the last bittersweet hours of Microsoft’s metaverse
” Closing “is not the term that immediately comes to the lips of our interlocutors when we talk about the definitive shutdown of AltspaceVR, a virtual reality social platform acquired by Microsoft in 2017. Most of its users prefer to use images like the ” last breath “THE “ultimate glitch”, “the big cut” Or ” goodbyes “. For the faithful, it’s not just a plug that we unplug: it’s a world will die on March 10 from 7 p.m.
Word “twilight” is also used by the company Altspace VR itself, since the press release of January 20 in which it announced to close its service to strengthen the teams of Microsoft Mesh, a virtual reality application intended for companies.
The abandonment is not insignificant, less than a year and a half after the rush towards online immersive realities initiated by Mark Zuckerberg when he renamed Facebook’s parent company “Meta”. What does a dying metaverse look like? To find out, we put on our standalone virtual reality headset, the Meta Quest 2, to immerse ourselves in the very last days of AltspaceVR.
It is noon on March 8, and the apocalypse seems to have already passed. In front of the platform’s home page, most ongoing events do not display any participants. We wander for a few hours in depopulated spaces: an exhibition showing cats drawn by artificial intelligence, a speed dating space or a gigantic chapel in which the video of an evangelist sermon is broadcast. We are overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness.
This is actually a false start: AltSpaceVR lives on US time and wakes up later. Admittedly, users have trickled out since the announcement of the closure, confides a Saudi met around a campfire. He assures us that as the end approaches, many are coming back for a final goodbye as the various communities maintain ties through Discord or social media. Does he plan to migrate elsewhere? At the moment, he doesn’t like other metaverses too much, especially VRChat, where there is “too many kids, too much noise everywhere and mess”. The Jeddah resident is confident that a new space similar to AltspaceVR will soon emerge.
Calm and moderation
Even at the height of its activity, the tranquility of AltspaceVR is appreciated. “It’s warm and cozy here”, slips the British Nic. Unlike other very libertarian online spaces, this one offers pleasant moderation tools. When we arrive in a new space, the microphones are automatically cut off and the organizers of an event can choose who can speak there or not. Cordiality is essential. We greet each other before talking (in English), we are polite and the discussions last.
The users encountered are already of a certain age and exchange views on cultural or social subjects: we are closer to the public of Arte than to that of TikTok. The majority of avatars also look like normal humans, with clothes and haircuts that aren’t too fancy. With our character with green skin and fluorescent clothes, we look like a tourist.
Spleen and end of the world celebrations
The next day, the day before closing, it’s time to say goodbye. We witness reunions between old friends, veteran-style exchanges or poignant farewell speeches. ” You must not cry “, repeats a woman with an American accent at the end of a meditation session. For many, AltspaceVR has been an important refuge and socializing space during the pandemic.
In a place dedicated to language learning, Sarah relativizes the ambient sadness. This cheerful resident of Yvelines is the only French woman we have come across. She says she discovered virtual reality two years ago, thanks to a friend living abroad. That’s where they met to chat, because it’s more interactive than a phone call.
“There is really something special here when we meet people, even if that will never replace human contact”exclaims the one who admits to having little interest in new technologies.
A few hours later, we join a karaoke gathering of about fifty people. Above the stage, pink balloons draw the words “thank you” (“thank you”) and farewell songs follow. A man sings My Way Sinatra version and the thirty or so people in the audience wave their arms in rhythm. Their melancholy is contagious.
“Like the beginnings of the Internet”
Elsewhere, others dance in futuristic raves, retro and themed discos. As the evening progresses, we fail in a striking party called “Bratwurst Sunset Party”. About forty people chat in a twilight universe dedicated to sausages and beer. The atmosphere is good-natured and everyone is still surprised that a “new” person comes to set foot here.
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“It’s a bit like the beginnings of the Internet. People here help each other selflessly because we are a very small community of pioneers”, explains Johnny Android. The Californian is the host of Simulation Nation, a “worldcast”, as he calls his virtual reality podcast. For the moment what he expects the most is to experience the end of the platform live: “It’s going to be sublime, a dive into the unknown”enthuses this science fiction enthusiast.
What will become of all spaces created by players? “Microsoft will not retain any records”, let us know the company. Users are encouraged to upload all of their data by March 10. No doubt their memories will live on.
Everything stops but everything continues, assures Johnny Android: “This is only the end of a chapter. » Working in Hollywood, he is convinced that virtual reality will supplant cinema in a few decades. A handful of hours from the apocalypse, we are forced to note that the bittersweet experience of the last days of AltspaceVR is as moving as the end of many films.