How VRChat is Providing Real Psychological Benefits to Some Users

vrchatlol

Endgame is a long-running talk show set in the social VR application VRChat, where participants discuss the impact of technology on humanity (here’s a list of videos of their show on their YouTube page). The show runs Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time. It’s a great example of how VRChat, often derided for its overall levels of anarchy and jackassery, actually can provide safe spaces where people can have mature conversations, connect with each other in a meaningful way, and develop real psychological benefits.

This YouTube video is a compilation of stories demonstrating the profound psychological changes that can occur when people immerse themselves in social VR experiences. The compilation was created by Noah (a.k.a. Psych), one of the three regular hosts of Endgame, who is currently getting his Ph.D. in clinical psychology. It is highly recommended viewing!

What Does the Early Success of VRChat Teach Us About Social VR?

vrchat-logo

There’s an interesting new article on the IBM iX blog. Titled Why is VRChat so popular, and what’s it mean for the future of virtual reality?, the writer, Cole Stryker, looks at some of the things that VR developers can learn from the recent success of VRChat. He says:

VRChat is the closest metaverse we currently have to the OASIS described in Ready Player One. It’s intuitive, customizable, and allows for the kinds of crazy mashups of characters and environments from different fictional universes that let fantasies run wild. Compared to the alternatives, VRChat is simply way more fun.

The downside of this freedom plagues every virtual space: griefing, or it has come to be known, trolling. VRChat is rather anarchic, and it is still working on developing good tools for users to block those who just want to annoy or harass. According to Wagner James Au, author of The Making of Second Life and the social VR news site New Word Notes, Linden Lab (the developer of Second Life) is still, all these years later, dealing with trolls. But he explains that this openness has been a blessing and a curse.

It’s one reason why Second Life has maintained a pretty large active user base of long-term users, while it’s also failed to gain and keep many new ones… On the plus side, VRChat definitely has much of the same free-form anarchy that made Second Life so exciting 10-12 years ago—the feeling that you’d log in and were sure to encounter some crazy burst of mad user-generated creativity. Even much of SL’s early griefing was entertaining and inventive (if you weren’t a target).

One of the things that Cole notes is fundamental to VRChat’s sudden popularity is the fact that it is also accessible to non-VR (desktop) users. He also states that immersion is a key factor in uptake:

The avatars that populate VRChat allow for immersive elements such as eye tracking and lip syncing. This isn’t new technology, but players accustomed to virtual environments like Second Life or World of Warcraft are often surprised when they interact with characters who can blink and dance and move their lips with a range of motion. This makes for surprisingly lifelike, often humorous interactions.

It’s a good article, and I urge you to go over to their website and read it in full. It should also be required reading for staff at Linden Lab and High Fidelity and all the other companies that are now trying to break into the potentially lucrative social VR market.

The Sansar Newsblog Has Changed Its Name to RyanSchultz.com

The SansarNewsblogis now

I have decided that I’m not going to wait for Linden Lab to issue brand guidelines for Sansar. I am rebranding the Sansar Newsblog under my own name. (I’ve held the domain name for well over a decade, and this is the perfect place to finally use it!)

All of the old blogposts are still searchable and accessible, and almost all the Sansar-related blogposts have been tagged with the tag “Sansar” to make them easier to find. All the old URLs should still work as before.

Along with the new name comes a new focus. I will no longer be focusing near-exclusively on Sansar in this blog. Instead, I will be expanding my coverage to provide “News and Views on Social VR, Virtual Worlds, and the Metaverse”, as my new blog tagline now states. Platforms covered will include, but not be limited to:

Note that I do not plan to write much about Second Life and its many Opensim-based spin-offs; there are already over a thousand avid bloggers who do an excellent job of that! I plan to focus on the newer platforms, especially those that support virtual reality.

I will be closing the Facebook and Google+ groups I created for the Sansar Newsblog, and creating new groups for this rebranded blog.

A Few (Second) Thoughts About the Sudden Popularity of VRChat

VRChat Panorama Picture
VRChat’s central fireplace (this panoramic photo was taken using VRChat’s in-world camera tool on Feb. 14, 2017)

As Wagner James Au has posted in his long-running virtual worlds blog New World Notes, VRChat is getting a huge spike in users due to livestreamers of the social VR platform on YouTube and Twitch:

What happened with VRChat over the holidays? Some dramatic blockchain-related announce[ment], like High Fidelity recently did? Or maybe some official Star Wars-related event, as Sansar did?

Nah, nothing as high-minded or brand-friendly as that. It was more like avatar cosplay and troll-ish jackassery, heavily embraced by live streamers on Twitch and YouTube…

I first posted about this back on Dec. 26th. Since then, I’ve watched a few more VRChat livestreams and I have some more thoughts on this I wanted to add.

First, VRChat is getting publicity, all right (this particular NSFW YouTube video has racked up 269,042 views since it was posted on Jan. 1st), but I’m not so sure that it’s the kind of publicity that the company may want. The word I’m looking for here is “notoriety”. I cringe as I see crude, sexually-related comments and content in such close proximity to children’s characters like Winnie-The-Pooh and Piglet, and child-like-looking anime avatars.

Second, there is massive IP infringement going on with VRChat’s avatars. I’m quite sure that the lawyers over at Disney are taking notice (and if they’re not, they should be).

Third, VRChat seems to be overrun with children and teenagers who are borrowing Mommy and Daddy’s VR headset. The place is pandemonium, a zoo, a freakshow.

Also, I think that VRChat is probably starting to buckle under the sudden popularity onslaught. I tried to get into VRChat for their New Year’s Eve festivities and found myself in a nausea-inducing, stuttering, shaky VR experience where one of my hand controllers refused to work, even after multiple attempts (and it wasn’t my PC; it ran flawlessly in Sansar immediately after I gave up on VRChat, so it wasn’t the fault of my computer equipment). In fact, on one login attempt, my left hand was actually mapped to my right hand! I have no idea how that happened.

So, the lesson here is: be careful what you wish for. VRChat executives probably wanted to become the most popular social VR world, and for now, they might have that prize. But as they are going to learn, there are prices to pay for that sudden success. Linden Lab learned their lesson well when they had several scandals in the past, during their media heyday, that shone a somewhat unflattering light on the company flagship product, Second Life. They banned the “banks” and the casino gambling, implemented a strict ageplay ban, and set up more stringent restrictions on the ability to access adult content. But they had to scramble a bit to play catch-up, in the full and unrelenting glare of the media spotlight. As far as I am aware, none of the SL policies I linked to above was in place beforehand; they were all implemented after something happened.

And I suspect that much the same thing is going to happen with VRChat. I predict that there’s going to be one or more scandals that force the company to put proper policy and procedures in place. And they’re going to have to scramble.

Twitch, YouTube, and VRChat

According to a recent online article by Polygon, a website that covers the gaming industry, The social VR world VRChat has attracted a lot of attention recently because of YouTubers and Twitch streamers:

Considering that VRChat is only available on Vive and Oculus Rift, the player base is still limited. The reason VRChat has skyrocketed in popularity is because of YouTubers and Twitch streamers who have brought attention to the game. One YouTuber in particular, Nagzz21, uploads near daily videos with his time in VRChat. These include weird dating scenarios, oblong takes on popular gaming avatars, drama happening between players and groups in VRChatand exploring all the different realms.

His videos have become so popular that VRChat Inc. has subscribed to him and promoted a view of his videos.

Unlike Sansar, which has focused so far on human avatars, VRChat (like High Fidelity) allows users to create non-human avatars (which requires some level of technical skill). The Polygon article notes:

Watch any VRChat video and there’s one thing that sticks out: It’s chockfull of characters that you already know. There are strange versions of Spongebob Squarepants, Pickle Rick from Rick and Morty, an assortment of Pokémon and too many anime characters to name.

This is one of VRChat’s biggest draws. Using a combination of character models, VRChat Inc.’s software development kit and Unity, players can create their own (unauthorized) avatars based on other popular figures from games, television, anime and movies.

…Multiple characters from popular culture, including Hank Hill from King of the Hill and Pikachu from Pokémon, can be seen interacting with one another. Players are able to pet Pikachu and Pokémon trainers can be seen in the distance. Much of the game’s appeal comes from players recklessly mixing and matching characters from various franchises and assuming their persona, virtually. Think cosplaying but without the expensive costume and in the comfort of your own home.

Obviously, this feature is a massive draw for some people. I’ve even had one Facebook commenter state that she will be making avatars for VRChat exactly because of that freedom to create whatever kind of avatar she wants, rather than create for Sansar. Of course, there is rampant IP theft happening in VRChat; the lawyers are going to have a field day if somebody tries to sell a Pikachu or Mickey Mouse avatar! Right now, it’s the wild west in VRChat, and everything is being given away for free.

Anyway, I thank what Sansar really needs is a few Twitch or YouTube livestreamers with a sufficiently large audience. For example, the phenomenally popular YouTube personality PewDiePie has posted a video of his VRChat adventures that has pulled in 2,828,337 views so far!

Of course, PewDiePie has over 58 million subscribers and makes millions of dollars from his YouTube channel! If I were to start YouTube livestreaming in Sansar, I would not have nearly the same pull! So the key here is not to get just anybody to start livestreaming Sansar. The key is to get a livestreamer with a large audience to start playing in Sansar.

As I have mentioned before, High Fidelity has already started a handful of livestream shows to promote their social VR world. To date, none has quite taken off like the VRChat streamers’ shows, but hey, at least they’re trying their best.

Of course, Drax and Strawberry’s Atlas Hopping remains relatively popular, and both Strawberry Singh and Draxtor Despres livestream each episode to YouTube. And just this month, Sam and Boden Linden launched another planned monthly show where they visit and comment on Sansar experiences. It’s a promising start.

So, what do you think it would take to get someone like PewDiePie to visit Sansar and livestream it? Anybody have any favours they could pull in??