Two Virtual Reality Designers Discuss Techniques and Strategies for Implementing Safer Social VR (Including an Example from the Forthcoming Facebook Horizon Platform)

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Back at the start of November, two VR designers, Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller, wrote an article for Immerse on aspects of designing safer social VR spaces. That article was recently reprinted on The Next Web news site, titled How to protect users from harassment in social VR spaces, and it’s an excellent read on the subject, which I highly recommend.

In particular, female-identifying users of social VR platforms are often the victims of sexual harassment, research conducted by Jessica Outlaw and others has shown. Michelle Cortese writes:

As female designers working in VR, my co-worker Andrea Zeller and I decided to join forces on our own time and write a comprehensive paper. We wrote about the potential threat of virtual harassment, instructing readers on how to use body sovereignty and consent ideology to design safer virtual spaces from the ground up. The text will soon become a chapter in the upcoming book: Ethics in Design and Communication: New Critical Perspectives (Bloomsbury Visual Arts: London).

After years of flagging potentially-triggering social VR interactions to male co-workers in critiques, it seemed prime time to solidify this design practice into documented research. This article is the product of our journey.

The well-known immersive aspect of virtual reality—the VR hardware and software tricking your brain into believing what it is seeing is “real”—means that when someone threatens or violates your personal space, or your virtual body, it feels real.

This is particularly worrisome as harassment on the internet is a long-running issue; from trolling in chat rooms in the ’90s to cyber-bullying on various social media platforms today. When there’s no accountability on new platforms, abuse has often followed — and the innate physicality of VR gives harassers troubling new ways to attack. The visceral quality of VR abuse can be especially triggering for survivors of violent physical assault.

Cortese and Zeller stress that safety needs to be built into our social VR environments: “Safety and inclusion need to be virtual status quo.”

The article goes into a discussion of proxemics, which I will not attempt to summarize here; I would instead strongly urge you to go to the source and read it all for yourself, as it is very clearly laid out. A lot of research has already been done in this area, which can now be applied as we build new platforms.

And one of those new social VR platforms just happens to be Facebook Horizon, a project on which both Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller have been working!

What I did find interesting in this report was an example the authors provided, of how this user safety research is being put to use in the Facebook Horizon social VR platform, which will be launching in closed beta early this year. Apparently, there will be a button you can press to immediately remove yourself from a situation where you do not feel comfortable:

We designed the upcoming Facebook Horizon with easy-to-access shortcuts for moments when people would need quick-action remediation in tough situations. A one-touch button can quickly remove you from a situation. You simply touch the button and you land in a space where you can take a break and access your controls to adjust your experience.

Once safely away from the harasser, you can optionally choose to mute, block, or report them to the admins while in your “safe space”:

Handy features such as these, plus Facebook’s insistence on linking your personally-identifying account on the Facebook social network to your Facebook Horizon account (thus making it very difficult to be anonymous), will probably go a long way towards making women (and other minorities such as LGBTQ folks) feel safer in Facebook Horizon.

Of course, griefers, harassers and trolls will always try to find ways around the safeguards put in place, such as setting up dummy alternative accounts (Second Life and other virtual worlds have had to deal with such problems for years). We can also expect “swatting”-type attacks, where innocent people are falsely painted as troublemakers using the legitimate reporting tools provided (something we’ve unfortunately already seen happen in a few instances in Sansar).

Some rather bitter lessons on what does and doesn’t work have been learned in the “wild, wild west” of earlier-generation virtual worlds and social VR platforms, such as the never-ending free-for-all of Second Life (and of course, the cheerful anarchy of VRChat, especially in the days before they were forced to implement their nuanced Trust and Safety System due to a tidal wave of harassment, trolling and griefing).

But I am extremely glad to see that Facebook has hired VR designers like Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller, and that the company is treating user safety in social VR as a non-negotiable tenet from the earliest design stages of the Horizon project, instead of scrambling to address it as an after-thought as VRChat did. More social VR platforms need to do this.

I’m quite looking forward to seeing how this all plays out in 2020! I and many other observers will be watching Facebook Horizon carefully to see how well all these new security and safety features roll out and are embraced by users.

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Editorial: My Social VR/Virtual World Predictions for 2020

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Now that I am (finally!) finished my annual holiday tradition of utterly ransacking all the Advent calendars and December shopping events I can find in Second Life—the better to clothe my small army of alts with fashionable freebies!—it is time to turn my attention to predictions for the coming year.

Let’s start with a look back at my predictions for 2019, shall we? I said then:

  • That Second Life would “continue to coast along, baffling the mainstream news media and the general public with its vitality and longevity”, and that “the ability to change your first and last names in SL will prove very popular—and also very lucrative for Linden Lab”. Well, I am going to stick to that prediction. Implementing avatar name changes in SL turned out to be a thornier problem than Linden Lab anticipated, hence the delay, but they now have eight years of pent-up demand for this feature, and I anticipate that it will still prove popular—and profitable—for Linden Lab. I myself upgraded one of my alts to Premium to be able to change her legacy name of Bumbly Rumpler. (I know. I know. I don’t know what I was thinking at the time!) I also snagged her a lovely new riverside Victorian Linden Home in the process.

  • That OpenSim would move on implementing virtual reality support, but (as far as I can tell), that work has stalled or been abandoned. To be honest, I have barely set foot at all in OpenSim this past year, so I regret that I am not in any position to make predictions for 2020!

  • That “one or more blockchain-based virtual worlds are going to fold”—a prediction which has come true, at least for MATERIA.ONE, which has not officially folded, but is currently on an indefinite hiatus. The landscape is littered with various blockchain-based projects that are either dead, moribund, or stuck in pre-development hell: Aether City, Ceek, The Deep, MARK.SPACE, MegaCryptoPolis, The Sandbox, Stan World, SuperWorld, Terra Virtua, and VIBEHub. And yet, somehow, new crypto projects keep appearing, hoping to become the next Bitcoin.

    However, three blockchain-based virtual world projects appear to be doing well—Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space—and I expect that they will all continue to do well in 2020. I note that both Decentraland and Cryptovoxels have tended to rank in the Top 5 in sales volume on the OpenSea marketplace (this screencap is from a tweet made Dec. 27th):

I’m already working on a predictions blogpost for the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds in 2020. Among my predictions is the following: if Linden Lab cannot find a way to increase the overall number of users in Sansar within the next 12 months, even with a pivot to (and an exclusive focus on) live events, then the company will do one of three things:

– convert the existing Sansar code to open source and let the community take it over (which I think is the least likely option);

– sell Sansar to another company and keep Second Life running (or perhaps sell off Linden Lab and all its assets entirely to another company); or

– shut down the Sansar project completely (which I think is the most likely option).

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the honeymoon period for Sansar is OVER.

I am increasingly worried (even heartsick) over the future of Sansar.

  • That “the Oculus Quest VR headset will ignite the long-awaited boom in virtual reality”. I think that we can agree that the Oculus Quest has been a runaway success. Facebook is apparently selling the units as fast as they can make them, and they are now backordered until late February 2020. (The Valve Index is also selling well, and also similarly backordered.) I do predict that this will bring many more people into those social VR platforms which can natively run on the standalone Quest headset, such as VRChat, Rec Room, and AltspaceVR.

  • That “Linden Lab’s launch of Sansar on Steam will likely have only a modest impact on overall usage of the platform”. I deeply regret that this prediction has come true in spades. I said at the time that Linden Lab ditching its SandeX and launching Sansar on Steam would be a terrible mistake, and I take no pleasure in being proven correct. Sansar has been pummeled by negative reviews by Steam gamers, adding to the general sense of malaise about the platform in the past year, especially since approximately 30 staff working on the project were laid off by Linden Lab a couple of months ago, in an attempt to trim their continued financial losses. This was a move which was probably imposed on CEO Ebbe Altberg by the Linden Lab board of directors, who are probably very worried that if Sansar tanks, it will take down Second Life with it.
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

O.K., now that we’ve looked at how well my predictions for 2019 have fared, now it’s time to peer in my crystal ball and make some new predictions for 2020.

First, all current social VR platforms and virtual worlds will struggle with a key problem: effective promotion. Getting the word out to the public about the various platforms is proving to be more and more difficult in an age of social media overload and short attention spans.

We can expect to see more partnerships between various platforms and influencers (such as Sansar’s continued partnership with the VR vloggers Cas and Chary, and my own recent sponsorship and advertising deal with Sinespace). By the way, my partnership with Sinespace is not exclusive, we can still see other people 😉 and I am still actively looking for other advertisers and sponsorships for my blog and the Metaverse Newscast show (hint hint).

Second, every single eye will be on Facebook as they launch their new social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, early in the new year. It’s disgusting to me how even the smallest Facebook announcement gets oceans of fawning mainstream press coverage, and you can certainly expect Horizon to suck up all the oxygen in the press room when it gets closer to launch date. If Facebook Horizon, backed by the almost limitless resources and reach of its ambitious parent company, fails to take hold in 2020, then that will be the clearest indication yet that the nascent social VR industry is in trouble (and that I might be out of a job!).

Third, as I have said above, I am extremely worried about Sansar. The Sansar website has recently had a complete redesign to focus almost exclusively on live events:

It would appear that Linden Lab is going all-in on Sansar as a platform for live events, to the detriment of other features such as avatar customization (I don’t expect anything new this coming year). However, competition in the live events market in 2020 is likely to be intense, with the following products also planning to focus on hosting such events:

  • Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR (which has also recently announced a pivot to live events);
  • VRChat (which is already home to popular talk shows such as ENDGAME, and many other regular live events);
  • Wave (which has already pulled off some spectacular musical events such as the recent Lindsey Stirling concert);
  • Upstarts such as Ceek and Redpill VR (which are in various stages of pre-development and may or may not launch in 2020);
  • Not to mention that Facebook will also want to muscle in on this extremely lucrative territory (with Oculus Venues, and probably Facebook Horizon, too)—and Facebook will not hesitate to ruthlessly use every tool and tactic at their disposal to achieve market dominance (including “hiding” posts about competing platforms in their Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp social network users’ newsfeeds). Facebook also has deep pockets to ink deals with major talent, locking them into exclusive deals to appear on their platforms.

Expect many skirmishes on the live events battlefield in 2020, and also expect some causalities to occur.

Fourth, Second Life will continue to coast along as it always does, still boasting approximately 600,000 regular monthly users in recently released statistics by Firestorm, and still making millions of dollars in profits, both for its content creators and for Linden Lab. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and I see no sign of it stopping anytime soon. I predict that SL will still be around five years, perhaps even ten years, from now, and that people will still be logging in, and still merrily ransacking Advent calendars 😉 …and I will continue to blog about steals, deals, and freebies in Second Life!

Fifth, we can expect to see the upcoming Educators in VR International Summit as an example of an increasingly important use of social VR platforms in 2020: conferences. This is a natural fit, and one that saves precious resources (such as airline fuel) in an increasingly environmentally-conscious world. We can expect to see more conferences and meetings hosted in VR as an alternative to real-world meetings (although, as High Fidelity found out, the remote workteams support marketplace isn’t quite there yet, since the vast majority of companies still expect their employees to show up to their offices rather than work remotely from home). I think it’s going to take another generation for that shift to take effect in any widespread fashion.

Sixth: those social VR platforms which currently lack an in-world economy, currency, and a marketplace for user-created content, will be moving towards implementing those features. VRChat already has a booming off-world economy in the creation and sale of custom avatars. We already know that both VRChat and Rec Room are making plans in this area, based on job postings on their websites, but we can also expect other platforms to take this step, taking their cues from the continuing success of the mature, fully-evolved in-world economy of Second Life.

Platforms where people can make money tend to attract droves of new users, appealing to their greed and the universal desire to strike it rich (Decentraland as a more recent example; although its continued success is not 100% guaranteed, investors have sunk a lot of money into it, and it will be interesting to see how this ultimate expression of virtual, cut-throat capitalism will evolve and grow over the next year).

Finally, at some point Apple (and other companies, including Facebook) will launch the first consumer-oriented augmented reality headsets. The over-hyped Magic Leap One has turned out to be rather underwhelming (and underselling) so far, but who knows? Perhaps future AR products may ignite consumer interest, and have an as-yet-unknown impact on the current crop of social VR platforms.

Perhaps the big bet we all placed on virtual reality has been misplaced? We won’t know the answer to that hypothetical question until at least another decade has passed. Of course, some social VR platforms may decide to extend support to whatever AR/MR/XR hardware becomes available in the future, too. Anything can happen.

So these are my social VR/virtual world predictions for 2020. Please check back in a year, and we’ll see just how accurate I was!

Image by Jim Semonik from Pixabay

A List of Christmas Events in the Various Social VR/Virtual Worlds

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This is a list of the various Christmas events which are taking place this holiday season on the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds I cover on this blog. If you have an event that I have missed, please let me know and I will update this listing, thanks!

Sinespace

Sinespace has a Winter Festival with events running every day from Dec. 21st, straight through until New Year’s Eve! Here’s the complete schedule. (And don’t forget to take advantage of one month of free Premium membership!)

Second Life

As usual, there is so much happening in Second Life around Christmastime that it is impossible to compile a full list!

  • Your best bet is to check the Events listing under Search; you can do a keyword search, or select events using the drop-down category menu in the upper right-hand corner of the Events window in Firestorm (for example, “Live Music” to catch a live performer’s show).
  • The official Second Life Destination Guide lists eight pages worth of winter attractions to visit.
  • The Seraphim website has a list of fairs and events that you might want to check out.
  • Among many other club events happening throughout Second Life over the holidays, Bryce Sun is DJing on Christmas Day at the FMD Club, which bills itself “the premiere destination for Second Life’s sexiest and most fashionable residents”.

Sansar

On Dec. 21st, Solas and Drax will host a special holiday edition of Harvest Hopping (the long-running Sansar worlds exploration event formerly known as Atlas Hopping). All are welcome!

And on Dec. 27th, there will be a Christmas Community Campfire at Witchy’s Winter, hosted by Beverly Zauberflote:

Please check the Sansar Events page for more details on these and other events during this holiday season.

AltspaceVR

Check the AltspaceVR Events Listing for all the news on what’s going on, including four separate VR Church Christmas services on Dec. 22nd: one at a time zone for Australians, a second at a time zone for Europeans, and two back-to-back services for North Americans.

VRChat

The best place to find out what Christmas events are happening in the busy world of VRChat is the VRChat Events website, with an online calendar of events, and a link to join the VRChat Events Discord server.

Also, there is a brand new Winter category in the Worlds menu in VRChat, with places for you to explore!

VRChat is also home to the annual New Years Times Square, where you could run into just about anybody! It is described as a developer-made world with hundreds of posters from the VRChat community.

My source, Fionna, also tells me:

I will be hosting an event for the world builder community on New Year’s Eve as well, featuring a world made by Sentinel, which is a gorgeous Art Deco lounge.

NeosVR

Medra, an organizer of the NeosVR Creator Jam series of events in NeosVR, posted:

The holidays are almost upon us and the 30th Creator Jam…so it’s time for:

Creator Jam 30: 3rd Megajam & Winter Holiday Party

Sunday December 22nd
Starts at 2 p.m. EST(11 a.m. PST/19:00 UTC).

As an anniversary and Holiday celebration come hang out exchanging gifts, dressing up, and voting on Christmas trees. This will be a party and Swap Meet. NeosVR is wonderful for people unloading their inventories. What a better way to be in the spirit of giving than for people to share what they have or made. If you have a cool avatar, share it! If you have a cool gadget, please share. Pack neat Logix snippets in adult beverages or prezzies. We will be be exploring all the previous nine Creator Jam worlds in a livestream with Nexulan.

Secret Santa gift exchange will be held during this party at 2:30 p.m. EST (11:30 a.m. PST/19:30 UTC) Even if you aren’t a part of the Secret Santa gift exchange feel free to give gifts to specific people or everyone.

Everyone is welcome. I look forward to seeing all!

Somnium Space

Somnium Space is simultaneously saying goodbye both to 2019 and to the first version of their Steam client, with a Farewell Party on Dec. 30th with special guests Vivian Chazen (the host of The Hive VR) and musical artist Luke Reynolds:

Exploring Different Cultures in Social VR and Virtual Worlds

Have you joined the RyanSchultz.com Discord yet? You’re invited to be a part of the first ever cross-worlds discussion group, with over 300 people participating from every social VR platform and virtual world! More details here.


Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Long-running virtual worlds such as Second Life attract users from all around the world. (The Second Life website itself is available in English, Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish and Russian.)

Every so often, I like to load up Second Life, do a keyword search for a country or language name (e.g. Turkey, Turkiye, Turkish), and head off on an adventure! Often I find a nightclub where people are chatting away in a language I do not speak, where I can spend an enjoyable hour listening to the popular music of a completely different culture.

The fact that most communication in Second Life uses text chat is actually an advantage here. Automatic translator software (such as this popular item on the SL Marketplace, which works with Google Translate) can be used to bridge the language gap between users chatting in Second Life who don’t speak the same language.

But what about other social VR/virtual worlds? I decided to do some metaverse exploring this evening, just to see what’s out there.

VRChat

VRChat, with its thousands of users from all around the world, is a natural place to begin my explorations. There are many Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Russian, German, and Thai worlds to visit. (These links are from a Japanese directory called The World of VRChat, a website directory for VRChat worlds. The website is in Japanese, but if you turn on Google auto-translate, it works well, and can be used as a handy guide.)

Of course, you can also perform a keyword search on the Worlds menu (e.g. Japan, Japanese) to pull up VRChat worlds. For example, there are dozens and dozens of Japanese-themed worlds to visit and explore!

Sansar

The best way to explore is to use the Sansar Atlas website, where you can do a keyword search for a language or country name (e.g. Germany, Deutschland, German, Deutsch). Unfortunately, the chances of you running into other people this way in Sansar are pretty slim.

High Fidelity

Of course, High Fidelity was home to the well-known Mexico domain, which was one of HiFi’s domains that were shut down when the company pivoted to business use. And the search function in the tablet UI only pulls up matches on domain name, which somewhat hinders the ability to explore (you pretty much need to know the domain name to find anything). It would be very useful if High Fidelity were to add searchable domain descriptions to the social VR platform, but I’m sure the company is occupied with other, much more pressing, matters at the moment.

Mexico (a former High Fidelity domain, which no longer exists)

Other Worlds

As far as I can tell, there is not yet a lot of multicultural content in places like AltspaceVR, Rec Room, or in Sinespace. But it’s still early days. Eventually, as most virtual worlds mature, they will attract more users from foreign countries, who will naturally import their own cultures.

Do you have any tips on cultural experiences in virtual worlds, a spot you would like to share with us? Please feel free to leave a comment below, or even better, join us on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server and share your tips there! We’d love to have you.