I interviewed Meta Horizon World Builder Paige Dansinger at Meta Connect 2023. See more context in the rough transcript below.
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[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. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So continuing on my series of looking at MetaConnect and some of the stories that were coming out of MetaConnect, today's episode is with Paige Danziger, who actually had a chance to talk to her back at Augmented World Expo, but we did a deep dive into Horizon Worlds. Paige was one of the first 25 users of Horizon Worlds, and so she's been a longtime member of the community and also has understood, I think, a lot of the different dynamics around MetaHorizon World. And I wanted to feature this conversation just because it's very timely of looking at MetaConnect Meta has been putting a lot of energy into trying to build out some of the different experiences on Horizon Worlds. They've cut back funding lots of cool animation programs. Speaking with Ryan Gigi Thomas at Venice Immersive, there's a lot of that funding has started to be cut back and a lot more focused on building out different immersive experiences and social VR experiences in the context of Horizon Worlds. So there's a lot of their own internal creative production that's going into different experiences, a little bit more games that are showing up there. but also just wanted to get a little bit of the community perspective of Meta Horizon Worlds. So Paige is the founding director of the Better World Museum. She has like a Horizon Art Museum, Women in Horizon group that she helped to found, and then also she's currently a VP of Metaverse Development at a place called Third Academy. And so she's very active into bringing lots of different artworks into some of the different platforms, but also tell these deeper stories and take people on guided tours. So I've had a chance to go on a number of different guided tours with Paige and getting on these platforms and able to go around and get a lot more context for some of the different stuff that she's been able to recreate. She's a very prolific world creator in the horizon worlds. So that's it for coming on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Paige happened on Wednesday, May 31st, 2023 at Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:13.278] Paige Dansinger: My name is Paige Danziger. I'm the founding director of Better World Museum, Horizon Art Museum, Women in Horizon, and I just got a new job as vice president of metaverse development at a Web 3 educational incubator called Third Academy.
[00:02:33.945] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into the space.
[00:02:38.592] Paige Dansinger: Yes, well I'm a fine artist who also has a degree in art history. I started working at a museum at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I worked my way up from being a security guard, put myself through a master's program, and worked in education public program, as well as volunteered in registration and as a student curator. After about eight years, I just was convinced that a mobile phone could be a vehicle that may have the same impact, if not more, than a museum. So I dedicated my life to creative technology and have not looked back. I've had art included at the Gutai Splendid Playground exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, to presenting at the World Health Organization, and all of this has been mostly through My love of public practice and community building.
[00:03:43.004] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know that I've had a chance to go through some of the different art recreations that you've done. So having a background in art history, you've been able to recreate some of these famous pieces of art within places like Horizon Worlds. And you took me on a whole tour of some of these different places. So maybe you could give a bit more context for how you started to take your passion for art history and start to use the medium of VR and these virtual spaces to be able to explore something like a guided tour through some of these different historical art pieces.
[00:04:10.088] Paige Dansinger: I would love to share that with you. In about 2012, when I stepped away from museums, I created my first drawing prototype iPad drawing. And with it, I created over 4,000 works drawn with my finger, kind of inspired by the Zynga game Draw Something. And I would use social media to share these drawings. Around 2016, when I got my first VR headset, continued this practice by recreating works at that time that were focused on world heritage sites like Palmyra, the Parthenon, where I was doing deeply embedded educational content about social justice issues when the pandemic A Rose, I had just returned from a global tour with VR Garden. Better World Museum was a brick-and-mortar space for over five years downtown Minneapolis that I founded to create more equitable space. It had an indoor edible garden, a maker space, and a VR headset. In that VR headset, we did something called the VR Garden. which anyone could draw in this garden. So through this public practice building, I became the Facebook Community Leadership Fellow and travel all around the world drawing in the VR garden. So when the pandemic happened, I felt that actually I was a VR first rather than a physical space. And I felt really comfortable letting that physical space go. And at first we created museum and rec room with teens exploring teen leadership roles because I couldn't talk about Horizon where I was secretly a pre-alpha creator and had been building Horizon Art Museum which is different than Better World Museum but with similar missions to use our site as a space for social action. So what Horizon Art Museum is is a recreated experience of visiting a museum like the Met, for instance, where you just aim wanderlessly through these doors into the next world. Right now we're over 35 worlds of galleries, so to say, or recreations of galleries that are focused on women artists in art history. cultural heritage sites, and popular exhibits focused on pop culture. And all of them have game elements that create opportunities for the players to come out as stronger winners. I'm invested in the idea of empowered players and empowered design. And so when one might travel through a world called Palmyra, third century Syria, Well, it's a recreation of the triple arches of Palmyra that was destroyed in 2015 by ISIS. But in our world, for instance, you're visiting it at its third century height. where it was a town that was ruled by Queen Zenobia and you parkour through this town and you collect coins which give a message about powering up and valuing yourself. The message is created by one of our team members of our Plus Community Voices program which teaches simple building scripting to amplify voices in the community in which are scattered through buttons and games and elements throughout the 35 worlds.
[00:07:57.557] Kent Bye: So if we take a step back, how did you get early access to the Horizon worlds?
[00:08:02.400] Paige Dansinger: Oh, well, I was a passionate user of Facebook Spaces, which was, I guess, a precursor prototype that was on its journey towards becoming what we know as Horizon today. And I was invited by the awesome people who were helping to develop the platform in its early days. So I was part of the first 25 creators, and of those 25, there were three women. I knew then that it may be important to create a group for women and diverse and LGBTQ creators so that we could right away show that the metaverse is not just a safe and a brave space, but a place that's of by for all.
[00:08:50.922] Kent Bye: And I think when I was on a tour with you, at that point you had maybe around 80 or so worlds. How many Horizon Worlds worlds have you created now?
[00:08:59.184] Paige Dansinger: I would say maybe around 250-ish, but some of them are not museums. Right now I'm working on a fun world that is a fashion design collaboration exploring wearable art experiences based on black holes. And one is a game that I'm developing to teach financial literacy skills for women. It's a project that I started in my Oculus Launch Pad program. And in each of these experiences, obviously, the ultimate point is empowering that player to feel strong in and out of the Metaverse.
[00:09:42.655] Kent Bye: Well, what I found really striking was that Horizon Worlds, in terms of aesthetics and appearance, relative to, say, Rec Room or VRChat, is, let's say, a few years behind in terms of the sophistication of what you can show and what you can demonstrate. But even given those limitations, the way that you were able to create almost like an architectural or a representation of some of these other objects that have a deeper meaning in history and story, and I just remember going through this very low-poly representation of these art pieces, but you were at each of these moments having this deep, rich story and history that was being evoked by those very rough architectural representations that you had created, but also it's clearly been a very deep inspiration for you to look to these other pieces of art that you are either inspired by or really appreciate the story. And there's been this process, at least from what I've seen from the worlds you've created, of taking those pieces of art and creating a representation of them in this virtual space. But that representation isn't supposed to be like a one-to-one recreation, but more of a proxy for you to be able to tell the deeper story around some of these. And for me, the real value was going around this space and hearing you tell those stories about these pieces.
[00:10:55.912] Paige Dansinger: Thank you so much, Kent. It was an honor to have that experience. And really, the story is at the heart of these objects. The objects in museums, and even in the metaverse, and in our own homes, and in our communities, really share the story of us. And so when we use these tools or these shapes to be able to share what's in our hearts, what our fears, our vulnerabilities are, ultimately we're dispelling, dissolving isolation and feelings of overwhelming powerlessness. And each of us in our industry, in some way, are doing their part in order to have this effect. So I see that happening within your podcast and the stories that I hear to the different creative technologists here at AWE today that I've been hearing. I think that so many times people are afraid of technology, but I've never met a technologist who is using technology for anything other than for good. So I feel really hopeful and inspired when I think about our future. And people have a sense of trust when it comes to museums. And that's why I believe that museums have a certain opportunity, if not a responsibility, to embrace emerging technologies and use it in order to not just share the stories of the 10,000 objects on view, but also those 80,000 objects not on view, and maybe decentralize the discussion from the objects into the stories of the people who created, used, and are gifting these legacies, whether it's a spoon collection or badges or buttons that you're wearing, all of these pieces are objects that share our stories. So as we embrace new technologies, ultimately at the heart is sharing these experience that remind us that when we focus on community-centered stories, then our schools, our communities, our gardens, our future corporations can be centered in an of, by, for all space or mentality, right? We deserve that and these technologies further our ability to create the worlds we deserve.
[00:13:46.548] Kent Bye: You had mentioned that part of you creating these worlds is to not only just create the objects of your own creative expression, but also to facilitate some other deeper community or connection to other people. And so talk about that process of once you've created all these places, then how do you either invite people to come show it, and you showed me, as a guided tour, which takes a lot of time to be there and to actually step through each of these pieces and tell those stories. So I'd love to hear about your process of taking these virtual worlds with these objects and transform that into a community with all these relationships.
[00:14:21.357] Paige Dansinger: Thank you. Well really it is at the heart of like teaching other people in the community how to have the same equal skills so that we are leveling the play field. So I do this in a few different ways. In a few of the worlds we have something called visual thinking strategy cards, which simply ask, what are we looking at here? How do we know this information? And what more can we find? Those three questions level the play field. So a four-year-old is as valid in their observations as a PhD professional, right? So that we are all equal Another way that we do this is through our members of our Plus Community Voices program as well as our participants at Better World Museum Arts in Residence program are all honored with a thank you donation into a nonprofit in their own communities that they're selecting so that they feel like they're not only creating something in the universe but making tangible results in their own communities. Some of these are really created to give someone the sense that what they're doing creates meaning and impact and I think that's how we create a larger community is through that longer range positive impacts of what we're doing. So we're never working with a group and then done with them. It's like a forever investment. And so often museums will do a special project with someone and then that's over, right? And then what happens? The exhibit comes down and maybe there's an acquisition, but then it's on to the next. In our Better World Museum program, really it creates this sense of ownership. for the person who has recreated the museum and they're able to sell their assets, they can create new revenue streams. We've seen people create whole new businesses from their experiences in these museums. think that ultimately people want to be seen and heard but also valued in a way that they're able to sustain their creative life and we try to balance that by taking action in these ways that can be longer ranging and feel good, you know, after you take that headset off, right? You should walk through your city streets and say, my work created this farm, right?
[00:17:17.990] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'd love to get a little bit of your reflections on Horizon worlds from Meta because, you know, being one of the first 25 users, there's been the direct experience of what you've had and what I've experienced with you being in these worlds where, like I said, The visual aesthetics of them are not, say, comparable to some of the best other experiences that I've had in VRChat or RecRoom, but there seems to be these communities of relationships and people that are doing things in these spaces, but you have what I think of as an iconic moment where when Mark Zuckerberg took a picture of himself in front of the Eiffel Tower in the background, and you get this really super low-res visual of Horizon Worlds, that becomes a little bit of a metaphoric representation of how all the press see everything that META has done with Horizon Worlds as a complete, utter disaster and a failure. So I'd love to hear some of your perspectives on if that aligns with your own experience, if there are things that are not quite living up to your own expectations, or if there's something that the broader press are missing in terms of what's actually happening as someone who's embedded into the different communities and relationships within the context of Horizon Worlds.
[00:18:24.938] Paige Dansinger: Yeah, so I really credit Horizon Worlds for the tools that they offered to creators and what I've seen are people use those tools to create new revenue streams for themselves in huge communities that are compassionate and really the core of Horizon Worlds. When one reads a newspaper story about how all there is are sad, empty, dead worlds, that's not necessarily the case. When you hop into a world you might not see anybody, that would be only a result of not friending people. Once you have friends and relationships, then you just follow your friends into those worlds. Now, from not the creator or community perspective, but some of my insights are, I've seen a lot of change happen through the program and as every program evolves, sometimes the the core mission may shift. So what may be a priority at one time may not be one either. And also the people behind these technologies are humans. And often sometimes some humans make poor decisions and some humans make good decisions. And I've seen a good mix of both, right? I've seen everything from bullying and poor management to, you know, really having a core of people who aren't, who greet people and aren't really associated with Meta or Horizon in a way who are the first view of visitors. So there can be a lot of confusing. I think if one hops right into a platform and goes to their main plaza or the biggest venue of the space that sometimes it can be a mixed bag and you know it's hard for me to not say positive things when it comes to the people creating positive experiences. For instance, I just went to a pool party that was created by people and they're not connected to Metta, they're just people who are creators. And I had the best time ever, right? Just really some incredible building happening at the pool party. But I've also had some experiences that I wish were different. I wish there was a stronger commitment to using these tools for climate, or for decolonization, or for more social justice, for more ways for people to solve problems together. And if that is happening through the creators, then that's fantastic. But I think that that could have been embedded into the platform itself, where there's categories. A good category would be science, for instance, in a time of misinformation or vaccination fear. So I think that there's always an opportunity for making a better world, but that's not always the bottom line for a company. And so I think that's why there always needs to be an uplifting of creators. And at times there are funding for creators, but I think platforms can create more equity within those funding opportunities too.
[00:22:01.637] Kent Bye: Yeah, from my brief, I guess, anthropological explorations of Horizon Worlds, I've spent some time, it was a number of months ago, probably maybe five or six months ago, I was dipping in and out and trying to get a sense of what was happening to go beyond the headlines of what I was being told for people who were kind of jumping in. I realized that there was a lot of these communities that are out there and that there's these friend networks and social networks that have a distinctly different demographic than some of these other social VR platforms that I've seen. A lot more diversity in some sense. But also hearing from some of the different creators is that I always like to hear from creators, because I feel like the creators are the closest from exploring what the potentials of the platform are. But they are also understanding the dynamics of what's happening with different communities and the relationship between an individual creator and the audience of people to be able to see the experiences. And what I observed was that there was like, and I'm not sure if this has changed, but there was like a top 100 worlds. And whatever was making on that list would almost have like a self-fulfilling prophecy of driving people to those worlds. But yet, maybe some of the more interesting worlds that were being made by different creators were not on that list. And there didn't seem to be a good way that Meta was propagating up and actually amplifying those independent creator creations in those worlds. And so you ended up having people that were getting a little bit disillusioned of putting a lot of time and effort in learning how to make these worlds and then not feeling like they had a lot of traction or response. So yeah, I'd love to hear some of those reflections, if that's an accurate reflection there.
[00:23:24.316] Paige Dansinger: Oh, I think that's 100% accurate. I would say that the whole search and event system has been broken for an extremely long time. It's been like a cycle mill of promoting the top few worlds, but they're not necessarily the most meaningful worlds or ones in which may highlight those craters that are traditionally already unseen outside of the metaverse, right? It perpetuates that cycle of non-visibility for a lot of people. And in truth, actually, Horizon Worlds, to its credit, to the creator's credit, is actually a diverse space. It's heavily melanated and I just went to an event the other night. It was Asian American, Island Pacific, Hawaiian dinner party and it was special and it was well attended and I wouldn't expect to see that in the top hundred but it should be in the top hundred. We just, our Women in Horizon group, oh it's about over a thousand member Facebook group and we have been meeting in Horizon from the very first beginnings. We're the first community group in Horizon. We just hosted this spring our Black Future Summit and it was created, run, and executed by our diverse members of women in Horizon. We had I don't know, over 50 speakers, five hours of programming for five hours a night, right? So I think it was about eight days worth of this programming, five hours a night. And there's no shortage of creators or voices or people who would love to share their story and their work. And the tools and the aggregation system that META has created is not functional for that sharing. I have to say that I don't know if you know, but I also love other platforms. Better World Museum also exists in Rec Room where we focus on teen leadership development. And also I've been dabbling into different Web 3 platforms as well as I just returned from the Presence platform hackathon at Meta where we created this awesome game where you learn how to skateboard and green alleys in your urban space at the same time. I have to say that it doesn't matter for me what the tools are. I think that the same amplification of community voices can happen and that should be the ultimate objective of all of these companies to focus on those diverse stories and how to share them and recreate a better system of doing so. I can't imagine what's more important. When there are safety concerns, full stop. Make sure there's bubbles and other tools in order to create more safety. Right now, there's a visibility problem. And if it was my company, I would have started before yesterday to make that the number one priority.
[00:27:10.466] Kent Bye: And what would that look like in terms of if you were to give advice or make some of your top feature requests? What would you want to see out of a platform like Horizon Worlds?
[00:27:18.573] Paige Dansinger: Well, I'll tell you, one thing that it might look like is something that one of our members of Women Horizon just created, a creator named Anonymous, along with HyperJewel and one other creator. They saw that the event system was so broken that they took it away, and they created a world in which when you enter information on their website of what's happening now, events, then it immediately updates in this horizon world. So more integrated ways of sharing content, right? Another must-have are more accessibility features. We have a lot of members with either low visibility or who are members who normally use American Sign Language. And I'd like to see a much more focus on creating the tools for accessibility that are needed so that these spaces really can be democratic spaces of buy for all. It burns me to think that we would just focus on using technology for those who have, right, or ableist humans in society. So with that, more tools that can even leverage AI, for instance, to voice build or even with the MR technology to use blinking, for instance. So just really pushing forward with these tools a way to build worlds with all of our senses and maybe even one day, even with our hearts. What would that look like to build a world by using your heart?
[00:29:11.940] Kent Bye: Well, I know that Meta has given some sneak previews that they've been working on a web interface for some things with Horizon Worlds. I'm not sure if that's come across your, if that's still happening. But I know they've also laid off a lot of people. So I don't know if what is still may have been announced before that they've been working on, if they're still working on it. But have you seen any indications that they may be having a web interface to Horizon Worlds?
[00:29:32.827] Paige Dansinger: I've heard a lot of different things at different times. And I have to be honest with you, I can't ascertain what their current priorities are.
[00:29:42.548] Kent Bye: Do you think that they've maybe stepped back a little bit from what they're doing with Horizon Worlds? Or do you see that they're still fully committed to what's happening there?
[00:29:50.472] Paige Dansinger: I think that, outwardly, that they've taken a step back. And we've certainly seen a step back because so many people have been transitioned out of their positions with all the layoff and job changes. It's really hard to understand what the new shifts are. So I think that for a long time their focus was monetization. How can these creators have monetization? And the monetization works just fine. So I think that I don't know why there's not full rollouts, for instance, of all tools. I think that it would be nice to also be able to create some worlds using Unity and bring that in. There's a new world right now where people are able to see what a test world that was created in Unity looks like in Horizon. So I think ultimately what I would like for any platform is being able to invite more people into our events without them being sharted out. I really want to gather with over a hundred people in a platform and anything, right, I think is 32 people max in a world is good, but I really feel like It's time to open things up, open the tools, open the system, open it for more countries. I really like the idea of open access AI, open XR, web, and I think that the more these tools cannot be of, by, for, meta, that that's better for all. And meta, there's a lot of good people who work there who have a focus for the people. And I'd like to see those programs and priorities always rise to the top.
[00:31:52.993] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality might be? And what am I able to enable?
[00:31:59.885] Paige Dansinger: Right. Well, we know that it can dissolve isolation and feelings of powerlessness. I also believe that it can create a stronger opportunity for people to be better stewards of each other and the earth. this is what I'm the most hopeful for. If we can have more hackathons and more opportunities to solve problems together, whether it's through world building, playing, going to a pool party, or hosting a summit. Ultimately, when we can take better care of each other and the world, that's what I think the best outcome could be.
[00:32:45.974] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?
[00:32:49.697] Paige Dansinger: Well, I can't thank you enough for being as welcoming and warm to me, the museum programs, and the artists that I've been working with. I've seen whole lives change. by the members who have participated in the program and that couldn't have happened without the broader support of the XR community and the way we use technology for good.
[00:33:22.861] Kent Bye: Beautiful. Well, sounds like you've got a lot of really amazing projects and communities that you've been able to cultivate across all these different platforms. And really love to hear a bit more context about all the things that you're working on. So thanks again for joining me today to help break it all down. So thank you.
[00:33:36.867] Paige Dansinger: Kent, this was a true honor to be part of your podcast and your audience and community. It's just a gift. So thank you, everybody. I can't wait to build and create together the world that we deserve, and leave a legacy for the next generations that they know that they are living in a place that is for them, with them, together as leaders now.
[00:34:07.796] Kent Bye: Beautiful. Thank you. So thanks again for tuning in to one of my dozen episodes about MetaConnect. There's lots that I've been unpacking throughout the course of the series, and I'm going to invite folks over to patreon.com to be able to join in to support my work that I've been doing here as an independent journalist trying to sustain this work. Realistically, I need to be at around $4,000 a month to be at a level of financial stability. I'm at around 30% of that goal. So I'd love for folks to be able to join in, and I'm hoping to expand out different offerings and events over the next year, starting with more unpacking of my coverage from Venice Immersive, where I've just posted 34 different interviews from over 30 hours of coverage. And I've already given a talk this week unpacking a little bit more my ideas about experiential design and immersive storytelling. And yeah, I feel like there's a need for independent journalism and independent research and just the type of coverage that I'm able to do. And if you're able to join in on the Patreon, $5 a month is a great level to be able to help support and sustain it. But if you can afford more than $10, $20, $50, or even $100 a month are all great levels as well. And will help me to continue to bring not only you this coverage but also the broader XR industry. I now have transcripts on all the different interviews on the podcast on Voices of VR and in the process of adding categories as well into 1,317 interviews now that have been published after this series has concluded. So yeah, join me over on Patreon and we can start to explore the many different potentialities of virtual and augmented and mixed reality at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.