Editorial: How Much Freedom Does Blockchain Really Convey? Artur Sychov Talks About Somnium Space 2.0

The VR news website VR Focus did a good profile on Somnium Space co-founder and CEO Artur Sychov at the recent Gamescom 2019 conference in Cologne, Germany, where he talked about the upcoming Somnium Space 2.0 update and shared a few shots of what it looks like:

As I have mentioned before, Somnium Space is planning to integrate blockchain as part of their social platform, stating on their website:

In the VR Focus video, Artur describes what he sees as some of the benefits of blockchain:

As I said, there are two ways you can do it: either we have a centralized approach like any other game in the world including Second Life, which has 500 million dollars revenue per year, or we do it decentralized. And centralized means, as a company, we hold all the information about all your items, all your belongings, on our servers. The only problem is, for the player… if there is anything happening, so you work hard for years and you earn some items and money inside the game and you own avatars and everything, but once you get banned for any reason… your items are gone. You are not in control of your belongings. On the other hand, a decentralized economy, a blockchain economy, allows you to own those items on the token and we as the company have no way how to influence that. For example, you own an avatar, it’s on a blockchain token, you can go and sell it on the open market and if we decide to ban you… you can still go and sell your avatar on the free market, and we have no influence over that, so we cannot stop you to do so and that’s the power of the blockchain. We have decoupled the economy from Somnium as an operating company, and we give this power back to the users.

Now, this all sounds wonderful, but I do wonder if Somnium Space is going to run into some serious technical issues when they try to implement this truly decentralized plan. Decentraland is an example of a blockchain-based virtual world that promised a decentralized implementation, a promise on which it has not yet delivered. Saying that you own something like virtual land on the blockchain is one thing, but if the servers providing access to your land are centralized (as Decentraland’s servers are right now), that proof of ownership is meaningless if they decide to shut the service down at some point in the future. And the same thing applies to Somnium Space.

But that’s not the only concern I have. In this video, Artur says that blockchain could be used as a way to evade a ban from the company, citing the example that a blockchain-based avatar could still be sold on the free market, outside the control of Somnium Space.

Let’s examine this idea more carefully. Since this was filmed during a conference in Germany, let’s say you create an avatar that breaks Germany’s strict laws banning denial of the Holocaust. (For example, an avatar holding a large picket sign claiming that the genocide of 6 million European Jews, as well as millions of others, including gypsies and homosexuals, never actually happened.)

First, are you claiming that avatar representation on your platform will be completely decentralized, that is, distributed over multiple servers worldwide over which the company has zero control? The technical implementation issues would be enormous, I would think. I can’t think of a single social VR platform or virtual world that has been able to do this (and if I am wrong, somebody please correct me).

And second, what happens if the German government knocks on Somnium Space’s door and insists that the Holocaust-denying avatar be completely banned from Somnium Space accessed from German computers, in accordance with their law? Facebook is just one example of a company that has fallen afoul of German Holocaust denial laws.

Or let’s look at this with a different example. What if your avatar were a sexually explicit one, being used for child pornography purposes? I think you will agree with me that any social VR platform which gives such complete, unfettered freedom to avatar creators is going to run into many serious legal problems from a variety of jurisdictions around the world.

All being on the blockchain means is that you can prove you own something. Period. It doesn’t confer the freedom to do whatever you want, possibly running afoul of corporate policy and global laws. And I would be cautious of any company that makes these kinds of promises, especially in these wearying days of relentless blockchain hyperbole. There’s lots of breezy talk in the cryptocurrency and blockchain community about concepts such as “decentralization” and “ownership” and “freedom”, without a lot of serious thinking about the consequences if such a vision were to be fully implemented. We need to have those discussions, too.

I look forward to exploring Somnium Space 2.0 when it comes out. The early teaser shots look wonderful, and I think that moving to full-body avatars is a great idea. There’s lots of good ideas in Somnium Space, but I am a little concerned (and a little skeptical) about some of the blockchain-related promises being made in this video. Sorry, Artur! Please don’t take this personally. You know I will point out potentially problematic issues on this blog when I run across them, and Somnium Space is not the only blockchain-based virtual world I have criticized. You will remember that I also gave you a hard time with that whole “eternal life” promise you made last year. You just need to reign back on the promises a bit, until the technology catches up 😉

So, what do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment below or, as always, you are welcome to join the freewheeling conversations and debates about social VR and virtual worlds taking place on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the first cross-worlds discussion forum!


Thanks to Artur Sychov for the heads up on the video!

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Which Social VR Platform Has Been the Most Successful at Raising Money?

Image by Capri23auto from Pixabay

There’s been a very interesting discussion taking place today on the RyanSchultz Discord server. One of the regular contributors to the many conversations that take place there, Michael Zhang, pulled together the following information from Crunchbase:

Today I Learned: Building social VR, MMOs, and virtual worlds are a lot more expensive than I imagined!

From Crunchbase:

-High Fidelity raised $72.9 million over five rounds and is struggling with their recent pivot to enterprise.
-Rec Room raised $29 million over two rounds, $24 million only recently, so they lived off of $5 million for several years.
-Altspace raised $15.7 million over three rounds, went bankrupt and shut down, then revived when bought by Microsoft.
-Bigscreen raised $14 million over two rounds.
-TheWaveVR raised $12.5 million over three rounds.
-vTime raised $7.6 million over one round.
-VRChat raised $5.2 million over two rounds.
-JanusVR raised $1.6 million over two rounds.
-Somnium Space raised $1 million over two rounds.

In comparison:

-Epic Games raised $1.6 billion over two rounds, $1.25 billion coming after Fortnite.
-Mojang’s Minecraft launched in 2003, started making profits in 2007, earned $237.7 million in revenue by 2012, and sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion. (Wikipedia)
-Roblox raised $187.5 million over seven rounds.
-Linden Lab’s Second Life raised $19 million over two rounds.

Then, another contributor named Jin put together this graph to illustrate how successful the various social VR platforms have been in raising venture capital (please click on this picture to see it in full size on Flickr, or just click here). As you can see, High Fidelity is far and away the leader in raising money!

Social VR Platforms Raising Money

(In comparison, Decentraland raised 24 million dollars in their initial coin offering. Jin also made a second chart including Decentraland, but I have not included it here because, unlike the other platforms, it does not currently support VR, and it is unlikely to do so anytime in the near future.)

Thank you to Michael Zhang and to Jin for their work!

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). 

UPDATED! Adventures in VR: Oculus Home, Somnium Space, Sinespace

This morning I decided to spend a little time in my Oculus Rift visiting three social VR platforms that I have not spent a lot of time in recently: Oculus Home, Somnium Space, and Sinespace.

Oculus Home

I was genuinely curious about Oculus Home after David Hall posted his video to YouTube, so I made sure to spend some time exploring it and learning about its new features. Basically, you can design your own home (even import your own content now), create multiple homes, and visit other people’s homes. You can set any of your homes to private, friends only, or public.

The software is still a little bit buggy. Multiple times I tried to favourite other people’s homes which I liked and wanted to be able revisit later, but it would not save my choices. Moving around is a bit cumbersome at first, but you can change the default teleport to walk and the default snap turning to smooth turning, so once I was able to fiddle with the settings a bit I felt a little more comfortable. I also encountered a few sticking points in the tutorials, which also could use a bit of tweaking.

Another problem is finding places to explore. There is a Recommended list of homes under Places in the pop-up menu, but it’s rather short (perhaps not many people have set their homes to public yet). Oculus Home is not really set up yet to allow you to easily browse other people’s experiences as you already can in Sansar with the Sansar Atlas, which is sortable in various ways (most popular, recently created, etc.).

And, in what I call “the VRChat/Rec Room problem”, there appear to be a lot of children and immature adults on the platform. Yes, there is asshattery, tomfoolery, and trolling already! It’s hardly surprising, really. After all, anyone who owns an Oculus Rift VR headset has access to Oculus Home.

However, I cannot deny that the experiences I visited were beautifully rendered, especially at the highest graphics settings in the options. I am eager to see where Facebook/Oculus takes this.

Somnium Space

I always have the same problem whenecer I try to start Somnium Space: I can’t remember the automatically-generated password! So I had to go through the whole rigamarole of resetting my password. This time I made sure to check the “remember password” option!

Unlike most other social VR platforms, Somnium Space appears to be one large landmass (mostly empty at this point). There’s a few places to explore, like a seaside town, a working bowling alley, and a shopping mall, but not a lot else yet.

There’s a very handy snapshot feature in Somnium Space which I used to take some in-world photos, but unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you what directory it is saving them to on your hard drive! After hunting around fruitlessly for fifteen minutes, I simply gave up.

There are also teleporters which tell you that can actually use them to teleport from Somnium Space to High Fidelity, JanusVR, and AltspaceVR, but they don’t work. Or at least, I couldn’t figure out how to work them. I gave up on that too.

Somnium Space really could use someone to provide better user documentation of features like the camera and the teleporters. Other than that, they’re off to a promising start, having raised over US$60,000 in their recent IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign.

Also, I decided today to set up a new category on my blog just for Somnium Space.

Sinespace

When I first tried Sinespace in VR last May, it was seriously buggy. I am sorry to report that the situation has not improved any. To enable VR mode in Sinespace, you have to download a special beta OpenVR client, install it, open it, make sure you enable OpenVR in the user settings and then restart the client software. (A bit fussy, in my opinion, compared to the seamless switching between desktop mode and VR mode in competing platforms like Sansar and High Fidelity.)

I found the level of jitteriness to be so severe that I had to take off my VR headset after only a couple of minutes before I got sick. In addition to that, whenever I teleported anywhere, I landed up facing the opposite direction from where I started. The user interface menus are positioned too close to your eyes. At one point, I was looking at the backside of the Explore menu! I could go on, but you get the idea: this is simply not ready for prime time yet. I was actually very disappointed.

UPDATE 9:03 p.m.: Well, I asked on the official Somnium Space Discord server, and someone told me where to find the snaphots I had taken (they were saved to the C:/Users/[username]/Documents/Somnium Space/Tablet Camera folder):

My avatar in Somnium Space
The teleporter I couldn’t get to work 🙁