Human frailty knows no bounds – even the virtual ones.
I attended a virtual reality meetup hosted by bitcoin advocate Udi Wertheimer on Sunday for the MIT Bitcoin Expo. Instead of jaunting up to Cambridge, Mass., for the afternoon, I donned virtual goggles in Southern California to enter the world of “non-deterministic bitcoin scripts” and other cypherpunk conversations.
And despite all the coronavirus-fueled excitement around virtual gatherings being a viable alternative to germ-swapping IRL events, I still got sick. Still, my foe was much more mundane: motion sickness.
“Kudos to all you brave souls who are still here in meatspace,” said Casa Chief Technology Officer Jameson Lopp as he opened his talk, addressing the sparse physical crowd at MIT.
Truthfully, it’s pretty cool that you can roam a tech conference from the comfort (and safety) of your own home. To date, some 45 tech-related conferences have been canceled, postponed or moved to online platforms. That’s a lot for a distributed industry that has long relied on hackathons and meetups for forward progress.
Wertheimer’s VR experience ran on Mozilla Hubs. A fairly buggy platform compared to others such as VRChat – which hosted a four-hour VR “afterparty” for the MIT Expo.
My experience was, I’d say, closer to Harry Potter’s Azkaban prison than San Francisco’s (now-postponed) Bitcoin 2020.
Mozilla Hubs can run on two platforms: desktop or VR goggles. At first, I logged on to the desktop version I had become familiar with in the week prior for fun. Here’s a picture of me as a donut at the Parthenon:
It’s important to note Hubs’ current status as more of a proof-of-concept than full VR simulation, especially on desktop alone.
You can move about, talk to attendees and even teleport, but it still lags severely and crashes after about two-dozen people join the virtual room. The VR group I joined does not plan on using the platform again (although Mozilla is marketing the product to event organizers like SXSW).
“When Jameson joined we had some severe audio problems, he could hear only some of the people so it was a bit of a mess. Still lots of fun though,” Wertheimer told CoinDesk.
After lobbying my editor, I purchased an Oculus Go for the event, the cheapest headset you can get on Amazon. (At about $150 on Amazon Prime, it has never been cheaper to distance yourself from reality.)
Linking my Oculus with Hubs, I re-entered into the MIT Expo hall. Or rather, under it by about 60 feet:
No, being virtually buried alive is not quite as suffocating as dwelling in the dirt, but it wasn’t enjoyable either.
I felt quite trapped beneath the virtual tent and its 30-some avatar guests. More still, I was incapable of moving. My controller worked whenever I exited the Expo to pick a new avatar character, but was worthless inside the event itself. I was left spinning around my apartment looking for some virtual buttons to click. This, in turn, was greeted by lagging images of a mountain backdrop and distant echoes of a conversation about bitcoin scripting language.
Health experts caution that COVID-19 is asymptomatic until an acute turning point, wherein hospitalization is generally required. My experience with VR bears similar warning.
Unexpectedly, nausea set in some 30 minutes into the Expo. Nonetheless, I was determined to carry on.
My resolve did not last.
Perhaps the digital world is more weighty than the physical. I abandoned the VR world for the comforts of meatspace after multiple (failed) attempts at moving toward the tent entrance.
Bitcoin and the VR moment
Like bitcoin, VR isn’t ready for the big stage quite yet. It may never be.
The limitations of VR are still quite tangible. Clunky and expensive hardware is met with underdeveloped software infamous for making users disoriented and seasick. For one, I’m glad vomit doesn’t transfer to the digital realm.
Most VR applications such as VRChat cannot handle more than a few hundred attendees without crashing. Mozilla Hubs can only run about 30 people before sending applicants into the digital abyss. There’s also that little voice in the back of your head wondering if what you are doing is entirely normal.
“Not all VR experiences are equal. In particular, the platform we used on Sunday appeared to have performance issues once we maxed out the number of people who were allowed to join the virtual space,” Lopp told CoinDesk via email. “In general, though, some platforms enable interesting functions that you wouldn’t be able to do in real life.”
Silver linings certainly exist in the VR clouds. Wertheimer said participants felt more comfortable addressing conference speakers in one-on-one conversation. Privacy-minded attendees, who often do not attend real conferences, happily showed up under pseudonyms.
“Having the person next to you nodding, explaining things with their hands, looking at what you’re describing. It sounds simple but it makes the interaction feel a lot more ‘human’ than most online interactions,” Wertheimer told CoinDesk.
Like bitcoin, expect VR innovations to grow in stature as the list of nixed conferences continues to lengthen. Regardless of its defects, VR remains an attractive way to make the tent bigger for crypto.
Clearly, nausea beats the flu any day of the week.
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