Addressing the Elephant in the Room: Social VR Sustainability

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

I have been enjoying my self-imposed vacation from the blog. It’s given me an opportunity to step back, enjoy the all-too-brief Canadian summer, and reflect a little bit. I’m going to start easing back into blogging over the next week. There’s certainly no shortage of things to write about!

Yesterday, Gindipple shared his most recent compilation of Sansar user concurrency statistics, and while they do show a slight increase in the average number of users over time, it’s clear that users have not exactly rushed to embrace Sansar in the way that Linden Lab has been hoping:

Inara Pey has done her usual excellent job of summarizing last week’s Sansar Product Meeting, and she shares the following item from the discussion:

It’s now almost two years since Sansar opened its doors to the public, and general user concurrency is still only in or around the mid-20s level. This has raised questions of Sansar’s sustainability, and whether the Lab have set any goals for the platform that need to be achieved in order for it to be continued, etc.

Landon McDowell, the Lab’s Chief Product Officer, and the person most directly in charge of Sansar’s development, responded thus to one of these questions:

I am not going to put any date on the board. I think we’re taking this day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, release-by-release, and we want to see what is happening and what is resonating and what isn’t … I believe steadfastly in the future of virtual worlds, that what we’re doing here is really important … Are we happy with the result? I’m not happy with the result; I would want a million people in here today, and we’re obviously not there.

But in terms of sustainability, I think we know what our limits are, and we are proceeding accordingly. If we have 50 people in here in a year then yeah, I’m going to be really massively disappointed. I think everybody here is working hard to make this an absolutely monumental success … I feel that everyone that’s here is here because they’re digging something about what we’re doing, and I want that to spread like wildfire quite frankly. So we definitely have hopes and ambitions.

But again, I’m not going to put a dot on the board of, “this date and this time, this number of users”. I think we want many more users in, and we want them relatively quickly, and we go from there.

While it is good news that Linden Lab appears to have no internal make-or-break date for Sansar, the fact remains that the company is putting time and money into a platform that, so far, is not attracting a lot of use.

The elephant in the room of social VR, not just for Linden Lab but for all companies in this marketplace, is sustainability. Many companies are pouring resources into various social VR platforms, in hopes that they will be able to relight the same spark that ignited over a decade ago with Second Life. Most projects have not had a great deal of success yet. The few social VR platforms which have attracted some attention to date (VRChat and Rec Room) face a daunting transition to an in-world economy, plus a slew of technical problems trying to shoehorn their experiences into wireless VR headsets like the new Oculus Quest in order to reach the broadest possible potential audience. Add to that rumours that Facebook is reportedly working on a major social VR initiative for all its Oculus VR hardware users, which will likely upend the current marketplace. The road ahead is rocky indeed.

Given the significant compromises that have had to be made to VRChat in order to get it to run at all on the Quest, and the rather disappointing results, it seems Linden Lab’s decision to not support an Oculus Quest version of Sansar is a wise one. Inara reports:

Oculus Quest support:  As has been previously indicated, this is not currently on the cards. The Quest processor and general capabilities are seen as being unable to handle to quality of content LL want to provide without massive amounts of auto-decimation, which can be problematic. However, as the capabilities of emerging VR systems continues to improve and Sansar improves in terms of performance limits, the hope is that the two will converge at some point in the future.

And that convergence may come sooner than you think. It is interesting to note that at least one eager early adopter has reported that he is able to use the PC streaming app ALVR to play Sansar on the Oculus Quest. (“PC streaming” refers to the use of sideloaded Quest apps to enable your desktop computer to stream VR games directly to your Quest. You’ll have to sideload the app onto your Quest, and then install a coordinating PC program before you can start playing. These programs, such as ALVR and VRidge, are new, highly experimental, and currently require a certain level of geek skills to set up and use. But they will no doubt become easier to use over time.)

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

However, as Landon McDowell says, I’m still a fervent believer in the future of virtual worlds. I still believe it’s a question of when and where, not if, social VR takes off and virtual worlds have a renaissance. High Fidelity’s recent pivot towards business users is just one example of a social VR company adjusting its sails to meet evolving conditions. Expect more such shifts as the market grows and changes.

Stay tuned! As I often say, things are getting interesting!

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UPDATED! Not Taking “No” for an Answer: The Developers Behind The Expanse Have an Unexpected Hit on Their Hands with SideQuest

This story is a perfect example of not taking “no” for an answer, and how what could have been a setback was instead turned into a golden opportunity for one company!

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

I first wrote about The Expanse social VR platform back in April. The company behind The Expanse, a fledgling virtual world, had wanted to launch their product on the Oculus Quest, but they were among the many software developers told “No” by Facebook, which appears to have taken a much more stringent approach to curating content on their new standalone headset. UploadVR reports:

“Originally it was intended to provide a way for us to get our game The Expanse to users of the Oculus Quest headset as our submission pitch was declined by Oculus – something we understood as many more well established apps were also being declined. It then struck me that maybe some of those other developers could also benefit from a super easy sideloading process with things like drag and drop and several apps inbuilt,” Harris wrote to me in a message on his Discord group. “SideQuest is a sideloading tool at heart and actually works with any android device but it has evolved into an unofficial source for apps that you wouldn’t otherwise get on Quest. I would love to see it fill the niche of a testbed for pre-release/alpha/beta testing or for deploying demos for users to try out. I have no plans to monetize SideQuest like a traditional app store as I don’t want to affect the Oculus bottom line and I would love to work with Oculus to become an alternative route for apps and games that have been declined or otherwise or just want to test cutting edge features. I think there has been a lot of discussion around games being declined and I would love if SideQuest could provide a more positive spin for Oculus and Facebook in those scenarios. I guess i see it as a stepping stone to a application for the full oculus store down the line.”

Sideloading is the process of adding apps to your Oculus Quest that are not currently in the Oculus Store. And, as it turns out, there happen to be a lot of software developers (and end users) out there who wanted to be able to sideload their applications. And that’s when the SideQuest project really took off in popularity, and gained a life of its own! (There are other ways to sideload apps on the Quest, but SideQuest makes it simple to do. In fact, in the short few weeks that the Quest has been out, there have already been several iterations to the software to make it even easier to use.)

One very popular feature of the SideQuest software is the ability to add custom songs to the collection of music by which you can play the rhythm VR game Beat Saber. The SideQuest app links directly to the BeastSaber community website, and adding new tracks is as simple as setting up a developer account for your Quest, connecting your Quest to your Windows, Mac, or Linux computer, and clicking a few buttons! Here’s the page with all the details. And here’s a step-by-step YouTube tutorial by the Virtual Reality Oasis:

Congratulations to the team at The Expanse! The SideQuest software is free, but if you want to support their work, here is a link to their Patreon, or you can send a donation via PayPal. If you want more details on The Expanse and SideQuest as they evolve, you can join their Discord channel.

And this whole episode reminds me yet again of the lesson that Friendster never learnedthe people who create the software platforms (in this case, Facebook) think they have control, but it’s really the end users who shape the service and build the community that they want to see. Past a certain point, there’s very little that Facebook can do to stop this, short of completely shutting developers out, which they won’t do. And if they’re smart, Facebook will welcome this, and work with it.

UPDATE 6:43 p.m.: This last paragraph has brought a swift rebuttal from a commenter on the Oculus Quest subReddit, who says:

FFS, no. Facebook is 100% in control. They allow SideQuest. Go ask PSVR Beat Saber players how they “shaped the service” to get custom songs on the PS4. Hint: they didn’t. Sony has that shit locked down like Fort Knox. Oculus could easily require sideloaded apps to be signed with a development license to run. It’s only by their good graces that sideloading and modding is as easy as it is, so don’t pretend for a minute that you’re sticking it to the man. Be grateful there’s some cool folk at Oculus who want us to be able to do this.

A Look at the New Customization Features in Oculus Home

Some Oculus Home Decorations, Including a Mini Model of the Solar System

I must confess that I haven’t been paying much attention to Oculus Home, which I always saw just as a space to organize your purchased VR games and experiences. But Facebook/Oculus has been slowly but steadily building Oculus Home to the point where we can now consider it a true social VR platform. The VR news site UploadVR reports:

The latest update to Oculus Home adds custom environments support…

Support for user-generated objects was added back in June. A subsequent update even added animation support. And later in the month, the platform added real-time social, allowing up to 7 friends to visit your home and see those custom objects.

But until now the actual home geometry was the same for all users. The background could be changed between hills, space, a bay, or a future city, but the home itself could not.

David Hall (a long-time Sansar resident who has built a number of wonderful experiences including the Lord of the Rings-inspired Dwarven City and the futuristic Avalon social hub) has posted the following video to his YouTube channel. It is a livestream of him showing several of his own homes in Oculus Home, plus a tour of several other people’s homes:

I love the transition effects when David moves from one home to another, the way one home rezzes out of existence, and the new one rezzes in!

Oculus Home already includes functioning weapons such as bows and guns, as well as some cool animated content like a miniature model of the solar system you can see in a couple of visited homes in this video, and in the picture at the top of this blogpost.

I have now added Oculus Home to my list of social VR/virtual worlds.

Leaked Mark Zuckerberg Email Reveals His Thoughts on How Facebook Could Dominate Virtual Reality

There’s an extremely interesting article on the Road to VR website, that’s worth a read. Apparently, an author writing a book about the history of VR has obtained a copy of a lengthy 2015 email that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook sent to his senior executives. (The email has been confirmed by Road to VR, a major news reporting website on VR, as authentic.)

Titled Leaked Zuckerberg Email Reveals Facebook’s XR Strategy, ‘Our goal is not only to win, but to accelerate its arrival’, the article quotes Mark at length about the strategy behind Facebook buying Oculus for 2 billion dollars in 2014, and what he feels Facebook needs to do to dominate in virtual reality.

Remember this prediction I made last April?

What I predict will happen, over the next two years, is that one of the Big Five computer companies:
– Alphabet/Google
– Amazon
– Apple
– Facebook/Oculus
– Microsoft

Is either going to launch their own social VR/virtual world/metaverse product, OR is going to buy one of the Big Four metaverse-building companies:
– High Fidelity
– Linden Lab (Second Life and Sansar)
– Sine Wave Entertainment (Sinespace)
– VRChat

Well, keep that in mind, and read this direct quote from Mark’s email:

The key [VR] apps are what you’d expect: social communication and media consumption, especially immersive video. Gaming is critical but is more hits-driven and ephemeral, so owning the key games seems less important than simply making sure they exist on our platform. I expect everyone will use social communication and media consumption tools, and that we’ll build a large business if we are successful in these spaces. We will need a large investment and dedicated strategy to build the best services in these spaces. For now, though, I’ll just assert that building social services is our core competence, so I’ll save elaborating further on that for another day.

The platform vision is around key services that many apps use: identity, content and avatar makerplace, app distribution store, ads, payments and other social functionality. These services share the common properties of network effects, scarcity and therefore monetization potential. The more developers who use our content marketplace or app store or payments system, the better they become and the more effectively we can make money.

It seems pretty clear to me, from this email, that Facebook is planning to step into social VR in a major way. Mark sees “social communication and media consumption” as the killer app for VR, and they want to be a part of it. Facebook, for better or for worse, wants to dominate social virtual reality the way they already dominate social media.

I expect that we will all begin to get some idea of what Facebook has planned with the launch of the standalone Oculus Quest VR headset later this year. Watch carefully for any parallel announcement regarding the next-generation Oculus Home, Oculus Rooms, Facebook Spaces, or a completely rebranded platform where Oculus Go, Quest, and Rift users can meet up with each other. I’m convinced, now more than ever, that it’s going to happen.