My Predictions For The Next Two Years

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Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

I’ve been hanging around virtual worlds of one kind or another for over a decade now. I’ve seen them come and go. Some were spectacular failures that provided lessons for other companies. Others just kind of meander along, not attracting very many users or ever becoming very big (like the multitude of OpenSim-based grids).

What usually happens in today’s hyper-competitive computer applications marketplace, is that one or two players in a particular market segment get big (e.g. Microsoft, MySpace, Facebook, and yes, in its own way, Second Life), and then continue to grow like a juggernaut, based on the network effect, while the smaller players in the marketplace fight each other over the leftovers. The ones who get big are usually, but not always, the early entrants into the field (Second Life is a prime example of that, although there were notable virtual worlds which were founded before it, like ActiveWorlds).

But social VR and virtual worlds are not a zero-sum game. Many consumers are frequent visitors to a number of different metaverse platforms, and many creators build and sell products in various virtual worlds. Right now, success in one VR-capable virtual world (e.g. VRChat) generates interest in other social VR spaces. As they say, “A rising tide lifts all boats”.

It’s still not clear where all this is going, but I’m willing to polish my crystal ball and make a few predictions of what will happen over the next two year period, from now until April 2020.

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

(We’ve already seen this happen with Microsoft’s purchase of AltspaceVR.) We could also see a company buy out a virtual world, just to grab the programming talent, and then shut the world down completely (as Yahoo! did with the promising Cloud Party).

Now, there’s no guarantee that any of the Big Four companies WANT to be bought out by the Big Five. Perhaps instead of a buyout, a strategic partnership deal will be inked. But I bet you anything that it’s tempting for the bigger companies to buy their way into the evolving metaverse marketplace, rather than design something from scratch.

I also predict that a LOT of the new virtual world/social VR startups we see popping up are going to fail over the next two years. There’s a lot of virtual-reality-related (and especially blockchain-related) hype taking place, and some people are investing in startups that are risky. Some smaller companies have jumped into grand virtual world-building projects without realizing the sheer magnitude of the work involved in creating a fully-featured, viable metaverse. I’m afraid that some investors are going to get burned.

I also predict that Sinespace and VRChat are going to pull ahead in terms of features, simply because they decided to build on top of the popular Unity game engine, and they can use all the cool Unity development tools that are popping up. By comparison, feature development on Sansar will be slower as they continue work in-house on their own engine.

And finally, I expect that Second Life’s 15th anniversary celebrations will entice some former users to dust off their old accounts and revisit the platform to see what’s new. It may well herald a renaissance for SL! At the very least, it will help stave off a slow decline in SL’s user concurrency figures.

*Sorry, but as I have said before, Facebook Spaces is not a palatable social VR/virtual world product. It can’t even come close to competing against what High Fidelity, Second Life, Sinespace and VRChat are currently doing. But I bet you anything that Facebook has other plans up their sleeve. They can still try to leverage off their 2-billion-plus Facebook network (not to mention 800 million Instagram users) to become a potential major disruptor in the evolving metaverse marketplace. I’m not counting them out yet!

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Jessica Outlaw’s Survey on Virtual Harassment: Half of All Women Surveyed Have Experienced At Least One Instance of Sexual Harassment in Social VR

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Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Jessica Outlaw, whose previous research on women and social VR I talked about previously, has published the results of her latest research: a survey of over 600 people of all genders on their experience with harassment in social VR.

She reports:

Harassment is commonplace in VR. In past qualitative research, I studied sexual harassment of women. In my new project, in partnership with Pluto VR, I surveyed 600+ people who regularly use VR (Rift, Vive, PSVR, or Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality). It turns out that all genders are subject to multiple types of harassment in VR:

49% of women reported having experienced at least one instance of sexual harassment

30% of male respondents reported racist or homophobic comments

20% of males have experienced violent comments or threats

The full report can be viewed here. She summarizes her findings as follows:

  • People want to be with their friends in VR
  • 70% of those who have used multiplayer VR agree that it’s better with people they know
  • People use single-player apps to avoid harassment
  • Many avoid social VR spaces entirely

Thanks to Enrico Speranza who told me about this report!

Social VR: What’s Wrong with Facebook Spaces and vTime

So, what do I consider to be true social VR?

If you do a Google search for the phrase “social VR”, you get websites for the following four products within the very first page of search results:

I have blogged about AltspaceVR and VRChat before on this blog (click on the links to see my blogposts), but I haven’t really talked about Facebook Spaces and vTime before. It’s time to address that, and I’ll explain what I consider to be “true” social VR.

Facebook Spaces 23 Feb 2018

Frankly, I am still rather mystified as to why Facebook released Facebook Spaces. I can only assume that they felt some pressure to release something to market.

What the product currently offers is not terribly impressive. Your avatar is basically locked in place at a round table in a parklike setting, where you can invite other Facebook Spaces users to join you at the table to chat, share photos and videos, draw in midair, go ice-fishing, etc. But there’s not really a lot to do. Now, you could argue that there’s not a lot to do in Sansar, High Fidelity, and Sinespace either, but at least you can move around in a three-dimensional space! You can easily break off into side conversations, for instance. You can explore.

I also have a problem with the cartoony avatars in Facebook Spaces. This was actually a deliberate design decision:

Facebook’s head of social VR, Rachel Franklin, told Business Insider that the decision was down to a phenomenon called the “uncanny valley”.

This is where a robot or avatar looks very like a real human, but not quite. And the effect is so unsettling that it makes you feel ill, or even scared.

“If we go too realistic at this stage, there’s the risk of uncanny valley,” she said. “When it’s almost realistic and just off enough that, instead of paying attention to you and having an experience where I’m talking to you, I’m thinking how [your avatar] doesn’t look like you, and how it’s not quite your mouth.”

Uhh, sorry, Rachel, but I think it’s more distracting that your avatar looks like a bad cartoon. And I’ve never yet met anyone who has felt ill or scared just by how an avatar looks. I’m not buying it. You just decided to go with something quick and dirty to rush a product out the door. Facebook Spaces avatars remind me of the ones in AltspaceVR.

Facebook/Oculus has the potential to become the 900-lb. gorilla or social VR/virtual worlds, leveraging off their already-two-billion-plus installed user base in products like Facebook and Instagram. But with all the money that Facebook has, and with Oculus VR hardware a key part of their company, Facebook Spaces is the best that they could do? Really?!?? Facebook must have something else up their sleeve. I refuse to believe that Facebook Spaces is the only social VR product they have planned.

But the biggest problem I have with Facebook Spaces is that most people using it don’t have anyone else to connect with! For example, I am (with one exception) the only person in my entire social circle who owns a VR headset. So what’s the point of using it at all? You do have the option to video call friends without VR headsets via Facebook Messenger from within Facebook Spaces. But really, who is actually going to do that over using Messenger on your phone? I’m going to go put on my VR headset to call someone on Messenger? I don’t think so.

Like Facebook Spaces, vTime is a social VR app which also locks your avatar in place. You can’t move around at all, you are glued to your seat. However, it does have an advantage over Facebook Spaces in that you can at least select an environment in which you and up to three other avatars can chat, everything from a romantic tropical beach to a rainy Chinatown rooftop.

vTime 23 Feb 2018.png

If you are using vTime, both you and the people you want to chat with have to have the vTime software installed, and you need to have a VR headset (they just announced support for the Windows Mixed Reality headsets). And there’s still not very many people who have the hardware to do this, yet. So they have the same problem as Facebook Spaces. Who do you talk with? Usually, it’s strangers who happen to be logged into vTime at the same time you are.

Now, you might say that all social VR spaces have this problem. But what Sansar, High Fidelity, and VRChat offer is an opportunity to let both VR and desktop (non-VR) users connect, in three-dimensional virtual worlds that you can actually move around in. And that’s what I consider true social VR. What’s the point of using a VR headset and being in an immersive, three-dimensional environment at all, if you’re just going to be locked into one place? 

UPDATE Feb. 24th: Vicky Roberts left a comment and said:

Hi Ryan, vTime is currently available for Gear VR, Rift, Windows Mixed Reality, Google Cardboard, Google Daydream, and for Android and iOS phones in a 2D Magic Window mode – so you don’t need a VR headset at all.