Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jun 12 2023

Two Stages

So I performed on two very different stages this last weekend.

Hauling my instruments across the bridge in the wind and rain to Chez Paradise wasn’t pleasant, but we had to practice at least once before we headed down to Longtan to play a show in the large covered square in front of Longyuan Temple. Practice? you say incredulously. Yes, dear reader, although we usually wouldn’t need to go to such extremes, the Ramblers were down three players this game, as Cristina, Zach and Thumper were all off in distant lands, frolicking with familial folks and whatnot. We called upon the Auxiliary Rambler Forces, namely Sylvain and Hu Chun, who have come to our aid several times in the past, to fill in. But we needed to practice. I’d thought I was running late, but it turned out that I was the first to arrive (after David, who is house-sitting at Le Chez). Slim was under the weather and didn’t appear for another couple of hours, but he was looking sharp (if tired) when he did.

Our driver Mr. Gao, top-knot well-coifed as usual, met us in the alley; we packed into his van and headed down the jam-packed highway. Soundcheck was at 4:30, and we were met in front of the temple by Chenbl’s “Little Aunt” (his mother’s youngest sister), who is herself a famous street singer in Longtan. Her nickname is Xiao Long Nu (小龍女), known for her melodious singing voice. Everyone remarked at the family resemblance, not just in looks but in singing voice; Chenbl also loves to sing and is quite good as well…his aunt told us, “Chenbl was always singing Teresa Teng songs as a kid!” which is eminently believable. David, being the coffee aficionado that he is, had sniffed out the best coffee stand at the street market in front of the temple, so I joined him in sampling tasty some ice coffee, along with a cinnamon bun from a neighboring stall.

We went through soundcheck for all our instruments; I had clip-on mics for my trumpet and baritone, and the bass mic was booming nicely. We had to wrap up quickly as the gods, upon their palanquins and accompanied by lion dancers and various high-level officials, were returning, their imminent arrival heralded by the usual fury of fireworks. We had some time before the show, so I threw caution to the winds and left my umbrella in the temple green room, setting out for a stroll up the street and around the eponymous lake of Longtan where people were paying to take dragon boat rides across the water under the big white bridge.  I took a detour through a covered side market when it started raining again, by an old camera shop whose window contained the same camera that we had when I was growing up, an Argus Seventy-Five. It was the first camera I ever knew, and one which I was always walking around the house with, looking down through the glass viewfinder. When I got around to researching it, I found that it was actually not that great a camera, but I had fun with it before I got my own camera (a Pentax K1000) when I was 15.

Chenbl's aunt took this pic of us playing on the stage at Longyuan TempleOur show was supposed to start at 8:30, but the stage was full of Very Important Politicians/lion dancers, so we didn’t get on stage until a little later, and our show was cut so short I didn’t even play the baritone, and the trumpet for just one song (At least they didn’t cut our pay). Chenbl’s aunt sat in the front-row section reserved for Very Important People (“Everyone here knows me,” she said, and I believe her), making videos and taking selfies with us in the background, and the crowd seemed to really enjoy the music. And while we were still the Muddy Basin Ramblers, it was a rather different experience minus the missing members…softer, less raucous. Not worse, just different. Sylvain and Hu Chun played wonderfully, of course, but you can’t replace saxophone and violin with guitar and mandolin and expect the same sound.

Mr. Gao whisked us back to Xindian much more quickly after traffic had died down in the late evening, though it was still raining. I hauled my gear back to the Water Curtain Cave and went straight to bed. It had been quite a day.

Then I woke up on Sunday morning and wondered if the comedy show was going down.

Allow me to provide a little background: A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on one of the VR groups I belong to, inviting people to attend a VR recreation of the famous improv comedy show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” called, imaginatively and no doubt for copyright reasons, “Whose Turn Is It Anyhow?” I’ve long been a fan of the show, so last Sunday morning I showed up at the space in Meta Horizon Worlds, and while talking with the organizers, was invited on stage to participate. I demurred at first, wanting to see exactly what they were doing, and although some of the younger participants had, uh, questionable taste in their choice of jokes, it was actually an interesting experiment. So when they asked me again if I wanted to go on stage, I said ok.

And I gotta say, it was a blast. They organized mostly the same games as the show, with four players on stage, and while there were some technical issues, it went pretty well. I had to really think about what I was going to say, but also react quickly. The organizers and the audience both seemed to like what I was doing and invited me back. I said we’ll see.

So, back to Sunday morning, just out of bed after a long day in Longtan, drinking coffee to revive and recover: I thought, I need to take it easy today, but…what the hell, let’s see what they’re doing. I went back to the space, inviting my friend Sean, who also grew up in Florida, and immediately felt a little foolish when we arrived as the place was empty. “I guess they’re not doing it?” I said, disappointed, thinking, but it had been such a good idea.

The Whose Turn Is It Anyhow stage on Meta Horizon WorldsThen a bunch of avatars popped in and waved to us. “You’re in the wrong instance! We’re at the new space!” Oh, ok. We ported to the new space, and it was full of people. I was curious to see if the first time had been a fluke, but no; I spent the next couple of hours on stage doing improv with the other three players, and again, it was SO much fun. We did the alphabet game, the bachelor game, and Questions Only, where I was a little too good, leaving my partner stranded on the sidelines for nearly the entire time (That was rude of me btw; I will try not to do that in the future). The organizers had wanted to do Props, but the mechanics were wonky so they held off on that one, which is a shame as that’s one of my favorite Whose Line games. One of the player’s native language wasn’t English, but despite being out of the loop regarding certain cultural references, she did a great job. The room stayed maxxed out (which isn’t saying a whole lot as the Meta Horizon rooms are only able to hold 30-something people), but someone was streaming it on Tik Tok, so there was that.  The jokes definitely got more than a little risqué, and I’m sure that the Meta staff were “observing” the space, but at no point did anyone get out of hand or disrespectful. Horizons is the best place for that kind of thing, due to the fact that the Meta avatars are better and more animated than avatars in other spaces (so far…we’ll see what happens when Apple really gets into the game; their first attempt at a headset, the Vision Pro is already amazing in so many ways, not least of all price). The way my mind works, I have been thinking of better versions of what I said on stage, which is a little concerning, but then again, probably better to be fixated on that than my usual array of anxieties.

People have told me they could never get on stage in front of people, and I get it. Slim, as animated as he usually is on the stage, is always muttering “Heebie jeebies!” before shows, even though we’ve been doing this kind of thing for literally decades. I don’t really get that nervous in either case, but it was interesting to compare the two experiences. I actually felt more exposed on the VR comedy stage than I did on the real life musical stage. Perhaps that is because I’m used to playing music on stage and more or less know what I’m doing, whereas I’d never actually done improv before this. There are also many common elements between the two, e.g. reacting to other players, coming up with new lines, responding to the audience, timing, volume, tone, etc. Both leave me feeling emotionally drained and high at the same time, weirdly.

Perhaps in the future, as more of our lives move towards online experiences, and virtual and actual worlds meld into each other with MR and AR development, the whole concept of “being on stage” will evolve into something entirely different than how we think of it now. Certainly with the disappearance of “mainstream” media as the defining factor in what and whom we chose to engage with, the way we move socially in any space is being redefined.

There is of course the potential for all of this to devolve into a massive dumpster fire, but then again it might actually bring people closer together. In any case, it should be interesting to see where all of this goes.



posted by Poagao at 3:42 pm  
Mar 16 2023

In the End

The world was about to end, and here we were.

I was chatting with my friend Cassius, a music producer in the U.S. whom I’d met 41 months earlier according to the window above his head, beyond which I could see the river and mountains that surrounded the campfire, set on a grassy cliff on a bright sunny day. I’d met many of the people I’d come to call friends there, including documentary photographer Abdul Aziz and saxophonist Steven Strouble, both of whom introduced me to even more interesting places, galleries and studios where creative people could gather and talk about all the art and music being created and on display around them. So I figured the campfire would be a good place to watch the world end, as that was where I’d first experienced Altspace, a virtual reality social world that had been bought by Microsoft in 2017, saving it from dissolution. 

Now the company had decided to condemn the community to that very fate, on March 10th, 2023. We’d been told 10 p.m. would be the deadline, but then it was announced that everything would end at 2 a.m.

Naturally, everyone had showed up to watch, catch up, and just be present for what we all felt was the premature conclusion of a historic accomplishment in online social interaction. There are other VR social spaces now, such as VRChat, Horizon, Spatial, etc., but Altspace had that peculiar blend of just enough freedom combined with decent moderation and connection tools that let community events blossom. When I first encountered it in the late teens, using what now seems like a laughably primitive Samsung GearVR headset, Altspace only allowed for robots and basic Lego people-esque avatars, but these were then replaced with much more expressive representations that were cartoonish enough to avoid the uncanny valley while still providing a wide choice of attire and features that static screenshots mostly fail to convey. Mouths moved with our speech, and our eyes flicked and blinked in a realistic fashion based on the algorithm some coder at Microsoft probably worked for months perfecting. Now, of course, headsets are beginning to offer face and eye tracking to increase immersion and expressiveness in avatars. 

Alas, that was the last significant update, and as Microsoft shifted its attention elsewhere and adopted a more hands-off approach, moderators were withdrawn, leaving us more or less to our own devices. Thankfully the communities in which I was active were largely self-moderating. While I often felt uneasy in other spaces, always on alert against being surrounded by mocking children or toxic “adults”, Altspace would show me where my friends were, often all in the same space, and off I’d go to hang out and chat and learn and just feel a part of a supportive group of cool people. It was enormously satisfying to just kick back and listen, talking sometimes but often just chilling, drifting from conversation to conversation, amid a group of talented, interested, intelligent and empathetic individuals with all kinds of backgrounds and origin stories. 

It wasn’t always wonderful, of course. People still engaged in the inevitable petty beefs with the accompanying drama. Some people would get drunk and/or high during events such as the Freestyle Power Hour, where anyone could go up to the mic and rap or play or whatever they wanted. That venue was in a basement space at the opposite end of a nighttime alley from the shell of a white 1970’s Cadillac coupe nestled behind a chain link fence. I played a few times there myself, accompanying others to the netlagged beats, and while there were times the content of certain inebriated freestyling ventured into questionable waters, those in attendance were also free to call others out on their BS, and we could all talk about it. In the end, everything was cool.

Other spaces I loved: The Harlem Film House, a complex located in the middle of a street of brownstones. It featured not only a full theater, lobby and immense gallery, but also, if you knew which black wall to walk through, the Boom Boom Room, a golden, glimmering 30-era Art Deco space with piano and drums on a small stage, stately cigar bots, and chicken and waffles served at every booth. World-builder Kipp York made other vast, exotic space-based worlds that gave swank space-age vibes, planetoids floating majestically overhead. Someone made a virtual Waffle House, which had been the scene of riotously hilarious exchanges when everyone got together there. Other people ran talk shows and standup comedy events with lavishly appointed sets and audience spaces. Much more serene but no less delightful was a comfy Scandinavian house rendered in exquisite detail, its muted white and gray decor accented by the pattering of rain outside, perfect for just sitting alone and contemplating. 

I’d visited my own Altspace home, a bright loft apartment overlooking an oceanfront city, one last time earlier that final day to save some shots to remember it by after it too was gone. I’d hung up my photos there, printed large on the walls so that others could see my work properly, the only place in the world where that was possible outside of expensive and time- and space-limited gallery shows. 

After the world failed to end at 10, I traveled to one of the many apocalypse-themed events, most of them crowded to capacity. I found myself in a field of waving grass filled with sound of crickets and birds, the other people surrounded by auras of various colors. As the clock ticked down, the host warned that he would be muting everyone so they could meditate up until the end. “Whatever you have to say, say it now,” he said. 

I decided there would be more than enough silence after tonight. I tried to get back into the campfire, but it was full, and in any case I didn’t feel like ending the world in the midday sun, so I went instead to a dance club where many of my other friends had gathered for the final moments. It was a boisterous affair. I was glad to see my old friends Ty, Key, Moshef, Sasha, Blue, and Micah, all familiar faces, voices and attire, from Moshef’s wool cap and dreds and Key’s electric turquoise hoodie to Micah’s usual orange patterned shirt and trilby hat, and I was just enjoying being in their company, chatting and pretending that the world wasn’t about to end. The DJ played “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” as the clock ticked down to the last few minutes; people were trading contact information to make sure we could find each other again.

Two o’clock struck, and…we were still there. “Are things slowing down?” Micah asked. I thought the frame rate might be dropping, but I couldn’t say for sure. Three minutes passed, then four. The DJ had launched another playlist. The walls and ceiling flickered briefly. We kept chatting.

Then, at precisely 2:07, everyone stopped moving, and silence fell as the music abruptly ceased. I found myself looking around a room full of mannequins. Several seconds later, the room vanished, replaced by a text box floating in an empty space, reading: “Connecting, first attempt of 10.” Nine attempts later, the program closed. Around the real, actual world, hundreds, perhaps thousands of actual people took off their headsets, severed from their friends, their spaces, their community. 

It was over.

I put my headset away and went to bed, feeling empty but thankful that I’d at least been there until the end. The next morning I got up looking forward to joining my friends in Altspace before remembering that it was gone. The people I knew were out there, but scattered among other platforms, spaces that didn’t feel as safe or inclusive or welcoming. We might find that again, but the future of VR is perennially in doubt.

Why is that, though? Why has this form of communication always been so ridiculed? In the early days the hardware was cumbersome and the experiences less than pleasant, but those days are long gone for most purposes. The mood today for VR enthusiasts feels like being laughed at for being a nerd, being into video games and anime back in the day…now that those things are cool and mainstream, VR has taken their place. In any case, the objection would seem to be the same: “You are rejecting our presence, taking yourself out of our realm of control and interacting with people other than us, people you have chosen over us, people we can’t see, and that makes us hurt and angry.” People who want to put the pandemic behind them might have exacerbated that sentiment, VR perhaps coming to represent another vestige of those years of masks and social distancing. Or maybe they’re just still mad at those kids who elected to play D&D instead of playing with them. And as more public spaces disappear and more people move from neighborhoods designed for personal interaction to the isolation of gated communities and high-rises, I feel while text-based social media, which has proven time and again to be simply disastrous when it comes to fulfilling our social needs, is not the answer, VR very well could be.

There’s a simple reason for this: You don’t tend to find the mass hysteria encouraged by enraged text-based social media in VR; by its very nature, conversations only happen among limited groups of people, just like real life. Unlike in the physical world, however, nobody is on their phones; if you’re there, you’re engaged. If someone is bent on making trouble, things go pretty much as they do in “meatspace” minus the possibility of physical violence. And that aspect is huge – the feeling of physical presence without the threat of physical danger, something that most articles about VR completely ignore in favor of shallow discussions about resolution and polygons, but it creates the potential for more honest and compelling interaction in some ways even than physical reality, where the omnipresent specter of potential physical harm, ingrained into us over thousands of years, can cast an ugly shadow over any interaction. 

That said, while people unfamiliar with virtual reality may fear that it will replace physical reality, its true value lies in overcoming the limits of text-based interaction. VR interaction is miles away from the torrent of rage-inducing proclamations that make up Twitter/Facebook/etc. Think about it: When you see a problematic tweet, the tendency is to respond on the same impersonal level to those lines of text. If you’re talking with someone standing in front of you who wants to communicate basically the same thing, 1) they most likely won’t state it in such absolutist terms but more in the context of the conversation, and 2) your reaction is most likely also going to be different, couched in conversational terms designed to communicate with that person rather than respond merely to the statement. In other words, VR interaction represents actual people communicating with each other on a level that text-based platforms do not and cannot match. 

Unfortunately, this massive benefit most likely is what is turning off major CEOs throughout the tech industry, as the inducement of rage, i.e. what the social media companies deem “engagement” is what drives their business model; the bigwigs have decided that VR is not in their best interest. After all, their “enshittification” model has always been to dangle the tantalizing idea of meaningful interaction as bait to get us into a space and then whip it away so we can buy their shit instead. While you can see how they have been trying to use VR to that end, it doesn’t seem to be working as well as they’d predicted; people are insisting on being people with each other, not text-producing rage bots, and where’s the profit in that?

In the days after Altspace ended, I sought out other members of our now-displaced community elsewhere. Replicas of the campfire had been created in the other worlds, some better than others. Horizon’s limited world-building tools produced the poorest results, but the VRChat version was almost identical, down to each tree and log. 

Both were empty.

I traveled to a mountain retreat in Spatial to find Kipp sitting alone on a couch watching a movie on a giant screen that kept glitching its way up the mountain until he had to go fetch it back. Blue came in and we chatted a bit, but it wasn’t the same. I came across Cassius, full of his usual grand plans, in a club environment he’d created in Horizon, but the vibe was different; our sense of community had become a sense of exile. I joined some world tours in VRChat designed especially for former Altspacers, but the avatars there are either entirely unrealistic or so realistic that the lack of animation is just creepy, and people change their avatars so frequently there that there’s no consistent look to anyone, resulting in a reduced sense of presence. While Horizon is making great strides with their avatars, the worlds being created there are so far quite basic, and of course Meta’s censorship practices are problematic. 

So far no one has been able to match what Altspace had done, and now that Altspace is gone, it’s even more likely that they won’t even try.

I’m not arguing that Altspace was the pinnacle of VR social interaction; obviously we can and should do better. It just represented not only a special time and place, but a vibe that I’ll always remember fondly, a place where a group of people could come together and communicate, create and dream. What’s next should be up to us, but I fear that a future where are able to interact with each other online as people rather than through bursts of impersonal/inflammatory texts will only be fought tooth and nail by corporations that are only able to see value in our purchasing ability rather than our humanity.  

My cynicism could be misplaced, though. I hope it is, and that, in the end, everything will once again be cool.

posted by Poagao at 6:23 pm  
May 22 2022

Above and Beyond

I just finished the VR version of Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. There are six “missions” in the game. It starts out in Tunisia, takes you to occupied France, England, though the D-Day invasion at Normandy, through to various battles in Europe, on planes, parachutes, trains, motorcycles, ships, sleds and submarines, and finally a rocket base in Germany before a thrilling escape sequence. The game was first released in 2020, but was ported to a standalone VR version just this year. Obviously some compromises in the graphics had to be made, but with the quality set to high the game looks fine and runs smoothly. I’ve never been much for the shooting part of shooting games; I’d much rather enjoy exploring the spaces and atmosphere, and this game does that well despite being a few years old and made for mobile VR.

Now that I’ve finished it, I feel like I’ve just completed a series of good books…happy that I got to experience it, but a little sad that it’s over, and wondering what’s next. Though the lines of the NPCs are scripted, they’re reasonably well acted, and the feeling of immersion with the environment was good in general and sometimes even quite strong. I turned off the accompanying music as it interfered with the sense of being there, and sometimes lingered in spots to just enjoy them. There’s the time right after I’ve jumped onto a German train from a motorcycle; I just stand and watch the scenery go by, walk around the engine listening to the sounds it makes, maybe taking a seat in one of the cars and sitting quietly for a while looking at the luggage on the racks, at the wood and leather seats and all the other little details as the mountains and forests slide by outside. The game doesn’t care if I linger, so linger I do.

At another such point that sticks in my head even more than the storming of the beaches in Normandy (which is intense, obviously), I find myself behind a little shack in occupied France in the late afternoon of a sunny day, and I watch through a gap in the wall as the German commander orders his soldiers off and walks dejectedly back to the shack where he shakes his head, pours himself a drink and slowly sips it as he looks out over the countryside and sighs. It’s obvious he knows he’s doomed. I’m meant to just go shoot him, but for some reason I find myself just standing there watching him drink his Schnapps, thinking about how that moment really felt at the time. I found myself wandering around bombed-out cafes in France, wondering what they might have been like before the occupation, musing about what submariners’ lives were like while perusing their cramped bunks and notebooks, uniforms and other things. Throughout the game I just found myself stopping and just being in whatever moment I was in and wondering how it really felt to be there back in the day. On the ship heading towards Normandy before I shimmied down the rope into the landing craft, I looked at a sailor working in another craft on deck and actually caught myself thinking, “Damn I wish I had my camera on me, that’s a nice shot!” Obviously simulations are still a way from being able to even approximate the reality, but they fire my imagination and curiosity in areas of my brain that literature and movies can’t quite reach.

And here we come to the part of VR experiences that I simply cannot seem to communicate to people who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. They are fixated on how silly people in headsets look, they see references in media like Community and Lawnmower Man and all the other derision hurled at the vomit-inducing early 1990’s-era simulations that are presented as modern-day VR tech, while the 80’s nostalgia-ridden mess that was Ready Player One just created less realistic expectations. And the recent attempts by tech bros to tie virtual reality to NFTs and cryptocurrency has done even more harm to the medium’s reputation.

More and more I’m convinced that people have a deeply held, tribal-level reaction to the act of someone willfully subtracting themselves from our shared physical reality. Think of how we all make fun of groups of people staring at their phones, how people used to do the same for people with their heads stuck inside of books and newspapers. It all comes from the same place: How dare you not be a part of our tribe by taking your attention elsewhere! The VR companies have tried to combat this, portraying VR as a fun group social thing in their advertising with people sitting around together, one or two with headsets and the others watching raptly on a screen, but I feel this approach is pointless and misleading. Whenever I’ve been at such gatherings, whenever you put on a headset, you were no longer really there, and people would just leave you to it, screen or no. Because the feeling of not being in your physical location is much stronger with VR than it is while looking at a phone or reading a book. Would you want to go over to someone’s house and sit in the same room reading books or looking at your separate phones? I realize this happens, but people don’t tend to make a whole thing of it. And in these Covidian Times, it would seem like a bad idea at any rate.

So all I can do is shut up about VR in the few “normal” social situations I find myself in, unless I’m asked by someone who is genuinely curious and interested. Instead I watch as the companies fumble around trying to port this or that console game into the medium, looking for all the world like the producers of stage plays in the 1920s setting up movie cameras in the back row of theaters. I hope that someone, somewhere is working on developing the true advantages of this medium, attributes that are unique to it. Meta’s Horizon Worlds continues to exhibit the worst of humanity, simply-formed spaces low on detail or subtlety yet full of screaming kids and other trolls, as Horizon basically leaves moderation to the users, a tried and true recipe for disaster. The result is, despite the more advanced avatars they’ve come up with, a greater feeling of fear and trepidation, and a consequent lack of true engagement in those spaces. AltspaceVR, nominally run by Microsoft, has done much, much better in terms of moderation and engaging worlds, though they seem of late to want to follow Meta’s terrible example and are getting rid of some of those tools. VRchat and Recroom=more screaming children/trolls. The Multiverse is a shoddy, poorly-made sham designed to separate users from their money. It all feels a bit like the period of the Internet when everyone started to come online, and the social media companies hoovered up all the possibilities for creativity and put everyone at each other’s throats. That could happen in VR as well, but I still hold out hope that interacting as avatars with voices and expressions can pull in a bit more of our social interactions than just text, which hasn’t worked terribly well in that respect.

The next step, if we get that far, could feature a mixing of social apps and games…the upcoming GTA: San Andreas could theoretically become a place not just to play, but to hang out. Disney might be working on creating another Star Wars Galaxies-esque gaming/social world. Are the big dogs working on VR MMORPGs where users can inhabit places such as Star Trek or Hogwarts? Or are they all just sitting and waiting for someone else to do it first? MMORPGs such as Zenith and Illysia are doing quite well, and are both small independent companies with few resources. But Apple seems intent to get into the game as well, and if they take the iPod model of letting a few companies do their thing before modifying and perfecting it themselves, we might see something interesting as a result.

So people seem to see that there is potential in VR, but few seem able to pinpoint exactly what that potential is. Artificially intelligent NPCs, hinted at in the movie Free Guy, might be instrumental in providing more interactive experiences…we already have decent AI-driven bots, so that shouldn’t be a problem; rather, maintaining some kind of orderly storyline under those circumstances would be a bigger challenge. We’ve learned, unfortunately, from previous iterations of online behavior that people can largely suck if you promote hateful interactions, which media like twitter/Facebook/etc. have long been doing and seem poised to rip society apart. In fact this has been given as a reason why VR will never work, but it seems to me that the more intimate, multifaceted engagement afforded by more closely replicating physical presence online creates an opportunity to redefine the often toxic nature of online interaction.

I suspect that VR has the capability to let us see who we really are. Let’s hope that’s a good thing.


posted by Poagao at 3:41 pm  
Sep 26 2019

This world and that

Everyone at the campfire last night was talking about the upcoming Oculus Connect 6 announcements. People were speculating about new gear, new capabilities, doubting Facebook’s intentions, etc. I’ve met some interesting people there at times…other times there’s not much going on. On occasion, there are idiots. And sometimes shouty kids who have slipped past the cordon, but they are usually kicked out.

None of us were really there, of course. And there’s not even any real “there” there; it’s a virtual reality social space called Altspace. We’re all in our individual locations, living rooms, offices, cars, truck cabs at rest stops…wherever. The portability and ease of the Quest has made it easily the favorite gear to use to access these spaces. I’d been using the Sideload app to gain access a month or so before the official release, but now it seems like just about everyone there is using the Quest; you can tell because they move their hands and heads and walk around in sync with their actual physical selves.

This adds another dimension to communication beyond speech: Headnods, fistbumps, daps and other gestures are now all part of the mix…just seeing someone look away or put their hand behind their head when they say something tells you more than mere speech would. And, generally, just “being” there, with full motion, in the 3D environment that you move about in freely. Even the audio is spatial; you can pretty much tell who around you is talking even without looking to see which Lego figure (which is what most of the avatars resemble at this point; a new system is in the works, however…Altspace people say they’re rebuilding it from the ground up) or robot figure is speaking. Why some people chose more human avatars and others choose robots is a fascinating topic by itself.

I’ve witnessed roast sessions and rap battles, and yes, they were most entertaining. There’s even an amateur improv show every week, stage and all. By early next year, supposedly, our hands will be mapped directly from the headset, rather than using controllers. These are people in all corners of the world, yet somehow standing next to each other, just talking, as if you bumped into them on the street. And since the streets these days are filled with people texting on their phones, it actually feels refreshing to just talk with strangers from literally anywhere, as if you were together. The armor of the keyboard warrior is somewhat thinner; these are your actual words, not text to impress and be impressed by; you hear them as does everyone else in the vicinity. It’s…different. You can still be a jerk, of course, but when doing so, you feel more like a jerk than you would just typing impersonal letters on a keyboard.

It should of course be noted that Facebook itself is launching Horizon, its version of a virtual social environment, though after seeing how Facebook censors certain voices and allows others to voice BS, I can’t say I’m not concerned that that space could end up being similarly toxic.

But it’s strange, the feeling of presence in these places that don’t exist. After greatly enjoying the first episode of Vader Immortal, a canon Star Wars story produced by LucasFilm, I’m looking forward to going back into that world for the newly announced Episode II. And it does feel like actually going back there; the detail and atmosphere of these worlds can be jaw-dropping. When a door opened in front of me in a corridor and a stormtrooper charged out, I literally jumped back and said, “Oh shit!” while my virtual companions actually dealt with the situation. Not the most heroic of actions (I suspect I’d be rather useless in a real Star Wars environment), but honest at least. And at another point when we were edging along a shelf high above Mustafar, I just sat down on the ledge for a minute to enjoy the view of the lava and occasional TIE fighter flying by, even though my droid kept reminding that we were, uh, like, kind of in a hurry, you know? Being chased, threat of imminent capture…any of that ring a bell? The dialog is actually well written, I have to say. And the view was nice (again, I would suck at actual Star-warring).

But the point is that I was there.

Some friends have expressed concern that these virtual environments will cut off our connection with the real world, but, perhaps ironically, I find myself with a renewed appreciation for the details and subtleties of said world, sometimes just letting go and looking around me at all the wonderful things that, if they were part of a simulation (as some argue this world actually is), are so intricate and beautiful. Could it be that virtual reality’s greatest gift is an appreciation for actual reality? That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to meeting up with Monsieur Vader once again. Dude is downright intimidating when he’s standing in front of you, threats in his voice as well as his stance and movements. It’s a good thing there’s no real way to “lose” the game (that I know of), because I suspect one of the smart-ass remarks I make to him would earn me a force-choking.

Whenever I see VR being discussed on “traditional” media such as Facebook or tech sites, many people seem to have long-since dismissed it, especially after Spielberg’s dismal rendition of it in Ready Player One. It’s mostly tech people who are dissatisfied with the specs of the gear involved. “Deal killer” is an oft-mentioned term (then again it’s the same for camera gearheads). But there seems to be a general gulf of awareness between that world and the Internet As We Know It, like using radio to convince people to try television (which eventually worked? I assume?). Will it become impassible, or will it eventually disappear? Time will tell, I guess. When I started this blog in early 2001, even such things as smartphones weren’t even around yet, but after a few first-iteration clunkers, they’re now so commonplace that hardly anyone would entertain the thought of leaving the house without one. Will it be the same with VR? Noted photography critic A.D. Coleman wrote in 2014, “Much of the incunabula in any new medium tends to rely on mere novelty — look, I can do this! I can do that! — because its pioneer practitioners have to concentrate on mastering the toolkit, and the technology is unfamiliar and cumbersome…Once they learn how to control the tools, and the tools become more sophisticated and easier to handle, creative attention gets turned to what the artist has to say.” So it would seem that we are in this first, vital stage of the medium’s development.

What happens next? Maybe we can talk about it at the campfire.

posted by Poagao at 12:44 pm