Top: Charles X Distributing Awards to Artists Exhibiting at the Salon of 1824 at the Louvre, Heim, Francois-Joseph, Wikimedia Commons; Bottom: AltspaceVR, Creating the Metaverse Event, July, 2018

VR Salon

Salon emerged centuries ago, early in the Enlightenment. Or was it earlier, when people started sharing ideas, publicly sometimes, in the Greek city-states?

The VR part is now, just in time to explore new technologies for talking with each other. The old ones don’t seem to be up to the task at hand, which is to help us discuss areas where we need to cooperate even if we can never agree.

I think VR can help. I think it can help not despite the reduced information but because of it. Shared intent and interaction easily create a feeling of shared presence. We’ll feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Nice feeling.

The Idea

I have had that nice feeling in several real-life Salons. A community I was part of years ago hosted Salon-style events for alternative thinkers and doers in the Boston area. I have attended Death Cafes, a kind of Salon focused on mortality.

I've also had that nice feeling in social VR situations. I’ve had lengthy and more-than-superficial conversations with a total strangers. I’ve asked questions and received answers, repeated until satisfied; it worked. I’ve led group meditations.

I haven’t had long open-ended discussions about difficult topics — that is what I want to try next. I think VR will be the perfect medium. Still, it will take some savvy to make it work and I don’t have very much.

I see VR as a legitimate realm for social activity and I have been working informally with Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), a major arts organization based in Phnom Penh, on using VR to extend their work to a global audience.

We will also experiment with VR for fundraising in real world live events, the type of activity which gave rise to the Empathy Machine concept.

In addition, we will soon have live events in completely synthetic VR Galleries, with immersive media featuring Khmer art and culture.

VR Salons is an inevitable off-shoot of the Cambodia VR project, a parallel track. The evolution of the Salon Events will help organize how we design the Khmer Art Galleries and Gallery events.

Idea to Action

Iterative development has to start iterating from something.

For working toward Salons in VR, I decided on a digital identity right at the foundation. I can’t go off by myself and explore social interaction in VR. I need to draw in other people, to ask them for their time and attention. I think making VR Salon something independent of me will help. It might enable other people to feel they are part of something, part of a bigger process of learning about a new communications technology.

I made four contractual agreements over a three-hour period to start making VR Salons real:

  1. Domain, secured vrsalon.org
  2. Website, purchased one year hosting at Squarespace
  3. Email, set-up customized account tom@vrsalon.org
  4. E-News, created template and start-up newsletter

I was on fire. There is content, not great content but something, at vrsalon.org. The newsletter and email are operative.

Testing 1, 2, 3

I have no idea what I’m doing. That’s not quite true, but I think it’s the best way to approach a substantially unknown activity like VR Salon.

How many people? Which environment? How structured? What is the role of a topic? What about presentations? What kind of presentations, if any?

We’ll always be testing. Nothing we do now is ever The Thing, done, period. Iterative development starts with the first pre-test baby step, which began for VR Salon on 8/6/2018, as an 11 am scheduled event in AltspaceVR.

I wrote down what I hoped to accomplish, at minimum.

Event Goals
1. Practice logistics of getting others to private (at first) rooms
2. Compare overall feel of AltspaceVR Event vs VTime Room Hosting
3. Get feedback on the impact of the environments
4. Get feedback on use of immersive 360 JPG in small group discussion
5. Discuss overall concept, using my Species-related idea if needed.

First Pre-Test Baby Step

I wanted to start small, so I invited four friends who have Oculus headsets. Two attended. It was perfect.

I’m now semi-adept at getting my friends into VR rooms with me. I’m also clear, at the moment, that I prefer the feel of the VTime spaces. In Altspace, where we started, it felt like we were just standing there in a big room with a limited media player.

Vtime Studio V Destination, empty set

In VTime, we used ‘Studio V’,’ a talk show set. I was the host and the two of them were my guests. We fell easily into conversation, I think partly because we knew how to do Talk Show. We had seen it so many times.

At one point I tried to introduce a serious topic, Mortality — first in a Thinking Pairs format, which didn’t work at all. It was my mistake. I just threw the topic out and Frank wasn’t ready for it at first. But a few minutes later, Alan was and we ended up discussing Mortality matters quite naturally.

360 Images

I have been focused on 360 video for almost two years. As a shared experience, it will be amazing, I assume. I still have not brought ‘My 360 Video’ together with ‘Social VR’ in a satisfactory manner.

I could have recorded so much more in Cambodia as 360 images but I didn’t. I have a few nice ones, though — ultra hi-res too. As the host in VTime, I should have been able to load the images into my Oculus Go, find them in the VTime Library, and bring them up in a suitably equipped room. I couldn’t make it work when I tried ahead of time, before the pre-test.

An alternate method is to load images at the VTime.net website, which I did. Can anyone in VTime now use them? I don’t know.

360 image by Svay Sanuch, Kampot, Cambodia; recorded in VTime from Frank Coleman

I sure used them, and it was spectacular. One minute we were in the talk show set, next minute we were still together, the three of us, transported to the middle of a field in Cambodia.

I have so much to learn. How can these new powers be used in the service of human communication? Should I be using abstract images to create a mood, or hi-res photorealistic images to re-create a place? Or both?

Readiness

One of my takeaways is that a Salon shouldn’t be the first activity someone tries in VR. I want the VR-ness to be invisible so conversations can just flow.

It takes some time in VR before the VR-ness has any chance of being invisible. At first, it’s too preposterously believable to become invisible. ‘How can I be in two places at once,’ you keep asking, until eventually you don’t any more.

I can suggest activities people can do pre-Salon. I can offer pre-Salon just-chill events to help people get ready. Maybe I can use the website to help people figure out where they stand. I think this matters.

One of my friends on the talk show today is a hard core artist with a high-end Oculus Rift set-up. He is an articulate and confident person — but, according to him, he hasn’t had the nerve or the inclination to interact with anyone in a social VR space until I coaxed him into it.

Plenty of people like my friend will quickly find that it’s easier and more satisfying than expected. They will feel shared presence with the others in their virtual space in a way they could not have prepared for.

There is a huge Wow! factor that should be savored. Pause. Savor. Reflect. All part of getting ready to focus on the people and the topic of the VR Salon, not just the Wow! factor.

Next Tests

My aspirational Salon will handle as many as 20–30 people. That parameter could change of course but right now I see the idea scaling through replication, not through expansion, if it’s any good.

Maybe the whole group would be altogether some of the time but also separated into smaller units some of the time. I think I should focus at first on the smaller units, not how they will work together to make larger Salons.

The VTime spaces are conducive to conversation for 3 — 8 people. For the next test I will work with at least three other people in VTime in a semi-structured format, starting with informal conversation and moving into a topical discussion. I will be the host and I will try to use the Thinking Pairs approach to lead from conversation to discussion.

I will also have several 360 images uploaded to test how people feel about them as a conversation environment. Only a few of the VTime formats offer a sophisticated media player. For the next test, we might move between several of the rooms, but only those with the high-end player.

It turns out I need at least one more digital function to bolster the identity of VR Salon — Doodle, because scheduling is going to be the hardest part of this phase. Everything else is a blast.


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