Immers Space implements the ActivityPub open standard in order to add a federated social graph to the open Metaverse. I had a chance to try a prototype back in December 2022 where I went from a modified Mozilla Hubs WebXR space (that had the Immers Space open source tools integrated into it) into a FrameVR.io WebXR space by clicking on a persistent interface tracking my connected friends. Just as many virtual worlds allow you join in your friends, this method starts to add a distributed social graph to the open web and therefore the open Metaverse using the ActivityPub standard.
This particular solution is facing the social networking bootstrapping problem of needing to get a critical mass of users who are regularly using it, but this early proof of concept implementation is in the process of being integrated across different FrameVR.io WebXR spaces as a distributed social graph in this more enterprise communication software context.
In my last conversation with Neil Trevett about the Metaverse Standards Forum, I noted that there were not any working groups focusing on the distributed social networking graph component of the Metaverse. Trevett’s response was that it’s a really bad idea to try to make an open standard while simultaneously doing R&D on the first implementation of a solution. It’s much better to have multiple competing implementations solving a problem before trying to standardize into a robust open standard that works across multiple different contexts. Given that this Immers Space is an early alpha prototype, then this broader process towards a distributed social graph open standard has just started to begin. I’ll be taking a brief look at Bluesky’s AT Protocol in the next interview as another emerging distributed social graph solution that also has some promising self-sovereign identity and decentralized identity implementations that are really quite elegant.
But I had a chance to unpack it all with William Murphy, who is part of the Immers Space worker cooperative and social.coop Mastodon instance run on the principles of Platform Cooperativism as well as Gabe Baker, who is the Project Manager for the FrameVR.io team working on a browser-based 3D and communication platform. Many of the most compelling social VR experiences and communities are still locked behind walled gardens, but this is one of the more robust efforts to start to build some of the required foundations to have a distributed social graph across the open Metaverse.
This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.
[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 ultimate potential of XR. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So in today's episode, I'm going to be covering Immerse Space, which is creating a social VR layer for the open metaverse. On the open web, there's no way to track who your friends are, where they're at. It's basically a single person experience, aside from the experiences that may have an ability for you to add your friends. But what if you wanted to take your friends to other applications across the metaverse? So there's actually a WC3 recommended specification called ActivityPub. It's what Mastodon uses in order to federate more of a decentralized social network. So this ActivityPub is like an implementation by Emerspace that allows you to add this social layer across the open metaverse. So this is still very, very early. This is just a prototype implementation that I had a chance to try out back in December and did an interview with a couple of folks that are working on this. And I just also recently published a interview with Neil Trevitt of the Metaverse Standards Forum. This is not a standards development organization. They're mostly trying to facilitate discussions between different standards development organizations. And in my last conversation, had a chance to talk about all the different working groups that are part of the Metaverse Standards Forum. And one of the things that was missing was how to do the social layer. And one of the things that Neil Tervet said was that it's a really bad idea to do R&D when you're trying to come up with a standard. In other words, you really want to have a couple of different implementations to choose from to see how to start to actually standardize things across broader adoption. So at the point, there's not even really a viable first implementation of this functionality, aside from what this early work from ActivityPub is going on. I've also been hanging out in Blue Sky. They have a completely different decentralized protocol called the AT protocol. It's the Authenticated Transfer Protocol, much more focused on decentralized identity and self-sovereign identity and having a verifiable identity. And that's still an emerging and developing protocol that was started from Blue Sky. And I'll actually have an interview with what is now currently the CEO of Blue Sky, Jay Graber. And I did an interview with her back at the Decentralized Web Camp in 2019. And I think it'll be interesting to hear what she's saying because there's this tension between when you're trying to create a whole social network graph and you're trying to do it in a decentralized way, sometimes you really need to have a centralized point to prove out the user experience and how it's really compelling before you start to really decentralize things. Because when you decentralize things, it just makes it really difficult and you really need to nail down the user experience and really have what is essentially the bootstrapping problem of getting enough people to actually use it. So in today's episode, I'm speaking with a couple of folks who are working on this problem. William Murphy, who's a part of a worker cooperative called Immerse Space, also social.coop, as well as Gabe Baker, who's a project manager for framevr.io. It's a team that's building a browser-based 3D and communications platform under the umbrella of Rubella. So it's more of an enterprise social communications platform that needed to have some of these social layers on top of what they're building for their enterprise context. but they're trying to create this open source implementation of this ActivityPub standard and start to see how to add these different layers of the social graph across the open metaverse. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with William and Gabe happened on Friday, December 16th, 2022. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:03:35.484] William Murphy: Hi, I'm William Murphy. I'm part of a worker cooperative called ImmerSpace. And we're a sort of web freelancer collective that specializes in making immersive 3D and virtual reality content on the web.
[00:03:51.124] Gabe Baker: Nice and I am Gabe Baker and I'm the product manager for the frame team. Frame is a browser based 3D collaboration and communication platform.
[00:04:01.236] Kent Bye: So maybe could each give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into working with VR.
[00:04:06.339] William Murphy: Yes, I would love to. My journey here has a couple of different entry points. I started in 2016 with the consumer release of the Vive, which I had somehow completely missed all the Kickstarter Oculus workup to that and didn't hear about it until the consumer ones were coming out. But I ordered it and got it, and it absolutely blew my mind, really brought back the love of gaming that had died off in my adult years. And that led me to, of course, wanting to create something. What I was at the time working as a data scientist in healthcare research, so I wasn't about to go and learn a gaming engine from scratch. So I got into web-based VR with the A-Frame library, which is very easy to pick up for someone with you know, not a lot of development skills outside of like really specific data science R stuff, and built a data visualization in 3D tool for virtual reality as kind of a practice project, just learning about it and you get into it. And that led to winning a small hackathon and actually joining a startup in the field around 2017. Then the second entry point is also in 2017, I learned about Mastodon, which is that standards-based decentralized social network that's been in the news a lot lately. It's using a standard called ActivityPub, which means that it's not just one network, but it's thousands of different servers that all work together to allow you to communicate with people no matter what server they're based on. You know, worked in the startup. It didn't go that great for me. I had a bad experience and kind of burned out on VR and went away for it for a couple of years. But then in 2019, I was using Mastodon and I really, really noticed something different about my relationship with social media when I went to Mastodon. You know, it wasn't something that drew out negative behavior in me. It was a lot more positive in the way that I was interacting with people. And I was puzzled about why that would be. It couldn't really just be technology itself that's shaping the way that we're interacting with people online. You've used Twitter, so you know you've ever had the feeling of opening up and seeing a bunch of notifications and you get that sinking feeling of dread in your stomach, like, oh no, what did I do? Are people mad at me? This is going to ruin my whole day. And it's this thing that can just get to you because the platform is designed in a way with this succinct messaging and with retweets that kind of encourages a specific type of behavior out of us that encourages like quick, sarcastic quips and dogpiling and things like that. And I think it's a combination of the limitations of the platform itself and what you can do on Twitter, and also the combination of the algorithms that are controlling what is fed to us, what we get in our feeds, and things that are going to maximize for engagement, it seems have maximized for unpleasant engagement. and for fighting and things like that. So thinking about how it was so different for me on Mastodon, having like a totally different approach and relationship with my social medias, then that was suddenly a positive impact in my life. I was thinking one day and doing what we call a Mastodon shit post, just putting out a random thought that's not really serious. I just posted one day like a, if we combined ActivityPub and WebVR, is that the metaverse? And then I started thinking about it. I was like, wait a minute, this isn't just a joke. There's actually something here, right? Because we can have these decentralized networks as a way of having an identity that's portable to go to different virtual worlds and to still connect to people that are housed in different virtual worlds and then find each other by sharing our location across the network. So that started growing into it. And it's one of those things where once you get an idea and you're just obsessed with it and you have to just start hacking on it every free moment you have until you can get a demo working. But as I'm building this, the whole time I'm thinking about the relationships that I have to social media, why it's so much more pleasant on Mastodon than Twitter. And I'm kind of thinking about the reasons that social media is the way it is a combination of two factors. One of them is about decision-making and who's making the decisions. you know, when Facebook decides that they're going to open up this app platform that makes it really easy for something like Cambridge Analytica to get all your friends' data without them consenting to it, that's a decision that's being made by people who are very high up, who aren't affected by the impacts of the decisions that they're making. And so that makes it easy for them to do decisions that are, you know, let's start doing more facial recognition, let's start doing more intrusive spying and let's start doing more selling data because it's not something that's affecting them. If we thought about what if those decisions were instead put to the users of Facebook, would they have agreed to so much intrusive spying and stuff for so little in return? And I think the answer is probably not. And then I think the other aspect of it is the platform lock-in. Because maybe in the earlier days of social media, we felt like we were making a consent of trading privacy for this platform that we've got. But it's come so far from that. And most people are very much not happy with the trade that they're getting. but they keep doing it because they feel stuck. You've got a network of people that you are connected with through this Facebook or Twitter, and you can't take it anywhere else. And so you keep coming back for what you see is a bad deal and a bad relationship with that platform because they have control over the networks that you've built. And so thinking of those two aspects of what's driven social media to be unhealthy and also kept us trapped in it, I wanted to build Emerspace as something that addressed both of those issues of points of control and the lock-in. And so on one side, the platform lock-in, that's addressed for us by using this ActivityPub standard like Nestedon. So you aren't limited to talking to these people on the same network with you. The example I give of how absurd it is that you can't follow someone from Instagram when you're on Twitter is like, what if Google one day decided that Gmail users can only email other Gmail users and no one else? That is something that would be obviously absurd. It's something that would bring regulators in for antitrust violations probably. And yet every day that's happening to us on the social networks that we have. We can't connect with people across the networks. And of course, the companies want us to think it's this really intractable technical problem. There's just no way that we could work across networks. But that's never been true, of course, because email has done it before the first social network was ever started up. And now it's even less true than ever because we have a standard from the World Wide Web Consortium called ActivityPub that spells out exactly how social media networks can connect with each other. And so most of the news of the Fediverse has been about Mastodon in particular, where it's a bunch of different servers running the same software that can talk to each other. But it's actually a lot bigger than that, because it's a standard. There are other softwares, like Mastodon is kind of a Twitter clone, but there's also PixelFed, which is designed to be more image focused, like Instagram. And there's Peertube, which is designed to be video focused, like YouTube. And there's Lemme, which is link aggregation, like Reddit. And all of these networks talk to each other. So for my Mastodon account, I can follow a Lemme group and see the posts that people are making to that link aggregator and stuff like that. So it's not just a single piece of software that's distributed on multiple servers, but totally different softwares that are all working together to create this wider network. So that's part one of the problem. If we're using the standard activity pub, then no one's ever going to be locked into using Emberspace as their way of connecting people with the metaverse because they could switch to another piece of software still have friends with people on Emberspace and their other software. You can even have friends on Mastodon and other 2D platforms that send messages back and forth. And then the other side of it is that decision-making, that power and control. So when I started Mastodon, I was lucky to find a small server called social.coop, which is an experiment in platform cooperativism. And what that means, a difficult to say word, is that all of us who are on social co-op own it as a cooperative. And our instance is governed democratically. Everyone who's a member has a vote, and we vote on our decisions, and that's how we decide what to do with our instance. And we all support it by making small monthly contributions that we can to keep the server running, cover the costs, and also compensate the volunteers who are doing things like moderation and working on the servers. I've found Mastodon servers, some of them come and go, but ours has been going since 2017. So it's been very steady. It's been dependable. And it's nice to know that decisions aren't going to be made without me. There's not going to be a decision to shut down the server one day without me because it's something that we would vote on together. We could fill in if someone no longer wanted to do the job they're doing. They're not going to make a decision about selling information to advertisers or data privacy things without me because it's a cooperative and I'm part of making the decision. I took that and modeled that for how we want to make Emerspace. We've built it as a three-stakeholder group cooperative. I think there are three different groups in this that are going to have some shared interests, but also some competing interests. By using the cooperative model, we can work together to find the best path forward for everybody. So our company, the three groups are the worker owners, those of us who are Emerspace staffers who are doing the actual programming on the Emers platform, which is of course open source. And then we also do other contract work in order to bring in the revenue to pay ourselves to work on that open source stuff so that we don't have the conflicts coming in from investors. Group number two are the world creators and world maintainers, like Gabe is an example of that. Someone who's hosting or creating or building a 3D world and then integrating the Emerspace software to provide their identity layer and to provide that decentralization and to let people come and share their location with their friends and so on and so forth. And then third group, of course, is the end users, the people who are actually using the software and going and experiencing the virtual worlds. And so our company is set up so that anyone who is in those other two groups of a creator or an end user can join our cooperative through a monthly fee on Open Collective. And as a member of the cooperative, they get actual legal rights in our company that are guaranteed to them through our bylaws. The most important one is that we could not sell the company without the approval of both of those two groups. So any merger, acquisition, major business decision, we would have to have the consent and agreement of both the users and the world creators in order to do that. I think that's important. for an open source project, because sometimes you can get really invested in using a piece of open source software, but if you don't have any vote in what happens to it, it could one day sell out to a company that does completely the opposite of why you got into it, or it could be shut down and you lose everything. So we give that power to our team members in the cooperative. Another important piece of power they have is the right to reject any changes to the bylaws that would affect them. So we can't take away that power without them doing it. The users group has the duty and the right to set a baseline code of conduct for what these worlds should adopt. And those who are in the creators group are obligated to adopt a code of conduct that meets or exceeds those standards.
[00:15:15.959] Kent Bye: Okay. Wow. That's a good, broad overview of many different threads there that I'm sure we'll pick up and unpack and wanted to bring Gabe into the conversation. Cause I know that Rubella is an organization that at the very beginning of the pandemic, some of the very first virtual conferences I went to using the Rubella platform, which had VR components, but I know the frame VR.io component is like the open web component. Maybe you could give a little more context of what you're working on with FrameVR, but also your journey and a little bit more of the context of your background and your journey into the space.
[00:22:28.445] Kent Bye: Yeah, quick follow up question on frame, because we just hopped into a frame instance that had immersed integration, had the social dimension onto beam of ad friends, and then that allows me to track either one of you going on to other instances that also have this immersive integration. So we went from a frame VR.io instance over into Mozilla Hubs instance that was able to kind of jump in between two separate web domains and be able to use this mechanism of your friends connection and this kind of decentralized friend network through the Activity Hub to be able to facilitate this jumping in between these different realms, which to me is kind of the essence of the metaverse in a lot of ways. But just to clarify the frame and how it's different from Mozilla Hubs, because Mozilla Hubs has the ability to go into the Mozilla Hubs platform and create a world. Anybody can create it. You can host your own. So is frame got that similar model? Like, do you have to pay in order to get access to frame? Or is it got this kind of open source model where anybody can create a frame instance and maybe could just give a bit more context to the frame and how Verbella and frame are related. And if people listening to this want to go off and create it, if they have to go through the sales department or if they could just go create something.
[00:23:38.340] Gabe Baker: A lot of good questions there. I'm going to start with the hubs and frame question. So like we're big fans of hubs, like hubs in many ways was like my North Star of like proving what can be done in the collaborative 3D web. And they kind of remain that way to me. I love what they're doing, but we have slightly different approaches to this. Like hubs, as you said, they have this, like you kind of get in there and like, crack open your own deployment and do a lot of custom coding. Frame is a little bit more out of the box in some ways. It's not really intended right now for developers. We do let you upload your own models so artists can do sophisticated stuff in Blender and bring that in as your Frame environment. But a lot of our users are primarily interested in Frame because it's not like Hubs in that way. You don't need to be a developer to get off the ground. There's a level of customization that they want and it's enough for them for their business or education purposes. So what we do want to be opinionated about on the frame side is we want people to be able to jump from one destination to the other, whether it's hubs, whether it's frame, whether it's something else entirely. And that way, all these different experiences can be united, whether it's something that someone has customized a little bit in frame and brought their own model in, or whether it's a totally custom scripted like hubs client that we'll make. Then relative to the relationship between a frame and verbella, I think if what you want to do is just get off the ground really quickly with your own little corner of the metaverse that's acceptable across devices, go to frame, go there right now. You don't need to talk to me. You don't need to talk to anyone in sales. You go to learn.framevr.io. You make an account, you make a space and it's yours and it's free. Now, we do have a pricing model, just like Hubs recently launched their own pricing model for those that need more scale or the ability to brand the space in some ways. Frame has that too. So as soon as you want to have larger meetings or you want to have more frames, then you can adopt a pricing plan. They start at $10 a month and they go up to $200 a month. Now, I do think that we're going to get into developer tooling, but our approach to that is also going to be a little bit different from Hubs. The first thing we're going to do is actually launch an API that just sort of exposes the frame backend to developers who are making metaverse experiences, but they don't want to deal with complicated networking code. So the frame backend, I mentioned we could have 150 people at once. The frame backend is actually fairly sophisticated. It's this kind of globally distributed network. We're going to just expose enough of it that will make it very easy for anyone making a Metaverse experience, whether it's with Babylon.js or 3.js or what have you, but kind of hook into the frame back end for voice, video, avatar data synchronization, things like that. But yeah, that's coming up in a few months.
[00:26:28.127] William Murphy: Those differences between hubs and frame, I think, really highlight how powerful Emerspace is. And on the hubs end, you've got open source, self-hosted platform that's based on Three.js that's integrated with Emerspace using our custom client that's open source. And then on the frame size, you've got a proprietary system that's hosted by Verbella. It's actually on Babylon.js instead of Three.js. And yet, even though those are completely different in terms of how they're hosted and the languages they're built in, we were still able to connect with each other across those platforms seamlessly.
[00:27:01.431] Kent Bye: And Will, just a quick follow-up question on the Mozilla Hubspace that you took us into. Was that a self-hosted instance of Mozilla Hubs where you had added your own special code to be able to integrate with Emberspace? Or is this Emberspace, is this something that is deployed at large with many different instances of Mozilla Hubs? If people wanted to integrate this, say, on their own Hubspace or on the community-hosted Mozilla Hubspace, if they've integrated it on their side, or what is the process of integrating Emberspace into Hubs?
[00:27:30.459] William Murphy: Yeah, that's a really important distinction. So there's hubs.mozilla.com, which is the flagship server of Hubs that's hosted by Mozilla and is free to use. And that one does not integrate Emberspace at this time. And then there's Hubs Cloud, which is the fully self-hosted version of Hubs, where you can take their open source product and then add your own code customizations to it. And so what you saw in our demo was a fork of Hubs using a custom client where we've added the Emberspace integration and also the interactive chess games that you saw earlier. So for those who would want to replicate this, our custom client is totally open source, and we even have utilities in our GitHub to make it easier to deploy. You don't actually have to have coding tools on your computer in order to be able to deploy our custom version of the Hubs cloud. But it's not available if you just go to plainhubs.mozilla.com. You'd have to have your own infrastructure.
[00:28:22.807] Gabe Baker: Okay. Yeah. I was going to say, like, kind of our hope is that as people see even the relatively limited little connections between different realms of the metaverse, that they understand that like, this is within reach, like this is possible. And if you're going to be talking to talk about the metaverse and interoperability, well, now's the time, like the tools are here. We just have to embrace them.
[00:28:46.142] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that the thing that came up to me when I saw this demo was it reminded me of my experience on VRChat, where you have your friends list and your friends can declare their status, like they have a color coding system. So if it's blue, you can just join on them. I think green is also very similar. There may be slight differences into whether or not they're in a space that allows you to just join or if you have to request an invite. or there's other ways of requesting off of them to join in them, but this implementation of ActivityPub seems to replicate some of that same type of social dynamics where you can see who your online friends are and you can join on them. Are there any permissions that are on there in terms of like if you decide that you want to not have people join in on you because If you want to maintain your privacy, you may like either opt to not log into that, or you may be able to set a certain status so that people can or cannot join in with you. So maybe you can kind of elaborate on that use case in terms of broadcasting out where your location is and whether or not you may or may not want people to join you.
[00:29:46.786] William Murphy: Yeah, privacy is really important when it comes to like broadcasting your online location where people can just like jump in and start talking to you and being in physical space, especially if you're using it in virtual reality. It can be really oppressive to have people suddenly in your space you don't expect. So the location sharing is, first of all, it's only sent to people that you've sent a friend request to and had that friend request accepted. So you both consented to the relationship. But then beyond that, whether you're sharing your current location is something that is up to your interface and the platform that's using it. Like when you're in frame, there's a toggle online location sharing on and online location sharing off. And so you can usually say, you know, I want people to be able to find me. I keep my location sharing on and it posts where I am all the time. I don't want to be found right now. I turn it off and then I'll just show up as offline to everyone.
[00:30:32.067] Kent Bye: Did you have more to say, Gabe?
[00:30:34.016] Gabe Baker: Oh yeah, I was just going to say it came up because one of our large enterprise clients, their CEO, like had this exact issue. There were times where he very much wanted to be discoverable. And then there were times where he would be in a sensitive meeting and he wouldn't want someone from the company just going, Oh, there's so-and-so like boom. And they're in the meeting where potentially sensitive stuff is being discussed. So yeah, that ability to just like stop broadcasting, he was very pleased with.
[00:31:03.118] Kent Bye: The other way that VRChat uses this type of friends network is able to then declare what the permissions of a certain instance is, as to whether or not you are allowing just people that you explicitly invite, whether it's your friends that you're inviting, or whether your friends can invite their other friends. And so I don't know if that's another layer that may or may not be built into ActivityPub, but that seems like it's a pretty specific use case for declaring what the permissions of a site are and to how open you want to be. It's like having a party. Are you allowing your friends to just invite friends? Or if you just only want your friends to be there, it kind of creates a different vibe. But it's also a great way of creating this dynamic where you have that cocktail party effect where you are able to meet people that you don't already know. And so I don't know if that's something that is on the roadmap of adding something like that, of adding permissions into the instance side as to who is invited into that instance.
[00:31:57.430] William Murphy: You know, our philosophy on Emberspace is to dictate absolutely nothing about what the creators are doing with the worlds that they're creating and how that they work. And so, you know, Emberspace gives you the ability to share that online location, who you're going to share it with, and when you're going to share it and not share it. That's going to be up to the platform that you're using. Like Frame has, if you want to talk about like really robust settings for controlling who's allowed to enter a specific frame. And so even if you're sharing your location, on inner space to a frame that has permissions that have been set up on the frame side, you're not going to be able to bypass those with just the link to get there. You'll have to have the right permissions to join to.
[00:32:34.760] Gabe Baker: Yeah, we do let you be kind of choosy with who can enter the frame. But it's not woven in with this connectivity system, although your questions and ideas here definitely have given me some food for thought. I'm going to talk with Will about later on potentially some features we build. But yeah, on the frame side, we let you say, OK, if you want it to be totally open, or you can restrict to just people who are logged in with a certain domain, or just a specific invited member list, things like that. But yeah, you've got me thinking.
[00:33:02.240] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, it's the architects of VRChat that have created the social dynamics there, and I'd recommend checking out what they've implemented, because I think it actually creates a lot of really unique social dynamics as to the different types of instances that you can create and the different types of gatherings that you have as we start to spread out into the more open source versions of it. I did want to just kind of reflect on my own experience of social media through Twitter, because I got into Twitter in February of 2007. I was living in north of San Francisco at the time, and I went to Citizen Space with a co-working space by Tara Hunt and Chris Messina, the inventor of the hashtag, who introduced me to Twitter. And Tara was at a lecture at Stanford, and they were tracking what she was saying about that lecture in real time. And then I joined and then I've been on Twitter for almost 16 years. And now that it's been taken over by Elon Musk, there's definitely been like a huge vibe shift of people leaving to go to Mastodon. But as I reflect about my use of Twitter, it's been very much town square where the critical mass, I'd say, of the lots of different communities and that it allowed me to think out loud and to get a lot of feedback and a lot of engagement with the community. But it also turned out for me to be like a one-to-many broadcast tool where I had like a critical mass of the network effects to, you know, have these connections. And I feel like one of the things that I've been resistant of Mastodon is to like recreate all those different social dynamics, but to also re-evaluate what my intention is with these different communities. And I'd love to hear some of your reflections on escaping that algorithmic driving of information versus something that may be less algorithmic driven and more community driven, trying to establish different networks of communities of practice and these alternative structures of ownership that you've been exploring well. So I'd love to hear some of your own reflections of the vibe shift on Twitter and how the more federated social networks have been creating these different community dynamics that you've seen that are interesting. And what were those elements that you were trying to bring into the more spatialized manifestation with something like the implementation of ActivityPub within Immerse Space?
[00:35:07.003] William Murphy: Yeah, it's a really interesting topic. We've seen some conflict as people are coming over from Twitter to Mastodon and these latest waves about people who have been on Mastodon for several years and are quite happy with having a small network where you feel close to people, like the different engagement that we're used to in these small networks with people who have built a living or created new fields with their ability to gather a lot of people from a large public square on a platform like Twitter. And it is important to point out that not everyone's experience with social media has been terrible. Lots of people have found their passion, have found their communities. Certainly, Twitter was a big part of my early days of getting into WebVR and A-Frame and meeting people like Gabe and others in the field and others moving around it.
[00:35:55.002] Kent Bye: There's a conflict.
[00:35:55.842] William Murphy: I think the lesson to be learned is that you can certainly build a large following on the Fediverse. It might be a little bit harder without the help of the algorithm, but unlike what's going on right now with Twitter, no one can take that away from you if you put the work into building on the Fediverse. You know, when you build it on a closed network, you always have that risk that someday the network's going to get shut down or bought out by someone and twisted in a way that doesn't allow you to do what you wanted with it anymore. A bunch of people that are part of your community are suddenly banned and you can't connect with them anymore. So taking it and doing the extra work to build the network and the audience that you need to do what you do in the Fediverse will pay off in the long run because it's going to be a network that can't be taken over by anyone and can't be shut down. So it's something where changes can be made without your consent to those changes.
[00:36:45.010] Gabe Baker: Yeah, I don't have too much to say on this topic other than it's if you had asked me a year ago, I never would have thought that maybe Twitter wouldn't exist in a year or two. And it seems like a very weirdly possible scenario now for a host of reasons that are all terrible and bad. And it's really sad. And it's now I'm like, oh, I'm so glad that we built up this discord community for brain, which is like our brain user community on discord. And I hope I never feel the way about Discord that I now feel about Twitter, which is this impending sense of doom. And it's really sad because, as Will said, the majority of people on the Frame team I hired directly through Twitter because I found them and reached out to them on Twitter. I'm almost positive, Will, the message that was the convo that started this was probably a Twitter DM. And the best thing I've done for Frame was bring the people on to the team that are currently building this thing. And I found almost all of them on Twitter. I'm not sure. It stinks to see something that has been so valuable for so many people morph into what it seems to be morphing into in front of our eyes. So I haven't yet explored Mastodon. I've been sort of scared about it. And Will's tried to rub me in various times. And I think I even tried to go through the process once and just got so befuddled that I kind of extracted myself mentally from it. And there's been a little bit of a wall in my head about it. But I don't know. We'll see.
[00:38:07.969] William Murphy: Yeah. The lessons for this when it comes to the metaverse is, as a creator, think about what it means to buy into a closed platform of something where you don't have that control, you don't have that ability to move. What's that going to mean to you long-term if you can't connect to people outside of this platform and that platform shuts down or changes ownership or something like Twitter happens? And also to think about, even more than we see on social media, how a confined platform limits your creativity. You know, in Twitter, we make short clips because it's short text. And on Instagram, it's all about presenting this image of yourself, which may not be real. And so, if we accept that for the metaverse, that we just want one big mega platform because it'll be easy to connect with everyone and they'll have great building tools and they'll build stuff real fast, we have to realize that that's going to constrain our imaginations of what we can create because it's always going to be within the confines of what they've designed as the tools and the content they allow us to create. So it'll limit our ability to discover and create amazing things in the metaverse because we'll be confined. And then also, it's taking on a risk as a creator to have an audience that you could be taken away from you.
[00:39:22.571] Kent Bye: Yeah, just the one thing that did come up that I saw in terms of Mastodon was that there are server owners and that a server owner could still ban you and you could still lose all that identity. So you still have to find a server that you trust because there are still ways of getting cut off. But I think for me, what I've been thinking a lot about is building up a network over nearly 16 years. And then as it faces this potential of being dissolved, how do I recenter for what communities I want to focus on what I'm doing moving forward? And so thinking about it more in terms of these gatherings or intentions, a community of practice is what I think about a lot in terms of people who are together building something together. And I feel like There has been like a sweet spot of that critical mass of the network effect of people that were in the industry. We're speaking about it that I'm able to track and keep track of what they're doing, but also communicate with them. And so I feel like with this fracturing, there's a bit of rebuilding of whatever those networks were that you had built up and trying to either trace those voices that you were listening to or to figure out how you want to be more directly engaged. in more intimate conversations. And for me, what was interesting about one of the things that you said, Will, was the potential of this fusion of these different platforms of these different communities, whether it's the PeerTube or whether it's the open source version of Instagram or the image base, but you have a website and a almost like an RSS feeder in some way that is bringing back different ways of broadcasting different stuff, but to have a way of the activity pub being this distributed RSS feed that has these different contexts that you're able to pull in social media components, image components, video components, and potentially even spatialized gatherings for you to gather in and go to, and maybe you have multiple identities that are having different ways of broadcasting your communities. Because there was something nice of having one identity to have that critical mass of networks, but there's also something that's equally nice to be able to have smaller communities that you're able to jump into and maybe manage your identity across these different platforms. But I tell you, the big thing for me is the trade-offs between the ease of use of the user experience of those centralized platforms where the user doesn't have a lot of the friction of signing up and finding the people that they want to follow versus it is a lot of cognitive load and technical difficulties for people to understand all the different processes that you have to go through to sign up for a server. And it's not just like a single at sign now, it's like more complication and it's more friction, but also confusion. But like you said, it's more focused of these smaller communities. I personally haven't started to do that yet, but this conversation is getting me thinking about what are those different streams of these different platforms as you start to pull in. So I'd love to hear any reflections on that and how you've started to have these different mixes of modalities from your experience of Macedon for being a bit of a power user for a number of years now.
[00:42:09.573] William Murphy: Yeah, you brought up an important point about choosing your server and server owners and a lot of the stuff that I've said about being in control of your destiny isn't necessarily true depending on the server that you own. So a lot of the Mastodon network is operated by single volunteers who have set up a server and decided to open it up to registration. And those have been popular because they're quick and easy to join, but you do end up in some of that same situation where there's someone else who is in charge of it. A sad story recently, one that had been running for years and was really popular, Mastodon.Technology, which was a general technology-focused one. had been run and moderated by a single person all this time. And they just decided, I'm tired of this. I don't want to do it anymore. And so everyone on the server had to find a new home all of a sudden. And so I think that that model isn't sustainable. There's been very good criticism, I think, of how a single volunteer and unpaid moderators aren't going to make healthy networks going forwards. We can think of, in the heyday of Reddit, of community mods going mad with power and banning everyone. That kind of thing that happens when you've got one person in control making decisions for a bunch of other people. So I would say look for one that is cooperatively governed, like social.coop. It's going to take a little longer to sign up because we're going to ask you who you are and stuff and approve you manually and ask you to contribute financially. Or if you're someone who's making this, if it's part of your career to have this audience, you always have the option that you never had before of hosting your own and being in total control of your own instance. Something that's popular, we call it single user instance, which is where You set up one of these Mastodon servers or another piece of software, but you're the only one that lives on that domain name because it's just you and use that to connect with people across all the other ones. But that part that's you and maybe some close friends or colleagues is going to be something that you are in control of. So you don't have to worry about moderator burnout, which has happened a few different times in the history of Mastodon. When you talk about different modalities coming together, it's been slow and it's been hard. So in theory, all of these different networks that are focused on images or video or text or 3D models can communicate across this shared standard. And they can to send the message to each other, but there's still the layer of showing the message to you. And so that's up to each platform to be able to do in a good way. Mastodon, being like a Twitter clone, has excellent support for text, of course, good support for video and images, and okay support for other things. We actually have that free treasure avatar that you got, Kent. You signed in with the Emerge space and were able to use that avatar directly, but you can go back to that nice freetreasures.shop and you could put in a Mastodon username and Mastodon domain. and we would still share a 3D model to you, but instead of like being the avatar you wear, we would send you a post in which you could see that 3D model in line in your timeline and you could share it to other people on Mastodon.
[00:45:08.742] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I was grateful to be on a Zoom call with both of you as I was going through some of this stuff, because I think that, you know, it's still the early phases of these first alpha and beta implementations of this. And I think there's still a ways of even Mastodon of getting it streamlined in a way that is able to kind of handle the ease of use of something like Twitter. So yeah, I think that's the thing of like the user interface friction of these decentralized platforms that are still there that I experienced even within this demo. The potential is there, but I think for me, the question is like getting up to a critical mass of people that have decided to deal with those learning curves and that user onboarding friction. And despite that to create those networks, because once the network is there, then the network drives people to have the network effects. of drawing more and more people. So it's still at that early chicken and egg phase of like having enough of a critical mass of people using it versus like all the different friction that you have to do to not only implement it, like you said, the open source implementation to do these custom integrations. But once it's there, then you have the potential to have those network effects play out. So That's at least some of my early takeaways of what I was able to see here, but it's getting that buy-in, whether it's the Verbella sponsored integrations for people to see how this is helpful to do on the context of something that were Gabe, you've implemented it for folks versus the more open source implementation where people have to integrate this into their own technology stack. in order to really even have it as a potential for them to then have the quality of experiences in the open web to bring and draw in people away from something that may be the more closed wall garden version where you'd have less control, but there's a critical mass of people that are there and that's why people are on those.
[00:46:46.353] William Murphy: Oh yeah, we're definitely on the don't have the critical mass of the network yet now. And so what we have to do is entice those world creators with cool features like connections where you can find people even on different parts of your own virtual world through Emberspace as the service that you can just add on to your 3D world and also get federated logins and open ID connected, things like that. Yes, there's a point where the network is big enough where the network itself is the draw, and we're not there. So we're going to entice world creators with other cool features.
[00:47:18.144] Kent Bye: Great. And as we start to wrap up, I'm curious what each of you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and these types of decentralized social networks and activity might be in the metaverse, and what it might be able to enable.
[00:47:32.572] William Murphy: So I think of myself as more of a technological pessimist than most of the guests that you have. So I'm more thinking about like the negative ultimate potential that virtual reality can have, especially as it goes social and how there's so much more emotional experiences that you can have when you're in 3D, and especially when you're having live presence with another person. And I think about, how, back to my soapbox about social media and toxic behavior, I think about all the negative experiences that I've had on Facebook and Twitter. I think about how people, even on a 2D platform, have created in some cases a sort of alternate realities that they inhabit through social media networks. And so when I think about the ultimates of VR, I'm thinking about what's the worst case scenario where we're even more divided than we are now and even more separated from reality and even more extracted for profit and manipulated for engagement. And that's like my driving force in getting into this film we're doing with Inner Space is let's not go to the alternate of VR and instead let's try and have something where it's safer and healthier for all of us.
[00:48:41.458] Gabe Baker: Nice. And I'm most excited about VR because of how it can help people come together and feel together. That's just what I'm most interested in and where I see a lot of really interesting stuff happening in the future. And then with this connections thing that we're doing to help people jump between spaces. I think about what Will said earlier, this idea of just letting people build with the tools that they want, whether it's Babylon.js, 3.js, Unreal, Unity, whatever it might be. And there just needs to be that layer that rests on top of it. And people have been talking about it for a while. It's like, oh, it's not the metaverse until this. It's not the metaverse until that. And this really does seem to be one of those components that we should be not just talking about, but really trying to build right now. So yeah, I love this idea of like, yeah, we're doing our own thing with frame, but we want to make it easy for people to be able to move in and out of frame as just one node in a broader network. And the more things that are in there, the more interesting the metaverse will be. Yeah. So that's what kind of excites me.
[00:49:43.254] Kent Bye: Yeah, one quick follow-up for you, Will, is bringing up the more negative aspects, I think, about harassment and trolling. And obviously on some of these centralized social network platforms, you have the ability to block people. And so you mentioned that there's the social layer and then there's the world implementation. And it feels like a blocking comes more at the world implementation rather than the social layer. How does something like ActivityPub handle blocking? Can you block people on the Fediverse? And are there ways that you've considered how to block people in the context of the Immerse space?
[00:50:14.342] William Murphy: Yeah, so ActivityPub gives us a really powerful feature here. So there is a block activity that you can send to your server to say, I don't want to interact with this person. And what that means when it's decentralized, when we were together in BrainVR, if there was someone there who was harassing, I could block that user on BrainVR. I was later we went over to virtual rain or hubs when I was also using inner space and that same person tried to join us in this other world on another website and other platform. My block list would recognize them and immediately re block them in that space as well. So they couldn't even if they tried following me across the metaverse to different platforms. I carry that block list with me with my identity and I'm able to remove them from my experience and all the different worlds. Now the actual implementation of what that blocking means in your world is going to be up to the world builder itself. So, you know, in hubs, it means that that person, you can't see them or hear them and they can't see you or hear you in the space, but you both may be seen or heard by someone else who's in the space that hasn't blocked either of you. We do need implementers to be thinking about anti-harassment tools as well, but Emberspace gives you a really powerful thing to start with that you have a portable list of people that this user doesn't want to interact with that you can go ahead and apply using their portable identities as well.
[00:51:29.340] Kent Bye: Gabe O'Neirin from FrameVR. Do you have existing blocking mechanisms and what's your thoughts on integrating that with Cause it seems like for me, there's a contextual domain where maybe you don't want to interact with someone on this context, but maybe in a separate context, maybe a work context, you have to, you have to work with it because they're either a coworker. So like, how does that work? Some of these different contexts on frame VR.
[00:51:52.270] Gabe Baker: Yeah, that's a really good question. And I've kind of kicked that can down the road a little bit. I think the only thing in frame that you can do is, what is it? Well, it's like you can prevent someone from trying to connect with you. Is that right? There's some way you can sort of, I mean, so of course you can reject someone's connection request and then you can like permanently ignore them so that if they keep trying, it won't just keep popping up. But you're right, Kent, in many respects, like people are in frame together often because they have to be. And we haven't yet gotten our heads around kind of deeper way of utilizing that block list from Emers.
[00:52:30.631] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's a contextual dimension there that sometimes it's work context versus a social context. But, you know, if they're using similar protocols, then those may be in conflict with each other in some ways. And so while you may want to block some of your coworkers, maybe that's an option. Well, is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?
[00:52:52.164] William Murphy: You know, if you believe in what we're doing with Emerspace, we're a cooperative and that means we're not taking money from investors because we don't think it would align with our mission and our bylaws in a way that would scare off any investor anyway. So we need your support on the opencollective.com slash emers-space. Join us, help us build these tools and direct their future development.
[00:53:15.298] Gabe Baker: Yep, and I'm totally with all of that. I would just say, check out Frame if you're inclined. Integrate Immerse so that you can join this node of various integrated spaces. And then more broadly, don't forget to believe in the web and WebXR. I'm a big believer in the web is the metaverse, like the web browser. It always has been and it always will be. You don't need to use Unity or Unreal or proprietary game engine tools. You can build amazing stuff with open source web development tools.
[00:53:44.189] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there was a book that I came across on platform cooperativism consortium. There's a platform.coop that I came across. I don't know, Will, if there's any other references, because I know that platform cooperatism is actually an antidote of a lot of these more capital driven or VC driven approaches and more worker owned cooperatives. I would refer people to platform.coop site, but I don't know if there's any other references you would provide for people if they want to learn more about this concept of platform cooperativism.
[00:54:13.943] William Murphy: That is the main source. Join us on social.coop, which is an official pilot project of platform cooperativism. That's the Mastodon instance that we collectively govern. And ironically, they have a Facebook group that's very
[00:54:30.388] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, Gabe and Will, thanks so much for joining me here today. I'm excited to see the early phases of this. Like I said, I feel like it's in the early alpha beta phase and I hope to see more folks adopt this and implement it across more of these social VR websites. And yeah, I feel like the social dimension I think is going to be a key driver of driving engagement for these social networks and these communities as the potential dissolving of these major platforms or a shift, a vibe shift for sure, and some of them driving people more towards Mastodon. The Fediverse, as they call it, being translated into the 2D representation maybe gets morphed into the Metaverse as we move forward. Some of these open source protocols I think are pretty key to all that. So thanks again for your pioneering work on this space and for coming to help unpack it all today.
[00:55:17.341] William Murphy: Thank you, Kev. It's been an honor to be on Voices of VR.
[00:55:21.865] Kent Bye: So that was William Murphy. He's a part of a worker cooperative called Emerse Space. That's I-M-M-E-R-S, space, space. It's a little confusing. It's basically Emerse Space without a trilling E in Emerse. And then Gabe Baker, he's a project manager for the FrameVR.io team. He's building a browser-based 3D and communications platform, which is currently under the umbrella of Verbella. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, It's really great to see that there's some early work that's happening on this problem. And I really think that having some sort of enterprise context where people are using some of these different applications is something where you could actually have enough of a critical mass and reliability that people are using some of these different social VR applications on the open web with WebXR applications. Because I can't think of too many other applications where there's been a lot of use of some of these different social VR applications on the open web. I know there's certainly a lot of things that are happening within Mozilla Hubs, but in terms of creating a critical mass of folks to have this as a utility, especially when you think about it on the broader open web, so folks that even go beyond what is already built with, say, Mozilla Hubs or FrameVR.io, maybe there's a lot more stuff really compelling that's going on, but most of the really exciting stuff that's happening in the social VR space are happening in these closed-wall gardens of things like VRChat, RecRoom, And I really think that if you look at what some of the different functionality that you have within VRChat, that seems to be where we want to eventually have some sort of specification that is going to be able to implement all these different aspects, including the permissions of that site, whether or not you're going to allow people to visit you or not. You can just broadcast where you're at, but you still can't always get a private invite within the context of VRChat. But within the context of the open web, sometimes that may be a little bit different. So trying to figure out the permissioning aspect is something that gets a little bit more tricky when you think about this similar type of implementation on the open web. That's something just to think about in terms of as these different protocols continue to get developed, is that something that is included within the specification? Because that may not necessarily be already included within ActivityPub. or even something that the AT protocol that is the basis of something like BlueSky is being built upon. So ActivityPub is a W3C recommended specification. I don't think it's officially adopted yet, but there are a lot of various implementations. There's Mastodon, which is a decentralized social media. There's PixelFed, which is focused on pictures, and so more of a Instagram clone. Then you have Peertube, which is a clone of YouTube and focusing on video. And then Lemme is a link aggregator for the Fediverse, which is very similar to Reddit. So theoretically ActivityPub should be able to have this intermingling of these different feeds and kind of going back to the old days of RSS feed readers and have one place where you aggregated all this information but it really depends on the client side in terms of how that actually is being rendered out if it's not necessarily optimized to be able to have each of these multi-modal aspects of the different feeds. And when you start to think about, well, what is the immersive aspect of that start to give you with ActivityPub, it's basically the social graph. So being able to connect up with people, but in the future, it could be actually being immersed within the context of the spatialized context, but then pulling in data from Mastodon feeds or images from Pixel feed or videos from PeerTube or links from Lemmy. or something with the AT protocol have all these other dimensions of self-sovereign identity and verifiable identity. Because that's one thing that's really nice about the authenticated transfer protocol is that I was able to put a text file on my Kent by.com. And so my username on blue sky is at Kent by.com, which is a way of actually having this verification of both what I'm telling blue sky and having this record on my domain that I'm controlling to be able to verify my identity. So I'll be digging into a lot more of what is happening in blue sky, mostly from this archival interview I did with the current CEO, Jay Graber, that I've conducted back in 2019 at the decentralized web camp that was put on by the Internet Archive. The reason why I bring that up is because there is this problem within the context of these decentralized web applications, which is you need to have a really streamlined user interface. And when you're talking about decentralized web technologies, it's almost like the antithesis of having a streamlined interface, because the most streamlined interface is having everything taken care of for you. and a centralized service. And so finding out a way how to build a system on a centralized model, and then figure out how to slowly build out all these other federated and decentralized components, which I think is the essence of what they're trying to do with this authenticated transfer protocol, or the AT protocol that's underneath the blue sky social network. So I actually think there's going to be a lot of interesting things that are going to be coming out of that protocol. And so, like I said, the Metaverse standards form does not do the development of standards by R&D. In other words, they really need to have a variety of different types of implementations to look at the pluses and minus of different approaches. So looking at the ActivityPub implementation and seeing what that can and cannot do, and then looking at the AT protocol and see what that can and cannot do and using it within XR context. and then seeing how either some of these protocols need to be expanded because right now it's still very early when it comes to the AT protocol. It's really only starting with kind of like a Twitter clone. And so when you start to add other modalities of video and audio and images and links, and then maybe even the spatialized context of what XR or 3D objects or other aspects that may be integrated into more of a metaverse context or XR social VR context, So yeah, that's something that I've just started to dive into over this past week as I've had access to BlueSky. It's still under an invite-only system right now, but I've been able to get access to it and start to dig in and start to learn about what's happening with these AT protocol and start to wrap my mind around how could this start to be used within a spatialized context. There's a number of people that have already started to play around with different stuff. And it's mostly been pulling in these social media posts within the context of a immersive space. And so I hope to start to play around with some of that and start to think about, OK, what are the real affordances if we start to add WebXR and have all these different federated social media protocols? How does the metaverse start to inform those protocols? And how could you start to use those protocols within the context of an immersive XR space like WebXR? So I'll be digging into more of that as it continues to develop, and I'll have an interview with Jay Graber, who's currently the CEO of Blue Sky, but again, this was an interview that I did with her back in the summer of 2019, where she's actually talking a lot about these bootstrap problems and a lot of challenges of how do you get this buy-in, having these decentralized technologies. Most people don't care about the technical details of the merits of decentralization, they just want to have a really streamlined user interface. And so that's what I see is actually happening with Blue Skies. It's really exciting to impact that a little bit and see how that might be able to be applied to some of the struggles of how to bootstrap the metaverse. So yeah, I'll have some links in the description where you can start to look at all that's happening with ImmerseSpace and their plugin. And they've got some videos that show some of the different integrations. And hopefully, you'll be able to have access to test it out yourself and start to implement it and see how the ActivityPub OpenStandard can start to be implemented in the context of social VR. and maybe start to be the early inklings of the further development of what a more robust social VR or social graph would be when it comes to serving all the needs of the metaverse. 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 so 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.