Sansar is the reason I started this blog a little over four years ago, and it with a very heavy heart that I write this blogpost. As many of you know, I found that I had become too emotionally attached to what was going on with Sansar, and I had to step back from my previously comprehensive coverage of the Linden Lab-founded social VR platform, to gain some much-needed perspective and to be able to write about it dispassionately.
While the rumours of Sansar’s impending demise have been circling for quite a long while now, over the past few months, I have been hearing persistent gossip, from various well-placed sources, that Wookey-led Sansar is in serious trouble. I should rush to add that I have zero official confirmation of any of this, but every time I hear a new rumour, it seems to confirm what I have already heard from others. In other words, I am hearing the same thing from many different people.
Most recently, I’ve been told that the Wookey team is missing in action, both on the official Sansar Discord and in-world. I’ve heard that Sansar has lost big-name clients like Lost Horizon and Monstercat (although Sansar is still listed on the Lost Horizon Festival website). I’ve also heard that many people who used to be actively involved in Sansar have left, leaving for platforms as various and diverse as Helios, SapphireXR, and CORE (where I see many Sansar alumni chatting on their Discord servers).
My latest source tells me:
There hasn’t been a product meetup in months…they were all working like crazy on Splendour in the Grass…after that, crickets.
The marketplace for hosting live events has become extremely competitive, with social VR platforms competing with game companies like Fortnite and Minecraft to sign deals with artists and festivals, and to host concerts and other musical events. And if Sansar is struggling to do this during a pandemic, how will it fare when things return to (relative) normalcy, with a resurgence of live, in-person events? Can Sansar compete against better-funded companies to attract the kind of A-list talent which brings in audiences—and more to the point, can they get that audience to stick around and become content creators and community members after the music ends?
I am in a better position that most external observers to play armchair quarterback and try to pinpoint exactly where it all went so wrong, but I must confess that, like so many others (including numerous employees laid off in at least two rounds of wrenching, painful layoffs), I really thought that Sansar would succeed.
But the expensive bet placed by Linden Lab (and Philip Rosedale’s company, High Fidelity, which shut down a similar service in early 2020, and pivoted to a spatial audio product), is that there would be tens and even hundreds of thousands of people using high-end VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Valve Index to access social VR platforms boasting beautiful high-end graphics. It didn’t seem like such a risky bet at the time, but looking back, perhaps it was.
Certainly, part of the problem is that these companies spent millions of dollars and many years building platforms, only to find that the VR hardware market was evolving so quickly that they couldn’t keep up. I mean, the Oculus Rift is no longer being sold by Facebook, which decided to put all their eggs into the standalone Quest, which is selling like hotcakes—and which Sansar can only run on if you attach a cable from your Quest to your high-end gaming PC.
What does it take for a platform to catch fire, like VRChat and Rec Room? Again, I don’t really know the answer (although social media, particularly YouTube and Twitch, certainly played a pivotal role in at least VRChat’s ultimate popularity and success).
At a time when the metaverse has again become a hot buzzword tossed around by many companies, both big and small, who knows what will happen to Sansar. But I must confess that I am very worried.
There was a time, back in the day (ohhh, let’s say, May of 2006) when a Second Life avatar named Anshe Chung graced the cover of Businessweek magazine, which told the story of how she became the first online personality to achieve a net worth exceeding one million US dollars from profits entirely earned inside a virtual world.
It can be argued that this Businessweek article, and the resulting media attention it caused, was the spark that ignited a period of explosive population growth in Second Life, as people realized that they, too, could earn money on Second Life, and they began joining the platform in ever-increasing numbers.
In particular, between late 2006 and early 2007, dozens of real-life companies and brands decided to set up shop in Second Life: Dell, Toyota, Nissan, Sun Microsystems, IBM, even American Apparel and Playboy. Unfortunately, this corporate heyday did not last long. By the end of 2008, most real-world corporations were pulling out, not seeing the benefit (i.e. profit) in running operations on a virtual world, especially during a somewhat brutal recession.
And, for a long time, burned by their initial enthusiastic foray into Second Life, most real-world brands pretty much steered clear of virtual worlds, leaving them to the mom-and-pop stores, the individual content creators who were able to make a go of it.
Well, I am starting to notice the beginnings of a new trend lately: real-life brands are starting to enter into partnerships with social VR and virtual worlds once again. Is this the start of a new trend in marketing?
Two different news items, about two completely different types of partnerships, crossed my desk yesterday, one for Bacardi rum and the other for Coca-Cola, which tickled my fancy and made me laugh (hence the clever title of this blogpost!). Both are instructive examples of how such corporate partnerships have evolved and changed since the Anshe Chung summer of 2006 in Second Life.
Barcardi and Sansar: The Casa Bacardi Virtual Island Festival
Bring home some Caribbean vibes and get grooving to your favourite beats at a music experience like never before.
Casa Bacardi is a whole new virtual world on Sansar, with an epic stage for your favourite artists to perform on, games to play with your friends, hang out with them, play cocktail games and meet new people. Enjoy all of this and more from the comfort of your home along with your favourite Bacardi Cocktails.
You can even design your own look and express yourselves through your avatar before you land on Casa Bacardi Island. Festival fashion doesn’t go away, you know?
Find liberation from the real world on a virtual Caribbean island. Teleport to Casa Bacardi this Rum Month!
Performers at this event include a mix of afrobeat, hip hop, electronica and dance music artists:
Divine and the Gully Gang
Tsumyoki with Kidd Mange
Tickets are quite inexpensive, only US$1.99 for a concert pass, and US$2.99 for a concert pass plus a limited after-party event (you can pay via credit card or PayPal).
Coca-Cola, Tafi and Decentraland: The Friendship Box NFT
In a piece of news which I somehow missed, Coca-Cola entered the ultra-trendy NFT space with a limited-edition auction, partnering with the Tafi avatar creation system and the blockchain-based virtual world Decentraland (NFT, of course, stands for Non-Fungible Tokens, the concept that blockchain-based property is a unique, distinguishable, indivisible blockchain-based asset which has some sort of monetary value, usually denoted in a cryptocurrency like ETH/Ethereum).
Coca-Cola is not the first big brand name to jump into Decentraland, of course; not too long ago I wrote about how Sotheby’s set up shop. It would appear that the current unabated frenzy over blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and NFTs is bringing together some rather unlikely bedfellows!
Tafi announced today that it has partnered with Coca-Cola® by designing virtual wearables for Coca-Cola’s first-ever non-fungible token (NFT) collectibles offering in the “metaverse” to celebrate International Friendship Day on July 30th, Coca-Cola will be auctioning an NFT loot box on OpenSea, that contains Tafi-designed digital apparel that can be worn forever in the virtual world of Decentraland.
Tafi, a leading designer of avatars and digital wearables, is a digital strategy and development partner with Coca-Cola. Tafi worked alongside Coca-Cola to produce the NFTs, as well as Virtue, the agency by Vice, who developed the initial concept. Details of Tafi’s involvement in Coca-Cola’s NFT Lootbox can be found at https://maketafi.com/coca-cola-nft.
Coca-Cola collaborated with designers at Tafi on all the NFTs including the branded wearable apparel. Auction-goers can bid on the Coca-Cola Friendship Box, a reimagined version of Coca-Cola’s highly collectible vending machine, itself an NFT, and once opened there will be three one-of-a-kind digital assets to own:
• A custom Coca-Cola Bubble Jacket Wearable – a futuristic jacket – is illuminated with effervescent fizz, purposely designed with subtle nods to Coke’s nostalgic delivery uniforms. It also will include an unlockable version that can be worn in the Decentraland 3D virtual reality platform. Inspired by metaverse trends and utility, the jacket features the Coca-Cola color palette, fusing the metallic red of the aluminum can and caramel brown of the delicious drink.
• The Sound Visualizer captures the experience of sharing a Coca-Cola using instantly recognizable audio cues: the pop of a bottle opening, the sound of a beverage being poured over ice, the unmistakable fizz and that first refreshing taste.
• The Friendship Card reimagines the design of Coca-Cola’s famous friendship-inspired trading cards from the 1940s for the digital world. The cards bear the “Symbol of Friendship” moniker.
This one-of-a-kind loot box contained some ultra-exclusive items, including a puffy jacket which can be worn by Decentraland avatars, and it sold for a whopping 217 ETH (which works out to about half a million U.S. dollars)!
Now I can tell you one thing for damn sure: no matter how luxurious and glossy that Coca-Cola puffed jacket may look on the OpenSea marketplace (and you can check out the fancy animations here), it is not going to look anywhere near as good when your avatar wears it around Decentraland! The current state of graphics in Decentraland looks like this, in case you needed a reality check:
Perhaps I am not the best person to explain all this, because frankly I am still mystified as to why people would want to spend outrageous sums of money on NFTs, except perhaps for bragging rights. However, it is clear that blockchain, crypto, and NFTs are not going away anytime soon (although they will not doubt continue to fluctuate wildly in value). I just report on what I see, safely from the sidelines.
And I repeat my usual warning: do EVERY. SINGLE. SCRAP. of your homework before investing a penny in any blockchain/cryptocurrency project.
Are we seeing a renaissance in such partnerships between real-world brands and social VR platforms and virtual worlds? Who knows. But it is fascinating to watch!
In the real world, much of our communication is non-verbal: facial expression, gaze, gestures, body movements, even spatial distance (proxemics).
While older, flat-screen virtual worlds such as Second Life are somewhat limited in the forms of nonverbal communication available (most people rely on text or voice chat), modern VR equipment and social VR platforms allow for more options:
Hand/finger movement: most VR headsets have hand controllers; the Valve Index has Knuckles hand controllers which allow you to move your fingers as well as your hands;
Body movement: the Vive pucks can be attached to your waist, hips, feet, and other parts of your body to track their movement in real time;
Eye movements/gaze: for example, the Vive Pro Eye VR headset can track the blinking and movement of the eyes;
Facial expression: add-ons such as the Vive Facial Tracker (which attaches to your VR headset) allow you to convey lower face and mouth movements on your avatar.
In addition, many social VR platforms also employ emoticons, which can be pulled up via a menu and displayed over the head of the avatar (e.g. the applause emoji in AltspaceVR), as well as full-body pre-recorded animations (e.g. doing a backflip in VRChat). The use of all these tools, in combination or alone, allows users in social VR to approach the level of non-verbal communication found in real life, provided they have the right equipment and are on a platform which supports that equipment (e.g. NeosVR, where you can combine all these into an avatar which faithfully mimics your facial and body movements).
Two recently published research papers investigate nonverbal communication on social VR platforms, adding to the growing academic literature on social VR. (I am happy to see that social VR is starting to become a topic of academic research!)
Maloney, D., Freeman, G., & Wohn, D. Y. (2020). “Talking without a Voice”: Understanding Non-Verbal Communication in Social Virtual Reality. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 4(CSCW2). https://doi.org/10.1145/3415246
Unfortunately, there is no open-access version of this conference proceeding available; you’ll have to obtain a copy from your local academic or public library. This paper, by Divine Maloney and Guo Freeman of Clemson University and Donghee Yvette Wohn of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, consists of two parts:
conducting unobtrusive observations of 61 public events held in AltspaceVR over the span of four weeks, to see what non-verbal interactions were being used naturally on the platform; and
interviewing 30 users of social VR platforms (of which I was one!), where the paper’s authors read through the transcribed interview data to acquire a picture with regards how social VR users used, perceived, and experienced non-verbal communication for further analysis.
In the first study of the two, the authors noted the following different kinds of nonverbal communication:
the use of movement to indicate that someone was paying attention. These included nodding behaviors and moving the body or head toward the person or object that was subject of attention;
the use of applause to indicate approval;
pointing and patting one’s own chest as a form of directing attention either at a remote object/person or oneself;
and behaviours such as waving, dancing, and kissing, which were mostly used in social grooming contexts (dancing was also used as entertainment);
and finally, the behaviour of trolls: interpersonal provocation and social disruptions.
With respect to the thirty interviewed conducted, they were analyzed as follows to answer two research questions:
Using quotes from users’ own accounts, in this section we present our findings as two parts. First, to answer RQ2 (How do people perceive and understand non-verbal communication in social VR?), we identified three common themes that demonstrated how users perceive and understand non-verbal communication in social VR: as more immersive and embodied interactions for body language; as a similar form of communication to offline face-to-face interaction in terms of spatial behavior, hand behavior, and facial expressions; and as a natural way to initiate communication with online strangers.
Second, to answer RQ3 (How, if at all, does non-verbal communication affect interaction outcomes in social VR?), we described the social consequences of interacting through non-verbal communication in social VR for various user groups, including marginalized users such as cis women, trans women, and disabled users. We specially highlighted how non-verbal communication in social VR afforded privacy and social comfort as well as acted as a protection for marginalized users.
Unsurprisingly, the researchers discovered that most participants considered non-verbal communication to be a positive aspect in their social VR experience. Those surveyed highly praised body tracking (either just the hands and head, or ins ome cases the whole body), as it allowed for a more immersive and embodied form of non-verbal communication than those in traditional, flatscreen virtual worlds.
In addition to supporting more immersive and embodied interactions for body language, participants also considered non-verbal communication in social VR similar to offline face-to-face interaction in terms of spatial behavior, hand behavior, and facial expressions. This familiarity and naturalness greatly contributed to their generally positive perceptions.
Participants also viewed non-verbal communication in social VR as positive and effective because it became a less invasive way to start interactions with online strangers (e.g. waving hello at someone you’ve just met). Nonverbal communication also afforded some users a sense of privacy and social comfort, and in some cases, became an effective protection for them to avoid unwanted interactions, attention, and behaviors (especially with LGBTQ people and women).
The paper made three design recommendations for improved nonverbal communication in social VR platforms: providing support for facial tracking (which is already on its way with products like the Vive Facial Tracker); supporting more accurate hand and finger tracking (again, already underway with the Knuckles controllers for the Valve Index); and enabling alternative modes of control, especially for users with physical disabilities. While most of the study participants highly praised full body tracking in social VR, disabled users in fact complained about this feature and demanded alternatives.
The conference paper concludes:
Recently, commercial social VR applications have emerged as increasingly popular digital social spaces that afford more naturally embodied interaction. How do these novel systems shape the role of non-verbal communication in our online social lives? Our investigation has yielded three key findings. First, offline non-verbal communication modalities are being used in social VR and can simulate experiences that are similar to offline face-to-face interactions. Second, non-verbal communication in social VR is perceived overall positive. Third, non-verbal interactions affect social interaction consequences in social VR by providing privacy control, social comfort, and protection for marginalized users.
Tanenbaum, T. J., Hartoonian, N., & Bryan, J. (2020). “How do I make this thing smile?”: An Inventory of Expressive Nonverbal Communication in Commercial Social Virtual Reality Platforms. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – Proceedings, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1145/3313831.3376606
This paper is available free to all via Open Access. In this conference proceeding, Theresa Jean Tanenbaum, Nazely Hartoonian, and Jeffrey Bryan of the Transformative Play Lab at the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, did a study of ten social VR platforms:
High Fidelity (which shut down in January of 2020)
TheWave VR (this social VR platform shut down in early 2021)
Facebook Spaces (since shut down and replaced by Facebook Horizon)
For each platform, investigators answered the following eight questions:
Can the user control facial expressions, and if so, how? (Pre-baked emotes, puppeteering, etc.)
Can the user control body language, and if so, how? (Pre-baked emotes, puppeteering, postures. etc.)
Can the user control proxemic spacing (avatar position), and if so, how? (Teleport, hotspots, real world positioning, etc.) How is collision handled between avatars? (Do they overlap, push each other, etc.)
How is voice communication handled? Is audio spatialized, do lips move, is there a speaker indicator, etc.
How is eye fixation/gaze handled? (Do avatars lock and maintain gaze, is targeting gaze automatic, or intentional, or some sort of hybrid, do eyes blink, saccade, etc.)
Are different emotions/moods/affects supported, and how are they implemented? (Are different affective states possible, and do they combine with other nonverbal communications, etc.)
Can avatars interact physically, and if so, how? (Hugging, holding hands, dancing, etc.) What degree of negotiation/consent is needed for multi- avatar interactions? (One-party, two-party, none at all?)
Are there any other kinds of nonverbal communication possible in the system that have not be described in the answers to the above questions?
VR development is proliferating rapidly, but very few interaction design strategies have become standardized…
We view this inventory as a first step towards establishing a more comprehensive guide to the commercial design space of NVC [non-verbal communication] in VR. As a design tool this has two immediate implications for designers. First, it provides a menu of common (and less common) design strategies, and their variations, from which designers may choose when determining how to approach supporting any given kind of NVC within their platform. Second, it calls attention to a set of important social signals and NVC elements that designers must take into consideration when designing for Social VR. By grounding this data in the most commonly used commercial systems, our framework can help designers anticipate the likelihood that a potential user will be acquainted with a given interaction schema, so that they may provide appropriate guidance and support.
Our dataset also highlights some surprising gaps within the current feature space for expressive NVC. While much social signaling relies upon control of facial expression, we found that the designed affordances for this aspect of NVC to be mired in interaction paradigms inherited from virtual worlds. Facial expression control is often hidden within multiple layers of menus (as in the case of vTime), cannot be isolated from more complex emotes (as in the case of VR Chat), hidden behind opaque controller movement (as in Facebook Spaces), or unsupported entirely. In particular, we found that with the exception of dynamic lip-sync, there were no systems with a design that would allow a user to directly control the face of their avatar through a range of emotions while simultaneously engaging in other forms of socialization.
The authors go on to say that they observed no capacity in any of the systems to recombine and blend the various forms of nonverbal communication, such as can be done in the real world:
As we saw in our consideration of the foundations of NVC in general, and Laban Movement Analysis in particular, much NVC operates by layering together multiple social signals that modify, contextualize, and reinforce other social signals. Consider, for instance, that it is possible to smile regretfully, laugh maliciously, and weep with joy. People are capable of using their posture to indicate excitement, hesitation, protectiveness, and many other emotional states, all while performing more overt discourse acts that inherit meaning from the gestalt of the communicative context.
The conference paper concludes:
As is evident in the scholarly work around social VR, improving the design space for NVC in VR has the potential to facilitate deeper social connection between people in virtual reality. We also argue that certain kinds of participatory entertainment such as virtual performance will benefit greatly from a more robust interaction design space for emotional expression through digital avatars. We’ve identified both common and obscure design strategies for NVC in VR, including design conventions for movement and proxemic spacing, facial control, gesture and posture, and several strategies unique to avatar mediated socialization online. Drawing on previous literature around NVC in virtual worlds, we have identified some significant challenges and opportunities for designers and scholars concerned with the future of socialization in virtual environments. Specifically, we identify facial expression control, and unconscious body posture as two critical social signals that are currently poorly supported within today’s commercial social VR platforms.
It is interesting to note that both papers cite the need to properly convey facial expressions as key to expanding the ability of avatars in social VR to convey non-verbal communication!
Earlier this week, I had a guided tour of the blockchain-based social VR platform Somnium Space, where I was informed by my tour guide that the virtual world had just implemented teleporting. Scattered throughout the one large, contiguous virtual landscape which comprises Somnium Space were teleporter hubs, where you could pull up a map, click on the teleporter hub you wanted to travel to, press a button, et voilà! You were instantly transported to your destination.
What makes Somnium Space unusual among metaverse platforms is that you cannot simply teleport from one place to another distant location; you either must make use of the provided teleporters, or walk/run/fly/swim to your destination. (Of course, you can certainly “short hop” using a limited form of teleporting, but that is only for shorter distances, not for instantly getting from one end of a large, contiguous landmass to another.)
In other words, the teleporter hubs of the Somnium Transportation System are set up much like a modern urban subway system, where you can only travel to a particular, pre-built subway station that is situated the nearest to your intended destination, and then walk the rest of the way. Many people might remember that in the very earliest days of Second Life, there were also teleporter hubs in the days before avatars could instantly teleport themselves from one location to another!
Another thing that sets Somnium Space apart from other social VR platforms is that there are only going to be so many “public” teleporter hubs. In face, some of these hubs are going to be auctioned off as NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), and the successful bidders with such a teleporter hub on their properties will be able to charge a cryptocurrency fee in order to use their teleporters! (In other words, they would operate much the same as a real-life toll road or highway.)
Closely intertwined with the idea of teleporting vs. walking is the layout of a metaverse platform. Is it one large contiguous landmass, like Somnium Space, Decentraland, Cryptovoxels, and (to a certain extent) Second Life? Or is it a collection of smaller worlds, like VRChat, Rec Room, Sansar, and Sinespace? If it is the former, then means of transportation (and ease of access to transportation) becomes more important. If it is the latter, then another tool which many of the newer social VR platforms offer is the ability to create a portal—either temporary or permanent— between two worlds. (Of course, you could consider a teleporter hub a portal.)
So, keeping all this in mind (particularly the distinction between SHORT HOP teleporting and teleporting to a DISTANT location), we can create a chart outlining the transportation affordances of the various metaverse platforms:
Name of Platform (Layout)
Distance Teleport? **
Create Portals? †
Second Life (mostly one contiguous landmass, with private islands)
Sinespace (separate worlds)
Sansar (separate worlds)
NO (but you can create teleport hubs)
VRChat (separate worlds)
Rec Room (separate worlds)
AltspaceVR (separate worlds)
NeosVR (separate worlds)
Cryptovoxels (one contiguous landmass with some islands)
NO (you can add coordinates to a URL, though)
Decentraland (one contiguous landmass)
YES (/goto X,Y)
Somnium Space (one contiguous landmass)
NO (but there are teleport hubs)
NO (unless you count teleport hubs)
* – Can a user walk/run/fly/swim from one location to another? This includes SHORT HOP teleporting. ** – Can a user personally choose to teleport from one location to a second, DISTANT location? † – Can a user create a temporary or permanent portal from one location to another?
Obviously, all metaverse platforms offer some form of personal locomotion for your avatar (walk, run, fly, swim, short-hop teleporting, etc.). This is standard.
It is also clear from this table that the metaverse platforms which consist of many smaller worlds (Sinespace, Sansar, VRChat, Rec Room, AltspaceVR, and NeosVR) all prefer the creation of temporary and permanent portals to allowing users to teleport great distances on their own steam. On the other hand, all the social VR platforms and virtual worlds which consist of one contiguous landmass tend to allow some form of teleportation across great distances.
You will notice that Cryptovoxels uses a rather brute-force method of “teleporting”, which consists of appending the coordinates to the end of the URL you enter into your web browser client (which are much the same as the coordinates which form part of the SLURLs used in Second Life, but not nearly as convenient in my opinion).
So, what do you think? Have I made an error in my table? Do you have an opinion about the benefits of teleporting and portals versus walking around and exploring the landscape? I’d love to hear your opinions, so please leave a comment, thank you!