Sinespace Celebrates Its 3rd Anniversary: Highlights from Chief Product Officer Adam Frisby’s Keynote Speech

The virtual world Sinespace has been celebrating its third anniversary with a week of in-world events, culminating in a keynote address given today by the company’s Chief Product Officer, Adam Frisby.

I had a long online chat with Adam before his presentation today, talking about various new features coming soon to Sinespace, and the following are some notes I took during Adam’s talk (Adam was also kind enough to share his presentation slides ahead of time with me, for which I thank him profusely for making my reporting job so much easier!).

Adam Frisby’s Keynote in Sinespace

Adam started off with a report on what had happened with Sinespace in 2019. Sinespace’s development team has doubled in size. Among the features worked on were:

The company has also been very hard at work on improvements to the default human avatars in Sinespace (which is actually already in the live release now). This major update to the avatars offers more accurate (less stylized) human proportions, with a new, powerful system of custom slider shapes or “morphs”. (Adam says that no pre-existing clothing will be broken.)

A new set of universal skin detail maps will be added to the existing skin maps on the human avatars. Adam shared a slide of what the new skins will look like, and I must admit they’re rather impressive:

There will also be several improvements to avatar clothing: a new auto-rigging algorithm, and blend shape support (for example, adding features such as dress length sliders to clothing). Sinespace already has support for in-world cloth physics, as you can see in the video below, and this functionality is expected to be improved even further in future software releases.

It’s now very clear that, despite experiencing some significant problems with upgrading Sinespace to Unity to 2018.3 in the past year (“the hardest we’ve ever done in ten years with Unity”, Adam says), the platform has benefited greatly overall from choosing to use Unity as an underlying game engine. In fact, Sinespace is now working in association with Unity, which offers the company even better support and more access to Unity engineers.

After some problems in marketing in 2019 (they fired the external company that was doing their marketing after one particular fiasco), Sinespace has just hired a new Vice President of Marketing, Al King.

So, in summary, 2019 was a big year for the Sinespace team in terms of building the product (mostly behind the scenes) and getting ready for a scale-up. Adam admits that the team has learned some expensive lessons, but ones he prefers that they have made before the platform scales up. Sinespace has also been watching competing platforms make some mistakes too, and hopefully learning from them. (For example, Sinespace has wisely decided to postpone a launch on Steam.)

And among future projects is a big push to provide mobile support (Sinespace has a full-time team devoted to this now, and there is an Android beta app already up on Google Play). They also want to improve the built-in screenshot capability, integrating it with social media. Another focus is improving what they call “the first five minutes” experience of new users, to encourage user retention.

Oh, and I saved the best for last: a brand-new contiguous mainland with in-client parceling, streamed regions and content, and a very cool new feature—voxel terrain editing, including the ability to dig caves and tunnels and create islands in the sky! (And Adam stated in my earlier chat with him today that they have implemented voxels “properly”; these are not the simple cubes used by Cryptovoxels!)

Here’s a couple of brief video previews Adam was kind enough to share with me of the voxel terrain editor in action (the second shows the digging of a cave):

And you can build mind-bogglingly large terrains using this tool: Adam’s test parcel for the voxel terrain editor is 96,100 cubic kilometres. (Approx. 23,000 cubic miles): 131,072 metres by 131,072 metres by 5,600 metres in size!

Oh, and did I mention? There’s voxel water, too!

An example of voxel water in Sinespace

So, as you can see, Sinespace is starting to look better and better all the time! And they are busy implementing features that many other social VR/virtual worlds cannot yet match. I must commend Adam and his team at Sinespace for doing a lot of hard work behind the scenes on the platform, and patiently biding their time before a full-scale product launch (perhaps sometime in 2020?). I’m quite looking forward to seeing how the platform evolves over the next year!

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Normal: A Brief Introduction

Normal is mentioned as one of the companies working in social VR in the 2019 infographic published by the San Francisco-based venture capital firm The Venture Reality Fund (which is available here).

Normal’s website essentially consists of a blog and a store selling branded merchandise. They have one product called Normcore, which they describe on their blog as follows:

If you’ve ever tried building a multiplayer game, you know it’s a lot of work. Even just getting to the point where you can pass data between two clients can be challenging. It’s so much work that many developers decide from the beginning not to create multiplayer games. We love multiplayer games and apps at Normal. Especially when it comes to VR, multiplayer turns what has the potential to be a very isolated experience, into a shared one.
 
When we started implementing our own multiplayer titles, we realized the multiplayer aspect was going to be a lot of work. Sending messages between clients, synchronizing & smoothing movement of objects, implementing voice chat, matchmaking, running servers, etc. The list piles up quickly, and there are many engineering challenges that aren’t obvious until you’re months or even years into a project.
 
We’ve spent the last three years working on Normcore, a Unity plug-in for our own internal use, implementing all the different pieces—state syncing, physics syncing, voice chat, persistence, fast serialization with versioning, delta compression, flow control, and much more. Through this process, we noticed a pattern: Everyone currently needs to implement each of these pieces from scratch.
 
We’re releasing Normcore in an effort to not only save developers time and encourage more multiplayer titles, but with the hopes of creating the best multiplayer networking plugin available. Our goal is to refine and improve Normcore until it becomes so good, you wouldn’t ever dream of writing your own multiplayer networking. You should be spending that time on your game anyway.

So, instead of a social VR platform, Normal sells a multiplayer networking plugin for Unity-based games. So it is “social” in that sense. But it’s not very interesting from an end-user point of view, so I’m not going to include it in my list of social VR/virtual worlds.

Why Linden Lab Is Building Its Own Engine for Sansar, Instead of Using Unity or Unreal

Inara Pey has done her usual excellent job of expertly summarizing last week’s Sansar Product Meetup, where the topic of discussion was why Linden Lab decided to build their own game engine for Sansar, instead of using an off-the-shelf engine such as Unity or Unreal.

So, rather than reinvent the wheel, I am just going to point to her blogpost, and tell you to go over there and read it all. Among the Linden Lab staff present at the meeting were:

  • Richard Linden, Sansar’s Chief Architect
  • Jeff Petersen (aka Bagman Linden), Linden Lab’s Chief Technology Officer 
  • Landon McDowell, Linden Lab’s Chief Product Officer

So you can get the scoop straight from the people directly involved.

While I think the reasoning for this decision is very sound, the unfortunate fact remains that since Linden Lab is a smaller company with limited resources, feature development will tend to lag behind off-the-shelf engines like Unity and Unreal, which have bigger development teams and lots of users. However, as mentioned in Inara’s notes, backwards compatibility of user-generated content (UGC) is a key issue that needs to be addressed in any successful virtual world. I still think that Sansar is on the right track.

A Nasty Dispute Between Improbable and Unity Puts Several Virtual Worlds/Games in Jeopardy

Worlds Adrift 11 Apr 2018
Worlds Adrift is one of the virtual worlds impacted by the disagreement between Improbable and Unity

The Guardian newspaper reports that a spat between two companies, Improbable and Unity, has put numerous virtual worlds/games in jeopardy:

[Improbable’s] core product, a cloud-based server system called SpatialOS, allows video game developers and others to build enormous virtual worlds that exist and operate independently of player action.

SpatialOS only works in a finished game when paired with a graphics engine capable of displaying those worlds on the computers, phones or games consoles of players.

On Thursday, the developers of one of the largest commercial engines, Unity3D, told Improbable that a change to the engine’s terms of service was intended to block SpatialOS, and all games created that use the technology – including those which had already shipped – from working with Unity.

“Unity has clarified to us that this change effectively makes it a breach of terms to operate or create existing SpatialOS and Unity games and in-development games, including production games,” Improbable said on its website.

The company added: “Unity has revoked our ability to continue working with the engine for breaching the newly changed terms of service in an unspecified way.

“Overnight, this is an action by Unity that has immediately done harm to projects across the industry, including those of extremely vulnerable or small-scale developers and damaged major projects in development over many years.

“Games that have been funded based on the promise of SpatialOS to deliver next-generation multiplayer are now endangered due to their choice of front-end engine. Live games are now in legal limbo.”

Among the virtual worlds/games which are suddenly impacted by this dispute are Worlds Adrift (which has already launched) and Seed (which is a promising virtual world/MMO still in development).

Frankly, this sort of dispute is one of the reasons why companies such as Linden Lab and High Fidelity build their own game engines, even though that means it often takes longer to add new features. For example, both Sinespace and VRChat are built on top of the Unity game engine (one of the companies involved in this particular fight), which means that they have to carefully check for things that break whenever Unity issues an update to their game engine.

Then again, Linden Lab and High Fidelity need to do that when they update their in-house game engines as well. But at least they have complete control over the situation. I’m sure that the developers of Worlds Adrift and Seed are feeling rather powerless tonight.

Thanks to Gindipple for the heads up!