The night of March 10, 2023 was strangely cathartic. Although I’ve lived through previous sunsets of many beloved services and apps like Google+, Curiosity.com and Google Inbox, this time was different. With AltspaceVR, I was actually there when a platform closed its doors for the final time. I was among the last few to be ejected from the platform as its servers were switched off. It might seem stupid, but I was emotionally affected by the closing down of a platform that had helped me to develop my sense of wonder.
Two and a half years ago to that exact night, I made a post on Reddit about the lack of interesting audio-based games on Android. Some unforeseen force led to my post connecting me with a person halfway across the world. That post marked the beginning of an interesting friendship that has given me many of my proudest moments.
This friendship with Chris Hainsworth, co-founder of Blind Burners, introduced me to new cultural and technological worlds in – to Burning Man and Virtual Reality (‘VR’). For the first time I experienced the energy, kindness and free expression of the Burning Man spirit. Those online events during the Covid lockdown helped me to kick start my journey of self-discovery. I still remember the first time I experienced VR. It happened in 2021 on Altspace VR, a social VR platform owned by Microsoft.
Unfortunately, the Altspace platform was totally inaccessible to my screen reader. The Log-in screen, avatar creation process and all the basic menus might as well have been invisible. To enter the new frontiers of VR, my only option was to let a friend remotely access my screen and complete the set-up process. I am a person who loves to be in control of everything I do. Unfortunately, I was forced to let my friend do most of the work. Besides walking, turning and sidestepping, I could not do anything with my keyboard. Most of the major menus were only accessible by using a mouse. I realised the platform was not made for the blind. But I was happy because there we were, finding alternative ways to access and interact with VR. I was sad and disappointed, but I felt a sense of pride at sneaking into a platform where people like me were not at all expected to be there.
I love the high when I prove people wrong. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to be part of the team building a virtual world in a platform which had been built in a way that excluded blind people. My happiness grew even more when I was invited to show my photography in a virtual gallery exhibition. I also played a role in our efforts to make the world navigable using spatial sound. I tested many creative audio-based accessibility solutions generated by the team.
The first version of our world was, to quote a friend, “A glorious failure.” Despite our best efforts, the world was not independently navigable through sound. The in-world audio did not work when it mattered. We could not provide audio descriptions for the amazing pictures on display in the art gallery. Much of what we could not achieve in the first world was due to the limitations of Unity, the game development engine on which AltspaceVR was built. Although our world was not perfect, we launched it anyway, to help others understand that the V in VR does not stand for ‘Visual’, but might stand for visually impaired.
The experience of testing navigational solutions for the first world taught me many things. I contributed to subsequent meetings with our friends at Microsoft where we highlighted the inaccessibility of their virtual reality platform. Based on their feedback, it was evident to me that many within Microsoft had been moved by our bold statement of intent.
Our second attempt at building a VR world that is navigable by sound kicked off in 2022. This time, I was entrusted with more responsibilities. I was encouraged to generate creative solutions to improve the navigability of the world. We tested things like sonifying footsteps, so that blind visitors to VR can know that they are moving, as well as collision sounds, and a series of musical sound cues to guide visitors through our three floors of galleries. Of all the things I tested, only a few made it to the final build, but those were significant improvements from the earlier version of the world.
For the second version of the art gallery, I wanted to replace all of my previous photos. Whenever I look back, I will always remember the moments I shared with Chris during this process, in which we selected, named and wrote audio descriptions for my selection of photographs. Collaboration at its finest. Our build crew discovered an innovative way to integrate audio descriptions into the gallery experience. The recorded descriptions were set to trigger when an avatar approached a certain distance from a picture or a text panel. I was slowly nudged out of my comfort-zone into recording the audio descriptions for the photographs and the text panels in my section of the gallery.
The redesigned world launched during the latter half of January 2023. I was excited to see how others might react to my part of the gallery. I made sure the section of the gallery housing my photographs reflected my tastes. The beauty of nature in and around my village in Tamil Nadu, South India, was shown to all with my smartphone camera. To heighten the natural scenes from my photographs, I wanted a specific part from The Waltz of the Flower to play in my part of the gallery. When tested the gallery before launch, I was thrilled. There it was, the swaying melody of the Flower Waltz, accompanying my photographs! Mingled with the gentle sounds of the rain and the wind from the desert, it was totally hypnotizing.
Around the time we launched our massively redesigned world, I received some shocking news, that Microsoft had decided to pull the plug on Altspace. After working on the world for more than six months, we now had only one and a half months to let others experience what we had created. Although I had not done all the hard work that went into creating the world, I was saddened to see something so meaningful have such a short lifespan.
Personally, I wanted the people around me to see the project I had contributed to. So, as soon as I mastered the navigational part of the world, I guided a couple of my classmates on a virtual tour of my gallery. Unsurprisingly, they were impressed with the photographs. To observe their excited reactions was a memorable experience. I also showed my parents the world, especially the part of the gallery with my photographs.
The day before the eventual sunset of Altspace, I spent several hours in our world, recording video clips for my virtual memorabilia. Thinking that this might be my last experience of our world, I savoured every moment. I was running here and there, bumping into things and testing my navigational skills by running to the top floor of the gallery as fast as I could.
The night of March 10, 2023 was different. I was there, in Altspace, during its final moments. Me and Chris were there in someone else’s VR world, chosen especially for this final community farewell. It was a meditative world, with a zen-like atmosphere, huge mirrors and a big virtual river. Still, as often the case in VR, we had some fun. When I experimented by deliberately guiding my avatar into the river, Altspace teleported us back to the original landing point. Besides us, there were other people roaming around the colourful world, chatting away, reflecting on memories and their feelings about their final moments of Altspace.
I wanted to say hello to the people present there, but we could not unmute our microphone. As Altspace slowly counted its final moments, with servers switching off, and a voyage into the unknown, the usual options disappeared one after another. We stopped trying to move, and came to rest in a beautiful place. The sky was filled with emoji hearts rising in bubbling columns from all of our avatars up to the sky. As we listened to the meditative voice of the world’s creator. It felt like being on an apocalyptic planet, waiting to embrace the life-ending final impact.
I am still processing this experience, feeling its strangeness and power. I am not usually a person who is emotionally affected by the closure of apps and services. With Altspace closing its doors to our world, this time felt different. Many of my life-changing moments happened in and around the platform. It is because of Altspace I now have Ace, my trusty laptop. It was Altspace that showed me a glimpse of virtual reality. It was Altspace that exhibited a bunch of my humble photographs in a virtual gallery. It was Altspace that helped me to rediscover the hidden side of my personality that wants to fight for a better, more equal and more accessible world. To say these events were triggered by an angry and disappointed Reddit post made on a lazy hot afternoon is unbelievable.
Although I am disappointed to see something that had positively influenced me ending up in a virtual graveyard, something within me assures me that this sunset will be followed by a fresh sunrise. Hopefully, the next platform in which we unfold our camp will be totally accessible to everyone. A lively virtual café, where everyone will be equally welcomed and accommodated!