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!

Editorial: Upon Reflection…

Taking a much-needed break from blogging has given me an opportunity to reflect a bit on my journey over the past three years, and ponder where I might go from here.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Frankly, I never expected to become a journalist covering the ever-evolving metaverse, with a growing audience; this blog started off as a tiny little niche blog, where I wrote about my (mis)adventures and explorations in Sansar. And everything that happened after that—writing about more and more social VR platforms, hosting the Metaverse Newscast show, focusing on freebies in my beloved Second Life—just kind of happened organically. I didn’t have any sort of plan; I just made choices along the way that led to this point.

But for me, the seeds for this journey were first planted in Second Life 14 years ago, which since its earliest days has been this strange and marvelous phoenix that keeps rising from the ashes, again and again, confounding and bewildering many casual observers who continue to predict (wrongly) its failure. Even a cursory glance at the official Second Life Community News feed (curated by the highly capable Strawberry Linden) reveals the absolute torrent of creativity that the platform has provided to so many people. Second Life is not going anywhere, honey.

Source: My Dark Fantasy

SL is a fully-evolved, vibrant, mature virtual world which has become the model which other metaverse companies have spent countless programming hours and (in some cases) millions of dollars to try and recreate, with varying degrees of success.

I think that the ones that have been the most successful (so far) are NeosVR, ENGAGE, AltspaceVR, VRChat, Rec Room and, somewhat to my surprise, three blockchain-based worlds: Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space. And there are many other platforms slowly but surely building up their business, taking advantage of the unexpected opportunities presented by the coronavirus pandemic (one example is Sinespace, a company which is patiently and cannily playing the long game, and which is extremely well-poised to snatch Second Life’s mantle, if and when it is ever dropped).


And, during my break, I have been also thinking a lot about Facebook/Oculus and their impact on virtual reality in general, and social VR in particular. I have decided that, despite my new, personal boycott of Facebook products and services, I will continue to write about their upcoming social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, as it launches in public beta, probably before the end of this year.

I, like many other people, now absolutely refuse to have a Facebook account as a matter of moral principle. In August of 2019 I wrote (and yes, it bears repeating at length here):

In this evolving metaverse of social VR and virtual worlds, is too much power concentrated in the hands of a single, monolithic, profit-obsessed company? I would argue that Facebook is aiming for complete and utter domination of the VR universe, just as they already have in the social networking space, by creating a walled ecosystem…that will have a negative impact on other companies trying to create and market VR apps and experiences. The field is already tilted too much in Facebook’s favour, and the situation could get worse.

More concerning to me is that, at some point, I may be forced to get an account on the Facebook social network to use apps on my Oculus VR hardware. In fact, this has already happened with the events app Oculus Venues, which I recently discovered requires you to have an account on the Facebook social network to access.

Sorry, but after all the Facebook privacy scandals of the past couple of years, that’s a big, fat “Nope!” from me. I asked Facebook to delete its 13 years of user data on me, and I quit the social network in protest as my New Year’s resolution last December, and I am never coming back. And I am quite sure that many of Facebook’s original users feel exactly the same way, scaling back on their use of the platform or, like me, opting out completely. I regret I ever started using Facebook thirteen years ago, and that experience will inform my use (and avoidance) of other social networks in the future.

Yes, I do know that I have to have an Oculus account to be able to use my Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest VR headsets, and that Facebook is collecting data on that. I also know that the Facebook social network probably has a “shadow account” on me based on things such as images uploaded to the social network and tagged with my name by friends and family, etc., but I am going to assume that Facebook has indeed done what I have asked and removed my data from their social network. Frankly, there is no way for me to actually VERIFY this, as consumers in Canada and the U.S. have zero rights over the data companies like Facebook collects about them, as was vividly brought to life by Dr. David Carroll, whose dogged search for answers to how his personal data was misused in the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a focal role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (which I highly recommend you watch).

We’ve already seen how social networks such as Facebook have contributed negatively to society by contributing to the polarization and radicalization of people’s political opinions, and giving a platform to groups such as white supremacists and anti-vaxersThe Great Hack details how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data without user knowledge or consent to swing the most recent U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favour, and look at the f***ing mess the world is in now just because of that one single, pivotal event.

We can’t trust that Facebook is going to act in any interests other than its own profit. Facebook has way too much power, and governments around the world need to act in the best interests of their citizens in demanding that the company be regulated, even broken up if necessary.

Of course, Facebook is well within its corporate rights to insist that, henceforth, Oculus Go, Quest, and Rift users have to use Facebook accounts. Just as I am well within my rights to avoid providing another smidgen of personal data for Facebook to strip-mine for profit. It will be very interesting to see how more the consumer-privacy-oriented First World countries (such as Canada, and those countries within the European Union) will respond to the Facebook juggernaut.

I also have absolutely zero doubt that Facebook will continue to use every single lawyer, lobbyist, tool and tactic at its disposal to fight to maintain its market dominance, even as the Facebook social network continues to foster divisiveness, bleed users and lose advertisers. Believe me, Facebook would not have taken the unprecedented step of forcing Oculus device users to set up Facebook accounts if they weren’t afraid of losing the younger generations of users who have, thus far, resisted joining the social network their parents and grandparents belong to. (Of course, most of them are already on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.)

It is relatively easy to bypass the tethered Oculus Rift VR headset and its associated Oculus Store ecosystem with competing PCVR products and services (such as the Vive headsets, the Valve Index and Steam). However, it is difficult—frankly impossible at present—to find a non-Facebook alternative to the standalone Oculus Quest VR headset. I have no doubt that the market will throw up a few capable competitors to the Quest over time, but Facebook has built up a huge lead, and it will be very difficult to unseat from its dominance in that particular market segment.


So, as you can see, I have been doing quite a bit of thinking while I have hit the pause button on this blog. I will continue to spend the rest of my summer on my self-imposed vacation from this blog, and no doubt I will have other thoughts, insights and opinions to share with you when I return, hopefully feeling more refreshed.

I feel that with this blog, after a few stumbles and setbacks, I have finally found my voice, and you will continue to hear it over the next three years, and probably far beyond that! Enjoy the rest of your summer! I will be back in September.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

How VRChat, Somnium Space, and Other Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds Are Adjusting to the Coronavirus Pandemic

A number of social VR platforms and virtual worlds are responding to the continuing global public health crisis that is the coronavirus pandemic, offering their platforms as a way for people to safely gather while they are under quarantine, or practicing social distancing.

For example, Somnium Space has announced that they will host a daily meetup in-world at 3:00 pm PST/6:00 p.m. EST/23:00 CET:

Also, VRChat has just published a brand new guide, titled Stuck Inside? A Quick Guide for using VRChat to Stay Connected:

This very handy guide gives step-by-step instructions for those new to VRChat, and even gives a few suggestions of worlds to explore. (Remember, you do not need a VR headset to enjoy VRChat.)

And (of course), there are many other social VR platforms and virtual worlds that you can also use to gather with other people and make new friends online. Sansar is still up and running, and of course Second Life is still as popular as ever!

In fact, just an hour ago, Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg said:

We are seeing an increase in new registrations and returning residents during this outbreak. Please be kind and welcoming to those who may just need a friendly conversation to escape from this crazy world for a moment or more. If you have a friend or colleague who is looking for a safe place to socialize online during these tough times, we encourage you to help them discover how Second Life can enable them to feel less isolated by connecting them to your favorite communities or experiences.

My personal experience has been that spending time with others in a virtual world, or on a social VR platform, feels just the same to your brain as if you were having a conversation with a real-life friend in a real-life location. So please remember to turn to the metaverse if your social distancing strategy is leaving you feeling a little lonely and isolated during the coronavirus pandemic.

Come online. Reach out. We’re here.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

Somnium Space Version 2.0: A First Look

Early this morning, I was finally able to stroll around version 2.0 of the blockchain-based social VR platform, Somnium Space. The company has dropped a new, 1-1/2 minute trailer to promote the official launch of version 2.0:

I’m going to break down my first impressions into several sections.

Downloading Version 2.0

You can download the client from Steam or directly from their website. The installation process involves downloading and installing a small launcher program, which then downloads the full client, which is about 3.5GB in size.

As I reported yesterday, I encountered some problems downloading the full client from the Somnium Space servers. The server went down several times yesterday and last night, and had to be reset. Also, I was getting a download speed of only 1 MB per second on average:

I ran Speedtest to check my bandwidth while downloading the client, and as you can see, I had plenty of bandwidth to spare, so the problem lay with their servers, and not with my computer:

Several times the launcher program hung, and had to be restarted. I’m not sure if the problems were because so many people were trying to download the client on the first day, but it was rather annoying. I landed up spending from about noon yesterday until 3:00 a.m. this morning, off and on, trying to download version 2.0 of the client! Let’s hope that these were just opening day technical glitches.

Two Clients: VR and PC

Once completely downloaded, you use the launcher to start the program, which automatically checks for any software updates before taking you to the main screen. There are actually two clients: one VR (3D) and one flatscreen (PC/2D), and they are used for different purposes.

The flatscreen client is used to select your avatar and to build on land you have purchased (like Second Life, there is an extensive array of in-world building tools; see the video at the end of this blogpost).

The VR client is the main Somnium Space client, which you use to navigate the social VR platform. Somnium Space works with any PCVR headset (i.e. a VR headset that requires a higher-end computer with a good graphics card), including Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. It also works with Oculus Quest and Oculus Link.

Please note that there will not be a desktop (non-VR) client for Somnium Space until next week at the earliest. The company decided to focus on VR users first. If you don’t have PCVR, then you are out of luck at present.

The Version 2.0 Avatars

One of the biggest changes in version 2.0 of Somnium Space are the avatars, which are now complete, full-body avatars instead of the head-and-shoulders ones in version 2.0.

The starting set of default avatars is stylized and functional, but they are rather blocky-looking, and they are certainly not going to win any beauty contests.

You actually select your avatar using the flatscreen (2D) version of the client, instead of the VR (3D) version:

At present, you cannot change any aspect of these avatars, such as the hairstyle or colour, or the clothing. Artur Sychov, the CEO of Somnium Space, tells me that they are planning to release UnitySDK next week so that people can build their own custom avatars, so I am looking forward to seeing what people create!

A Wonderful Sense of Space

A “drone view” of Somnium Space at night; the glowing green borders indicate the boundaries of virtual land where nobody has built anything yet (picture courtesy of Artur Sychov, Somnium Space)

Somnium Space is among the first social VR platforms where you really do get a sense of the vast scale of the landscape. The platform is designed to be one contiguous landmass, instead of individual worlds. I have been told that there will be charge for teleporting (or perhaps, teleporting after watching an advertisement), to encourage users to walk around. And yes, you can hike all the way into the misty mountains you can see in the horizon!

The in-world camera tool on the user interface tablet isn’t functional yet, but I was able to take a few screenshots using SnagIt while in my Oculus Rift this morning. There is a pleasant central town that boasts a lighthouse, a seaside café, a shopping mall, a bowling alley, and a planetarium, among other attractions.

Dotted here and there on the gently undulating landscape outside this town are the first buildings, including some interesting and innovative constructions. The whole world has a sense of a festival being set up.

While the central town and the landscape remain in 3D, the user-built buildings load in stages as you approach them, in a sensible effort to lessen the load on the client.

Final Thoughts and Impressions

Artur Sychov and his team at Somnium Space are to be commended for pushing the envelope as to what is possible in a blockchain-based social VR platform.

While Decentraland and Cryptovoxels are currently more popular in terms of transaction volume on OpenSea, the former doesn’t support virtual reality at all, and the latter is restricted to voxel-based building. I suspect that once people begin to compare all three platforms feature-for-feature, they will begin to see the benefits of the more realistic-looking, more attractive in-world experience offered by Somnium Space, and they will choose to invest.

Opening-day glitches aside, this is an extremely promising start, and I look forward to seeing how Somnium Space develops over time!


If you want more information about Somnium Space, you can visit their website, or follow them on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join their official Discord server.