Constructing Reality Dysphoria
(Image: “The Vitruvian Anime Woman”, 2022, made with GNU Image Manipulation Program and natalie's avatar)
It is recommended that you read the Virtual Reality: Two Months in post before reading this one, as it might be interesting for you, the reader, to draw differences between those written moments of my life.
After practically a year since I bought my Meta Quest 2 headset, and after all that happened to me with it, I can confidently say that Virtual Reality technology has changed my life, hopefully for the better. I plan to go on some details of what happened between these snapshots of my VR usage, and hopefully some ideas about the future. I purposely left this piece to be written after the Meta Connect 2022 keynote, as I wanted to see the state of the company that I have shackled myself to by buying the headset.
Part 1: Exercise
One big thing that is now a part of my life is exercise. I, as a heavy computer user, had a sedentary lifestyle, and that became worse after the COVID-19 pandemic kicked into high gear and I had to stay at home for protection's sake. I noticed that some parts of my health were starting to go sideways and one of the things I have started doing in the beginning of 2021 (headset bought in Oct 2021) is exercise more, however, it was hard. Attempting to get my legs moving every single day was a very difficult task for a mind that keeps spinning on new things to do, and my hands had to do something as well. I tried running, I couldn't try biking, and so, I was very unstable on the schedule of my exercise.
That changed once I bought the headset and found out Beat Saber is an actual thing. Turns out that when you have already played osu! and know the speed of Camellia songs, translating that into “dancing” was a game changer, because now I could listen to the very high BPM shit that I loved banging my body around to, but now in VR! One drawback of Beat Saber itself for exercise is that it is very wrist heavy and after a while I started developing wrist pain after play sessions, even when adopting a style that was more dynamic. When you move to very high complexity beatmaps, you don't get much of a choice on body movement. Your head stays still, and your arms look like pasta being moved around.
However, I found a different game through Ave. Currently I'm heavily into on Synth Riders and I have a consistent schedule to play it at around 2.5 times a week, with around 30 minutes per session.
Part 2: Socialization and Identity
VR enables a higher level of abstraction around social interaction that I did not think existed before. Let me unpack that.
I would say that a core part of life (as a conscious being) is to play with who you are. As kids, we play with the parts that we align with and refine our image as time goes on, and we add or remove parts of ourselves as things happen. VR takes this to another level by enabling the role play of the self to happen in different physical forms, and you can argue that things like makeup artistry are closely related, and I agree! However, not everyone has a knack for makeup itself, as we do need the skills to move the chemicals around in skin, have to deal with rinsing it out, and in general, that exploration can be slow. When you are in the digital space, that iteration speed is much faster, and this doesn't apply to VR either, text mediums, of which I have communicated in a lot, have the same property.
What VR socialization platforms provide compared to the other Internet communication tools that we have used (voice, video, text) is the body language aspect of it, and when you combine that with the capability of custom avatars, that enables a much richer conversation level. While in a voice chat, I might have synchronization issues with someone else as they might not be fully focused on the conversation, but in VR, there is nothing else to lose focus on (of course, latency, world setting, general environment changes can change, YMMV). In a video chat, there is the constant worry of looking good enough (very complicated when I have my background) and having a constant camera pointed at my face (I continuously have issues with pictures being taken of me by people who do I don't trust to take proper care). I feel more comfortable in a text chat compared to those two, but I miss being able to use the voice modality of myself in that area.
When both parties are in VR and agree on the implicit social rules that would let conversation flow, everything just comes together to create memorable experiences I still enjoy to this day. The tools that flourish from this environment become important value additions to communication, for example: Pens! The QvPen addon for VRChat enables me to simply run wild with drawing whatever I want anywhere and show them to my friends, while not having to worry about gathering paper, finding a pen, drawing things out, probably looking weird, and back and forth. It is because of that richness that I care deeply about how the VR social platform I have most used, VRChat, is currently running. I truly believe that spaces like these can bring massive amounts of life-change to a person, and defending the core tenants that create those changes is paramount to my experiences within VR.
Part 2.1: Possibilities of expression
VRC has implemented Easy Anti-Cheat (EAC), in a move that immediately antagonised the enthusiast core user base of the platform, as everyone there used mods for various things to do in-platform (e.g bugfixes and quality of life improvements). The aftershock of that single action is still being felt to this day, as there is a lot of background to uncover behind that single action.
The platform is basically the wild west of experimentation in social platforms. While things like Rec Room and AltspaceVR are very constrained to the design language of their makers, VRC took a 180 and let everything be made by their users, with minimal oversight. There are extremely good things regarding expression that are brought from this move, however, it is fully incompatible with being a for-profit venture capital funded startup. Startups need to make gigantic sums of profit really really quickly, and VRC has been draining through their funds pretty quickly as well, being a heavy user of cloud infrastructure, hiring a bunch of people, etc. VRC has attempted to gain more profit through a subscription called VRC+ that added you some extra perks (say, more avatar slots), but that is definitely not enough to generate enough revenue (unofficial optimistic estimates put it around 30% of the userbase).
Another avenue of monetization is creating a Creator Economy, of which content creator users, making worlds or avatars, receive direct payment from the users that wish to support or use the avatars themselves. This has been accomplished through an out-of-platform site, the biggest one for VRC paid content (though not limited to just that) being BOOTH, and, being out-of-platform does not enable VRC the company to get a slice out of that. The clear solution being attempting to make a built-in feature themselves for a creator marketplace. However, to make that happen, they must guarantee platform integrity, and EAC is their hammer for that. Believe me when I say that more will come.
VRChat's DMCA process is practically non-existent. The most famous world is a full blown DMCA violation that VRC staff know about. They have posted about this world in their own promotional material, that means that if any company that wishes to destroy VRC akin to the Viacom International Inc. v. YouTube, Inc. case, has pretty good evidence to show in court. Imagine if we get Content ID for 3D meshes.
What would the possible outcomes be?
Look at Horizon Worlds. They're going to play it safe and have announced a Creator Marketplace for avatars coming next year for their own social platform, Horizon Worlds. Of course, you won't be able to get the real 3D mesh of the clothes you buy, modify your avatar to be anything that isn't solid color human, etc.
Part 2.2: Alternative grounds?
When the EAC hammer was thrown, many of the modder userbase moved to competitor platforms, the two main ones that resemble any kind of expression freedom as VRC being ChilloutVR (CVR) and Neos VR. Neither of those have lived up to the massive expectations of being a VRC replacement. However, thanks to VRC's own move (and nebulous future), there definitely is a space for competition to rise up. I did not get first party experiences with CVR and Neos as they do not develop for the Quest 2 standalone platform, I would need a PCVR rig for it, but I'm due to get one someday, for sure. The second-hand statements I have gathered do not paint a good light of those alternatives' respective futures (caused, in general, by bad management), and I would rather have them share their own write ups, and I would be glad to link them up here, if any appear.
And as cited before, AltspaceVR, Rec Room and Horizon Worlds do not apply for the contender of being an expressive platform, and I would say that lives at the core of properly socializing with someone.
Part 3: What to do from where we are
Right now the social platform “metaverse” space is being fought by many, many companies, there are various target audiences, and I believe that none of them will properly “win” per se, but we will have the same plurality of instant messenger apps. Remember when everyone used Skype and moved to Discord? I'm waiting for Discord's major fuck up to happen and have another competitor being funded by VC cash to explode and follow the same cycle.
However, one thing that hasn't died from that IM craze is the core foundations of the Web, as it is its own freedom that enables the competition to exist. I would suggest, then, that a “metaverse” that attempts to displace the current computing platforms of today, built on HTML, JS, and CSS, should follow that same Web model. VR needs its own set of open standards that would let you make your NGINX and your own Firefox equivalents (not direct equivalents, mind you, but a general server engine to serve content, and a general client engine that lets you explore content through a set of interfaces, which at the moment are the keyboard and mouse).
If you can provide that tooling, you (well, the project) would become immortal. Nobody can sue F5, Inc. (current owners of NGINX) or Mozilla for a DMCA violation, they only provide the protocols for content that can come from anywhere else to be viewed, and then the owners of the servers hosting that content would be the liable party, just like the current Internet is right now. There are many possible issues with this idea, but I think it is feasible to exist in the current landscape of VR devices. I do not think Horizon Worlds would need a new Quest 3 headset to even move in that direction, just let creators explore the capabilities of the silicon millions of people have gotten from you (well, Qualcomm, but I digress).
Part 4: Hardware
There were two relatively major hardware releases this year in the standalone headset space. This section is very small as I'm not a hardcore hardware enthusiast.
PICO 4 is what a Quest 3 lookalike would actually appear as, taking the same lessons of the Quest 2, making it a smaller form factor. However, as the headset does not really provide something akin to VRChat, or something compatible with my PCVR friends, I can only consider the headset as a PCVR headset itself, using some sort of link cable or Wi-Fi streaming, which is what I already plan to turn my Quest 2 into already, the upsides being more balanced (fuck the Quest 2 default headstrap), and being on the side of actual competition against Meta's hardware.
The Meta Quest Pro was announced today and it is NOT made for any sort of proper consumer user. It is priced at 1500USD, and it is heavily targeted towards companies that want to buy them in batches and want their employees to “work in the metaverse” and “build their models within VR” (even though they're not properly advertising the platforms that would actually make that happen, so I don't see why a business would want to buy something that is on unstable ground at the moment).
In relatively minor news, the Meta Quest 2 has gotten a price bump from 300USD to 400USD, opening the door for competitive headset makers like PICO to hit that price point. And there are possible leaks of a Meta Quest 3 coming out in 2023, but as it's all leaks and no proper substance, I won't speak much on the matter
Part 5: Conclusion
I hope that the future is bright and that expression can be ultimately defended by those who prioritize that the most. It is a hard battle, but I still have to hope, or else nothing will get done at all. The “neat”ness of VR technology has grown within me in a way that I do not think I could properly handle not having access to it on a weekly basis. You could say this is addiction and escapism, but isn't all of humanity's ventures some sort of escape from our current stage either through fictional stories being played in various ways, or through technology like the Internet which completely changed the grounds on the distances between people?
I still enjoy it myself and have had a lot of fun exploration that can't be properly expressed in my day-to-day activities, but only when I can write this post that I can put it in a longer time frame and draw metaphors that I hope can get across on how much this has become one of my passions.
I plan to write another post on October 2023, containing the next year's outlook on the VR landscape. Until then, good luck on your endeavors. I am open for words on the “blog at l4.pm” email.