The Unreal-Based Social VR Platform Helios Launches in Early Access on Steam

I decided it was time to pay a return visit to the social VR platform called Helios, created by SubLight Games. The game is now available via Steam for US$9.99 under their Early Access program, for tethered PCVR headesets such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Valve Index, and the company recently announced via Twitter:

Helios is now available for Early Access purchase for all who wish to join our little Social VR revolution! Everything made through Early Access purchases will go towards making Helios a viable and robust alternative to what is currently on the market!

Helios is unlike most other social VR platforms on the marketplace, in that it is based on the Unreal game engine (most other social VR platforms use Unity). It is also interesting in that it has attracted a significant number of former Sansar users—in some cases, even porting entire worlds from Sansar over to Helios! I think the attraction for former Sansar users is the way that Helios is catering to world builders, in a way that is similar to the early days of Sansar.

I immediately recognized C3rb3rus’ 2077 sci-fi world, which was ported over from Sansar to Helios!

The platform definitely is a creator-centered space, with a small but passionate community of geeks who want to see what they can do, even perhaps push a few boundaries! Here, a group decided to stress-test a free world downloaded from the Unreal Store by dropping hundreds of cheese wheels!

Cheese wheels!
An aerial view of the cheese wheel testing

The Community section on the Helios Steam page offers up some examples of worlds that have been created:

Here’s an early access trailer, showing you some of the features of the platform. I was particularly surprised at the modular avatar support (i.e. dressable avatars)!

For further information about Helios, you can visit their website, join their Discord, or follow them on social media: Twitter and YouTube. SubLight Games also has a Patreon; if you feel like throwing some coin their way, I’m sure they’d appreciate it!

My Journey from Oculus Rift to Valve Index: Buh-Bye, Facebook!

My journey from Oculus Rift to Valve Index started on August 18th, 2020 when I first placed my order for a complete Valve Index VR kit:

Today, I put my money where my mouth is. I went and placed an online order for the complete Valve Index VR Kit. I am told that it will take eight or more weeks to get to me, because of coronavirus-related delays in production. That’s fine. I can wait. And I’m not going anywhere.

I will be boycotting Facebook hardware and software from this point forward. It’s time for me to kick the Facebook habit, once and for all.

Well, after waiting almost three months (due to manufacturing and shipping delays caused by the pandemic), I was able to confirm the purchase of the Valve Index Kit on my credit card today, and now the shipping process begins! I am so excited!

This is not going to be cheap. The total cost, including import fees, comes to CDN$1,477 (which, according to today’s exchange rates, works out to about US$1,131).

It’s expensive, but I can afford it, and I am leaving Facebook (and Oculus) behind for good. My trusty Oculus Rift has served me well for almost four years now, through many memorable adventures and experiences, and I have certainly gotten my money’s worth from it, but I absolutely refuse to set up a new Facebook account in order to use it. (I won’t sell it, because the headset is so worn; I’ll just box it up and keep it in case anything goes wrong with the Valve Index.)

As for my original version Oculus Quest, I must confess that I haven’t touched it in at least eight months. The empty space I had cleared in my bedroom in order to use it is currently piled high with rice, canned soup and beans, Clorox wipes, toilet paper, face masks, surgical gloves, and various other pandemic preparations. (I have already decided to donate my Quest to my sister-in-law’s workplace, where she is part of a team of people who work with developmentally challenged adults. They can put it to good use. I still need to Google to find out exactly how best to wipe all my personal account information and purchased apps off my Quest before I mail it to her.)

The good news is that I haven’t spent a lot of money on games on the Oculus Store, for either my Rift or my Quest (most of what I do in VR is social VR, almost all of which is free to download), so I won’t lose much money there. And, of course, any purchases I made on social VR platforms like Sansar is tied to my Sansar account, and not to Facebook/Oculus. From now on, I will be dealing either with Steam, or downloading software directly from the company’s website.

Buh-bye, Facebook/Oculus! Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out. I am going to enjoy uninstalling the Oculus software from my personal computer.

I just paid almost $1,500 just to be able to say this: fuck you, Mark Zuckerberg.

And, once my new Valve Index arrives, I have decided to completely redecorate my living room to convert it into a room-scale VR space. This means I have to throw out some furniture, including my ancient, ratty old sofa and busted, cathode-ray-tube TV set (which died on me at the start of the pandemic). I have zero plans to purchase a new television set; I never watch broadcast TV anymore, and I do not miss it. I can get all the video content I need from streaming services like Netflix.

I currently have four large bookshelves in my living room loaded with books I no longer read or want, so I will be taking them to the nearest dumpster (I would have donated them to the Children’s Hospital Book Market, but that event has been cancelled and they are asking people not to drop off books at local fire halls.) As a librarian, I am really rather surprised at just how easily I can part with paper books these days; I used to be a book packrat who scoured used book sales like the Children’s Hospital Book Market. I also practiced a lot of what the Japanese call tsundoku: buying books but never getting around to reading them!

I will be creating a new category on my blog, called Valve Index (this blogpost will be the first one put into that category). Wish me luck as I embark on a new adventure!

The Valve Index kit I ordered

Editorial: Facebook and Oculus Have Too Much Power Over Virtual Reality and the Metaverse

Facebook already has amply demonstrated how little they value the privacy and data rights of its users, in a succession of scandals uncovered by the New York Times and many other news media over the past couple of years (image from Forbes).

Facebook has the resources to capably crush competitors. Strip-mining the data of the estimated 2.7 billion people worldwide who use Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, or Messenger each month has been extremely lucrative for the company. (The five billion dollar fine the U.S. FTC recently levied against Facebook for their privacy lapses was a mere slap on the wrist, given the income the company generates each year from advertising. Mark Zuckerberg probably found the money from his couch cushions.)

I have already written about industry gossip that Facebook is plowing resources into creating a metaverse platform for all its Oculus VR hardware users. I willing to bet, dollars to doughnuts, that the Facebook metaverse is going to look a lot like Oculus Home, which is the where you are deposited when you first put on your headset. You can now visit other people’s homes, and recent updates include the ability for users to create their own spaces by uploading their own 3D models.

Some Examples of Oculus Home Interiors

Even better, Facebook gives you free furniture every week you sign into Oculus Home at least once, which you can use to decorate your space. It’s not hard to see how this can compete with social VR platforms like Sansar and virtual worlds like Second Life. And Facebook has deep pockets to fund advertising campaigns that companies like Linden Lab cannot ever hope to match.

And, of course, there is the complete line of Oculus VR hardware, including the popular new wireless Oculus Quest headset, which Mark Zuckerberg recently reported is selling as fast as Facebook can make them.

Which leads to the point of this editorial: 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 with the Oculus Home and the Oculus Store 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.

Now, you can argue that Facebook has competition from other VR headsets such as the HTC Vive line of products and the Valve Index. And the Steam software distribution platform is an alternative to the Oculus Store. I understand that my purchased programs from the Oculus Store can still be played on an HTC Vive or Valve Index with the Revive software, which is somewhat reassuring to me (although I suppose there is nothing really stopping Facebook if they choose to block that avenue at some point in the future).

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-vaxers. The 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.

Editorial: Linden Lab, Sansar, and Steam

UPDATE 7:35 p.m.: I screwed up. Since I wrote this editorial, I have discovered that Linden Lab has, in fact, been responding to at least a couple of the negative reviews on Steam since January 1st, 2019. (Also, I learned that thumbs-down reviewers can disable comments and follow-up on their reviews.) So I am just going to say, thank you and bravo, LL! I was wrong, I will admit it, and I stand corrected. But what I said below about LL needing to promote Sansar via advertising still stands. And Linden Lab needs to keep on top of the negative reviews on Steam! Some of them raise valid points that need to be addressed.

I have really, really not enjoyed writing this particular editorial, and I’m not looking forward to being painted (again) as a Sansar basher by a certain percentage of my blog readers. Just to make it perfectly clear, and deflect that criticism before it starts again:

I want to stress that this is only one person’s opinion, not an official Sansar spokesperson’s point of view. I still remain a strong Sansar supporter, but I would be neglecting my duties as an independent social VR/virtual worlds blogger if I simply posted nothing but “good news” about Sansar, as some people want me to do.

There are indeed many truly wonderful things about Sansar, and I want Sansar to be a success! And please keep in mind that Sansar is still a BETA platform, and in constant development. There has been much good progress over the past two years. But I still feel—STRONGLY—that Linden Lab should have waited six months to a year before releasing Sansar on Steam. And I stand by my statement, and I feel I have supported it with my arguments. 

However…

It’s time to address a few issues relating to Linden Lab’s launch of Sansar on Steam. This move was supposed to invigorate the platform, and bring in lots of new users, right? And I quote:

Why is Linden Lab pushing to release Sansar on Steam before the end of this year, rather than wait another six months to a year to further polish the platform and add new features?

We want to get more people in, to help refine the product and make it better. We want to start building a community on Steam.

Re: dealing with any negative feedback on Steam, Eliot will pass that along to the appropriate people to deal with and respond to.

Well, here’s the latest statistics on Steam usage of Sansar:

Sansar Stats 8 Jan 2019

We haven’t seen anything like that initial crush of curious users seen in the first few days. And I’m not the only blogger to notice this, either.

And that’s not the only bad news. I don’t know if you’ve looked at the Sansar page on Steam lately, but there are now 34 negative (thumbs down) reviews to 46 positive (thumbs up) reviews, which is the highest ratio of negative-to-positive reviews to date:

Sansar Steam Reviews 8 Jan 2019.png

The review which was voted “most helpful” by Steam users is by 1029chris:

I’m reviewing this from the perspective of a VR user.

It certainly has potential. The engine is absolutely gorgeous, and runs decently. Some of the worlds blew me away with how nice they looked. But I cannot enjoy them.

Sansar has horrible controls in VR. It is very uncomfortable to use. The feeling of embodiment that I can get in other social VR platforms does not happen here. Your virtual hands noticably lag behind your real ones, they have some sort of weird smoothing. Doing any fast body movement in VR detaches your head, and you can watch your decapitated avatar walk up you. They seem to have designed it with more concern regarding how your avatar looks to other people, rather than how it feels to use. It really takes away from the experience. Immersive VR demands the least latency possible, and they’ve deliberately added a lot of latency so that other people see you move more smoothly. It’s very uncomfortable.

Sansars avatar system is also super restrictive. They don’t let you move any bones on their skeleton, and they do EVERYTHING through bones. I can’t rig my hands since they’re too big, and I can’t rig my head since my avatar has a beak. Sansars face animations are all done through bones, but I can’t rig my beak to human face bones. They need to allow more freedom with their avatars. They say that it’s so restrictive because they want marketplace clothes to fit to avatars, but they don’t allow you to put clothes on custom avatars anyways. All of the avatars that I use on other platforms are cartoony with bigger heads, so none of them can have face animations on Sansar. No face animations means it’s less immersive to talk to me. This strictness stifles creativity for everyone, demanding you to conform to their proportions.

Sansar has a lot of potential, and I wish it the best, but I cannot recommend it in its current state.

The next-most-helpful review states:

Are you a fan of Second Life? Do you like the idea of Virtual Reality becoming a literal virtual world? Do you want to Shop, Explore, Build, And Socialize? Then this game will be a massive let down!

Pros: Explore small empty worlds filled with disappointment! Watch your framerate tank lower than Fallout VR! See a massive amount of effort spent on photogrammetry and the passion of SL’s best artists put to waste~

Cons: If you feel socially awkward around groups of people larger than 1 you might run into issues on a couple of the maps. There seems to be an issue with higher graphics settings not buying you the 2080ti you need to run them. I’m trying to get a hold of LL for that.

Non sarcastic review: It was touted as SL 2.0 during its creation and it’s nothing more than a sponsorship friendly ghost town. aka what all of google/facebook’s companies are becoming in 2018. If you wanted to make your own avatar or build something amazing you will be let down by the restrictions and lack of in world tools. This is an oversimplification of SL’s worst attributes wrapped in a bow and **** out onto Steam in a last ditch effort to get people to look at ads.

Edit: I’d like to warn you all the top positive reviews are from people selling things in app. 😛

However, what’s even worse than scathing, sarcastic reviews like this is Linden Lab’s (almost total lack of) response to them. I understand why you can’t properly respond to vitriolic garbage like what the last reviewer wrote. Another reviewer even went so far as to unfavourably compare Sansar to IMVU (really? really?!??).

But at least in the first few weeks, Linden Lab tried to respond to some of the criticism directed at Sansar, like Lacie’s response to 1029chris:

Sansar Steam 3 8 Jan 2019.png

And this example from early December:

Sansar on Steam 8 Jan 2019.png

And then, Linden Lab stopped responding as the negative reviews increased. As far as I can tell, there have been no responses since mid-December. Why?

Linden Lab really needs to get their PR game in gear here, and get someone to respond to at least some of the most recent negative reviews, to show that they are listening. It might still be a losing battle, but at least they would be fighting back.

And where in blazes is the “significant ad spend” promised at one of the Product Meetings last November, when the launch on Steam was first announced? And I quote:

What steps are you going to take to promote Sansar once it launches on Steam?

Eliot: expect some significant ad spend, expect some original assets. Linden Lab wants to build a community on Steam.

If Linden Lab wants to build a community on Steam, the time to start tending to that community and building positive word of mouth is NOW.

LL seems to be missing in action, while Sansar is drowning in an increasing number of thumbs-down reviews. Do something! Don’t just leave it all up to your users! Start promoting Sansar! Start responding to at least some of these negative reviews on Steam!!!

As I said before, it gives me no pleasure at all to write this. I love Sansar, and I want to see it succeed. But Linden Lab absolutely needs to step up to the plate here.