Outshined by virtual reality headsets and video games, virtual worlds persist by proposing collaborative or social DIY experiences. Review of the most maker-compatible.
The release of the movie Ready Player One on March 28 consecrates the resurrection of virtual reality (VR), started in 2012 with the Oculus Rift headset. The movie directed by Steven Spielberg, based on Ernest Cline’s eponymous anticipation novel published in 2011, is not about a headset but about a virtual world. Even though the glasses resemble present technology, they give way to Oasis, a total simulation, the visitors of which call themselves citizens.
The last time we heard such terms in this context was to talk about the “residents” of Second Life, a virtual world born in 2003, the content of which is designed by its users. The German archivist Bernhard Drax made a series of portraits of “slifers”, entitled World Makers. Although he doesn’t refer directly to the maker culture, these 3D tinkerers encourage you to draw a parallel with the maker movement.
“World Makers”, episode 45, Bernhard Drax (2017):
Second Life like Minecraft are sandboxes which denote these video games without a story line that offer creative tools. Their attractiveness relies on the inventiveness of their users, of whom it is often the first contact with 3D modelling or programming. The attachment to the environment, the variety of DIY content and uses that result from it take them out of the video game category into virtual worlds. They however keep the video-entertainment imprint by remaining proprietary software, even though today, in the same way as open source clones of Minecraft exist, the Second Life client under free license since 2007, allowed the emergence of open simulators, open source virtual worlds.
Virtual worlds were only marginally associated with the new wave of virtual reality because manufacturers of VR headsets essentially relied on the video game industry to speed up the adoption of their technology. But the renewed interest in social VR and the success of the ARKit development model could well change the story. New virtual worlds and creative platforms, compatible with headsets, have emerged.
The masters of parallel worlds
High Fidelity: the most experimental
High Fidelity was created in 2013 by Philip Rosedale, who is no other than the founder of Linden Lab, architect of Second Life ten years back, of which he left his post as CEO in 2008. Capitalizing on the enthusiasm for immersive VR from 2012, Philip Rosedale proposes with High Fidelity a more open vision of the virtual world, under open source architecture (Apache 2.0), compatible with the 3D modelling tools and immersion devices. Philip Rosedale will base his first demos (praised) on movement detection and facial recognition.
Use of movement sensors in “High Fidelity” (2017):
Second Life: the most community driven
In 2003 in San Francisco, Linden Lab opened the beta version of Second Life. The platform offered a modelling tool and its own programming language. straight away. Objects could be copied or modified by others. You teleported yourself in each other’s homes, on a persistent and single territory, a revolution at the time. After several years laying the foundations of a shared society, the local currency became convertible. Ambitions were honed and speculation on virtual land raged. Utopias, however, did not flee, just like Burn2, the virtual twin of the Burning Man festival.
In 2006, Second Life was under the media spotlight and, despite its sulfurous smell (SM communities, etc.), companies settled in. Linden Lab counted on the community to act as small hands. But ill-adapted technology like the rise of social networks put an end to the Linden Lab pro offer in 2010. The studio had to recapture users sent to fight a losing battle: more stable servers, opening to external 3D tools, shadow management, etc. Despite all that, Second Life was not finished: according to Wagner James Au, historic blogger from Second Life, Linden Lab would have reaped between 48 and 57 million euros in 2017, that is to say at least as much as its users (48 million euros). The community developed rival browsers allowing connections to opensims, open source virtual worlds, the most famous French representative of which is the Francogrid.
Minecraft: from childhood to artificial intelligence
One no longer presents Minecraft, the cubist world with 57 million users imagined in 2011 by the Swedish game designer Markus Persson aka Notch, nor its educational virtues. It has a VR mode compatible with nearly all VR headsets. The open source software Mineways even allows you to convert your creations in 3D print files and certain fablabs use it to build their community. Minecraft,acquired by Microsoft in 2015, hasn’t finished expanding: The Richmond firm uses it in research on artificial intelligence through the open source project Malmo.
VRChat: trolls’ delight
Founded in 2014, VRChat functions as a hub of static or interactive 3D experiences created under Unity (3D motor). VRChat highlights its compatibility with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and favors voice to communicate. In 2017, VRChat received 3.2 million euros in funding, HTC included, and became available on Steam, the number one video game distributor platform. Gamers will find in VRChat a social way to let off steam, that the virtual reality of headsets lacked. The platform offers the finest hours of Twitch.tv that allows you to broadcast live video game play.
But it was recently, on the occasion of an avatar suffering a fainting fit for real, that the platform became a topic of discussion. In January 2018, during a VRChat, session, an avatar collapses – his user, equipped with a motion capture system suffered a fainting fit. The other avatars surround it and give it advice. Within a few weeks, VRChat gathered nearly 3 million new users. Among them, some learn about Unity to add an experience to the thousand presently available.
Sansar: too attractive to be DIY?
Sansar is the new offer from Linden Lab, the producing company of Second Life. Open in July 2017, the platform was thought out to compete with Unity motors or Unreal by simplifying the creation of virtual reality experiences thanks to its modelling tool (but remains open to importation). Sansar is obviously compared to Second Life, the profitability of which served to fund it. But here, no amateur constructions. Sansar is attractive in every way. Experienced creative people from Second Life were poached to create the initial content. It’s attractive…but a bit boring. Sansar however won a contract with Warner to recreate the Aech garage from the film Ready Player One. To be followed? If Sansar does not find its public, Linden Lab will face a dilemma: bet on Second Life again or kill the goose that lays the golden eggs to hope for an exodus towards Sansar.
Decentraland: the blockchain over the shoulder
Developed by two Argentinians based in San Francisco, Decentraland is an architecture designed to host VR experiences relying on the crypto-currency Ethereum blockchain. The purpose, in particular, is for users to benefit from their creations without the supplier of technology feathering his own nest in the process.
“Decentraland”, trailer (2017):
The developers nevertheless imagined a way to fund their project. On September 17, they organized “the largest virtual land auction sale ever made”. Some 3,000 buyers acquired more than 70,000 plots, called “Land”, of which they will be able to claim ownership from a virtual land register recorded on the blockchain. From there, they will control the content of their Land that could go from static 3D to games or still services. We do not know when the first experiences will be open to the public but the partnership agreement made by Decentraland with Otoy, an important actor of virtual reality, is reassuring with regards to the technical potential of the project.
Elysium VR: becoming citizens
Still at a project stage, Elysium is a virtual world, quite far advanced in its design, that offers users the opportunity to invent their own scenarios. It is already possible to become a citizen against a donation (from €12). The community aspect does not end there: all proposed content will be subjected to a vote before appearing in Elysium. Also based on a crypto-currency (still the blockchain), it allows you to be connected permanently via a smartphone application.
Occupy White Wall: the virtual gallery manager
Occupy White Wall (OWW) proposes to its users to create 3D art galleries and offer their visits to an avatar. The project of the English from Stiki Pixels presents itself like so: “Saying that it’s a construction game on PC, a MMO managed by IA where people play with Art, developed by people who really like architecture and abstract characters…would be a little exaggerated.” And yet, it is what constitutes the interest of this platform in alpha that has at its disposal a catalogue of works of art, in which to pick from to build a shared exhibition experience. The avatars are like the the concept, based on the wooden dummies used as drawing models.
Visiting a gallery in “Occupy White Wall”:
Styly: the DIY Japanese VR for fashion
Styly is, like Sumerian from Amazon, a platform that allows you to create VR experiences without a single line of code, directly from the Web, and hosts them for free on a server. Developed since 2016 by Psychic VR Lab, a Japanese studio specialized in the creation of AR/VR applications in the fashion world, Styly offers rather fun basic elements, even real kitsch. The difference with Sumerian, is that Styly is very open: you can incorporate elements from social networks but also from Sketchfab, 3D Warehouse, Unity, YouTube, SoundCloud, Maya, Blender, SketchUp and even Google Tilt Brush and Google Blocks.
TheWaveVR: the most live music
TheWaveVR is a platform for immersive and interactive musical experiences through VR headsets. The studio based in Santa Monica in California works with artists to create live concerts in VR. In August 2017, when Trump started the visa crisis, Ash Koosha, musician of Iranian origin, produced himself in front of an American public thanks to TheWaveVR. The platform, restricted to the American market (due to discussions on music rights), also offers to create and manage one’s own musical events through the application available on Steam.
Ash Koosha in concert in “TheWaveVR” (August 2017):
TheWaveVR, having received 3.2 million euros in funding, has very recently distinguished itself twice during the American festival of interactive media, SXSW : on March 15, it proposed a live musical experience in VR around the film Ready Player One, and put on a show on March 17 for the closing concert of the SXSW video game section.
When the monsters step in
Sumerian: VR for all from Amazon
Sumerian is a multi-platform experience creation platform for headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive launched by Amazon in November 2017. Only accessible to subscribers for now, Sumerian allows you to create your project from a web browser and invite visitors. According to Amazon, no need for specialized knowledge since you choose and organize elements at your disposal: characters, furniture, landscapes, scripts and animations. The VR or AR environment is stored and published in the Amazon cloud and accessible via a URL. In direct competition with Unity, the Amazon solution is first and foremost intended for training or sales experiences. Not very maker…
Google Maps: its API for playing fields
Google has just announced the opening of its Google Maps API for video game developers at the same time as a software development kit (SDK) compatible with Unity. Because it isn’t just about geolocation but also about 3D content: 100 million 3D buildings and roads will be able to be imported into Unity to cover them with new textures. On its blog, Google already sees game studios “reimagining our world as a medieval fantasy, a bubble gum candy land, or a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic city.” Games under Hollywood license (Ghostbusters, Walking Dead…) are announced. We imagine that the prices (undisclosed) will not be affordable for everyone. Not necessarily, announces the most maker of the year!