts! aspect of the website seems equally absurd given the graphical limitations and that this would be less entertaining than watching a concert on TV. • Your casual Farmville-style person isn’t shelling out hundreds of dollars for a VR headset. • For their “practical” concepts like virtual stores, it seems to invalidate the concept of buying metaverse land as either the system will allow for fast travel style movement (making “premium” land a joke), or not allow for this travelling and completely turn off their customer base for this.
I just don’t see where the interest comes from.
And I chuckled at this wag’s opinion:
Second Life managed to survive because it fostered a community of weirdo people who fetishized the environment. I think the only person who fetishizes Facebook’s metaverse is Zuckerberg.
Absolutely SAVAGE! I live. Somebody else posted this gem to the r/Buttcoin subreddit:
So, what does all this mean? Well, it looks as though the concept of the metaverse, at least among the general public, is going to sustain some reputational damage, at least in the short term (12 to 24 months). Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be such a swing from irrational metaverse exuberance to equally irrational metaverse distaste, even disgust.
Also, this “trough of disillusionment” means that it’s going to be harder to sell consumers and businesses on the metaverse. This will apply both to behemoth corporations like Meta, Apple, and Alphabet (the parent company of Google), as well as to much smaller metaverse-building companies. As I have said before, not all platforms currently being worked on will survive this rough period.
Earlier this week, the alien-wearing-a-human-skin-suit known to us as Mark Zuckerberg posted a VR selfie from inside his company’s metaverse project, Horizon Worlds. The selfie showed off the Eiffel Tower and was meant to announce that his metaverse is expanding to more countries. Instead, however, people immediately began dunking on the terrible picture, the ugly avatar, and how it all looked like it fell out of a 2005 edutainment game…
And that brings us to 2022, where Zuckerberg’s avatar is a legless knock-off of a Nintendo Mii with some really weird buttons and the eyes of a corpse. And this isn’t just how Zuckerberg looks, this is the way all avatars appear in Horizon Worlds. I’ve played enough Horizon Worlds to tell you that the missing legs quickly cease to matter. But the lack of style and the cold, dead aesthetic never goes away.
Sure, part of the reason these avatars and worlds look simple and ugly compared to modern video games comes down to the limited VR hardware in Quest 2 and Facebook’s desire to make VR content that can run on as many devices as possible.
On the other hand, I can find Nintendo DS and Sony PS Vita games with better, nicer-looking art and models than what we’ve been shown so far in Facebook’s metaverse. I also don’t think you can blame the people making this stuff, as I assume they are more than capable of doing better and more vibrant things. But more and more, it seems that isn’t what Meta and Zucklehead want. Instead, they are focused on making a product that can be consumed by the masses and which lacks any defining characteristics in an attempt to get more people to dive in.
This is the exact opposite approach we see in more community-driven VR metaverses like VR Chat, which looks better and feels warmer and more inviting. In comparison, Horizon Worlds looks like an animated video I’d walk by in some fancy hospital while I look for the bathroom.
And if this bland and ugly metaverse is the future Mark Zuckerberg wants and is investing billions of dollars into, I’m worried that it could end up winning out over other, better alternatives simply because he has the money and resources to squash or buy up competitors. Well, if it does win out, at least I’ll be able to skip it and not buy a new VR headset.
Spending by major crypto firms, including the trading platforms Crypto.com, Coinbase Global Inc. and FTX, fell to $36,000 in July in the US, according to ISpot. That’s the lowest monthly total since January 2021 and is down from a high of $84.5 million in February, when the industry flooded the airwaves around the Super Bowl.
Again, Yeee-OUCH!!! And it looks like things are not going to get better anytime soon, as inflation roars and recession looms. People have more important things to worry about (like keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads) than buying virtual real estate on the blockchain!