#1192: The Last Moments of AltspaceVR, Athena Demos’ Eulogy & Retrospective Journey into Social VR

AltspaceVR closed it’s doors for the second time on March 10th, 2023 at 10:08pm, and Athena Demos was there to bear witness to it all until the very last moments. She shared an eulogy again that she had first shared during The Polys livestream, and I had her read through what she had said. On March 13th, I had a chance to catch up with Demos to hear about her journey into social VR through the Burning Man community and helping to produce and translate the 2015 scan of Black Rock City into a virtual Burning Man during that pandemic in 2020 that I unpacked with developer Greg Edwards and Demos in 2020. She went on to found Big Rock Creative XR and produce a number of different virtual events with AltspaceVR throughout the pandemic.

She’s working on producing an immersive narrative experience tentatively titled BCRvr Immersive that features the scan of Burning Man with a series of different stereoscopic footage vignettes to give you an immersive documentary vibe of the Burning Man experience. There will also be some multi-player features as well. She shares both her grief of loosing her digital home and community within the the context of AltspaceVR as well as her gratitude for Microsoft for providing this free service so long. It’s still a bit of a mystery even to AltspaceVR’s staunchest community members as to the exact reason why Microsoft decided to pull the plug on AltspaceVR, and she shares inside scoops for how she first heard about the news. Demos is at cutting edge of developing new grief rituals and social VR community organizing dynamics as she continues to produce virtual events and experiences as she shares her surprising journey into VR in this emotionally authentic debriefing interview that we were able to have at the end of day on March 13, 2023.

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the future of spatial computing and the structures of immersive storytelling. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So in today's episode, we're going to talk about the end of Altspace VR, which actually had this kind of shutting down initially, and then Microsoft was able to acquire it in a fire sale, and then on March 10th 2023 at 10 o 8 a.m. Pacific Time They pulled the plug and they had the end in life of alt space VR And so I had a chance to talk to Athena demos who was there for those very last moments of alt space and she shares her experiences of what it was like to be there at the very end of the social network platform that she found a lot of connection a lot of community and We go into her whole story of originally going into a birthday party and then she and Greg Edwards had created this whole scan of Burning Man back in like 2015 and was optimized to be able to create that into this immersive experience within Altspace of all the different platforms. I would have not guessed that Burning Man in the middle of a pandemic would be held on one of the platforms on Altspace VR. But here we are with Altspace being the host of the virtual Burning Man both in 2020, 2021, And so she was a part of BCVR, which is Big Rock Creative. So she had done a lot of different amazing work over the course of her time in AltSpace, both being a community organizer and leader of this amazing Burning Man that happened in 2020. I did a whole interview with both Greg Edwards, as well as with Athena Deimos, going into the different principles of Burning Man. And so, yeah, that was a real turning point for me to see the potential of how to translate something like Burning Man into a virtual platform. with all of its limitations and flaws, but still the power of creating this sense of social presence for folks that would normally be a part of the Burning Man community, having the burn be shut down because of COVID, and having these virtual representations. And so she talks about her journey in AltspaceVR, and in the aftermath of that, they're creating a whole, like, immersive documentary, self-contained social app that is taking a lot of what they were able to build in the context of AltspaceVR and be able to export and create their own self-contained app. And so they're in the process of developing their own application where they could have this community that was on Altspace be dispersed across all these other different immersive platforms. And she also gave this really amazing eulogy at the Polly Awards, but also at the final moments of Altspace VR, which she also shares in the context of this conversation as well. So thanks for coming on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Athena happened on Monday, March 13th, 2023. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:50.748] Athena Demos: My name is Athena Demos, and I am co-founder and CEO of Big Rock Creative. We've actually now done a lot of projects, but we initially got our start by producing BRCVR, which is an official virtual Burning Man experience on the AltspaceVR platform.

[00:03:05.837] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into doing these types of immersive virtual reality experiences.

[00:03:12.980] Athena Demos: Well, for me, I come from a film background. I've done a lot of films, both in front of and behind the camera, and then also large scale event production. So everything that I was doing before COVID was about bringing community together. And now everything that I'm doing since COVID is about bringing community together. Except for now, we're doing it in a virtual space.

[00:03:35.798] Kent Bye: Great. So yeah, I know I saw the BRC Blackrock City VR in 2020. We did a whole interview about that. That was like one of the more epic experiences I had during the pandemic, just to see the scale of Burning Man and to be in alt space, which was a surprising choice, but ended up being actually like It kind of made sense in the way that Altspace was kind of like this other, almost neglected or not as widely used. And so it was really interesting for me to see most of my activities were networking at Microsoft events with professionals and then the Burning Man community. So it was sort of like a weird mashup in some ways. But yeah, I'd love to hear about your journey into creating these virtual worlds and Altspace. You did the Burning Man a number of years, but also I saw you a number of times doing other things as well. So I'd love to hear just your journey into doing that virtual reality component, which we talked about before, but just to recap and get people up to speed as to your transition into this virtual world.

[00:04:32.069] Athena Demos: Sure. First of all, I just want to say I'm a producer. So a lot of people think they say, oh, you created all this stuff. No, I'm the producer. I'm the one that brings all the pieces of the puzzle together, building a team, building community. I'm a community builder. So that is my role in this. I didn't actually build any of the worlds, but I have phenomenal builders around me that did. So it all started with COVID, actually. The pandemic was shutting everything down. Burning Man couldn't happen anymore. And a project that I was a partner in in 2015 with Greg Edwards sort of fell flat back then because 2015, we really didn't have what we have. Now fast forward to 2020, and he had already modeled the playa for that project. And my other business partner, my current business partner, Doug Jacobson, I needed to have a big birthday party because it was a very special birthday that year. We're all 1970 babies, so 2020 was a big year. And he couldn't. He couldn't get together. So he reached out to Greg to say, hey, do you have a world? I found this great space called Alt Space. It's got an awesome vibe. I want to put a world up there and throw a party. And that was sort of the beginning of it. Greg's like, well, I got the playa. Why don't we try that? And he put it up there. And next thing I know, I'm getting a phone call. I had just gotten to Mexico, narrowly escaping the borders closing in Panama. And I get this phone call. And it's Greg. And he's super excited. The whole world is in fear. And Greg's like, oh, my god. Open your computer. Download this app right now. So I do. And he walks me through the process. And I end up. like standing on the playa with Greg and Doug. Like I was there. I was just on my computer, but I was there and I was talking to them. And it was a super compelling experience. So that's when I realized I need to reach out to the Burning Man organization and let them know that we have this thing and we're going to move forward. And a week later, Marion Goodell announces the cancellation of Burning Man due to COVID due to public safety. It just wasn't safe to hold an event like that. And she said something really interesting, which I love. I love this quote. She said, you can cancel Black Rock City, but you can't cancel Burning Man. Burning Man is so much more than a city in the desert. It's more than the DJs and the rock and roll and the big art and the fire. It's more than that. It's a community and it's an identity. It's a culture. It's a way of being in the world and a way for us to be together in the world. And it's based on these 10 principles. which you went into the Larry Harvey world and got to experience. And so these 10 principles Larry wrote, less than 500 words, and they're not like 10 commandments and you have to do these things. No, they're guidelines. And he wrote them just as a descriptor, as a description of what it means to burn, to be a burner, to be part of a burner community. And it's the basis of everything we build. even what we built digitally. So that vibe I talked about that Doug found on Altspace, it was because they have a set of community standards that are written like the principles of Burning Man because it was founded and created by Burners who wanted to create a culture container for Burners but in a digital space, and that is Altspace. So when we found Altspace amongst all these other, not all these other, but amongst the other platforms, it felt like home. And the community was very warm and accepting, and communal effort was instantaneous. We were all ready to participate together. Everyone was radically inclusive. And Altspace was a really special place, and there really is no other place in the metaverse like it.

[00:08:30.597] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so after Burning Man of 2020, you came back again in 2021. And then in 2022, there was actually a physical burn that happened. And so maybe you could talk about your evolution of what happened after 2020, and then to 2021, and then 2022, like your evolution of your involvement with these virtual communities in alt space and the Burner community as well.

[00:08:51.746] Athena Demos: Well, what's really interesting is in 2020, Our intention and our focus was to give the Burners a place to gather virtually, safely. And that happened, but what actually also happened is that a bunch of people that have always been Burner curious, that have wanted to go to the event but can't for the list is long reasons, And they came, and they felt like they were part of the community, and they wanted to make art. And so in 2021, we had all these digital artists and people who had just learned how to make digital art, Blender and Unity and Maya and whatever program they wanted to use. And the art went from translating your physical art into the virtual to make whatever your mind can imagine. And the art that came out of 2021 was mind-blowing. Seriously, people realized physics don't exist in VR and you can make whatever you want. One of the key elements that makes the Burning Man culture so inspiring is this permission to try. You don't have to be an expert, you don't have to go get a degree, you don't have to have a certificate, you know, whatever. Just try it. Just learn this thing, watch this video, try it. Try welding, try carpentry, try LED wiring, try blender, try unity. You know, and it might look like shit at first, or it might be awesome and it doesn't matter and no one's going to judge you because radical inclusivity has no room for judgment. And so you get to be anything you want. And in virtual reality, you really do get to be whatever you want. You can be a purple person. You can be a green person. It doesn't matter. And Burning Man's that way. If you want to walk around with purple paint on, awesome. You want to wear a tutu or a dress, awesome. And VR is very much like that. So the translation was amazing. So in 2021, we had digital artists from all over the world presenting mind-blowing art. and translating physical art in. And then we had all these honorariums that were being presented and they couldn't build their art. Everybody thought 2020, we'll just do it again in 2021. And then it was like, well, we're not going to do 2021. So we'll give it again in 2022, fingers crossed. So we had two years of art being built. physically and virtually. So in 2022, when we went to the playa, we went there to follow those artists, to continue that story we started in 2020, to capture the communities that make up Burning Man. Burning Man is a community of communities. And that is what we went to capture and to learn the essence of Burning Man and tell that story. And so that is what we're creating now. That's the BRCVR immersive documentary experience where we're meshing together the elements from the digital burns with the footage that we captured this year to tell that story in an explorable way that you can do with your friends whenever you want. to go through the footage, but then we'll also be able to throw events in this platform, inside the documentary, and to keep that story alive and bring people together just as we did on Altspace. Because sadly, Altspace doesn't exist anymore.

[00:12:21.998] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so there's a lot of things in there both from what is happening, what you're doing now, and then sort of the evolution of where you're going to be taking things in the future now that Altspace has closed down. And this is still in development, I guess, and do you have like a timeline for this? I've just had a chance to see the demo and I see a lot of the similar assets and I guess they were called like MREs within like alt space but like the aesthetic of some of the different playa experience that I saw in the context of alt space and going into this experience it reminded me a lot of that same look and feel of what you're able to create but then be able to flip into like these 180 degree stereoscopic videos that are really nice to be in the actual experience of Burning Man because you get this digital representation and that's basically my pure representation of VR is through the lens of alt space and so it's nice to go from the Architecture of these spaces and kind of go into those different vignettes of captured footage And so it sounds like you're gonna be developing your own app And so what can you tell us in terms of like your timeline or when people might be able to actually experience? Some of these things that you're making

[00:13:26.230] Athena Demos: Well, that's a loaded question. Well, first of all, there are no MREs. The MRE was the way in which we created things that you could interact with on the Altspace platform. But the Mixed Reality extension is a Microsoft piece of software that also died with Altspace. But interactivity can happen with scripting. I know that's what they do on VRChat and a couple other platforms. Microsoft just had their own way of doing that that was more secure. They were very much about keeping the assets that were on their servers very secure, and that was one of the ways that they did that. Our timeline, about three weeks ago we finally got a demo app up on the Oculus App Lab. It is not publicly available. This is our, I don't even call it a beta, I just call it an alpha. It is so early. We have a lot of different things we need to add on to it. Right now we have about an hour of explorable content, but we got to get the multiplayer done. I like to call it multi-participant, persistent world. So as people adjust things in the world, they stay there for everyone else. There's all sorts of things that we want to do that make it seem like you're there. And it's going to take us a while to get all those pieces in place. So we're hoping we can have something launchable, a beta launchable before Burning Man this year, which is at the end of August. But it might be the end of this year, beginning of next year, Q1 of next year. There's a quotient here. Whereas if we do it at the speed that we're doing it now, with the funds that we have available to us, which is not much, then it's going to take us longer. And if we get investment or if somebody just wants to fund the art of it, then it will take us less time because we can bring more people onto the project and get the project done quicker. There's lots of developers that were at Microsoft and at Altspace that would love to come onto this project and, you know, do what they've always wanted to do and take that to the next level. And we just need the investment to bring them onto the project and take it to that next level.

[00:15:35.391] Kent Bye: Yeah, because as a community organizer, you did an amazing job of gathering the community from all the people that you've been connected to with over the years at your actual physical experiences at Burning Man. And so to bring them into these virtual spaces, and then to cultivate all these relationships and connections over the three-year period, and then have the rugby pulled out from underneath you and unplugged, as it were, with the end of life with AltSpace, Then what happens to those connections communities in some ways this app is potentially providing one way for this community to have a continued existence to Interact with each other because I think that was the real value was the relationships in the world the world's are one thing but it's really the people and the relationships in their time and commitment to being there that I felt like I made it feel like similar to aspects of the Burning Man experience because I ran into somebody that I knew from like the hoop dance community from a number of years ago in this alt space experience and so I sort of knew him from the hooping community and knew he was a burner and I was in this virtual space and so I had this sort of serendipitous collision experience in a virtual space which is pretty rare honestly for a lot of different types of virtual world experiences but to have something shut down and to have that community but being is that you were able to cultivate this community in old space and that this could be an off ramp into them as you create this new thing. But I'd love to hear about your own process of onboarding all these people who may have not actually probably been a little skeptical of technology in a certain way, but as they were seeing maybe a 2D version and then getting the VR version just to see how much they were able to replicate the dimensions of the relational connections that you get at an experience like Burning Man.

[00:17:11.778] Athena Demos: I have to say, a lot of people are mad at Microsoft right now for pulling the plug on Altspace, but they gave us something really beautiful, and it was free, and it was available to us, and they were paying for it. So I want to first and foremost thank Microsoft for that, and for providing us with that outlet, and of course Gavin, and Eric, and the guys that created Altspace initially. That was a gift. It was a really amazing, beautiful gift. And thank you to Alex Kipman, who saw the opportunity to keep it going when Gavin and the guys couldn't. So that was amazing that we had that available to us. And bringing people, onboarding them onto any platform, whether it be VRChat or Engage or Spatial, there's like 30 of them out there now, it's a heavy lift. Because not only are you trying to teach someone a technology that they've never put their hands on before, but then you have to get them through the sign-up and the authorizing, whatever it's going to be, and then the functionality of how they move and how it works. Standards. We need standards. You know, interoperability comes easier when all the platforms use the same functionality on their controllers. And you move the same, or you teleport the same, and all these buttons work the same. It would make it so much easier to onboard people if all the platforms used the same functionality. But they don't, and they're a little different. And the headsets are a little different. You know, the way Oculus works, and the way Vive works, and the way Valve works, like they're all just a little different. And so if we can just agree to adopt like OpenXR standards, it would make my job so much easier onboarding people onto the platform. But we would hold Zoom calls. So I've now named a gazillion different platforms in less than 60 seconds. So we would have Zoom calls where people could come on and ask us anything. And we would put them into breakout groups of the Mac users, the PC users, and the headset users, and onboard them onto the platform, sharing screen, having them share screen, looking what they're doing, and helping them until the point where they're actually an avatar on the Playa, digital Playa. and then we would have greeters there on the digital playa to then help them take it to the next level of this is the menu and this is how you open this and this is a flight tool and this is how you fly and we are going to make flight available because it was One of my favorite things was flying around the open playa. Flying in and out of the art, flying around and checking it all out. I was at Burning Man this last year and the one thing that I missed the most was not being able to fly.

[00:20:07.295] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's one of the mechanics that was really nice to fly around the playa, and I could see how that would be a fun thing to be able to do. But you were not only just doing stuff with the Burning Man community. When I would hop into AltSpace, I would see you leading other different types of events, and maybe you could talk about some of the other projects that you were involved with, other than just the Blackrock City, because you were doing other type of work in the context of AltSpace. So what other type of activities or work or community organizing were you doing in AltSpace?

[00:20:34.312] Athena Demos: So through our building up of the Burner community, we learned three buckets of skill sets. World building, event production in VR, which is a very specific thing, and film production in VR. So because we had this full spectrum of skills that we could offer a client, we were getting hired to do projects. And so this took our little, let's do something for the community to the next level of like, Oh my gosh, we're actually getting hired to build things for people and produce their events and, and have, onboarding and greeters and moderators and do full-scale event production with streaming in and streaming out and doing film production where we would film people inside VR doing their presentations and streaming that out onto whatever social media the client wanted. or streaming their content in so that people could watch their presenter on a video screen because that presenter couldn't figure out how to get into an avatar. We'd like to meet people at the technology that they're most comfortable with. We push a little bit, but if somebody says, no, I'm not going to be an avatar and deliver, it's fine. We can still have you say your message without that happening. So some of the projects that we did, one of them that I absolutely love and honor, we premiered here at South By last year, which was Brianna's Garden. And it was a beautiful remembrance and honoring of Brianna Taylor to honor her as the woman that she was and not just the trauma of what happened to her. And that was an amazing, beautiful project that still lives on today. And we worked with Microsoft and Yes! Universe, Lady Phoenix and Joanna Popper in China with Microsoft. We all worked together to bring this to fruition. And Doug did a great job working with our team at designing the garden and the room and the flow of the experience. It was really amazing. We had volumetric captures. It was the first time that Full volumetric captures had been put into alt space Microsoft had created something called hollow portation, which is more of a 180 live performance type of situation, but this was full 360 volumetric capture video and And Brianna's mother and sister and boyfriend got to tell about who she was. And then we had other sound triggers around where you can listen to other people tell beautiful stories about Brianna. And it was a beautiful piece that we were very honored to be a part of.

[00:23:23.599] Kent Bye: Yeah, I talked to Lady Phoenix after the premiere of the piece that was at Tribeca in 2021, and then it was showing at South by Southwest with the Altspace version. And the other thing that I would just want to point out is that you are in a photogrammetry capture of the house that has all this memorial, which I thought was really moving as well. And so, yeah, just a really beautiful memorial to be able to honor someone's life and find different ways of having this oral testimony. So as you're navigating through this space, you can hear the stories about Breonna Taylor from her family. But yeah, just a really beautiful way. And then kind of just this at the end, what was happening? You kind of go to a certain destination and then another kind of memorial. What was happening at the end of the journey?

[00:24:06.701] Athena Demos: So once you walk through the garden and you listen to all the stepping stones, you walk upon a stone and you hear some audio, at the very end you go across a bridge and there's a gigantic lotus flower. And inside the lotus flower is a model of Brianna and standing next to her is her sister. And her sister comes to life and tells you yet another beautiful story of Brianna Taylor. And then there's one final world that you go into and you enter these worlds through tulip portals. So you put your face inside the tulip to smell the tulip and then you're portaled into the next world. And the final world has Lady Phoenix there. And she tells you about the work that the family is doing around social justice and the remembering of Brianna and that this is a place of healing. She introduces herself as a master gardener, which is absolutely true. She was definitely like the director of all the different elements that brought this together, the Master Gardener. And it just sums it all up. It was fabulous. And I love it was at Grace Harper and Games for Change. And it's just shown at lots of different conferences. And so we're hoping to have it up again outside of alt space so that it can continue its healing work.

[00:25:24.728] Kent Bye: Yeah, thankfully there was at least ways to export some of your different content and put it in these different contexts. But what were some of the other experiences that you were producing over the years?

[00:25:33.570] Athena Demos: So we produced, in partnership with Microsoft again, it's called Microsoft Pride Has No Borders, and it is a recreation of Christopher Park, 1969, and the Stonewall Inn, where the initial riot happened that caused the beginning of the Pride movement, which was 1970. So you're there, you're at Christopher Park, there are, again, little sound triggers so that you can hear some of the riot, or what reporters were saying at the time, or other people were saying, and then there's videos playing, You get to see the video of President Obama making Christopher Park a national monument and talking about the importance of that. We have a timeline there as well that's the history of the pride movement. And then you can go down into the subway and that teleports you to our celebration world, which is this bright and colorful, parallax artistic world that is a presentation world where people of the LGBTQAI plus community can come together and share ideas, give presentations and talks, and so that as well, we are going to put on another platform so it can live on and the community can again have a place to gather. Again, community gathering. We also created for a company called SES, we created Cricketverse, and that was for the European Cricket Network. It's a stadium, absolutely beautiful stadium, with a hall of fame and a trophy room, and it was a place for fans to gather and watch cricket games. mainly their championship game because they couldn't have a lot of people in the stadium and they wanted to have a place where their fans could gather and watch the games. And I had no idea, by the way, cricket games can last for 12 hours. Yeah, they just play and play and play until they reach a certain score. So I was like, okay, so how long do we need moderators for? Is it like a two-hour game? Is it a four-hour game? They're like, we have no idea how long that game is gonna be until it's over. I was like, wait, what? I was like, I need to understand cricket more. And so I started watching a lot of videos about what cricket is and where it came from. I learned so much about this sport. I was really fascinating. And we hosted the game. And yeah, it lasted about six hours. It was a long game, but a lot of fun. We also created lots of projects for Microsoft so that they're community of employees could get together. We recreated their 300 Lafayette building in New York, which has their garage department, which is a way for the Microsoft employees, if I'm saying this correctly, to practice their art skills. So they have materials there so that the employees can come and there's like a 3D printer and there's equipment there that the employees can utilize to gain inspiration. So we did that, and we do a lot of event production that aren't worlds that we created. So there was a wonderful project spearheaded by Millennium Art and Dreamland XR, which is also on the Allspace platform, and they were another company that did a lot of the same thing we did. So we split up, we did event production, they did world creation, and overall production, and filming, and it was for the UN Act Now campaign. supporting the 17 SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals. And the first one was the Al-Wasl Dome in Dubai. And Kaz and Christy created the dome with all the projection mapping on it and information booths. It was beautiful. It was literally one of the most beautiful worlds in all space I had ever seen and very educational. And we ran an event for 24 hours in seven different languages. And we had to have greeters and moderators and onboarding constantly running for that whole time. So it was a lot of people that we had to bring in to do it. And so we were a part of that. And then lots of other clients would come to us to have us just host their parties. Ubisoft had us, this was hilarious to me, but Ubisoft had us host their congratulation party to their VR team for finishing a game. And I'm like, but you guys are making multi-user VR. Like, why do you need us to host your party for you? But it was so much fun, because we had all these game developers, and they were inside the world just figuring out, like, what could they break? What could they get around? Like, how do I climb this tree? And it was a model of somebody's house. So there were, like, trees in the backyard and a pool. And so they were looking for all the Easter eggs, and there weren't any. But it was so much fun. fun to watch them like try to find them and find like the colliders in the trees and they could climb the tree they could get up on the roof and throw airplanes and that was probably the most fun group that we had together for an event but lots of stuff like that.

[00:30:12.400] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think I've been in that house. It was like a house party room, like place that like is a recreation of someone's house. And yeah, I think I had a moment of running into Ben Irwin there and he took a video. And yeah, it's just like for me, I had a lot of those type of memories of just kind of connecting randomly with different folks at different points of time. And I guess before we get into like the very, very end of AltSpace, I wanted to just get your take of like, What happened with alt space like what's the story for? What was Microsoft's relationship to it and for me? I just feel like it was something that was acquired through a bit of a fire sale and Maybe it didn't completely align with all these other Initiatives they have or that it seemed like they got it But they didn't quite know what to do with it, and they have like a little bit of resources But not really necessarily like It wasn't even, like, whenever Satya Nadell, like, doing these big keynotes, he would be talking about the Metaverse and all these other things, but hardly ever even mention Altspace. It was like, well, this is actually, like, the most viable platform, and sometimes you're saying this is, like, the meat, but it's actually, like, Altspace, you know, like, the nth floor from Accenture was sort of, like, based in, like, in Altspace, but yet publicly tried to be claimed it was something else. Anyway, it was something, like, almost like the ignored stepchild that was just, like, they didn't quite know how to, like, React to it or support it. I don't that's at least my take from the outside, but since you're so intimately connected like what's the story with? What was the relationship between Microsoft and alt space and what ultimately led to its demise?

[00:31:41.236] Athena Demos: I wish I had that answer for you. I don't know Microsoft's reason for pulling the plug. They never gave one I can give you a you know, interpretations, suppositions, guesses, whatever you want to call it, but I honestly don't know. I personally don't think they saw the, obviously they didn't see the value in Altspace, otherwise they wouldn't have sunset it. I think the value of Altspace, if I put myself in the shoes of Microsoft, as a company that owns this property, I would see the value as incredible R&D. You have a creator base that is pushing the boundaries of your code to mold it into what they need to be the best of humanity and to hold events and bring people onto the platform. We were actively, all of us, Evolve VR, VR Church, Educators in VR, BRC VR, and I can go on and on and on and on and on, Failed to Render, all of these communities were actively bringing people onto the platform. As a company, that's what you want. You want to increase your user base. I like calling it a participant base. So that's what we were doing and it was working. It might not have been as fast as they wanted it to be, but it was working and we were all innovating. There were so many times that somebody would innovate something and then it would get added to Altspace. The MMC, which was a video player, or the Web Projector, which was another type of video player, those were innovated by the community because it's what we needed. And then somebody at Altspace was like, oh, wow, yeah, you innovated that. Let's absolutely have that be part of the platform now. Where else do you get that? And so they were providing us a gift of Altspace, the servers and the manpower it took to keep it running. But we were also providing something. And they just didn't see the value in that, in that incredible R&D. We were brought on to work on a project with the Blind Burners to partner with them and create navigational tools for people that are sight-impaired. And we came up with an entire list of ways in which the platform could be improved that would help people that were sight-impaired of various different degrees, with sound navigation, the creator tools that creators would be able to use to make their worlds more accessible. And then they decided not to do anything with all that research and Sunset Alt Space. They had an opportunity of something really magical. And I just don't think they saw it. And I bet the person who made the final decision to pull the plug had never been to any of our events, maybe never even been on the platform. But I don't know if that's true. They've never said their reason why. And it could be something completely different. It could be completely different.

[00:34:40.790] Kent Bye: Well, I think the other larger context may be that they had the Windows Mixed Reality, which was their VR thing. They tried to do a model of cooperating with OEMs to be able to outsource this reference design model, but basically create more of an Android-like model where there wouldn't be a single Microsoft VR headset, but they would let other people make all their headsets. And relative to the consumer VR space, it was basically the worst of all the platforms. HP reverb which kind of went off and was probably like the most sophisticated and they continued to innovate but all the other ones just kind of dropped off the face of the planet and Stopped producing them and then with the HoloLens they had like the first edition and the second edition, but then they like I don't know I feel like over time They were very early, but didn't necessarily produce something that was, I don't know, actually, that's a whole other story for what has happened. They have the army contract, and maybe just the larger consumer VR and AR, maybe so much of the VR from the ecosystem was meta. dumping billions of dollars to push forth the consumer VR, but not really have the enterprise space. Microsoft was in this enterprise mindset, but because Meta was so antagonistic to the needs of enterprises with their privacy policies, and being late in initially creating their enterprise business, and then they had it, and then they basically killed it off. Anybody that was actually doing business on the enterprise space, basically not able to use even the Meta ecosystem. There was something that was announced even at the last MetaConnect, where it was like, oh, we're going to have all this Microsoft software that's going to be on the MetaQuest Pro. But yet, after they basically laid off all these people, and killed all their VR and AR programs, and got rid of Vault Space, I'm like, I don't know if this announcement they made is ever going to come to pass, of bringing all this productivity software to the MetaQuest Pro, because it feels like they gutted their entire XR aspect of their company. So I feel like there's all these other larger things that Altspace just got caught up in. These other ways that maybe the people that are really successful at VR are game developer companies that understand what it means to sort of have something organically grow through this user testing, but yet With this more top-down hierarchical mindset that some of these businesses have like when you apply that to VR Then you kind of have this like thing That's a mismatch in ways that like what actually makes a good immersive experience is different than what it takes to sort of engineer things Because they didn't build alt space they acquired it so it wasn't necessarily something that was Indigenous to their own creative processes. It was kind of like an anomaly in that sense That's at least from my outside perspective of looking at the larger context, but I guess that's like still a mystery and I had heard a little bit of rumors beforehand, but I wasn't embedded in the community. When was the first time that you got some sense that this was going to be shutting down?

[00:37:31.817] Athena Demos: I suspected that this was going to happen when we were told that the R&D we were brought in to do for accessibility for people that were sight impaired was not going to happen. There was no budget to implement those things. I was like, well, why did you ask us to do it in the first place? And then I thought, oh, no. If they're not going to, Microsoft, who is all about accessibility, if they're not going to make this platform more accessible, they're not going to keep this platform going. And actually, I started putting together a pitch idea of let the community buy the platform from them. We can leave it on the Azure servers, but let us take control. Let us raise a budget so that, decentralize it, basically. Let all these communities that are on the platform take it over. And they were like, no, that's not gonna happen. We're not gonna sell it to anybody, not one company, not a group of companies, it's not gonna happen. So the first time we got word that it was being sunset was in December. But we were told not to say anything to anybody and that's, I understand completely they wanted to wait for the official announcement, but we had so many clients that we needed to know. We needed to start migrating our clients. You know, they have active events and they have things that they're doing and it's like, you know, so it was kind. of Altspace and Microsoft to give us a heads up. And they let several of the larger communities have a heads up. And we respected their wishes and didn't say anything until after the sunset on January 20th, which was literally one week. before Reburn, which was our final virtual burn in alt space. So we knew going into it that this was what was going to happen. We knew Reburn was going to be the last, but we didn't make any announcement or anything because we wanted to respect Microsoft's wishes, mainly because, you know, they've given us this gift and it was the right thing and the fair thing to do. And we felt honored that they respected us enough to give us an extra month warning.

[00:39:36.615] Kent Bye: Yeah, when I was talking to Tinder Claws a number of years ago, after the first time that Allspace shut down, that inspired them to create Virtual Virtual Reality 2, which is all about a virtual platform going offline. And so here we are now, a number of years later, and the second time that it's been going down. So this is like the second time that Allspace has, I guess, shut down. And so the community's, in some sense, been through this aspect before. I noticed that you were a part of this big community development. There's lots of different events and platforms that were happening, you know, in the last months and weeks of Vault Space, and I saw a really beautiful elegy that you gave during the Poly Awards that then you gave again near the end. And so maybe just from your perspective, as you're kind of like Winding down the relationships of what it meant for people to be on that platform. You know it's like a death of a platform it's not a death of like Relationships because people can still carry on outside of the context But there is something unique about being situated in a context of alt space with all it's like flaws it still has like a certain amount of user interface and ways that it creates a an experience that you have a larger context of meeting with people and And as that's taken away, then you're taking away the ability to go back and have those memories again, and to also have this process of grieving both the loss of the dimensions of that context, but also potentially aspects of the community that you may not remain connected with. So love to hear what your process was for both making sense and processing the grief around that.

[00:41:13.511] Athena Demos: I haven't made sense of it yet, honestly. I didn't think I was going to be as emotional as I was. I wrote the eulogy and I just wanted it to be an outreach to the community to say, the magic was us. The magic was the vibe. We can make the magic elsewhere. There were some little secret sauces to it. The avatars were absolutely amazing. One of the things I noticed, and it would have been a good human study, is that because we were all of the same basic group of things that you could put together with your avatar, we all felt like we were from the same tribe. It's not like this person's a mouse and that person's an anime character and that person's a stick of butter and you have no sense of tribe in that. We have a human instinct when we see someone. It's like me, not like me. It's a human instinct. We can use our conscious brain to think beyond that, but it's a survival instinct. And that survival instinct doesn't get triggered when you're in VR. And when all the avatars are of the same basic tribe, you feel like we're all one. So Altspace had this sense of oneness. And then we had our various communities. So Burning Man has this sense of oneness, and then there's all these little communities within the bigger community. Altspace was very much like that. But the sense of loss I feel like somebody destroyed my city. And I can't go back home. And all my neighbors and all my friends and everyone that was in the same place with me, that I could always go back and see whenever I want, I can't see them there. And a lot of us had Unity packages that we could just upload to another platform. But it's not the same. There's just something not the same. I kind of feel like a refugee without a home, without a place to go. And we'll find home, and we'll find a place to go. And we'll build again, and the community will come together. A lot of people are on VRChat. A lot of people are on Rec Room. There's a good number on Spatial and N-Gage, and there's a couple little ones at GORA, and I can't even name them all. Chillout and something else. People are putting ASVR in their username, So that you know that that's an alt space community member there was an alt space community member who figured out a hacker who figured out how to pull the avatars off so you could get your avatar and Put it on wireframe and ready player me and upload it to VR chat or whatever and be your alt space avatar. I saved mine I haven't done the whole process yet to get it somewhere else, but I did save my avatar and But it's just not the same When I delivered that eulogy at the Polly's, it was a bit of a performance. I was on stage, I was in my headset, there was a live audience, and I delivered it. When I said it again at the closing ceremony, at the final event, I could barely get through the words. I asked everyone to look at each other, look at each other in the eyes, really look at these avatars. Because you can export the FBX, but you can't export the eyes and the way they glance at you, and you can't export the blink, and you can't export the way the mouth moves. All those things that gave us a sense of presence and human connection. That's gone. And so everybody did and they looked at each other and we had that moment of connection. And then I started reading the eulogy, which I've posted on LinkedIn so people can read it. I felt the collective trauma that we were all getting ready to, to lose our home. And there was nothing anybody could do about that. And Jeremy Nichols from Trip, together with Trip, Evolve VR, the Altspace platform. You know, a few people talked. Some people from Altspace talked. Yunji sang a beautiful song about Altspace and the community. And then Jeremy led us in a meditation, a safe space where we could just be together. And that 10 o'clock hour hit, 10 a.m. Pacific time, and we were all still there. 10.01, 10.02, we were all still there. None of us knew how long that borrowed time was going to be. So Jeremy just opened it up and we all gathered around in this like clump, like a group hug. We were avatars occupying each other's space. We couldn't get close enough together. And the heart emojis were going up. and we were just like holding and holding and then eight after we all just froze and there was like this three seconds of just frozen and then it went to black and then the error message came up and I'm sure everyone did what I did retry retry retry retry retry and then finally it said sadly alt spaces no more And I fell to my knees and I burst out crying. And I didn't think it was going to be so emotional. But it just ripped my heart out. So I said in my eulogy, it's about the community. But it really was a special place. And there will... I hope there'll be a space like that again. I have faith. But all space was... It was home.

[00:47:05.887] Kent Bye: Yeah. Thank you for sharing all that. And it was the night before I was flying to South by Southwest, and I had to put together this featured presentation that I was presenting here. And I had basically 12 hours to put it all together. And so I stayed up all night working on it. But I jumped into Altspace, and I went to one of the live streaming events that was happening on the night before. And it was surprising for me to be like, because I pop around to different platforms, but to like go back into like the alt space and just for the, like the last time, you know, I went through like my friends list. I was like, I'm going to just screenshot all these different like friends lists just to be like, I want at least some memory of the connections that I had made on this platform. But I was surprised about how emotional I had felt just by going in there. I was like, this is going to be the last time I'm going to be in here. And I popped out, and then I popped in again and ran into Neera, who I've run into a lot of times in the Allspace community. She's been a great creator, and I've just had a lot of connections with her in Allspace over the years, running into her at different events. So it felt fitting that I would run into her one last time before I had to basically get off finish my presentation and then hop on a plane and, you know, basically, like, get into this other mode of being here. But I just had that picture that I, like, I ran into you during the polys because I couldn't get in when I was happening, but I wanted to be in that space at least. And that was one of the, like, alt space 1.0 avatars that was in a coffin that had a whole, like, flowers that were there. And it just felt like such a fitting picture of the kind of the funeral aspect and And yeah, there was something about what the virtual spaces can provide us to be able to have this type of grief rituals and grieving and thought of you as I was putting together my presentation, because there is a lot of beauty in that honoring of those connections and to allow people the space to be able to be in that emotionally vulnerable place to really feel that loss. So yeah, for me, I was... Again, surprisingly moved emotionally in a way that I wasn't necessarily expecting. But there was a sense of like, I'm not actually going to be able to come back to this place. It's going to be gone. And what's that mean? I mean, websites come and go all the time. But there's something different when you have these virtual spaces and these memories and connections that you have with people. It does feel like something that is being annihilated. And you're never going to be able to go back there again. in quite the same way so I had a very similar reaction to that so yeah thank you for being there at those last moments and sharing that story because it's you know the end of the platform I was I was actually in the air flying to Austin when that was happening otherwise I would have loved to have been there just to see that moment and be there but Yeah, and I guess people can see a video of that. I don't know if there's anything more that you want to share about that experience or if you wanted to read some of that eulogy just for people to see it. If you'd be willing just to read it, I would love to hear it. You know, just for people, you know, this moment of honoring what Altspace was and how you were, you know, really thinking about it.

[00:50:19.705] Athena Demos: Yeah, let me take a moment and try to find it on my phone.

[00:50:24.467] Kent Bye: Okay.

[00:50:25.848] Athena Demos: Dear friends, colleagues, and AltSpaceVR community. We gather today to say farewell to a platform that has brought us together and given us a virtual space to connect, collaborate, and create. AltSpaceVR will always hold a special place in our hearts as it was a pioneer in the virtual reality space and provided us with endless opportunities for social interaction, education, and entertainment. For years, AltspaceVR served as a hub for vibrant communities and a platform for individuals to share their passions, whether it be all forms of art, language sharing, spirituality, or technology. It gave us the chance to attend concerts, watch live performances, meditate, and participate in interactive events from the comfort of our own homes. While AltspaceVR may be sunsetting, the creative endeavors, collaborations, and community it fostered will not disappear. We will continue to build and connect in new virtual worlds and spaces and carry on the spirit of innovation and collaboration that AltspaceVR embodied. While we say goodbye to the platform that brought us together, we will always remember the connections and memories that we made here and look forward to new opportunities for virtual interaction and community building. Thank you, AltSpace, for the memories and the legacy that you leave behind. Rest in peace. You will be missed.

[00:52:09.651] Kent Bye: It's beautiful. Yeah, thank you. Yeah, so I guess we started this with what is coming next and you have the communities going to find their new homes as they're in this limbo, liminal space as people find their new platforms and reconnections. And so, yeah, I guess as we start to wrap up, do you have any final thoughts about your time and experience within Altspace?

[00:52:41.509] Athena Demos: Altspace changed the trajectory of my life. It is the catalyst for where I am right now. It is the reason why I'm talking to you right now. It is why I know so many people here at South by I met in VR first in alt space during one of the virtual burns. They participated, they connected and they connected with me on a very internal, visceral, heart connection way. And then I get to meet them physically. Alt Space is the foundation that we needed to get to the next place, whatever that next place is. It's interesting that Burning Man had to pivot too at one point in time. They lost their original home as well. They were on Baker Beach, or we were on Baker Beach. And the authorities said, you can't be here anymore. This isn't going to work for you anymore. Go find a new home. And they were lost. They were refugees. They didn't know where to go. And then they found the Black Rock Desert. And that home was the home that allowed them to flourish, allowed all of us to flourish. And so, yeah, we might be a little lost now, but we just got to find our Black Rock Desert, and then we'll all flourish together.

[00:54:11.674] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:54:22.443] Athena Demos: Virtual reality, I believe, will give us a proving ground of how to evolve from society into humanity. We're not humanity yet. We like to call ourselves that. We also like to refer to ourselves as human beings. But to be a human being means you're a humane being. And while we strive for that, we're not really that yet. A lot of people do a lot of work on themselves to be more humane, but our little human animal sleeks through from time to time. I think in these virtual spaces, we get to practice. We get to try being humane beings to each other. That's really what we were doing on AltSpace. And then we get to take it home and be humane beings together. And together, we can become humanity in an interoperable metaverse.

[00:55:22.244] Kent Bye: Awesome. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:55:28.946] Athena Demos: I don't think so. I think I really summed it up. I mean, I really do have hope. for this evolution into humanity. I think we have all the pieces of the puzzle that we need. I also think that the more we can come together, individually, as groups, as neighbors, as family members, as community, and learn about each other, we'll fear each other less. You know, hatred is often the band-aid we put on top of fear. Fear is a vulnerability. And if we learn about each other, then we learn not to fear each other. And then we don't need this band-aid of hate. And we can all learn from each other and evolve. And we have those pieces of the puzzle to do that. We just got to API them together.

[00:56:27.057] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, Athena, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to join me today and to recount your journey through Altspace and the death and whatever is going to be reborn into this next phase. And yeah, I just really appreciate all the different ways that you're bringing the spirit of the Burning Man community into these virtual spaces and these different communities and contexts and relational dynamics that you're able to recreate. And I really look forward to where you take your next project. And yeah, thanks again for sharing your heart and your stories and wisdom with all the stuff that you're working on. So thank you.

[00:57:00.915] Athena Demos: Thank you so much. And thank you for your wonderful talk at South by. That was you were going so fast. You went over so much information. It was absolutely incredible. It was like a whole breakdown of everything that was happened and happening and is possible. And I really appreciate it. And I also appreciate the shout out.

[00:57:20.466] Kent Bye: Awesome. Thanks. So that was Athena Deimos. She's the co-founder and CEO of Big Rock Creative VR. So, I've heard a number of takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, well, I'm just really grateful for Athena to be there to bear witness to those last moments of AltspaceVR, but also for her process of bearing witness of what Microsoft was able to provide to the community. And what happened with it, I think there's still a lot of open questions as to exactly what happened as they weren't exactly completely transparent with even the community that was highly engaged with the platform. I know that there's been a lot of layoffs in the tech industry. And yeah, there's been a real dissemination of both the virtual reality and augmented reality teams within Microsoft. And so the future of Microsoft and XR is a little bit like to be determined as to where that's going to end up going here in the future but you know all space was this weird mix because it's more of a consumer facing application and most of what Microsoft does is highly enterprise and so it's kind of like this weird cultural mix of they didn't quite know what to do with it and they have different ways that they were bringing aspects of that into these different platforms and You know, Accenture had their whole nth floor that was happening in the context of Altspace. And then when they would talk about it in their keynotes, they would not even really ever mention Altspace. They would kind of like try to write off some of these things that were actually happening in Altspace were actually happening in Meet. It was kind of like a weird situation. And I think there's still a lot of open questions as to exactly what happened. But at the end of the day, I'm just grateful for Athena to bear witness to her own experience of what was happening there in those last moments and to share her eulogy. And I think, you know, in my ultimate potential VR talk that I gave at South by Southwest, I gave her a shout out because I had a chance to attend some of the Polly's experience. I was able to jump in and grab a photo of one of the Altspace 1.0 avatars that was in a coffin, and that was kind of like a symbolic image that I saw that was like the death of a platform. It was actually the second death of a platform, and I have a whole series of other interviews that are unpublished that I've done over the years about Altspace that hopefully I'll get at at some point, but I wanted to at least get this conversation out there to bear witness, marking the end of the platform, and we'll be able to dive into some of what Altspace was able to achieve and accomplish over the years as well. And I'm looking forward to seeing where they take this next iteration of their platform, which is this kind of self-contained application that has a lot of the look and feel of what you would see in the AltSpace experience of Burning Man, but with these portals that have these stereoscopic footage that took at Burning Man this past year. So it feels like a really interesting juxtaposition of seeing this virtual representation of the land that gives you some approximate idea of where things are located relative to each other, and you get some sense of the architecture. But then you're able to do a deep dive into these 180 videos that are stereoscopic that give you even more of a deeper immersive experience of some of the different cultural aspects of what are happening in the context of Burning Man. So looking forward to seeing where they take this application in the future. And, you know, like Athena said, depending on the funding will dictate whether it's going to be released sometime around Burning Man this year, which is usually around Labor Day, August, September of 2023, or if it's going to be early into next year, depending on all these different things that have to come together, that's going to dictate how fast they're able to put it all together. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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