Dr. Marie Vans: 14 Reasons Why Virtual Worlds Are Still Better than Social VR Worlds for Educational Purposes

PLEASE NOTE: My blog is still on indefinite hiatus; I have made a single exception for this blogpost. After this, I will be going back on my self-imposed break from blogging.


Dr, Marie Vans (known as Amvans Lapis in Second Life) is a Senior Research Scientist at HP Labs in Colorado, who gave the following provocatively-titled presentation on March 19th, 2021 at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education (VWBPE) 2021 Conference, held in SL:

Title Slide from Dr. Vans’ VWBPE Presentaion

14 Reasons Why Virtual Worlds are still better than Social VR Worlds

A year ago, VCARA started the VR Exploder’s Club wherein educators meet up once a month to determine whether and/or which Social VR Worlds we should establish a presence thereon after exploring different platforms together. Whether we used VR headsets or desktop versions of these platforms, we looked at criteria such as learning curve, real-time communication, interaction capabilities, and more. I will describe specific issues that have been resolved in VWs that still need attention in VR.

Drawing upon a number of representative social VR platforms chosen from my November 2019 spreadsheet (which I need to update!), she gave a great presentation on why she thinks that social VR platforms need to pull up their socks when it comes to supporting education, and why these newer platforms should not be so quick to dismiss older virtual world platforms such as Second Life!

Because the following YouTube video of Dr. Marie Vans’ presentation has a absolutely criminally low 56 views thus far, I have decided to write up a blogpost about it! And here it is! (I am going back on hiatus again after this.)

Here is the video of Dr. Vans’ hour-long VWBPE presentation, followed by a question and answer session with the audience. It’s well worth watching the entire thing!

Editorial: Shifting Gears

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Yesterday’s blogpost (and its response) has got me thinking, in the wee hours of this morning, about other people’s expectations, and trying (or failing) to live up to them. Not to mention the expectations which I, knowingly or unknowingly, place upon myself as a blogger. Every blogger has his or her own biases and quirks; God knows I have many. And even a cursory inspection of my output shows how often I have gone off on tangents in my three-and-a-half-year blogging journey.

My writing about social VR, virtual worlds and the metaverse on this blog has been an unusual combination of broad-brush strokes about as many different platforms as possible, combined with a geeky deep-dive into specific worlds (Sansar the first couple of years, and now Second Life). One example of such a deep dive would be my recent month-long coverage of Advent calendar freebies in Second Life, something which my many faithful SL readers no doubt appreciated, but which probably left some of my regular, non-SL audience out in the cold, scratching their heads.

As I have written before, I consider Second Life to be the perfect model of a fully-evolved, mature metaverse platform, where we can see hints of what will happen to newer platforms over time (such as the implementation of an in-world economy where players can buy and sell user-generated content).

But I also expect that 2021 will be the first year where other metaverse platforms (notably VRChat and Rec Room, but also other products) will begin to consistently outpace Second Life, both in terms of monthly active users (MAU) and in terms of user concurrency figures. Over New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, VRChat shattered its previous user concurrency figures, reporting over 40,000 users online at the same time. Last weekend, Rec Room hosted 45,000 concurrent players. In other words, depending on the day and time, you can find more people in Rec Room and VRChat than in Second Life.

Both VRChat and Rec Room are now very well positioned to finally snatch the mantle of Second Life for the title of “most popular metaverse platform” (as hard as it is to define what that means). This might not have happened as quickly as some observers had originally predicted, least of all the PR pitch-boys at the corporations building these platforms, but it will happen nonetheless. It’s inevitable. Yesterday’s boasts become tomorrow’s reality, in some cases.

And it is not that Second Life is bleeding users, or that it is in any imminent danger of being shut down; I estimate that SL still attracts anywhere between 600,000 and 900,000 active monthly users (that is, people who sign onto SL at least once a month). It is still a highly profitable platform with a highly committed userbase, and under its new management, the Waterfield investment group, it is likely to remain a profitable cash cow for many years to come. Second Life is not going anywhere.

But, now that Linden Lab has finally shut down its physical server farms and moved Second Life entirely to the cloud, I don’t really foresee a lot of changes or improvements being made to what is already a winning formula—and I don’t see many of SL’s users clamouring for any major changes, either. Over time, competing platforms will no doubt offer advantages which the aging SL codebase cannot be tweaked to provide (the most obvious one being support for users in virtual reality).

And, over time, some of Second Life’s user base will migrate to other platforms, little by little, bit by bit. This SL diaspora will continue to enrich multiple metaverse platforms, much as it already has over the past decade. The seeds first planted by Philip Rosedale and his peers will continue to root and grow in various places, some probably quite unexpected!

All of this preamble is my very roundabout way of saying that I will be significantly reducing my coverage of Second Life in 2021. I will be putting that time and energy into writing about other metaverse products instead. Yes, I know I keep saying that, only to get pulled back by the latest fabulous freebie! Second Life is great fun, and I have enjoyed being your Freebie Queen. But frankly, SL is not where most of the interesting new stuff is happening. It’s happening in places outside of Second Life, and it’s high time I turned my attention to them.

It’s time for me to re-shift my focus to the newer platforms which are seeking to become the next Second Life. It might be an iteration of something that already exists, or it might be something brand new that seems to come out of nowhere and take everybody by storm. Whatever happens, I want to report on it!

I’m sure many of my Second Life readers will be sorry to hear this news. I will still be around, and I will still be visiting various places in-world, but I will largely leave the writing and reporting about SL to the hundreds of bloggers who do a much better job with their focused, deep-dive coverage! And I will continue to take as wide a view as possible—a big-picture perspective—of the constantly-evolving metaverse of which Second Life is a part.

Whichever camp you find yourself in, thank you for sticking along for the ride! No matter what happens, it promises to be an exciting adventure.

2021 promises to be a wild ride!

This change in focus will take effect immediately. Buckle up and keep your arms and hands inside the vehicle at all times! 😉

Ask Ryan: We Want to Leave Second Life—But Where Do We Go?

Do you have a question about the ever-evolving metaverse of social VR platforms and virtual worlds? Ask Ryan!


Maribeth asks:

Hi Ryan! My name is Maribeth. I am trying to use virtual worlds to help diabetes patients and others with chronic disease/chronic stress. My colleague and I are thinking about jumping ship from Second Life and it’s really confusing to know which way to turn. Your blog is so amazing! I’d love to pick your brain. I really respect your deep and vast knowledge on the topic. If you’re at all open to chatting, please let me know. Thanks!

—Maribeth.

Ooh boy, did you ever come to the right place to ask this great question! 😉

I’d love to schedule a time to chat, Maribeth. In fact, I even offer social VR/virtual world consulting services via my Patreon (at the Platinum patron level at US$25 per month, a price which I recently lowered).

My Patreon page

But, instead of charging you $25.00, Maribeth, I’ll let you pick my brains for free this time, provided we do it publicly on the RyanSchultz.com blog…after all, I am the Freebie Queen of Second Life, plus quite a few other platforms, to boot! 😉

And, in this case, I have an easy answer for you. If you are getting tired of Second Life and are looking for something similar to replace it with, but with all the latest bells and whistles (like a webcam-based avatar facial animator), may I recommend Sinespace?

The Sinespace homepage

Like Second Life, setting up an account on Sinespace is free. (Of course, also like Second Life, to get the richest experience, you will need to buy some Gold, the in-world currency, via your credit card, although Sinespace does have a second, promotional currency called Silver, of which you get a generous 30,000 to start yourself off on the right foot!)

Sinespace is based on Unity, which is a cross-platform game engine used to develop both three-dimensional and two-dimensional video games and simulations. This is a different approach from Linden Lab’s Second Life, which built and maintains its own engine from scratch (which means, at the ripe old age of 17, it is getting a bit long in the teeth). This also allows Sinespace to take advantage of the work that is done by countless other Unity developers on other Unity-based apps and games, such as the extremely cool Archimatix tool, which allows you to automagically resize highly complex mesh items in-world (which puts the rather simple move, rotate and stretch in-world building tools in Second Life to shame!).

Even better, male and female avatar fashions are designed to fit EVERY male and female avatar body, respectively. You don’t have to check to see if apparel or footwear are designed for a specific brand of mesh body, like you have to do in Second Life (e.g. Maitreya Lara, Belleza Freya, Slink Physique, Belleza Jake, Signature GIanni, etc.). Also, you don’t have to fuss with a HUD to make parts of your avatar body invisible under apparel; the clothing fits perfectly, and it adjusts if you make any changes to the body sliders! Another advantage of basing Sinespace on Unity.

Oh, and did I mention that Sinespace has working in-world cloth physics on skirts and dresses? Check out the videos to see it in action here and here! And Sinespace supports both desktop users, and users in virtual reality headsets! There’s also a web browser-based client. You can even run Sinespace on your mobile device!

Oh, and also, while Second Life struggles with lag when over 50 avatars are in a single sim, Sinespace has already demonstrated that its worlds can handle up to ten times as many avatars (the latest record achieved in testing, Adam tells me, is 499 avatars in a single region). And those regions can be mind-bogglingly large, too, not just restricted to 512 square metres. In fact, Adam tells me that the largest Sinespace region to date is a staggering 8 km by 8 km in size, with an 8 km vertical space! Think of what you could do with all that virtual real estate!

Simply put, Sinespace is Second Life on steroids.

Here are all the blogposts I have written about Sinespace. In fact, I am such a fan of what Adam Frisby and his team at Sine Wave Entertainment have created, that I even became an embedded reporter for the platform! But even if I weren’t getting paid to blog about Sinespace, I would still recommend that you check out Sinespace if you are looking for a new home to replace the venerable (and still popular) Second Life.

And you needn’t worry that Sinespace will go poof! if the company should suddenly fold; Sine Wave Entertainment is a healthy company with a stellar, well-connected board of directors. In fact, the company has been raking in the profits during the coronavirus pandemic, serving many new corporate, conference, and educational clients with Breakroom, a version of Sinespace developed for just such a market.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has also delayed Sine Wave Entertainment’s plans for an splashy official launch of Sinespace, complete with a advertising blitz, until 2021. Trust me when I say this: Sinespace is going to attract a lot more attention from SL folks (and other quarters) next year. And if Second Life should ever stumble in future, Sinespace is perfectly positioned to welcome the refugees. In fact, many SL content creators have already set up shop in Sinespace, such as Abramelin Wolfe of Abranimations.

However, if you are loath to work your way up a new learning curve, may I suggest you investigate the incredible myriad of OpenSim-based virtual worlds? (Ironically, Adam Frisby of Sine Wave Entertainment was one of the founding developers for OpenSim, before he started his new company and focused on Sinespace and Breakroom.) Much of what you already know about Second Life can be directly transferable to OpenSim, and the prices for things such as land rentals are often significantly cheaper.

In fact, instead of renting sims from an established OpenSim grid, you might want to consider setting up and running your own grid! Everything you need to know is in the OpenSimulator wiki. And for the latest news and information about OpenSim, nobody can beat Maria Korolov’s Hypergrid Business blog, which maintains a list of active OpenSim grids.

Another advantage of Hypergrid-enabled OpenSim worlds is that you can even take your avatar from one grid to another! However, one disadvantage of OpenSim is that platforms tend to rise and fall with alarming regularity, so stability is an issue (witness the sad saga of InWorldz/Islandz for an example of what can happen). Also, the network effect means that no single OpenSim grid will ever rival Second Life for its sheer reach and (relatively) massive audience.

So, the executive summary of my answer is: if you don’t want to work your way up a new learning curve, go with OpenSim; otherwise, go with Sinespace.

Herding Cats (Again): Organizing and Categorizing My List of Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds

Git along, l’il kitties! Hyah! Hyah!!

I woke up bright and early this morning, showered and shaved, brewed a large pot of black coffee, and immediately set to work on my task for the day: trying to impose some semblance of order on my sprawling list of over 150 different virtual worlds, social VR platforms, and other metaverse products which I have written about on the RyanSchultz.com blog over the past three years. I’ve been putting this task off for too long; it’s time. I mean, I originally said I was going to do this a year ago!

I thought I would start by creating six rough, top-level categories as follows:

  • Virtual Worlds Which Do NOT Support Users in Virtual Reality Headsets (e.g. Active Worlds, Kitely, Second Life)
  • Virtual Worlds/Social VR Which Support Both Virtual Reality Users and Non-VR/Desktop Users (e.g. Sansar, Sinespace, Tivoli Cloud VR)
  • Social Virtual Reality Platforms Which Do NOT Support Desktop/Non-VR Users (e.g. Anyland, Facebook Horizon)
  • Blockchain and Cryptocurrency-Based Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds (e.g. Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, Somnium Space)
  • Social Augmented Reality (AR) Platforms Which Support Users in AR Headsets (e.g. Avatar Chat, Spatial, Spatiate). As we are only in the first generation of augmented reality headsets available for purchase by consumers, e.g. the much-hyped but now struggling Magic Leap One and the Microsoft’s HoloLens, there’s obviously not a lot here yet, but give it time (and there are consistent rumours of a future AR headset to be released by Apple, sometime in 2022 or 2023). Please note that I do not consider cellphone-based “AR” (e.g. Pokémon Go) to be true augmented reality.
  • Stuff Which Doesn’t Fit Elsewhere: Miscellaneous Worlds, Platforms, and Products Covered on this Blog (e.g. the new, 2D-with-3D-audio iteration of High Fidelity)

Then, to start, I would simply copy and paste six copies of my original list under each of these six headings, and then go about my work by deleting those items which do not fit under that category, starting with the A’s and working my way through to the end of the list (currently 3DXChat). Speaking of 3DXChat, I have to decide what to do about the very few worlds I have written about that are pretty much exclusively focused on sexual content (although they, too, can sometimes serve a non-sexual, social purpose). I’m not interested in trying to categorize purely adult/sexual worlds, however; I will leave the herding of those particular kitties to others 😉

Some products on my original list, like Avakin Life and IMVU, have literally dozens of similar products, all pitched at the teen/tween market (another category I do not wish to cover on this blog).

I had breezily assumed that this reorganizing task would take me a couple of days at most. After all, I already had the starting list, right? However, it’s been quite some time (in some cases, years) since I last looked at some products and platforms. In quite a few instances, projects have since shut down or have been put on hold (a lot of blockchain/crypto startups fall into this category). So, this probably will take me several weeks of work, instead of several days.

I also have to find some way to integrate my previous attempts at herding cats:

Also, I want to include pointers to other people and organizations on the internet that are trying to do the same sort of work, such as XR Collaboration: A Global Resource Guide (which I first wrote about here), and Niclas Johansson’s report The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Meetings with VR/AR (which I wrote about here and here). Compared to when I started this blog three years ago, there’s now quite a bit of work going on in this area, particularly in corporate applications of social VR! Even YouTube vloggers like Nathie have jumped on board. It’s wonderful to see.

So, I will be beavering away on this, making use of my two-week vacation to get a good head start on the project. I’ll keep you posted!