How to Design Social VR Spaces: A Framework by Zachary Deocadiz

Zachary Deocadiz is a designer for the VR video app Within, who has written a couple of blogposts about social VR for the Medium-hosted blog Virtual Reality Pop. In them, he attempts to develop a framework for how to evaluate and design new social applications in virtual reality.

Unfortunately, for some reason I cannot see any of the illustrations Zach attaches to these blogposts. (UPDATE: It turned out that this was a problem due to the Privacy Badger plug-in I have installed on my Chrome web browser. When I disabled Privacy Badger, I could see the images.) However, the person who originally shared this information with me on the Discord server, Michael Zhang, also shared a couple of screen captures he took from the blog (thank you, Michael!).

In part one, Zach discusses the impact of existing VR social spaces on user behaviour, using as his examples the following five platforms:

  • AltspaceVR
  • Facebook Spaces
  • OrbusVR (one of the first MMORPGs in VR, which I haven’t blogged about yet)
  • VRChat
  • Where Thoughts Go (a VR app where people record their memories anonymously, which I haven’t covered yet)

In part two, Zach discusses various spectrums of a framework based on recurring design decisions made in current social VR apps:

He summarizes the eight spectrums of his framework as follows:

1. Guided to Self-Taught. Will you teach users how to use the controls? How in-depth will your onboarding be? How do you teach the user about appropriate behavior in these spaces?

2. Public to Private. Will there be large public spaces for users who are strangers to gather? Will users be constrained to only hosting private events with people they already know?

3. Prescribed to User-Generated. To what extent can users impact the way they look? To what extent can users change the way the environment looks? To what extent can users create custom interactions with other people or the space?

4, Anonymous to Identified. Do you allow users to go by a pseudonym or username, or do you require them to use their legal (or Facebook) name? Do you have a system to find out their legal information if something comes to light at a later point?

5. Reactive to Preemptive. Do users feel safe within the social space? What are the ways you can make them feel safer, both before and after an incident occurs?

6. Simple to Complex Interactions. How many different ways can users communicate? How can they interact with each other?

7. Persistent to Temporary. Are there social things for users to do even if no one else is online at the same time? Does the environment remember the last state it was in, or does it reset to its original state once all users leave?

8. Shareable to Real-Time. How easy is it to create artifacts to document the space and the people within the space? How do people tell others about what they’ve been doing? Can they share the experience over a wide range of media?

He talks about each spectrum in some detail, including links to related reading. And he goes so far as to “map” out 6 social VR apps using his framework:

Zach Deocadiz’s work is among the earliest attempts to categorize and classify aspects of social virtual reality, along with the research work of Dr. Katherine Isbister, Dr. Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, and Anya Kolesnichenko at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This is an important contribution to social VR research, and Zach’s work will help inform future academic investigation in this rapidly evolving field.

Thanks to Michael Zhang for the tip, and for sharing his pictures!


The Institute for the Future Issues a Report Identifying Leading-Edge Behaviours in Social VR

From time to time on this blog, I have covered academic research involving virtual reality in general (here and here) and social VR in particular (here), and it is wonderful to see a new field of research take shape around social virtual reality. One of those researchers is called, aptly enough, the Institute for the Future:

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) is a Palo Alto, California–based not-for-profit think tank. It was established, in 1968, as a spin-off from the RAND Corporation to help organizations plan for the long-term future, a subject known as futures studies. They describe themselves as:

For over 50 years, businesses, governments, and social impact organizations have depended upon IFTF global forecasts, custom research, and foresight training to navigate complex change and develop world-ready strategies. IFTF methodologies and toolsets yield coherent views of transformative possibilities across all sectors that together support a more sustainable future.

IFTF has just released a report on social VR titled Leading-Edge Behaviors from the New World of Social VR:

They describe their study as follows:

On a handful of platforms around the world, a small group of pioneers are hanging out in 3D environments in 3D bodies. They are willing to endure technical challenges, limited content, and lack of standard practices and etiquette to be the first to inhabit and explore new shared virtual worlds. IFTF spent eight months exploring their environments, communities, and practices. Their experiments provide early signals that point to a future where we each have a personal digital body, and content can be experienced in full 3D space. This will have profound implications for how we socialize, learn, work, engage with content, and take care of ourselves.

This study contains 10 Leading-Edge Behaviors: emerging and innovative user practices likely to play out more broadly over the next few years. Leading-edge Behaviors inspire and inform new products, experience and service ideas, and reveal emerging opportunities and implications. Leading-Edge Behaviors are created through a blend of expert interviews, observational and ethnographic research, and horizon scanning with people pushing the edges of new applications, devices, and platforms.

In fact, I was interviewed a couple of years ago by Lyn Jeffery, a cultural anthropologist who works for IFTF, about my own experiences in social VR (which I believe predates the research in this new report).

I was very surprised and pleased to see my own definition of social VR appearing in this report! (Hey ma, I’m famous!)

Here are the 10 leading-edge behaviours in social VR identified in this report:

This is report which pulls together insights and information from a wide variety of sources in an attempt to identify future trends, and it is well worth your time to read through it in detail. If you are interested in this report, you can find it here (the link is a Adobe Acrobat PDF format slide deck). The report includes links to many other resources, making it a good starting point for your own investigations.

I’d like to thank Lyn Jeffery and the entire team at IFTF for releasing this report to the public for free. It’s a truly valuable contribution to the nascent field of research into various aspects of social VR.

Somnium Space Embraces Blockchain

Somnium Space is planning to release version 2.0 of their social VR platform to the general public right after their Initial Land Offering in early October of this year, according to a conversation I had with Artur Sychov, Somnium Space’s founder. (Backers of their successful IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign will be able to get an advance look at the platform.)

Somnium Space is one of the companies involved in the Virtual Reality Blockchain Alliance (along with JanusVR and High Fidelity), and they are planning to embrace blockchain technology in a big way. In a recent post on Medium, the company states:

At Somnium Space, we are fundamentally against pure gimmicks. That is why we have taken our time to thoroughly design and incorporate blockchain into our VR world from the ground up. We did not do any ICO’s, IPO’s or any other public offering based on shiny promises and so called “white papers”. Instead, we have invested our own money and hard work to firstly build a real and existing VR world, then we raised a very healthy seed round from VC’s [venture capitalists] to ensure stability of operations for our company and as a final step we are bringing this technology to you — Somnium players / citizens by having our Initial Land Offering. But that’s not it. We have also partnered with companies which are recognizable leaders in the blockchain industry to make sure, that our process of ILO (Initial Land Offering auction) is well designed, programmed and executed. It is time to give you the power to truly own part of Somnium land and start creating, monetizing and enjoying true VR metaverse without a fear of losing it all one day. You can finally plan for a very long-term future inside Somnium Space and build this incredible world of your dreams together with all of us.

So what is [an] ILO? [An] Initial Land Offering auction is a process which will take place within couple of months (precise dates will be revealed very soon, so stay tuned). During this public auction Somnium Space will auction off all available (tokenized on blockchain) parcels on the Somnium Space map. In total, there are 5000 parcels on Somnium Map, 500 of those are already taken by our early supporters and backers, but [the] rest, 4500, are available for anyone to own.

Somnium Space land map (parcels in red are already reserved)

If you are interested in Somnium Space and want to find out more, here is their website. You can also follow them on various social media (DiscordTwitter, Telegram, or Instagram). 

Editorial: Will Social VR Companies Have to Turn to Influencers to Promote Their Products?

Photo by Diggity Marketing on Unsplash

Have you joined the Discord yet? More details here

Recently, I have become fascinated by a particular kind of celebrity: the YouTube influencer. Yesterday, I watched a video by the successful YouTuber and real estate agent Graham Stephan, who is currently pulling in US$100,000 per month from his YouTube channel alone:

These are people who have been able to attract significant numbers of subscribers to their YouTube video content, and earn hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars a year with advertising and endorsement deals. For example, the 28-year-old Swedish YouTuber Felix Kjellberg (a.k.a PewDiePie) earned US$15.5 million last year, according to Forbes.

Now, you might remember that PewDiePie was one of the YouTubers who devoted coverage to the social VR platform VRChat in late 2017 and early 2018, which led to a surge in the number of concurrent users (here is a chart from Steam showing the number of concurrent users of VRChat over time, with an arrow pointing to that surge):

Now, I’m pretty sure that PewDiePie did not sign an endorsement deal with VRChat; he probably just stumbled across it and thought it was entertaining enough to share with his audience of 98.6 million viewers. VRChat was probably just as surprised as everybody else by this sudden spike in users. I remember how they struggled to keep their servers running smoothly to deal with this unexpected onslaught over the Christmas holidays in 2017, and they were eventually forced to implement a detailed safety and trust system to cope with the resulting tidal wave of harassment and griefing on the platform. (Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it!)

But obviously, PewDiePie and his fellow livestreamers on Twitch and YouTube were a powerful, free promotional tool for VRChat. (The Ugandan Knuckles meme helped a lot, too, by becoming a self-perpetuating cycle that helped popularize VRChat.) While the platform peaked at 28,500 simultaneous users, it has since settled down to around 6,000 concurrent users in recent months, which still makes it the most popular social VR platform so far.

It’s no secret that most social VR platforms are struggling to attract users. According to a statement made by Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg to Forbes about the Monstercat 8th anniversary concert event in Sansar:

Monstercat: Call of the Wild Experience is a VR space where the music label will host artist meet and greets, giveaways, and more. Altberg didn’t give me exact numbers but over a thousand people watched the show in VR via Sansar.

“Tens of thousands of people watched the concert across Twitch, Mixer, and Huya, and over a thousand people around the world attended the event in Sansar – across 6 continents, 65 countries, and 675 cities.  Fans feel more connected and immersed in the music they love, while artists, in turn, effectively reach more people and places in a single day than they’d reach on a real-life tour. “

Now, while I am slightly suspicious at that “675 cities” figure (I always knew you could determine country by IP address, but I wasn’t aware you could pinpoint IP addresses down to the city level), the fact remains that 1,000 users in one day is seen as a major success for Sansar. But compare this with the estimated 600,000 regular users for Second Life. And compare this with the estimated 7,500 users of the adult virtual world 3DX Chat, which, as one commenter noted (here and here):

… 3DXChat. It started as just a sex sim. Then they added building. Then users started building and visiting each others places, instead of paying for sex like they were supposed to.

It’s more successful than High Fidelity, Sansar, and Sinespace put together. About 7,500 paying users.

So, although 1,000 users in one day for one event in Sansar is a significant achievement, it still doesn’t take the platform to the next level, where Linden Lab can really start making money off it.

Which leads to my question: will Linden Lab and other social VR companies eventually have to pay YouTubers and other influencers to promote their platforms to a wider audience and attract more attention? The experience of VRChat was an instructive lesson on the advertising power of influencers like PewDiePie.

Linden Lab has already taken some tentative steps in this direction already, with links to Twitch livestreamers like UmiNoKaiju (which, as far as I know, went nowhere). It would appear that companies would get more of a bang for their buck if they entered into partnerships with people with much bigger followings on Twitch and YouTube. And frankly, that is not cheap. Viral Nation, one of the top influencer marketing agencies, which represents hundreds of successful influencers using Instagram, Vine, YouTube, and Snapchat, is only interested in customers who have a advertising budget in the range of $10,000 to $10,000,000.

Linden Lab and other social VR companies may decide that slower, organic growth is best. However, the pressure to attract a lot of users more quickly using high-profile influencers must be sorely tempting. Will Linden Lab, High Fidelity, Sinespace, and other social VR platforms eventually bite the bullet and sign deals with popular influencers? Only time will tell.

UPDATE Aug. 16th: I have been told that it is, indeed, possible to identify cities by IP address, which I did not know before!