Hello from The Edge
of the Universe
Hello from the edge! I hope everyone is keeping well.
I’ve been fascinated lately around the broader cultural impact of the social virtual reality scene, that has grown so much recently. A few years ago I wrote a short article exploring how ‘games these days are like travelling’, because game worlds have become so vast and complex, visually rich, and because there is often so much to discover in them. In the article I theorise about a hypothetical service that help people discover the best places or experiences in game worlds, without having to go through all the effort of completing the many hours of discovery effort, missions, and battle that might involve. I figured that’d be valuable to some!
There’s a similar process happening in social virtual reality - with weird, fascinating and beautiful community-made places popping up on many platforms, such as Sansar and VR Chat - and built on the widespread success of Second Life, which is still going strong also.
Sometimes huge effort goes into these spaces, and it is a hugely creative scene. And as users build out their own fantasy environments, free from the limits of the real world (no gravity!) some truly amazing and unusual places are being created.
The complete freedom creators have to build anything their imagination desires in a virtual setting, combined with easy access to the increasingly simple (and often free) tools required to make them, has created an interesting cultural scene - one that should be studied and preserved, and maybe the closest thing we have to a sort of cultural movement during these lockdown time. It would be even more valuable if these places are built on truly open source foundations, but that is a discussion for another day.
But how do you find the best places without endlessly wandering through the crappier ones - or scrolling through some random person’s personal top 10 online list?
So I was really excited to speak to Matt Romein and Lydia Jessup last year about their project Virtualis, and even more so, to see it premiere at IDFA DocLab in November 2020.
‘The digital world can be a maze, with endless virtual possibilities that the uninitiated can easily miss. Virtualis addresses this by taking the user by the hand. During the one-hour tour, guides talk about the history and culture of VRChat, what it tells us about Social VR, and its impact on how we view the real world.’
There’s a nice review of Virtualis, written by Submarine Channel, here:
Of course, if you are going into a virtual space to explore more deeply on your own, or with others, you will need to think about what you’ll look like - there are plenty of standard avatars you’ll get access to, but it is becoming increasingly easy to ‘paint yourself a new self’, and to me this is exciting because the innovation here isn’t necessarily built on a new, costly toolset or skill - its using existing, often public or open source tools, and easy-to-follow processes.
Nick Ladd explains in this simple guide how he paints custom characters in Quill, and then turns them into avatars that track to your body in VR.
And finally, I only recently learned about something many of you may already be familiar with - but which to me felt worth repeating. Because once you have a virtual space, and it is open to people visiting, unexpected things start happening. This is the nature of our real world, but it is also the nature of code - game world and virtual spaces are unpredictable, even when everything is planned out.
There are few stories on this topic more bizarre than the virtual pandemic of 2005.
On September 13 of that year, the incredibly popular World of Warcraft (player count estimated at 4.88 million as of 2020) experienced an unexpected event - originating from the character Hakkar the Soulflayer, that mimicked the spread of a viral infection throughout its player base. This digital infection ravaged thousands of players, and left lower-leveled characters in an unavoidable death-loop.
“The effect, known as a debuff, was a temporary condition, but one that could spread to other players if they stood close enough to each other, just like a real virus.”
I find this fascinating because, aside from the weird connection to our current collective trauma at the hands of Covid-19, it also shows that digital spaces are equally subject to a certain amount of chaos and unpredictability - and unlike many games where your journey in that virtual world is largely planned out for you - virtual spaces and social VR are much more open ended. Serendipity flourishes.
To me personally, the border significance of this new creative form of expression, the social VR ecosystem is among the most fascinating cultural spaces we have today. There are cultural trends developing in the virtual spaces inside VR Chat, and many other platforms, which will have an impact not just on language, art and cultural norms, but our very sense of self.
It makes me think of Benedict Evans recent talks - worth seeing if you haven’t yet done so - about how the internet, software and consumer technology have reached the same point as the car industry did when it became a commonplace means of transport.
“The first 50 years in the car industry were about creating car companies. The second 50 years were what happened when everybody had cars. You create McDonalds and Walmart and everything else.”
What timeline can we imagine with the much more nascent developments in social virtual spaces? I’ll be thinking about it, and maybe will write a bit more about it soon.
Mean time, stay safe everyone.