Notes from The Metaverse: A Glimpse into the Future of Work, with Charlie Fink, Cathy Hackl, Alex Howland, and Philip Rosedale, Held in VirBELA on May 13th, 2021

Charlie Fink (at podium) addresses an audience of over 160 avatars in VirBELA

Today, four well-known people in the metaverse shared a virtual stage in VirBELA to talk about how the metaverse will impact the future of work. (I was not in-world, but I did receive a special livestream link on YouTube to follow the proceedings at virbe.la/metaverse-stream, which I hope works for you as well. Here’s a second link if the first one doesn’t work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iH6Lj1AKi3o.)

Author and columnist Charlie Fink was moderator, asking questions and guiding the wide-ranging conversation among the panelists:

  • Alex Howland, the founder and CEO of VirBELA
  • Cathy Hackl, VR/AR/XR columnist and author of the new book The Augmented Workforce, who used to work at Magic Leap
  • Philip Rosedale, founder of Linden Lab (Second Life) and CEO of the spatial audio firm High Fidelity

Some of the interesting things from the panel which caught my ear were:

  • Cathy Hackl stated that the “metaverse” is not just limited to Ready Player One, but also Pokémon GO (even though I personally do not agree that cellphone-based “AR” is true augmented reality). She doesn’t want to see everything in one walled-garden marketplace like Oculus. She works a lot in the crypto space and wants to support decentralization, such as the portability of avatars between metaverses.
  • Philip said that COVID-19 introduced everybody to the idea of virtual worlds, or shared virtual spaces.
  • Alex was an organizational psychologist who got his original idea for VirBELA to create environments for business leaders to learn from each other, practice leadership skills, and to observe behaviour.
  • Philip recognized Second Life when he visited VirBELA, and really enjoyed walking around the virtual campus. He feels there is still a lot of work to be done to build platforms which allow people to be creative together.
  • Cathy sees ROBLOX and similar platforms as entry points for new generations of virtual world users. Her 12-year-old daughter’s friend is already making money creating and selling skins in ROBLOX.
  • Charlie commented on the fact that VirBELA lets you “lean in”, as opposed to more passive video-based services such as Zoom.
  • Philip talked about real-life use cases of his new company’s technology, High Fidelity, stressing how the three-dimensional, spatialized audio is better than a Zoom call. The company offers an SDK so that companies can integrate spatial audio into their products. High Fidelity works within the browser, and the company is working on native clients for iOS, Unity, etc.
  • Philip feels that avatars are extraordinarily important, saying that Second Life has a $600 million economy, with one of the largest segments being avatar hairstyles! But facial expression and lip movement are not yet there, and we are not yet across the Uncanny Valley effect (where avatars can appear creepy). Cathy notes that her daughter really cares a great deal about how her avatar looks in ROBLOX!
  • Alex talked about the FRAME platform, which he launched to pursue WebXR, to provide people ease of access from a wide variety of devices. There are tradeoffs between ecosystems (FRAME versus VirBELA), and they are still experimenting and innovating.
  • Cathy feels that VR/AR/XR is incredibly important to the development of the metaverse, in giving an enhanced sense of presence, and impact the way which we engage with environments. She encourages people not to restrict their thinking to just being in a VR headset.
  • Charlie asked Philip or Alex to explain what Agora is (a toolbox to allow you to build audio and video delivery into platforms, which is used in Clubhouse!). Philip noted that if the pandemic has happened even a decade earlier, it would have had a much bigger impact without services such as Agora.
  • Alex said that they has recently hosted a bar mitzvah in VirBELA, among many other unexpected uses (like speakeasies!).
  • Philip says that things are never going to be the same after the pandemic is over. It has now been shown that virtual events can be successful. New technology such as High Fidelity, starting with virtual events, are going to have many applications in future. There are also important cost and environmental aspects to holding meetings such as conferences in virtual spaces.
  • Alex notes that his company builds a lot of custom spaces for clients, and he notes that there are different approaches to world-building (i.e. building your own versus have someone build it for you).
  • Philip notes that Zoom and similar videoconferencing doesn’t have a natural network effect. If communications do embrace virtual worlds, then that will have network effects (i.e. more people want to join bigger networks, an example being Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Second Life). We still don’t know how everything is going to play out in the marketplace. A lot of CEOs are wrestling with the fact that many of their employees do not want to come back into the office, and how to build corporate culture in that new environment.
  • Philip advocated for a stable, cross-platform identity (not tied to your real-world identity), that serves to make us accountable for our behaviour.

Well, those are my rough notes. If you missed the talk, use one of the two links up top to watch and listen. It was an engaging one-hour conversation!

Editorial: Shifting Gears

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Yesterday’s blogpost (and its response) has got me thinking, in the wee hours of this morning, about other people’s expectations, and trying (or failing) to live up to them. Not to mention the expectations which I, knowingly or unknowingly, place upon myself as a blogger. Every blogger has his or her own biases and quirks; God knows I have many. And even a cursory inspection of my output shows how often I have gone off on tangents in my three-and-a-half-year blogging journey.

My writing about social VR, virtual worlds and the metaverse on this blog has been an unusual combination of broad-brush strokes about as many different platforms as possible, combined with a geeky deep-dive into specific worlds (Sansar the first couple of years, and now Second Life). One example of such a deep dive would be my recent month-long coverage of Advent calendar freebies in Second Life, something which my many faithful SL readers no doubt appreciated, but which probably left some of my regular, non-SL audience out in the cold, scratching their heads.

As I have written before, I consider Second Life to be the perfect model of a fully-evolved, mature metaverse platform, where we can see hints of what will happen to newer platforms over time (such as the implementation of an in-world economy where players can buy and sell user-generated content).

But I also expect that 2021 will be the first year where other metaverse platforms (notably VRChat and Rec Room, but also other products) will begin to consistently outpace Second Life, both in terms of monthly active users (MAU) and in terms of user concurrency figures. Over New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, VRChat shattered its previous user concurrency figures, reporting over 40,000 users online at the same time. Last weekend, Rec Room hosted 45,000 concurrent players. In other words, depending on the day and time, you can find more people in Rec Room and VRChat than in Second Life.

Both VRChat and Rec Room are now very well positioned to finally snatch the mantle of Second Life for the title of “most popular metaverse platform” (as hard as it is to define what that means). This might not have happened as quickly as some observers had originally predicted, least of all the PR pitch-boys at the corporations building these platforms, but it will happen nonetheless. It’s inevitable. Yesterday’s boasts become tomorrow’s reality, in some cases.

And it is not that Second Life is bleeding users, or that it is in any imminent danger of being shut down; I estimate that SL still attracts anywhere between 600,000 and 900,000 active monthly users (that is, people who sign onto SL at least once a month). It is still a highly profitable platform with a highly committed userbase, and under its new management, the Waterfield investment group, it is likely to remain a profitable cash cow for many years to come. Second Life is not going anywhere.

But, now that Linden Lab has finally shut down its physical server farms and moved Second Life entirely to the cloud, I don’t really foresee a lot of changes or improvements being made to what is already a winning formula—and I don’t see many of SL’s users clamouring for any major changes, either. Over time, competing platforms will no doubt offer advantages which the aging SL codebase cannot be tweaked to provide (the most obvious one being support for users in virtual reality).

And, over time, some of Second Life’s user base will migrate to other platforms, little by little, bit by bit. This SL diaspora will continue to enrich multiple metaverse platforms, much as it already has over the past decade. The seeds first planted by Philip Rosedale and his peers will continue to root and grow in various places, some probably quite unexpected!

All of this preamble is my very roundabout way of saying that I will be significantly reducing my coverage of Second Life in 2021. I will be putting that time and energy into writing about other metaverse products instead. Yes, I know I keep saying that, only to get pulled back by the latest fabulous freebie! Second Life is great fun, and I have enjoyed being your Freebie Queen. But frankly, SL is not where most of the interesting new stuff is happening. It’s happening in places outside of Second Life, and it’s high time I turned my attention to them.

It’s time for me to re-shift my focus to the newer platforms which are seeking to become the next Second Life. It might be an iteration of something that already exists, or it might be something brand new that seems to come out of nowhere and take everybody by storm. Whatever happens, I want to report on it!

I’m sure many of my Second Life readers will be sorry to hear this news. I will still be around, and I will still be visiting various places in-world, but I will largely leave the writing and reporting about SL to the hundreds of bloggers who do a much better job with their focused, deep-dive coverage! And I will continue to take as wide a view as possible—a big-picture perspective—of the constantly-evolving metaverse of which Second Life is a part.

Whichever camp you find yourself in, thank you for sticking along for the ride! No matter what happens, it promises to be an exciting adventure.

2021 promises to be a wild ride!

This change in focus will take effect immediately. Buckle up and keep your arms and hands inside the vehicle at all times! 😉

Herding Cats (Again): Organizing and Categorizing My List of Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds

Git along, l’il kitties! Hyah! Hyah!!

I woke up bright and early this morning, showered and shaved, brewed a large pot of black coffee, and immediately set to work on my task for the day: trying to impose some semblance of order on my sprawling list of over 150 different virtual worlds, social VR platforms, and other metaverse products which I have written about on the RyanSchultz.com blog over the past three years. I’ve been putting this task off for too long; it’s time. I mean, I originally said I was going to do this a year ago!

I thought I would start by creating six rough, top-level categories as follows:

  • Virtual Worlds Which Do NOT Support Users in Virtual Reality Headsets (e.g. Active Worlds, Kitely, Second Life)
  • Virtual Worlds/Social VR Which Support Both Virtual Reality Users and Non-VR/Desktop Users (e.g. Sansar, Sinespace, Tivoli Cloud VR)
  • Social Virtual Reality Platforms Which Do NOT Support Desktop/Non-VR Users (e.g. Anyland, Facebook Horizon)
  • Blockchain and Cryptocurrency-Based Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds (e.g. Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, Somnium Space)
  • Social Augmented Reality (AR) Platforms Which Support Users in AR Headsets (e.g. Avatar Chat, Spatial, Spatiate). As we are only in the first generation of augmented reality headsets available for purchase by consumers, e.g. the much-hyped but now struggling Magic Leap One and the Microsoft’s HoloLens, there’s obviously not a lot here yet, but give it time (and there are consistent rumours of a future AR headset to be released by Apple, sometime in 2022 or 2023). Please note that I do not consider cellphone-based “AR” (e.g. Pokémon Go) to be true augmented reality.
  • Stuff Which Doesn’t Fit Elsewhere: Miscellaneous Worlds, Platforms, and Products Covered on this Blog (e.g. the new, 2D-with-3D-audio iteration of High Fidelity)

Then, to start, I would simply copy and paste six copies of my original list under each of these six headings, and then go about my work by deleting those items which do not fit under that category, starting with the A’s and working my way through to the end of the list (currently 3DXChat). Speaking of 3DXChat, I have to decide what to do about the very few worlds I have written about that are pretty much exclusively focused on sexual content (although they, too, can sometimes serve a non-sexual, social purpose). I’m not interested in trying to categorize purely adult/sexual worlds, however; I will leave the herding of those particular kitties to others 😉

Some products on my original list, like Avakin Life and IMVU, have literally dozens of similar products, all pitched at the teen/tween market (another category I do not wish to cover on this blog).

I had breezily assumed that this reorganizing task would take me a couple of days at most. After all, I already had the starting list, right? However, it’s been quite some time (in some cases, years) since I last looked at some products and platforms. In quite a few instances, projects have since shut down or have been put on hold (a lot of blockchain/crypto startups fall into this category). So, this probably will take me several weeks of work, instead of several days.

I also have to find some way to integrate my previous attempts at herding cats:

Also, I want to include pointers to other people and organizations on the internet that are trying to do the same sort of work, such as XR Collaboration: A Global Resource Guide (which I first wrote about here), and Niclas Johansson’s report The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Meetings with VR/AR (which I wrote about here and here). Compared to when I started this blog three years ago, there’s now quite a bit of work going on in this area, particularly in corporate applications of social VR! Even YouTube vloggers like Nathie have jumped on board. It’s wonderful to see.

So, I will be beavering away on this, making use of my two-week vacation to get a good head start on the project. I’ll keep you posted!

Quote of the Day: “An Hour in the Metaverse…”

Image created by rawpixel.com – www.freepik.com

Dana Cowley, who is the senior marketing manager at Epic Games (the makers of the phenomenally successful Fortnite), made a great observation about the metaverse that I wanted to share with you:

She said (or perhaps quoted), as part of her notes on the recent SIGGRAPH presentation by Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney:

An hour in the metaverse needs to be better than
– an hour on Facebook
– an hour on Instagram
– an hour on Twitter
– an hour on YouTube
– an hour on Netflix
– an hour in Fortnite
– an hour in anything we have now

In other words, the metaverse has to be so compelling—and offer something so different from what we have now—that people will inevitably flock to use it. It’s something to keep in mind as we look at the current landscape of social VR platforms and virtual worlds.