Philip Rosedale Talks About His 30 Years of Experiences with Virtual Worlds and Social VR

Philip Rosedale

Numerous people have posted the following YouTube video to various social media and community forums in the past few days: a classroom presentation by Philip Rosedale at the University of Washington in Seattle on May 21st, 2019, as part of their Reality Lab Lectures series.

Philip is a pioneer and a visionary, and he is an engaging speaker, leading his audience through a history of how he became enamored and involved with virtual worlds and virtual reality, and how he built Second Life, founding Linden Lab in 1999, and then, in 2012, starting his new company High Fidelity. You need to watch this; it’s great! (There are a few minor sound issues with the video.)

In response to a student question, he talks about how High Fidelity is working on an app where you can take a single photo of a person and create a 3D avatar from that (at the 43:30 mark). I love this idea (especially since I happen to live a long way away from the closest Doob full-body scanner!), and I hope that HiFi has not dropped this project in their recent pivot to the remote business teams market.

He also says that they already have a version of High Fidelity that runs on the Oculus Quest (at the 1:00:25 mark), but he’s not sure when they will release it. The company may decide to allow people to sideload the app, which would get around having an official release on the Oculus Store.

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Taking a Look at the Current Academic Research on Social Virtual Reality (Part I of a Series)

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

One of the things I most enjoy about being an academic librarian is having access to all the research databases to which my university subscribes—and the know-how to search them effectively and efficiently! Every so often I like to do a deep-dive into the research to see what’s new in the world of virtual worlds and virtual reality.

In this blogpost, I wish to highlight some recent academic work which looks at the rapidly evolving world of commercial social VR. This is the first of what I expect will be a series on social VR research.

A trio of researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz (Dr. Katherine Isbister, Professor in Computational Media at the Jack Baskin School of Engineering; her Ph.D. student Anya Kolesnichenko; and post-doc Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, who recently left UCSC and accepted a professorship at San Francisco State University) have been publishing a number of research papers at various computer conferences on social virtual reality. Here are citations to three of their papers, which you can obtain from your local academic or public library:

McVeigh-Schultz, J., Márquez Segura, E., Merrill, N., & Isbister, K. (2018). What’s It Mean to “Be Social” in VR?: Mapping the Social VR Design Ecology. In DIS ’18 Companion: Proceedings of the 2018 ACM Conference Companion Publication on Designing Interactive Systems (pp. 289–294). https://doi.org/10.1145/3197391.3205451

McVeigh-Schultz, J., Kolesnichenko, A., & Isbister, K. (2019). Shaping Pro-Social Interaction in VR: An Emerging Design Framework. In CHI ’19: Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300794

Kolesnichenko, A., Mcveigh-Schultz, J., & Isbister, K. (2019). Understanding Emerging Design Practices for Avatar Systems in the Commercial Social VR Ecology. In DIS ’19 Proceedings of the 2019 on Designing Interactive Systems Conference (pp. 241–252). https://doi.org/10.1145/3322276.3322352

In addition to these papers, which I strongly urge platform developers, as well as anybody who is interested in social VR, to obtain and read, Dr. Isbister and Dr. McVeigh-Schultz have given presentations which you can access on YouTube. The following is a presentation made this past March by Joshua McVeigh-Schultz at the 2019 Virtual Reality Developers Conference (part of the Game Developers Conference):

And the second is a presentation by both Dr. Isbister and Dr. McVeigh-Schultz given at the Mozilla Emerging Technology Speaker Series (the Mozilla Foundation supported some of their research with a grant).

Using a method of design-oriented autobiographical landscape research to examine existing commercial social VR platforms, the researchers attempted to identify key issues and concerns for future social VR design, and areas for possible future research. In-depth interviews were conducted with designers, developers, and other experts involved in the creation of social VR applications such as Rec Room, AltspaceVR, Facebook Spaces, VRChat, Mozilla Hubs, Anyland, and High Fidelity.

One interesting finding: the researchers discovered a clear design distinction between large open platforms where one was likely to encounter strangers (Rec Room, VRChat, High Fidelity, etc.) and non-open platforms where you connected mostly with people you already knew (Mozilla Hubs, Facebook Spaces):

Especially among the large open platforms where a user is likely to encounter strangers, we found convergence around broad design themes involving the role of place and space, community engagement, moderation, social catalysts and activity structures, social mechanics of friending/muting/blocking etc., and other embodied affordances including a range of communication modalities. However, we also observed fairly substantial divergence in terms of particular mechanics underlying these broad design areas. Furthermore, for non-open-world platforms such as Facebook Spaces and Mozilla Hubs, we noted less focus on supporting safety and security, and more investment in design goals associated with: supporting device interoperability, empowering a range of participation modalities, and bridging social encounters in VR with the outside world.

—McVeigh-Schultz, J. Shaping Pro-Social Interaction in VR

What’s exciting to me is that these people are conducting research in the exact same area where my own interests lie! (I’ve found my kind of people!!!) And since I have decided to suspend my previous VR research project for being much too broad and overambitious, discovering this published work gives me some much-needed food for thought on possible future research projects which I could decide to pursue at my university.

Addressing the Elephant in the Room: Social VR Sustainability

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

I have been enjoying my self-imposed vacation from the blog. It’s given me an opportunity to step back, enjoy the all-too-brief Canadian summer, and reflect a little bit. I’m going to start easing back into blogging over the next week. There’s certainly no shortage of things to write about!

Yesterday, Gindipple shared his most recent compilation of Sansar user concurrency statistics, and while they do show a slight increase in the average number of users over time, it’s clear that users have not exactly rushed to embrace Sansar in the way that Linden Lab has been hoping:

Inara Pey has done her usual excellent job of summarizing last week’s Sansar Product Meeting, and she shares the following item from the discussion:

It’s now almost two years since Sansar opened its doors to the public, and general user concurrency is still only in or around the mid-20s level. This has raised questions of Sansar’s sustainability, and whether the Lab have set any goals for the platform that need to be achieved in order for it to be continued, etc.

Landon McDowell, the Lab’s Chief Product Officer, and the person most directly in charge of Sansar’s development, responded thus to one of these questions:

I am not going to put any date on the board. I think we’re taking this day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, release-by-release, and we want to see what is happening and what is resonating and what isn’t … I believe steadfastly in the future of virtual worlds, that what we’re doing here is really important … Are we happy with the result? I’m not happy with the result; I would want a million people in here today, and we’re obviously not there.

But in terms of sustainability, I think we know what our limits are, and we are proceeding accordingly. If we have 50 people in here in a year then yeah, I’m going to be really massively disappointed. I think everybody here is working hard to make this an absolutely monumental success … I feel that everyone that’s here is here because they’re digging something about what we’re doing, and I want that to spread like wildfire quite frankly. So we definitely have hopes and ambitions.

But again, I’m not going to put a dot on the board of, “this date and this time, this number of users”. I think we want many more users in, and we want them relatively quickly, and we go from there.

While it is good news that Linden Lab appears to have no internal make-or-break date for Sansar, the fact remains that the company is putting time and money into a platform that, so far, is not attracting a lot of use.

The elephant in the room of social VR, not just for Linden Lab but for all companies in this marketplace, is sustainability. Many companies are pouring resources into various social VR platforms, in hopes that they will be able to relight the same spark that ignited over a decade ago with Second Life. Most projects have not had a great deal of success yet. The few social VR platforms which have attracted some attention to date (VRChat and Rec Room) face a daunting transition to an in-world economy, plus a slew of technical problems trying to shoehorn their experiences into wireless VR headsets like the new Oculus Quest in order to reach the broadest possible potential audience. Add to that rumours that Facebook is reportedly working on a major social VR initiative for all its Oculus VR hardware users, which will likely upend the current marketplace. The road ahead is rocky indeed.

Given the significant compromises that have had to be made to VRChat in order to get it to run at all on the Quest, and the rather disappointing results, it seems Linden Lab’s decision to not support an Oculus Quest version of Sansar is a wise one. Inara reports:

Oculus Quest support:  As has been previously indicated, this is not currently on the cards. The Quest processor and general capabilities are seen as being unable to handle to quality of content LL want to provide without massive amounts of auto-decimation, which can be problematic. However, as the capabilities of emerging VR systems continues to improve and Sansar improves in terms of performance limits, the hope is that the two will converge at some point in the future.

And that convergence may come sooner than you think. It is interesting to note that at least one eager early adopter has reported that he is able to use the PC streaming app ALVR to play Sansar on the Oculus Quest. (“PC streaming” refers to the use of sideloaded Quest apps to enable your desktop computer to stream VR games directly to your Quest. You’ll have to sideload the app onto your Quest, and then install a coordinating PC program before you can start playing. These programs, such as ALVR and VRidge, are new, highly experimental, and currently require a certain level of geek skills to set up and use. But they will no doubt become easier to use over time.)

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

However, as Landon McDowell says, I’m still a fervent believer in the future of virtual worlds. I still believe it’s a question of when and where, not if, social VR takes off and virtual worlds have a renaissance. High Fidelity’s recent pivot towards business users is just one example of a social VR company adjusting its sails to meet evolving conditions. Expect more such shifts as the market grows and changes.

Stay tuned! As I often say, things are getting interesting!

Facebook Doesn’t Have a Coherent Social VR Strategy—But They’re Working on Something Big

Ben Lang of the Road to VR website doesn’t mince words in an article titled Facebook Has Four Separate Social VR Apps, and None of Them Are on Quest:

Facebook’s fragmented approach to social VR hasn’t gotten any better with the launch of Quest. The company now has four separate social VR apps, and none of them are currently available on its newest headset.

With Oculus, Facebook has aimed to build the premiere VR ecosystem, but when it comes to allowing users of the company’s different headsets—Go, Quest, and Rift—to actually interact with one another, it has completely dropped the ball.

And, as I blogged about earlier, Oculus Quest users do not have access to any Facebook-branded social VR platforms: no Facebook Spaces, no Oculus Home, no Oculus Rooms, no Oculus Venues. Facebook has basically left social VR to third-party vendors like VRChat and Rec Room, both of which will probably see a jump in user concurrency figures with the launch of the Oculus Quest headset, which I predict will prove very popular with consumers.

Adi Roberston, a senior reporter for The Verge, posted a tweet about Ben Lang’s article, which led to a very interesting response from Infinite Retina, who apparently has heard some industry gossip and is willing to spill some tea:

Infinite Retina said:

We hear Facebook is working on a major VR initiative that will come out in next 15 months. Code named “Metaverse.” They ended Facebook Spaces to get the programmers to work on this new thing.

My first response to this tweet was “Hallelujah! They’re killing Facebook Spaces!“. (My second response was “Holy shit!“.)

As I have said before, Facebook has the potential to be a major disruptive force in social VR, if they could only get their act together. And it sounds as if that is exactly what they are planning to do. All the current players in social VR had better be paying attention, and planning accordingly. They have only a small window to make an impact with their products before Facebook launches their “Metaverse” product, and when they do, it’s gonna be pretty much the only thing that the news media will be talking about (if the oceans of fawning press coverage over every stupid little upgrade to Facebook Spaces is any indication). And Facebook has very deep pockets for things like programmer salaries and advertising budgets.

Fasten your seatbelts! Things are gonna get really interesting!