As you likely know by now, Microsoft announced it is shutting down AltspaceVR. The pioneering platform was one of the first social VR sites that let users meet and interact in a virtual environment. Launched in 2013 and gaining traction in 2015, it was notable for its ease of use, availability on a wide variety of headsets, and the option to use it on flat screens – which alleviated some XR accessibility issues. And it was the home of some incredibly creative moments, where Reggie Watts and others did some of their early virtual performances.
It already survived one near-death experience when it came within hours of closing in July 2017 due to financial difficulties. To everyone’s surprise, Microsoft stepped in as the secret savior though it never quite found a home in the enterprise services coming out of Redmond. Still, it survived, and Microsoft pioneered several safeguards that helped alleviate some of the ongoing challenges of harassment in virtual worlds.
AltspaceVR’s Lesson for the Metaverse
We doubt anyone is coming to the rescue this time when the service shuts down on March 10, 2023. Users – especially those who built extensive environments in AltspaceVR – will face the arduous task of trying to replicate their work on another platform. The closure is an in-your-face reminder of the challenges facing XR and the creation of virtual environments, especially in developing the Metaverse.
Financing the Infrastructure of the Metaverse
For all the hype surrounding the concept of the Metaverse, no one is doing this out of the benevolence of their heart. The billions Meta is losing is part of their long-term gameplay to shift their reliance away from social media. But so far, no one has come up with a way to monetize social virtual reality experiences and make them profitable. That’s in sharp contrast to our social media platforms which have become goldmines of revenue (at the expense of our privacy). You can sell ads in virtual environments, but that’s been a technical challenge, and it has drawn resistance from users.
The alternative has been to charge for access which platforms such as Spatial have done. But those access costs – which can run $20 or more per user per month – come in addition to the steep price of our HMDs. Other platforms, such as VictoryVR, charge $20,000 to $40,000 to provide a single class of students with headsets and a virtual environment. The fact that AltspaceVR was free was always a red flag in terms of its future survival.
If monetization isn’t enough of a challenge, you have to add in the issue of interoperability. People can hype the Metaverse and roll out “Metaversities” in education, but if you’re locked into a specific platform, this isn’t the full vision or potential of the Metaverse. Perhaps in the end, we’ll end up with a dual ecosystem similar to what we have in our mobile devices – you either opt for an Apple or Android-based virtual world. But at the moment, our proto-metaverses are deeply balkanized and likely to become even more inflexible walled gardens.
In fact, Microsoft’s move to kill AltSpaceVR may undermine the industry’s efforts on XR interoperability. They also laid off the entire team behind MRTK, their open-source project to accelerate cross-platform MR development. As Tom’s Hardware notes,
This decision has been made now, despite MRTK3 (announced last June) being scheduled to ship in February 2023. MRTK was an important support project for developers, targetting platforms such as Microsoft HoloLens 2, Meta Quest, SteamVR, and Lenovo ThinkReality A3, which run on Qualcomm hardware.
It’s possible that others in the open-source community can pick up on the work done by the MRTK project, but clearly, we’re not moving in the right direction for XR cross-platform compatibility.