Pandemic Diary, April 5th, 2021: So Close, So Close and Yet So Far

PLEASE NOTE: My blog is still on indefinite hiatus; I have made a single exception for this blogpost. After this, I will be going back on my self-imposed break from blogging.

My eyes adored you
Though I never laid a hand on you,
My eyes adored you
Like a million miles away from me you couldn’t see
How I adored you…
So close, so close and yet so far

My Eyes Adored You, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

Today is officially Day 386 since I began working in self-isolation from my apartment for my university library system. Since my last Pandemic Diary post, two significant things have occurred:

  1. On March 18th I received my first vaccine shot, and
  2. On March 22nd, I returned to my office at the University of Manitoba Libraries for the first time in over a year.

As someone who is older (age 57), and with several underlying health conditions which put me at risk of a severe, possibly even fatal, response to infection with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (I am severely overweight, plus I have asthma, hypertension, and type II diabetes), I was among the first Manitobans under the age of 60 to get vaccinated at my local pharmacy. I received the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, with a follow-up shot sometime in July.

I have been following the news reports of possible blood clots in a few people who have received the vaccine, and I am not worried; I know that the chance of me getting a blood clot from the AstraZenca vaccine is much lower than the chance of me getting a blood clot from COVID-19! As a science librarian, I trust the science behind the vaccines, and I am eagerly looking forward to getting my second dose.

Canadians are watching the U.S. roll out an aggressive vaccination campaign with envy. Canada is far, FAR behind the U.S., the U.K., and other countries in its COVID-19 vaccination campaign. Up here in Canada, we already have had serious outbreaks of variants of concern from the U.K. and Brazil in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, and it seems all but certain the we will experience a third wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths here in Manitoba soon, with a third lockdown (and we never really opened back up from the second lockdown imposed in early November!). We are, indeed, so close and yet so far. It is frustrating beyond belief!

As for my return to the office, I was sitting on the fence about taking an extended sick leave for treatment of depression, when my supervisor told me that the buildings on campus could now be staffed at 40% of regular occupancy (up from 25%). I leapt at the opportunity to be able to work outside my home, after over a year of working from my home, being stuck within the same four walls day after day! I am starting off with just one day a week in the office, but I do have the option of coming in more frequently than that (at least, until the third lockdown happens, and it will).

In fact, the mood improved immediately after spending just one day back in my office, chatting with the few coworkers who are here (masked and socially distanced chats, but still, actual face-to-face conversations!). I even wandered around the library, taking a few snaphots. My office looks much the same as when I left it over a year ago, in near-pristine condition which will not last very long:

My library is still closed to non-librarian faculty, non-Libraries staff, and all students. The library, usually a quiet place even when it was full of students, is now eerily silent:

And I finally brought my work Oculus Rift VR headset back into the office from my apartment, where I had taken it when the pandemic started in March 2020, and spent part of my day today setting it up again. I popped into AltspaceVR and Nature Treks VR, and of course Sansar, just to test that everything was working okay. Instead of having to install countless updates to my Sansar client which had occurred during my yearlong absence from the office, I simply deleted the program and reinstalled it from scratch from the Sansar website, and then I paid a visit to my world, Ryan’s Garden, and its animated carousel, still one of my most cherished virtual possessions!

Yes, I do still have an Oculus Rift headset, which I had originally purchased for my suspended research project. I have an Oculus account for it, and I have absolutely ZERO plans to set up an account on the Facebook social network for it! Good thing that I don’t need to make any account decisions for at least another two years, during which time I will probably spend some of my accumulated Travel & Expense funds to upgrade the Rift to a Valve Index, like I now have at home. This Rift is my final link to Facebook, and I am itching to get rid of it! (I have yet to come up with a new, replacement research project involving virtual reality and libraries, but I have a few ideas.)

Stay safe and stay healthy!

Second Life Avatars, WOMBO, and Reface: A Tantalizing Glimpse at the Future of Avatars (OH MY GOD WHAT IS THIS EVIL SORCERY?!??)

NOTE: For more information about the Reface mobile AI app, please click here.


Okay, one more blogpost (last one, I promise). I plugged the following selfie of my main male Second Life avatar, Heath Homewood:

Into the WOMBO app (which I only discovered via Twitter today), to get THIS:

Boom Boom Boom by the Vengaboys

WHAT. IS. THIS. EVIL. SORCERY?!?? This is the most over-the-top, jaw-dropping, demented thing I have ever seen, and I absolutely want this as my next animation override, NOW! Mind. Blown.

O.K. I want the Waterfield Group (the new owners of Second Life) to DROP EVERYTHING, acquire WOMBO, and merge it with Second Life! Make it happen!

Holy shit. This just leaped past the Uncanny Valley in my opinion. This works so well it is truly scary. Heath looks like a real person!!! Try it for yourself with a facial picture of your favourite avatar, and let me know what you think!

Here are a couple more examples:

Thriller by Michael Jackson
Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley

UPDATE 2:25 p.m.: I just dropped US$$29.99 (about forty dollars Canadian) on an annual Premium WOMBO subscription, and I have decided…I am just going to self-treat my chronic clinical depression today by plugging Second Life avatar selfies into WOMBO all day. I reject your reality and substitute my own!

Don’t Cha by the Pussycat Dolls
I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor
NEW as of March 13th, 2021! We’re Not Gonna Take It, by Twisted Sister

Of course, it’s not just Second Life that you can do this with; WOMBO works with avatars you create in any social VR platform or virtual world. Here’s an avatar I created in Sansar, singing Thriller:


And, of course, it’s not just avatar pictures, it works with any face pictures. Here is Frida Kahlo (or, more accurately, her self-portrait), singing Tunak Tunak Tun, which is the mashup I never knew I needed until today!

Or, you can now get the Mona Lisa to sing the Numa Numa song:

UPDATE March 11th, 2021: Reza Zadeh just took this whole WOMBO-fying your art thing up to a whole other level! (I suspect Reza used WOMBO to animate the heads, then somehow pasted them back into the pictures. He also used some music clips that are not part of the WOMBO app, so perhaps he used different software. Either way, it’s hilarious. I just lost it at Marat coming back to life in his bathtub!)


UPDATE March 17th, 2021: I am just having so much fun throwing Second Life selfies into WOMBO! The company keeps adding new songs, too! Here are some of the latest additions (the Borat one is an exclusive for Premium members):

A little Twisted Sister, perhaps?
Perhaps some Funky Town disco?
The Borat Bing Bong song is a WOMBO Premium members exclusive!

UPDATE March 20th, 2021: And here are a couple more new songs available on the WOMBO app, as of today! I had actually asked (via the #song-suggestions channel on the official WOMBO Discord server) for Friday by Rebecca Black.

Friday by Rebecca Black
I’m Blue by Eiffel65 (a WOMBO Premium user exclusive!)

UPDATE March 21st, 2021: This afternoon I discovered a new mobile app called Reface, which allows you to insert your avatar’s face into movie clips and animated GIFs. Here’s an example, using the face of my main Second Life avatar, Vanity Fair:

Vanity Fair

Here’s Vanity Fair as Mona Lisa:

But wait, there’s more!

Here’s Vanity in thean animated GIF as Marilyn Monroe. Isn’t this amazing?!??

Vanity Fair as Marilyn Monroe

But wait, it gets even better! Witness the resulting MP4 movie clip, where Vanity Fair’s face is superimposed upon Kate Winslet’s in a succession of clips taken from the 1997 blockbuster movie Titanic:

Vanity Fair stars in the 1997 movie Titanic!

Reface allows you a decent handful of face swaps before it imposes a 30-minute timer to slow down your use of the free version of the app. I signed up for the Pro version, which costs US$2.49 weekly, or US$24.99 annually.

Here’s my main male avatar Heath Homewood as actor Harrison Ford:

Heath Homewood
Heath Homewood as Harrison Ford

And here’s an animated GIF I created of Heath Homewood as Freddie Mercury!

In some pictures, you can even insert more than one avatar’s face. Here are Vanity Fair and Heath Homewood in the famous Grant Wood painting American Gothic:

Vanity and Heath: Second Life Gothic!

UPDATE March 22nd, 2021: Well, tonight I am howling with laughter as I put my normally sedate Second Life supermodel, Vanity Fair, through WOMBO to sing some Taylor Swift, interspersed with some very well-timed goat screaming! Tonight, this my new favourite thing!!!

And then, I got really creative and starting combing the AI tools!

I pasted Vanity Fair’s face on Kylie Jenner’s body using Reface, then put a screen capture from the resulting animated GIF through WOMBO, et voilà! Here is the result! I am having way, waaay too much fun with this!

And Heath Homewood will sing you out with yet another exclusive song clip for Premium WOMBO users…

UPDATE April 5th, 2021: Three more musical clips from the fevered minds at WOMBO!

Despacito by Luis Fonsi
My Way by Frank Sinatra
Cotton Eyed Joe by Rednex

UPDATE April 6th, 2021: Here are a couple more tunes—enjoy!

Shake It Off by Taylor Swift
It’s Raining Men by The Weather Girls

The Perks of Virtual World/Social VR Premium Memberships: Are They Worth It? What Do You Get?

Second Life (which I still consider to be the perfect model of the mature, fully-evolved virtual world that the companies creating the newer social VR platforms would be wise to study) has two levels of membership: Basic (free), and Premium. How Premium membership in Second Life works: for US$99 a year (or $32.97 quarterly, or $11.99 monthly), you get a set of benefits and perks over free, Basic user accounts:

Second Life Premium Membership (source)

VRChat is another platform that decided to offer a comparably-priced paid premium membership level last December, called VRChat Plus (which I first wrote about here). Now, upon first reading of the perks such a membership would offer me (see below), I was less than impressed (probably because I have been spoiled by all the goodies Second Life Premium memberships offer me in comparison).

Among the (relatively) small number of features for VRChat Plus users is the ability to set a user icon to display in a circle next to your user name:

But in conversation with Voices of VR podcaster Kent Bye last night via Zoom, he raised a point that I had hitherto failed to consider, Given my well-documented, one-man, scorched-earth campaign against Facebook and Oculus for, among other things, forcing Oculus headset users to get Facebook accounts and their toxic advertising-based business model which scrapes and strip-mines users’ personal data, why would I not support an alternative way for VRChat to earn a profit?

I stopped to think of what VRChat would be like with Facebook-like advertising, and I positively shuddered in revulsion. So this evening, I pulled out my credit card and ponied up for a VRChat Plus membership (US$99.99), so I now have the familiar “red Ryan” logo displayed next to my username in world (which has sort of become an icon for my brand, as I use it everywhere else, too). If it helps other users in VRChat recognize who I am, then I think it’s worthwhile.

My familiar “red Ryan” user icon

So, I have decided to do a quick survey of the major social VR and virtual world platforms, and find out whether or not they offer a paid premium service, and if so, what you get for your money.

Second Life

My alt Moesha Heartsong, sitting on the porch of her lovely Victorian Linden Home on the continent of Bellisseria (one of the many nice perks you get with your Second Life Premium membership)

Second Life Premium membership (currently priced at US$99 a year) offers you the following benefits:

  • A weekly L$300 stipend (basically enough to buy a nice outfit or pair of shoes for your avatar every week)
  • A L$1,000 sign-up bonus for first-time Premium users (can only be used once)
  • Priority entry when regions/sims are full of avatars (in other words, if a Basic user and a Premium user both try to get into a packed sim at the same time, the Premium user gets priority; this comes in handy at crowded shopping events, and I have made use of this perk often!)
  • A 1024m² virtual land allotment for use towards a nice starter Linden Home or a parcel on the Second Life mainland; this is another benefit I do take advantage of!
  • Expanded live-chat customer support (which I have used on occasion!)
  • Premium virtual gifts (frankly, kinda useless to me)
  • Exclusive access to Premium areas and experiences (such as building sandboxes)
  • Increased cap on missed IMs (which I never use)
  • Increased group membership limits (I make use of my groups ALL THE TIME! A freebie fashionista can NEVER have too many free group slots for store groups, freebie groups, etc. Basic accounts have 42 group slots, but Premium has 70;)
  • Voice morphing (never used it, myself; most SL users never use voice, anyways)
  • UPDATE 11:36 p.m.: Animesh (animated mesh) creator Medhue tells me that SL Premium members can attach two animesh items (e.g. pets such as Medhue’s delightful animesh cihuahua), while Basic members can only attach one.

Basically, I have three Premium accounts, with two lovely Linden Homes between them (which I think is the major benefit of a Premium membership). More group space and priority access to overcrowded sims are also perks I tend to use a lot.

Sansar

Sansar offers three levels of premium subscriptions (unchanged from when Linden lab owned the platform), which give you:

  • A 45-day free trial of the Marvelous Designer software (used to create avatar clothing in Sansar)
  • Purchase discounts on Marvelous Designer for when you do decide to buy it
  • An increase in the number of Sansar worlds you can create (frankly, I’m not sure most people bother beyond the free Basic account, which lets you create up to 25 worlds)
  • Expedited user support options

Sinespace

The Unity-based Sinespace virtual world/social VR platform, created by Sine Wave Entertainment, offers a truly overwhelming number of Premium levels to choose from:

Premium users can create larger regions/worlds, have a larger number of regions active at one time, and get priority support and user-created content processing and approval, among other benefits.

AltspaceVR

Surprisingly, Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR doesn’t seem to offer any premium accounts (that may change in the future, though).

VRChat

VRChat Plus offers you the following perks (with more promised soon):

  • A nameplate icon: With VRChat+, you can personalize your nameplate with an icon you create! Snap a pic in VRChat or upload your own image on our website.
  • You can send a picture with an invitation to a friend to join you at your location
  • Free slots for up to 100 favourite avatars (as opposed to 25 for basic users)
  • “A limited edition VRCat Badge to display on your profile” (Really? Really?!??)
  • A higher trust ranking in VRChat’s Safety and Trust System

As I said up top, this list is a bit sparse, especially compared to what Second Life offers (and yes, you can be an anime girl in SL, just as easily as you can in VRChat!), but of course, there’s zero VR support in Second Life.

Rec Room

Rec Room offers something called Rec Room Plus at US$7.99 a month, which includes the following benefits:

  • You get 6000 tokens (r6000) monthly, delivered in installments of r1500 per week
  • One four-star gift box per week
  • A 10% discount in Rec Room stores that accept tokens
  • Exclusive access to the RR+ section of the item store
  • 100 saved outfit slots
  • The ability to sell premium inventions/keys for tokens

NeosVR

NeosVR uses Patreon levels to hand out perks to various levels of paying users (more info). For example, at my current “Blade Runner” level ($6 per month), I get:

  • Access to private channels on the official Discord Server
  • Patreon supporter badge in Neos
  • Early access to Linux builds
  • Early Access to Patreon only content (exclusive experiences, work in progress experiences before they’re public)
  • A Neos Mini account with 25 GB of storage
  • Your name in the stars! (your name will appear in the sky in the Neos hub)
  • 30 Neos Credits (NCR) monthly, accumulates

(Note that there is an even less expensive level, the “Agent Smith” level, at just $1 a month. Please check out the NeosVR Patreon page for more details.)

ENGAGE

The ENGAGE educational/corporate/conference social VR platform offers a free, “lite” version, and a premium, “plus” version for €4.99 a month, which gives you space to save your presentations, among other benefits. (They also offer enterprise and educational rates on request.)

Blockchain-Based Virtual Worlds (Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space)

Of course, the various blockchain-based virtual worlds sell everything using whatever cryptocurrencies they support (for example, a custom, non-randomly-generated avatar username in Decentraland will set you back 100 MANA, Decentraland’s in-world cryptocurrency (which is about US$36 at current exchange rates). It’s just a completely different model than the “freemium” ones offered above.


Thanks to Kent Bye for giving me the idea for this blogpost!

Valve Index: Day One

Today was the day that I finally removed my Oculus Rift VR headset, uninstalled the Oculus software from my home computer, and installed my shiny new Valve Index! Yet another step on the road to my complete emancipation from Facebook Inc.

Setup was a breeze, as I already had SteamVR installed on my computer. However, it is definitely going to take me some time to get used to the new headset and the new hand controllers. I feel as awkward as a teenager again! For now, I am sticking with a seated or standing experience, but I hope to set up room-scale VR once I have rearranged things in my apartment, and thrown out a few things. I cranked up my refresh rate from 90 up to 120 Hz, and marveled as I wandered around my new “home” space (buh-bye, Oculus Home!).

I still have to run through all of the tutorials, but my first port of call was Sansar, where I marveled anew at how beautiful everything looked. I didn’t need to reinstall the Sansar client at all; it worked as flawlessly with the Valve Index as it did with my Oculus Rift (although it doesn’t support individual finger tracking). The sound is amazing!

Today is day one of new adventures in virtual reality! I am quite looking forward to all the worlds I will visit in my Valve Index.