Sansar and VR / AR in the press

AppliedVR: VR support for hospital patients. Credit: AppliedVR (see below)

This month has seen some interesting press pieces popping up concerning VR and Sansar since the opening of the Creator Beta. However, three in particular have so far caught my eye as they appeared, as they offer interesting perspectives and discussion points both on the Lab’s new platform and on VR and AR as a whole.

The first – and most recent, is Barely into Beta, Sansar is making social VR look good, by Alice Bonasio, which appeared in The Next Web on August 18th. The title caused some to question Sansar’s social capabilities, but the article itself was more about Sansar’s overall status and development, rather than zeroing directly into the medium of “social VR” per se. In this respect, it opens by clearly underlining the platform is still in its early days, and there is still much to be done, using a quote from Peter Gray, the Lab’s Director of Global Communications, to do so:

We wanted to make Sansar available to everyone as early as possible, and there are still a lot of features and capabilities that we’re excited to add to the platform soon, as well as many improvements to the current featureset.

Alice Bonasio: looking at Sansar

From here, Ms Bonasio makes the point that despite the lack of features and capabilities which will be needed to fulfil on its promise of being a social hub, it already looks good and offers a lot to see, much of which points to the platform’s potential.

The piece also delves into some of the technical and economic factors which set Sansar apart: such as Linden Lab’s partnerships with IKinema and Speech Graphics. The former is key to the Sansar avatars utilising Inverse Kinematics in an advanced way, and which are and will play a key role in the Sansar avatar’s development. The latter is key to synchronising facial animations automatically to match speech patterns, a capability key to many of the social interactions Linden Lab hope will be occurring within Sansar.

The article also touches on some of the key differences between Sansar and Second Life, the ability Linden Lab has to take fourteen years of running a virtual world to help shape the philosophy and approach it takes with Sansar. Passing – but important – mention is made of the Lab’s ability to self-finance Sansar; given the topsy-turvy situation with Altspace VR (which may have been saved from having to close), this is an important fact to keep in mind.

As noted above, the piece has received some feedback questioning the “social” element of Sansar at it stands at present, which given the broader thrust of the article might be considered a little out-of-context. However, it is fair to say that right now Sansar does currently lack elements which could be regarded as essential to supporting larger-scale social activities. Similarly, while social interactions are possible – as demonstrated through the daily meet-ups held “in-worlds” – it’s also fair to say these can be confusing and limiting for some. For example, undisciplined voice chat can mean that that multiple conversations in a single locale can overlay one another and become confusing to those not used to voice chat.

Hopefully these issues will be addressed, along with the provision of other social elements, and I’ll doubtless have more to say on them myself in the future 🙂 . In the meantime, this article provides a good summation of Sansar for the curious / those wishing to catch-up on things.

Samantha Cole examines VR’s role in conference calls

Over at The Fast Company, Samantha Cole uses Sansar to ask Will Virtual Reality Solve Your Conference Call Nightmares?

I’ll say up-front that I’m one of the non-believers that VR will become ubiquitous for business-style conference calls for a number of reasons, and its fair to say that Samantha Cole does a balanced job of presenting both sides of the argument – whilst also offering side pointers to those areas where VR is already showing benefits (and which I’d suggest Sansar could leverage).

Much has been made of VR’s abilities to add body language, hand movements, eye movement and contact – all vital elements in adding subliminal feedback / context to our day-to-day, face-to-face interactions to one another – to give more depth and meaning to tele- and video-style conferencing. In doing so, the likes of the telephone and “traditional” means of this type of conferencing have been somewhat “demonised”. Emphasis is laid on things like network latency, or the extra mental effort involved in reading into people’s words when you can only hear their voice or see their head / shoulders, as “limiting” such interactions.

But the truth is, we’ve been using the telephone for decades as a business tool. It’s fast and convenient, and as adults, we’re all pretty adept on picking-up on vocal nuances. We’re also, in a business context, far more prepared to communicate directly with colleagues; if there is something worrying / irksome within a work environment / business project, most of us are pretty willing to make thought known, be they over the ‘phone, face-to-face or via e-mail. So even with the faster, lighter, better VR technology we’re promised will be coming down the pipe, is it really any kind of “killer app” for business conferencing?

Eric Boyd, a professor of marketing at James Madison University points to emerging trends within the workplace as a whole being more a deciding factor here. Many companies have experimented with remote / home working over the past 2 or so decades, and the pendulum tends to swing back and forth. Right now, as the article points out, one of the first to enter the arena of remote working, IBM, is currently backing away from it. Thus, if working practices remain centralised, it’s hard to see VR overturning technologies already in place and supported by existing corporate infrastructure, no matter what the perceptions of their “limitations”. But for those organisations continuing to embrace remote working, VR could become a useful meeting tool.

Certainly there would seem to be far better uses VR could be put towards within a business environment: prototyping, training, simulations, and so on, which seem far more likely to drive its adoption by business and industry far more than the humble conference call. In this, Cole’s pointing to VR’s potential in training and simulation and in architecture is very salient; these are very much markets well suited to VR / AR / MR – perhaps more so that conference calls.

Amitt Mahajan – taking the temperature of the VR / AR market

Writing for Xconomy, Bernadette Tansey sits down with Amitt Mahajan, a Managing Partner at Presence Capital to take the temperature at VR / AR at mid-year., which also touches on the potential for both as business platforms / tools.

While Sansar is only mentioned in passing (together with the downs and ups of AltspaceVR), the article is interesting as it encompasses the viewpoint of a company investing in VR and AR start-ups with funding in the US $100,000-500,000 range – which is small when compared to the likes of the big players, but has allowed the company to bask some significant start-ups, including STRIVR, who are in the VR training a simulation field mentioned above.

The article opens which a rapid-fire overview of the VR / AR market – including its niche status at present, which could be said to be largely down to the limitations of the current hardware (or lack thereof in AR’s case, although that is beginning to change) rather than anything else. However, the meat of the piece is where Mahajan sees the technologies going over the next several years.

What’s interesting here is that within Presence Capital, they are moving away from consumer-focused VR endeavours and more towards business and business-to-business (B2B) / enterprise VR applications as well as for AR; he points to the likes of AppliedVR and their development of an immersive platform to help comfort patients  undergoing painful procedures, and also underlines VR’s application in training.

This year’s swing towards AR is also examined: Google, Apple and Facebook are all looking to develop AR platforms, and the discussion looks at these and at the questions of standards, formats, and enabling technologies. In this, Mahajan points somewhat towards the eventual merger of AR and VR to produce Mixed Reality, indirectly pointing to how AR – augmented reality – could actually become an enabler of VR (something the likes of Qualcomm are working towards with Android and their snapdragon chipset), simply because it will allow both to coexists as tools people can switch between according to needs.

All three article make for interesting reads, presenting a broad range of perspectives not just on Sansar (in the case of Alice Bonasio’s piece) but on VR and AR as whole.

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AltspaceVR: the return

Courtesy of AltspaceVR

Following the announcement of its closure, Altspace VR is still open. I’d actually been holding off on this since Ciaran Laval first drew my attention to the news on August 16th, in case further details were forthcoming.

As I noted towards the end of July, the company had been planning to close shop on August 3rd. However, following the closure announcement, the company apparently received an outpouring of support – and with it, apparently the means to say open. This prompted an announcement on August 15th that the platform would be continuing:

It has been a roller coaster of a ride for our team and our community since we announced that AltspaceVR was coming to an end. We are elated to follow-up that dismal proclamation with some very good news: AltspaceVR is going to live on…

Thanks to that outpouring of support, we’re now deep in discussions with others who are passionate about AltspaceVR who want to guarantee that our virtual oasis stays open. We feel confident saying to our community that you don’t need to find another place to meet your friends in virtual reality. AltspaceVR is not closing down.

It’s not clear on exactly with whom the company has been in discussion – and that’s primarily the reason I’d been holding back on covering the news, lest further information was forthcoming on this matter. However, speculation following the announcement is the Oculus Rift co-founder Palmer Luckey may be involved in trying to maintain the company’s viability. He tweeted a poll following the news of the company’s intended shut-down, asking followers if he should step in. He then re-tweeted the news that Altspace VR would remain open, which further stoked speculation of his involvement.

AltspaceVR: avatar customisation

Techcrunch were perhaps the first news outlet to cover the evolving situation, with writer Lucas Matney noting:

It’s honestly unclear what to make of the sudden shutdown and un-shutdown announcements and whether they were just efforts to grab attention and put together a last-minute deal, but it is apparent that AltspaceVR still has their work cut out for them as they look to carve out a niche in a crowded social VR space that still has Facebook to compete with. 

He goes on to note that sources close to the company indicated that it had laid off several of its employees and had shut down the majority of its servers. However, the AltspaceVR clients all remain available for download, and the platform can be accessed and used (they’ll be hosting a solar eclipse event on Monday, August 21st as well).

Whatever the future of AltspaceVR, given its high-profile nature, the turmoil surrounding its survival highlights the risks associated with virtual reality when reliant on venture capital – and the benefits of being self-financed, as is the case with platforms such as Sansar – which is not so say there are no other risks involved in building a “social VR environment”.

Looking at Altspace VR’s closure

Courtesy of AltspaceVR

Update: AltspaceVR is hoping to remain open – see my update for more (such as was available at the time of writing).

Altspace VR, once regarded by The Verge as “one of the most fully developed platforms” for social VR, is shutting down. The new came via an AltspaceVR blog post, which was quickly picked-up by a number of tech media outlets.

In A Very Sad Goodbye, the company state:

It is with a tremendously heavy heart that we let you all know that we are closing down AltspaceVR on August 3rd, 7PM PDT. The company has run into unforeseen financial difficulty and we can’t afford to keep the virtual lights on any more. This is surprising, disappointing, and frustrating for every one of us who have put our passion and our hopes into AltspaceVR. We know it will probably feel similarly for you…

What happened?
We’re a venture-backed start-up. We had a supportive group of investors that last gave us money in 2015. It looked like we had a deal for our next round of funding, and it fell through. Some combination of this deal falling through and the general slowness of VR market growth made most of our investors reluctant to fund us further. We’ve been out fund-raising but have run out of time and money.

In all, AltspaceVR raised some US $26.3 million in funding through two rounds of investment, with US $16 million raised in 2014, and a further US $10.3 million raised in a second round of funding led be Raine Ventures. Techcrunch reports other investors including Comcast Ventures, Dolby Family Ventures, Lux Capital and Rothenberg Ventures.

Playing Dungeons and Dragons in AltspaceVR. Image courtesy of Techcrunch

Initially, AltspaceVR was seen as quirky given the initial avatars were simple in approach compared to virtual world platforms, but users who tried it out tended to be attracted by the platform’s ability to offer virtual spaces for socialising, giving the company something of a lead in the so-called “social VR” space which is now the subject of much talk. Fellow blogger and VR / tech expert Austin Tate was one of those who dipped his toes into the application, and he offered insight into things as it opened its doors, including a look at the interactive capabilities then on offer.

At its height, AltspaceVR reported around 35,000 monthly users on the platform, who use it for around 35 minutes each per day. That might not sound a lot by Second Life standards, but considering the slow take-up of VR outside of certain niche areas of early adoption, it’s actually not bad and perhaps indicates there is potential for VR environments where people can get together and share time and (web-based) content (the platform also offered a dedicated SDK for building “in-world” content and games).

Certainly, the take-up was enhanced by the push to make AltspaceVR genuinely cross-platform in approach and accessibility  – although some of the claims around the application, such as it hosting the “worlds first VR wedding” did cause some eye rolling among established users of virtual spaces given just how long wedding in VR (albeit without fancy headsets) have been going on. Nevertheless, the platform has developed a loyal and supportive community – and may have done as much as anything else to convince the likes of Facebook that there is something to the “social VR” thing.

Elsewhere, the news of the closure is likely to be seen by some as a stroky-chin-I-told-you-so moment, quite possibly with sagely negative nods towards the future of Sansar and similar platforms. However,while Sansar is making a play for the “social VR” space as well, it’s important to remember that AltspaceVR is a very different, more focused beast than Sansar, despite some (incorrectly) labelling AltspaceVR as “Second Life for VR” in the past.

The recent AltspaceVR MACH event featuring Bill “the Science Guy” Nye showcased the use of “social VR” space for outreach whilst also, perhaps, highlighting some of the applications’ limitations in terms of fidelity and immersiveness. Image courtesy of AltspaceVR

Sansar is clearly aiming for a much higher sense of immersion, with far more involved capabilities which will allow it to function as an effective platform across a range of potential markets and audiences and meet the needs of a broad range of use cases. However, it is perhaps a salient reminder as to just how nascent the current VR market really is, and why keeping a weather eye on how things progress  – and the time frames involved in seeing them progress – is vital.

In the meantime, AltsapceVR is unsure as to what might happen in the future, the blog post noting that the team has poured a significant amount of effort into the application, which might be “foundational” to the development of “social VR”. As such those behind the company would, “love to see this technology, if not the company, live on in some way, and we’re working on that.”

For those engaged in AltspaceVR, the announcement of the closure is worth reading through in full, as it offer tips on saving photos and friends lists, and how those using the SDK might see the web content they developed for AltspaceVR live on elsewhere. There’s also a note that come Thursday, August 3rd, there was be a final party in Altspace VR, which will culminate in the doors closing at 19:00 PDT.

A salient warning about “social VR”?

Will social VR of the kind currently being developed really be what a mass market is looking for? (image via Upload VR)

Balaji Krishnan appears to be a man on a mission: to offer a wake-up call to those engaged in the nascent world of “social VR” that the kind of future they’re chasing might not exist. He’s most notably pursuing this mission in op-ed pieces. In March he put his case Upload VR under the succinct title: In Why Social VR Probably Won’t Work the Way Social VR Developers Think, (subsequently reprinted on May 1st by PSFK.com). In April he followed it up with a more targeted piece for VentureBeat: Sorry, Zuck: AR & VR won’t replace TVs or phones.

In the first article Krishnan – the founder and CEO of Dabkick, which credits itself as developing the first “true Social VR experience“, states his case pretty clearly through the title of the Upload VR article: that social VR may not work the way most “social VR” developers – he notes Valve, High Fidelity, AltSpace VR, Linden Lab and Facebook in particular – expect.

Balaji Krishnan

This is not to say he thinks these will fail; rather than they won’t achieve the kind of mass-market prevalence we’ve seen with the likes of smartphones – the technology VR is often touted against as having the same disruptive potential.

Now, to be fair, I don’t agree with all of his points. In particular, the slow growth in the volumes of shipped headsets to date is not indicative that they won’t grow faster in the future; particularly as the technology finds its footing and the price-point computational power required for high-end systems comes down and overall quality and ergonomics of headsets improves with future generational developments. But – and here’s where I do agree with Krishnan: the hardware and the price-point aren’t the key to getting VR to appeal to a mass market.

Rather, the key to getting VR viral in the manner of smartphones is presenting it as having a convenient relevance to people – whether as a source of entertainment or social engagement or business or gaming or whatever – that’s important. And that’s actually a tough nut to crack.

The pervasiveness of smartphones is in part down to their sheer convenience and in part down to the organic way in which their capabilities have naturally grown to encompass applications and uses outside of voice communication. In trying to find the “killer app” for VR, it feels as if it is being forced down various paths in which it is unlikely to succeed in the same way as the smartphone (image via the BBC)

Take smartphones for example – as Krishnan does.That they have become a central pillar of many people’s social activities, spawning an entire ecosystem of applications and opportunities for sharing and creative experience wasn’t planned or engineered from the outset. It came about because someone realised that just as MP3 players could offer music on the go, then so could a ‘phone. And if you stuck a camera on a ‘phone, people might like to take pictures with it. It was an organic process – one which never lost sight of the ‘phone original intent: a convenient means of communicating, and built on that convenience over time until the smartphone became an indispensable part of our daily lives.

DabKick’s “social VR experience”

However you look at it, VR isn’t anywhere close to the ubiquitous nature of something like a smartphone – nor, really, can it be.  So trying to present or engineering a future where it can be is perhaps shooting wide of the mark. And really, the idea of “social VR” is another way of trying to engineer a future for VR which might not really stand up to the litmus test of what a “mass market” actually wants.

As it is, we’ve had around a decade of organic development and growth of a “digital social ecosystem”; one that offers many, many ways of engagement which are flexible enough to meet our needs wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing.  Krishnan argues that if “social VR” is to succeed, it must feed into this ecosystem, nurture it, support it and add value to it; seeking to simply “revolutionise” it isn’t enough. It must be intuitive enough to be used quickly, easily and conveniently wherever someone is and whatever they might otherwise be doing. if not, then it’s unlikely to spark people’s imaginations enough to buy into it as massively as is hoped.

So where does that leave something like Sansar? On the one hand, and as I’ve oft stated, it is pretty clear that there are markets where VR can have a significant impact. As such, if Linden Lab can hit all the desired nails on the head, then the platform could enjoy considerable success within those markets. On the other, the idea that it could become a broad-based “social” environment, outside of very specific use-cases, perhaps doesn’t stand up so well, for the reasons outlined above. Simply put; people can already undertake wide-ranging social activities through digital means, individually and collectively; simply dangling “VR” in front of them may not necessarily persuade them they need to change how they’re doing so.