Editorial: Upon Reflection…

Taking a much-needed break from blogging has given me an opportunity to reflect a bit on my journey over the past three years, and ponder where I might go from here.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Frankly, I never expected to become a journalist covering the ever-evolving metaverse, with a growing audience; this blog started off as a tiny little niche blog, where I wrote about my (mis)adventures and explorations in Sansar. And everything that happened after that—writing about more and more social VR platforms, hosting the Metaverse Newscast show, focusing on freebies in my beloved Second Life—just kind of happened organically. I didn’t have any sort of plan; I just made choices along the way that led to this point.

But for me, the seeds for this journey were first planted in Second Life 14 years ago, which since its earliest days has been this strange and marvelous phoenix that keeps rising from the ashes, again and again, confounding and bewildering many casual observers who continue to predict (wrongly) its failure. Even a cursory glance at the official Second Life Community News feed (curated by the highly capable Strawberry Linden) reveals the absolute torrent of creativity that the platform has provided to so many people. Second Life is not going anywhere, honey.

Source: My Dark Fantasy

SL is a fully-evolved, vibrant, mature virtual world which has become the model which other metaverse companies have spent countless programming hours and (in some cases) millions of dollars to try and recreate, with varying degrees of success.

I think that the ones that have been the most successful (so far) are NeosVR, ENGAGE, AltspaceVR, VRChat, Rec Room and, somewhat to my surprise, three blockchain-based worlds: Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space. And there are many other platforms slowly but surely building up their business, taking advantage of the unexpected opportunities presented by the coronavirus pandemic (one example is Sinespace, a company which is patiently and cannily playing the long game, and which is extremely well-poised to snatch Second Life’s mantle, if and when it is ever dropped).


And, during my break, I have been also thinking a lot about Facebook/Oculus and their impact on virtual reality in general, and social VR in particular. I have decided that, despite my new, personal boycott of Facebook products and services, I will continue to write about their upcoming social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, as it launches in public beta, probably before the end of this year.

I, like many other people, now absolutely refuse to have a Facebook account as a matter of moral principle. In August of 2019 I wrote (and yes, it bears repeating at length here):

In this evolving metaverse of social VR and virtual worlds, is too much power concentrated in the hands of a single, monolithic, profit-obsessed company? I would argue that Facebook is aiming for complete and utter domination of the VR universe, just as they already have in the social networking space, by creating a walled ecosystem…that will have a negative impact on other companies trying to create and market VR apps and experiences. The field is already tilted too much in Facebook’s favour, and the situation could get worse.

More concerning to me is that, at some point, I may be forced to get an account on the Facebook social network to use apps on my Oculus VR hardware. In fact, this has already happened with the events app Oculus Venues, which I recently discovered requires you to have an account on the Facebook social network to access.

Sorry, but after all the Facebook privacy scandals of the past couple of years, that’s a big, fat “Nope!” from me. I asked Facebook to delete its 13 years of user data on me, and I quit the social network in protest as my New Year’s resolution last December, and I am never coming back. And I am quite sure that many of Facebook’s original users feel exactly the same way, scaling back on their use of the platform or, like me, opting out completely. I regret I ever started using Facebook thirteen years ago, and that experience will inform my use (and avoidance) of other social networks in the future.

Yes, I do know that I have to have an Oculus account to be able to use my Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest VR headsets, and that Facebook is collecting data on that. I also know that the Facebook social network probably has a “shadow account” on me based on things such as images uploaded to the social network and tagged with my name by friends and family, etc., but I am going to assume that Facebook has indeed done what I have asked and removed my data from their social network. Frankly, there is no way for me to actually VERIFY this, as consumers in Canada and the U.S. have zero rights over the data companies like Facebook collects about them, as was vividly brought to life by Dr. David Carroll, whose dogged search for answers to how his personal data was misused in the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a focal role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (which I highly recommend you watch).

We’ve already seen how social networks such as Facebook have contributed negatively to society by contributing to the polarization and radicalization of people’s political opinions, and giving a platform to groups such as white supremacists and anti-vaxersThe Great Hack details how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data without user knowledge or consent to swing the most recent U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favour, and look at the f***ing mess the world is in now just because of that one single, pivotal event.

We can’t trust that Facebook is going to act in any interests other than its own profit. Facebook has way too much power, and governments around the world need to act in the best interests of their citizens in demanding that the company be regulated, even broken up if necessary.

Of course, Facebook is well within its corporate rights to insist that, henceforth, Oculus Go, Quest, and Rift users have to use Facebook accounts. Just as I am well within my rights to avoid providing another smidgen of personal data for Facebook to strip-mine for profit. It will be very interesting to see how more the consumer-privacy-oriented First World countries (such as Canada, and those countries within the European Union) will respond to the Facebook juggernaut.

I also have absolutely zero doubt that Facebook will continue to use every single lawyer, lobbyist, tool and tactic at its disposal to fight to maintain its market dominance, even as the Facebook social network continues to foster divisiveness, bleed users and lose advertisers. Believe me, Facebook would not have taken the unprecedented step of forcing Oculus device users to set up Facebook accounts if they weren’t afraid of losing the younger generations of users who have, thus far, resisted joining the social network their parents and grandparents belong to. (Of course, most of them are already on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.)

It is relatively easy to bypass the tethered Oculus Rift VR headset and its associated Oculus Store ecosystem with competing PCVR products and services (such as the Vive headsets, the Valve Index and Steam). However, it is difficult—frankly impossible at present—to find a non-Facebook alternative to the standalone Oculus Quest VR headset. I have no doubt that the market will throw up a few capable competitors to the Quest over time, but Facebook has built up a huge lead, and it will be very difficult to unseat from its dominance in that particular market segment.


So, as you can see, I have been doing quite a bit of thinking while I have hit the pause button on this blog. I will continue to spend the rest of my summer on my self-imposed vacation from this blog, and no doubt I will have other thoughts, insights and opinions to share with you when I return, hopefully feeling more refreshed.

I feel that with this blog, after a few stumbles and setbacks, I have finally found my voice, and you will continue to hear it over the next three years, and probably far beyond that! Enjoy the rest of your summer! I will be back in September.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

NeosVR Demonstrates Full Mouth Tracking on Their Avatars

Tomáš Mariančík (a.k.a. Frooxius), the creative and talented lead software developer who is building the NeosVR social VR platform, recently shared the following video via Twitter, saying:

The HTC Vive lip tracker dev-kit I integrated into NeosVR really adds a whole new level of expressivity to social VR. Never before [have] I had other people in VR telling me they like to see me smile when there’s something funny, or to go to sleep when I’m yawning!

This is so cool! Of course, most people in VR headsets use hand controllers of some sort to animate thier avatar’s arms and hands. Valve Index hand controllers can even animate individual fingers (although not all platforms can take advantage of this feature).

Many people have also been experimenting for years with using the HTC Vive “pucks” (on platforms such as VRChat, the old High Fidelity, and Sansar), to animate their avatar’s full bodies, attaching them to shoulders, waists, hips, knees, and feet. But adding mouth, lips (even tongue!) movements pushes the envelope even further, and these non-verbal expressions can add so much to conversations in social VR!

It should be noted here that the quest to animate your avatar’s face has been going on for quite some time now, with a variety of different solutions. For example, Sinespace sells a product called an Avatar Facial Driver, which works using your webcam to capture your facial expressions and play them on your avatar’s face (this is for a non-VR, desktop user, though). I blogged about this back in May of 2018.

Congratulations to Tomáš and the entire team at NeosVR for pushing the boundaries in avatar expression!

NeosVR Field Trip: I Pay a Long-Overdue Visit to the Innovative Social VR Platform

On Saturday afternoon, I was invited on a guided tour of the innovative, multi-purpose social VR platform NeosVR by members of the NeosVR team, including Tomáš Mariančík (a.k.a. Frooxius), the talented lead software developer who is building NeosVR, and Karel Hulec (the co-founder and CEO of Solirax, the Czech company building NeosVR).

As you might know, I have been working on several iterations of an infographic, in my efforts to categorize and classify existing social VR platforms. As part of this work, I have moved NeosVR into (and then out of) the coveted, checks-all-the-boxes, usable-in-all-the-categories green centre spot on my infographic (the latest published version is here). And today, I had an opportunity to see NeosVR being used for remote workteams at a business, and chat with one of their business users. Expect NeosVR to move back to that green spot in the centre in Version 2.2 of my infographic!

Peter, who was a part of my tour group and whose company, Megavolt Services LLC, does pro bono design work for a pressurized spacesuit design and spaceflight training company called Pacific Spaceflight, told me:

I’m an engineering technician with a background in electrical engineering and aerospace.

We use VR to do model conceptualization. And also human factor studies. Basically we use the right way to wear things that are going to be used on our suits to make sure they’re worth building in real life. For fit and finish and ergonomics. We’re also using Neos to do collaborative work among team members in light of the COVID-19 issue.

Before I joined Pacific Spaceflight I was using Neos to do a lot of my modeling. I also professionally and personally build a lot of high-end cosplay. So that’s why use VR to help do a lot of the scaling before I 3D-print a costume!

Peter (the avatar in the hard hat) demonstrates a NeosVR world used
for training purposes on a Pacific Spaceflight project.

In his spare time, Peter has also built a model of the International Space Station (ISS), where you have to move around the space station using your hands to grip and full yourself yourself through the zero-gravity environment! Peter’s world, where you can perch yourself in the cupola and watch the ever-changing vista of the Earth rotating beneath the space station, compares quite favourably with the standalone VR experience Mission: ISS! Frooxius tells me:

The locomotion system is one of the things we’re proud of, since it can be scripted to behave in very complex ways like that in game, and create very unique worlds and experiences.

NeosVR can also be a platform to build games, using the system’s LogiX scripting language. I was taken to a world where we boarded a sailing ship with very realistic navigation abilities, and chatted a bit about how NeosVR has attracted some users from places like VRChat, Second Life, and Garry’s Mod (GMOD), a physics sandbox game popular with developers. I can see how Second Life’s massive sailing community might easily be enticed into trying out NeosVR!

Shifty, the Quality Control Lead for NeosVR, tells me:

It’s best to think of Neos as a creation engine first, and foremost- a place for content creators to create experiences, games, gadgets, etc. And especially going forward, too with subsequent updates, we’ll only further appeal to audiences of those platforms.

I had a demonstration of a project which NeosVR team member RueShejn is currently working on: a world which allows the user to build their own game (for example, two teams playing a capture-the-flag game).

According to the project’s white paper (which is well worth reading in full):

We spent a significant amount of time engineering and implementing Neos’ engine and networking architecture from the ground up to enable its complex functionality and high flexibility, offering an unparalleled level of creative control in a fully synchronized VR setting.

Our goal was to blend the networking with the engine architecture itself, creating a general abstraction layer that solves common problems and provides them as various programming and engine primitives, with well-defined behaviors and interactions, as
well as implicit support for network replication and persistence.

The core of Neos is formed by building blocks that are equivalents of basic programming data structures, such as variables, references, arrays, lists, dictionaries, trees, or classes. The core engine functionality is built from these building blocks, as well as all other higher level behaviors, subsystems, tools, and interfaces, making none of them “special”.

This allows for quickly designing and implementing new subsystems, components, tools, or entity behaviors without need for any network programming (and dealing with bugs introduced by it), and offers automatic interoperability between each part of
the system, such as access to all properties from the scene inspector, or connecting them via the visual scripting language (which itself is built using the same building blocks).

Frooxius demonstrated many of the powerful set of in-world building tools to me, including a tool which allows you to view cross-sections of 3D models! Many people use these in-world tools to build worlds and content in NeosVR, which is also able to accept uploaded content created in a wide variety of external programs. I was told by the NeosVR team that they hope to introduce an in-world marketplace for user-generated content within the next six months or so.

One of our final stops on the guided tour was a huge, working model of an O’Neill cylinder, an outer-space settlement concept first proposed by American physicist Gerard K. O’Neill in his 1976 book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space.

Aegis Wolf with a smaller model of his O’Neill cylinder

The O’Neill cylinder world (jokingly called the O’Neos cylinder) actually has working radial gravity, which gets progressively weaker the closer you’re to the centre of the cylinder (so at the center, it’s nearly zero gravity).

The NeosVR team is choosing to focus on word-of-mouth promotion to advertise thier social VR platform, which has over 300 regular users, and usually has 50 to 60 people concurrently in-world at any one time, statistics which I thought were pretty good for a platform which has only been publicly available in beta test for two years!

You might be interested to learn that NeosVR is already making money! NeosVR is currently earning income in three ways:

I’d like to thank the entire Karel, Tomáš, and the NeosVR team for taking the time to show me some of the many applications of the platform, and answering my questions. Stay tuned for a future blogpost, where I will take a more in-depth look at educational uses of NeosVR by universities and other educational institutions. I am very much looking forward to spending a bit more time in NeosVR!

The NeosVR website

If you want to learn more about NeosVR, you can visit their website or their wiki, check out their Steam page, join their Discord server, or follow them on social media: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. And, of course, you can always choose to support the project through their Patreon page (as I am).

A List of Christmas Events in the Various Social VR/Virtual Worlds

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This is a list of the various Christmas events which are taking place this holiday season on the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds I cover on this blog. If you have an event that I have missed, please let me know and I will update this listing, thanks!

Sinespace

Sinespace has a Winter Festival with events running every day from Dec. 21st, straight through until New Year’s Eve! Here’s the complete schedule. (And don’t forget to take advantage of one month of free Premium membership!)

Second Life

As usual, there is so much happening in Second Life around Christmastime that it is impossible to compile a full list!

  • Your best bet is to check the Events listing under Search; you can do a keyword search, or select events using the drop-down category menu in the upper right-hand corner of the Events window in Firestorm (for example, “Live Music” to catch a live performer’s show).
  • The official Second Life Destination Guide lists eight pages worth of winter attractions to visit.
  • The Seraphim website has a list of fairs and events that you might want to check out.
  • Among many other club events happening throughout Second Life over the holidays, Bryce Sun is DJing on Christmas Day at the FMD Club, which bills itself “the premiere destination for Second Life’s sexiest and most fashionable residents”.

Sansar

On Dec. 21st, Solas and Drax will host a special holiday edition of Harvest Hopping (the long-running Sansar worlds exploration event formerly known as Atlas Hopping). All are welcome!

And on Dec. 27th, there will be a Christmas Community Campfire at Witchy’s Winter, hosted by Beverly Zauberflote:

Please check the Sansar Events page for more details on these and other events during this holiday season.

AltspaceVR

Check the AltspaceVR Events Listing for all the news on what’s going on, including four separate VR Church Christmas services on Dec. 22nd: one at a time zone for Australians, a second at a time zone for Europeans, and two back-to-back services for North Americans.

VRChat

The best place to find out what Christmas events are happening in the busy world of VRChat is the VRChat Events website, with an online calendar of events, and a link to join the VRChat Events Discord server.

Also, there is a brand new Winter category in the Worlds menu in VRChat, with places for you to explore!

VRChat is also home to the annual New Years Times Square, where you could run into just about anybody! It is described as a developer-made world with hundreds of posters from the VRChat community.

My source, Fionna, also tells me:

I will be hosting an event for the world builder community on New Year’s Eve as well, featuring a world made by Sentinel, which is a gorgeous Art Deco lounge.

NeosVR

Medra, an organizer of the NeosVR Creator Jam series of events in NeosVR, posted:

The holidays are almost upon us and the 30th Creator Jam…so it’s time for:

Creator Jam 30: 3rd Megajam & Winter Holiday Party

Sunday December 22nd
Starts at 2 p.m. EST(11 a.m. PST/19:00 UTC).

As an anniversary and Holiday celebration come hang out exchanging gifts, dressing up, and voting on Christmas trees. This will be a party and Swap Meet. NeosVR is wonderful for people unloading their inventories. What a better way to be in the spirit of giving than for people to share what they have or made. If you have a cool avatar, share it! If you have a cool gadget, please share. Pack neat Logix snippets in adult beverages or prezzies. We will be be exploring all the previous nine Creator Jam worlds in a livestream with Nexulan.

Secret Santa gift exchange will be held during this party at 2:30 p.m. EST (11:30 a.m. PST/19:30 UTC) Even if you aren’t a part of the Secret Santa gift exchange feel free to give gifts to specific people or everyone.

Everyone is welcome. I look forward to seeing all!

Somnium Space

Somnium Space is simultaneously saying goodbye both to 2019 and to the first version of their Steam client, with a Farewell Party on Dec. 30th with special guests Vivian Chazen (the host of The Hive VR) and musical artist Luke Reynolds: