Join us for a special Endgame episode in VRChat on Saturday: we’ll facilitate a support group to discuss how we can cope with COVID-19. It’s stressful to be isolated, but we can come together in social VR to navigate this pandemic. Saturday 3/21 at 11:00 a.m. PST @PsychNoah
PsychNoah is, of course, Noah Robinson (a.k.a. Psych; Twitter; LinkedIn), a clinical psychology doctoral student at Vanderbilt University and the founder and CEO of Very Real Help, and one of the three regular hosts of the Endgame talk show in VRChat, along with Nomono and Poplopo.
Given how I have been struggling with both anxiety and depression during the coronavirus pandemic, I do intend to be in the studio audience for what promises to be a fascinating, wide-ranging, and educational discussion. Although users are urged to ask questions, you can also just sit back, watch, and listen, and enjoy something that is becoming ever rarer in the real world—being part of a crowd!
A number of social VR platforms and virtual worlds are responding to the continuing global public health crisis that is the coronavirus pandemic, offering their platforms as a way for people to safely gather while they are under quarantine, or practicing social distancing.
For example, Somnium Space has announced that they will host a daily meetup in-world at 3:00 pm PST/6:00 p.m. EST/23:00 CET:
This very handy guide gives step-by-step instructions for those new to VRChat, and even gives a few suggestions of worlds to explore. (Remember, you do not need a VR headset to enjoy VRChat.)
And (of course), there are many other social VR platforms and virtual worlds that you can also use to gather with other people and make new friends online. Sansar is still up and running, and of course Second Life is still as popular as ever!
We are seeing an increase in new registrations and returning residents during this outbreak. Please be kind and welcoming to those who may just need a friendly conversation to escape from this crazy world for a moment or more. If you have a friend or colleague who is looking for a safe place to socialize online during these tough times, we encourage you to help them discover how Second Life can enable them to feel less isolated by connecting them to your favorite communities or experiences.
My personal experience has been that spending time with others in a virtual world, or on a social VR platform, feels just the same to your brain as if you were having a conversation with a real-life friend in a real-life location. So please remember to turn to the metaverse if your social distancing strategy is leaving you feeling a little lonely and isolated during the coronavirus pandemic.
Recently, VRChat lost one of its most prolific and talented creators. Earlier this week we were informed that 1001 had passed away. Needless to say we were all in shock and deeply saddened by the news. It hit me pretty hard. He was a close friend and someone I enjoyed spending time with in VRChat or chatting to on Discord.
1001 is best known as the creator/co-creator (along with SCRN) of Treehouse in the Shade, Bamboo Temple, Fluid Flow Studio, Music Visualizer, and other worlds. They have many friends in our community, and expressed their talent by creating amazing things in VRChat.
I met 1001 and SCRN shortly after they released “Treehouse in the Shade’’ in July of 2018. It was a collaborative effort and maybe one of the most startling worlds VRChat had ever seen — definitely at that time. It immediately blew my mind and I even made it my home. Not only can you change the shaders on the fly, but you can control them with an X,Y pad up in the treehouse! There’s also a jetpack that lets you fly through the raymarched shaders in real-time. So wild! I finally met 1001 and SCRN about a month later, in August of 2018. SCRN and 1001 had these incredible shader “creatures” they could manipulate in front of them as part of their avatars.
I can’t tell you how many people I took to that world. I spent a lot of good times there with friends, family, streamers, VRChat team, partner companies, and famous people. Deadmau5 hung out there with me a few times. One of his streams is 1001, mau5 and myself hanging out and talking about the world, flying around on the jetpacks, and chatting about maybe getting some of 1001’s shaders onto the mau5cube. I took investors and various VIPs in to see worlds he and SCRN had worked on. Everyone that saw it had the same reaction — they were blown away, and it would leave a lasting impression. It showed them what was possible. We even chose to use Treehouse in the Shade in our trailer and in our main marketing images.
I hope you will take a little time to go explore worlds he had a hand in creating with his close friend and creative partner SCRN. We’ll be setting up a world row for a little while up at the top of the VRChat Worlds menu for everyone to have a chance to go experience for themselves. As a forewarning, some of the worlds are quite CPU/GPU intensive, and do not have Quest versions. However, if you can check them out, you will not be disappointed. We’ll also list all the world links below.
Here are the links to 1001’s worlds in VRChat from Ron’s blogpost:
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.
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.