Editorial: My Social VR/Virtual World Predictions for 2019

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Time to peer into that crystal ball and make some predictions!

First: Second Life is going to continue to coast along, baffling the mainstream news media and the general public with its vitality and longevity. It will continue to be a reliable cash cow for Linden Lab as they put a portion of that profit into building Sansar. And I also predict that the ability to change your first and last names in SL will prove very popular—and also very lucrative for Linden Lab! Remember, they’ve got seven years of pent-up demand for this feature. (I have a couple of avatars myself that I’d like to rename.)

Second: An unexpected but potentially ground-breaking development in OpenSim was the announcement of the release of a virtual reality OpenSim viewer to the open source community at the 2018 OpenSim Community Conference. There’s still lots of technical work left to do, but if they can successfully pull this off, it could mean a new era for OpenSim.

Third: I confidently predict that one or more blockchain-based virtual worlds are going to fold. Not Decentraland; there’s too much money tied up in that one to fail. But several cryptocurrency-based virtual worlds are starting to look like trainwrecks of epic proportions (and I’m looking at you, Staramaba Spaces/Materia.One). Somebody still needs to explain to me why people will want to pay to hang out with 3D-scanned replicas of Paris Hilton and Hulk Hogan. The business model makes absolutely no sense to me. Another one that I think is going to struggle in 2019 is Mark Space.

Fourth: I also predict that one or more adult/sex-oriented virtual worlds are going to fail (yes, I’m looking at you, Oasis). I’ve already gone into the reasons why even the best of them are going to find it hard to compete against the entrenched front-runner, Second Life.

Fifth: High Fidelity and Sansar will continue their friendly rivalry as both social VR platforms hold splashy events in the new year. (I’m really sorry I missed the recent preview of Queen Nefertari’s tomb in HiFi, but it looks as though there will be many other such opportunities in 2019.) And High Fidelity will continue to boast of new records in avatar capacity at well-attended events (it certainly helps that they’ve got those venture-capital dollars to spend, to offer monetary enticements for users to pile on for stress testing).

Sixth: the Oculus Quest VR headset will ignite the long-awaited boom in virtual reality that the analysts have been predicting for years. There; I’ve said it! And those social VR platforms which support Oculus Quest users will benefit.

Seventh: Linden Lab’s launch of Sansar on Steam will likely have only a modest impact on overall usage of the platform. I’m truly sorry to have to write this prediction, because I love Sansar, but we’ve got statistics we can check, and they are not looking terribly encouraging at the moment. And where is the “significant ad spend” that was promised at one of the in-world product meetups back in November? Now that they’ve pulled the trigger and launched on Steam, it’s time to promote the hell out of Sansar, using every means at Linden Lab’s disposal. Paying bounties to Twitch livestreamers is not enough.

And Facebook? If they thought 2018 was a bad year, I predict that we’re going to see even more scandals uncovered in 2019 by news organizations such as the New York Times. And more people (like me) will decide that they’ve had enough of being sold to other corporations and data-mined to within an inch of their lives, and jump ship. The public relations people at Facebook are going to face a lot of sleepless nights…

And, still on the same topic, we might yet see the launch of a new social VR platform backed by Facebook, after they decide to ditch the lamentable Facebook Spaces once and for all. Maybe it will be based on Oculus Rooms; maybe it will be something completely different. But despite my negative feelings about the social networking side of Facebook, they still have the hardware (Oculus), the money, and the reach to be a game-changer in social VR. (Just not with Facebook Spaces. At this point, they should just kill the project and start over. Any improvements will be like putting lipstick on a pig.)

Finally, I predict that the RyanSchultz.com blog will head off into new and rather unexpected directions (that is, if the past 12 months’ activity is any indication!). I never expected to cover blockchain-based virtual worlds, or Second Life freebies; they just kind of happened.  Expect more of the same in 2019, as various new topics catch my interest.

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Are Freebies Hurting The Second Life Economy?

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Photo by Don Agnello on Unsplash

I still find it somewhat ironic that I have done a complete, 180-degree change of direction in this blog: going from swearing that I would never cover Second Life at all (because hundreds of other bloggers do it already, and do a much better job than I ever could), to actively carving out a niche for myself, blogging about the various steals, deals, and freebies in SL.

My Second Life freebie coverage actually brings a fair number of readers to my blog, probably the biggest percentage of viewers overall when compared to my other categories of blogposts. In fact, my blogpost about free and inexpensive mesh heads and bodies for female Second Life avatars has now had a whopping 1,598 visitors—my third most-popular post ever.

So, I guess you could call me a freebie expert, or a freebie fashionista if you prefer. And this December has been the usual bountiful bonanza of advent gifts and hunt prizes. But sometimes I stop and ask myself: this is steady rain of freebies actually hurting the Second Life economy, and the livelihoods of SL content creators? In other words, are people not making as much money as they could and should be because of the abundance of free and inexpensive items in-world and on the SL Marketplace?

At first glance, the answer would appear to be “yes”. There has been steady rumbling from various quarters that many vendors are not earning the income that they used to. But are freebies really to blame for this?

I would argue that freebies, if handled properly by the store, can be an extremely effective way to promote a brand. For example, an attractive, well-made free item placed at The Free Dove (which usually includes a SLURL in the package) will often prompt my visit to the mainstore location to see what other products are for sale. In fact, I first learned about the store Alaskametro through their mini hunt at The Free Dove last summer (sadly, I have learned that The Free Dove has decided to stop having designer mini hunts as of January 2019). I had never heard of Alaskametro before, even though I had been an avid consumer in Second Life for over a decade at that point!

You could argue that the reason that powerhouse Second Life brands like Scandalize, Addams, and Blueberry became so well known is via freebies and inexpensive hunts, like the current reindeer hunt currently taking place at various stores on the Scandalize sim. (Technically, it’s not really a “hunt”; some store owners like Scandalize didn’t even bother to hide their reindeer.)

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You pick up one colour of an item of clothing for only L$15, try it on, and like it so much that you land up going back to the store later to buy more colours, maybe even the whole fatpack! I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it too. Admit it.

Savvy marketers know that freebies and cheapies can effectively drive traffic to their stores, and increase overall sales. True, many of the people who pick up a free item won’t (or can’t afford to) buy a full-price item. But enough do so to make it worth the store owner’s time and trouble to create and promote freebies. Why else would a store like Alien Gizmo’s regularly offer free L$200 gift cards to their customers?

So, no. Freebies are not the reason for an economic downturn in the SL economy. If anything, freebies are helping content creators get the word out about their brands, and thereby earn more money.

In fact, I seem to remember a closed (i.e. not Hypergrid enabled) OpenSim-based virtual world (I believe it was Avination) which strongly discouraged vendors from offering freebies, thinking that the policy would lead to more people actually buying goods and leading to greater vendor profits. Well, I’m not sure if that was the main reason that Avination eventually closed (they had a couple of fraud scandals, and OpenSim grids tend to be rather precarious enterprises at the best of times), but I’m pretty certain that a ban on freebies didn’t help with user retention any.

My point here (and yes, in a very roundabout way, I am trying to make one!) is that freebies are a good thing. Freebies promote brands, encourage newbies to become full-fledged consumers, and lubricate the SL economy. So get out there and pick up some freebies today! Tell’em Ryan sent you 😉

Islandz Virtual World (the Successor to InWorldz) Has Launched: Will People Come Back?

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If you missed all the excitement, here’s a link to all my blogposts about InWorldz and their sudden shut-down, so you can get caught up.

Last week, the owner of the former InWorldz grid, Beth Reischl, flipped the switch on its successor: Islandz Virtual World. Like InWorldz before it, Islandz is based on the same Halcyon codebase which forked off from the standard OpenSim software back in 2010. (Purists insist that InWorldz/Islandz is not a “true” OpenSim grid for that reason.)

Note that this grid, like its predecessor, is not Hypergrid-enabled; it is a closed grid. This bucks the trend where the overwhelming majority of OpenSim-based virtual worlds now allow their users to freely jump to other OpenSim grids via Hypergrid. (There are two main lists of OpenSim grids: one from the OpenSimulator website and the other from Hypergrid Business).

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To add Islandz to your Firestorm viewer, all you need to do is open up your settings (Ctrl-P), and select OpenSim from the left-hand-side menu. Then copy and paste the following into the Add New Grid field, and press the Apply key: http://login.islandzvw.com:8002/

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If you had an old account on InWorldz, you can transfer that avatar name over to Islandz Virtual World. Just use this log in screen. Please note that your InWorldz inventory has not been carried over; you are a default system avatar, although a number of people have kindly made free clothing, hair, and body parts available at the spawn point when you arrive in-world for the first time at the Islandz Welcome Center:

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I picked up the Ruth 2.0 mesh avatar, some hair (a layered bob hairstyle freebie by Linda Kellie), and a basic clothing applier for the Ruth mesh body, and after about half an hour I had an avatar that I was fairly satisfied with. Here is Vanity Faire (with an “e’) in Islandz Virtual World:

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It remains to be seen how much InWorldz inventory that people frantically tried to save will be able to be resurrected and returned to them. I might never get back my inventory, but then again, I didn’t have much to lose, so it would be easy for me to start all over.

But the Welcome Center was, with the exception of one AFK avatar, deserted on the Saturday afternoon when I visited. The question is: will people come back?

The even bigger question is: will the content creators come back? Some of them, upset at the handling of (and communication about) the sudden shut-down of InWorldz, have since moved to other OpenSim grids and will likely not be coming back to set up shop in Islandz Virtual World. Others may decide to come back and try again.

Many of the original InWorldz residents have also moved on, mostly to other OpenSim virtual worlds. Whether Islandz can recover any of the lost glory of InWorldz remains to be seen. But they’re back; it’s now up to Islandz Virtual World’s new and returning residents to rebuild.

What Adam Frisby Has Learned From Working on OpenSim

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Adam Frisby

Adam Frisby, a co-founder of OpenSim and the Chief Product Officer of Sine Wave Entertainment (the creators of the virtual world Sinespace), has written a very insightful article for the Hypergrid Business website.

Titled What I learned about virtual worlds by helping found OpenSim, Adam talks at length about some of the lessons he learned from building virtual worlds over the past 12 years, particularly his experience with OpenSim:

For a while, there were some big names adopting the project in droves. Nearly every major tech company had some involvement — or at least one employee contributing — to OpenSim at some point. IBM had an entire team of OpenSim developers and was running internal conferences using the project. During my involvement, the OpenSim software was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. In the years since, it’s found its way into many surprising places, from NASA to university courses.

It’s gratifying to see OpenSim still soldiering on 12 years later, in great part through the efforts of the educators who’ve embraced it, and through worlds like OSGrid, which maintains a small but dedicated user community, along with a host of other enterprises, projects and grids using the software.

And while OpenSim didn’t become the breakout success we hoped it would, I learned a lot from it, about building virtual world platforms — and what they need.

He stresses the importance of not reinventing the wheel:

Virtual worlds shouldn’t reinvent the wheel

This is true of Second Life and OpenSim, and numerous other virtual worlds and MMOs — attempting to build key features and functionality by creating them from scratch, when better options already exist.

At the time, the list of free or cheap 3D engines could be counted on one hand — Torque, Ogre3D, Irrlicht, etc. But today, we have dozens of fantastic high-end options, including Unity, Unreal, Lumberyard, CryEngine, and Unigine. If you were willing to shell out real cash, Unreal, CryEngine, id Tech and others have been available throughout.

Building your own graphics engine from scratch, however, is a dumb idea. It’s an insanely complex bit of software. Throw in a few thousand graphics cards and chips, various drivers, and you’ve got the recipe for a monumental headache on compatibility and support, let alone trying to stay up to date with the latest and greatest in 3D features. Trying to build your own is just going to result in you wasting a ton of talent reinventing the wheel.

Sinespace is built on top of the Unity engine, which allows it to leverage the usage of such cool, Unity-based tools such as Archimatix. Contrast this with Linden Lab’s Sansar, where Linden Lab has decided to develop their own engine. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches (for example, Sinespace has to scramble to fix bugs introduced by regular Unity updates, something that Linden Lab doesn’t need to worry about as much, since they control everything in-house).

Adam also talks about the importance of addressing non-Windows and mobile users:

Virtual worlds must be accessible — immediately

Even among gamers, the percentage of people willing to downland and install a client, then endure a time-consuming, multi-step login process, is vanishingly small. For the same reason, web and mobile access matter too. We know from our own efforts that if you want someone to download or install something, half of the people who sign up, won’t.

Today’s consumers don’t use desktops either – the web today is mobile, and I find myself using my phone more and more, switching only to my desktop to get work done. You need to be where the users are – and that, in my opinion, means friction- free and device-agnostic experiences.

I note that Sinespace is now available not only on the desktop (with versions for Windows, MacOS, and LINUX), but also for users in VR headsets (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Windows Mixed Reality). They’re also currently testing viewers for both iPhone/iPad and Android devices. Sinespace even has a viewer that runs completely within a web browser (I’ve tested it and it works fairly well). And they are working on a client for OpenVR viewers for both Windows and Mac, too! I would have to say that, at this point, Sinespace is ahead of the competition in terms of mobile device and multiple platform support. They’ve got all the bases covered!

Offering lots of options for people to access your virtual world (particularly those which don’t involve downloading a client) gives you an advantage in an increasingly crowded market of metaverse products. And if you don’t believe that mobile-accessible virtual worlds are important, you really do need to check out both IMVU and Avakin Life. Both are very popular with children and teenagers, most of whom are on smartphones—and these children and teenagers are future adult consumers! Companies need to be paying attention to this segment of the market.

This is a very good article about virtual worlds from an industry veteran who is doing some innovative things in virtual worlds. I’d encourage you to go over to Hypergrid Business and read it in full!