Valderi, Valdera!

author’s pic, Northwest Cambodia

Social VR Platforms . . . . . . People . . . . . . Companies . . . . . . Society

I’m a happy Wanderer.

Being in Uddar Meanchey Province close to the Thai border during Khmer New Year in 2019 feels about as real now as my favorite made-up worlds in VR.

So it’s no surprise that being back inside the same Temple just up the dirt road from the teeny village of Preap Preous, in the Wander VR app, feels about as exciting now as being there in 2019.

A different kind of exciting, for different reasons.

Then, it was an experience completely outside my normal life, challenging physically with 100 degree heat and 100% humidity all day every day, a semi-old white guy making 360 media in a remote part of Cambodia.

I was there with friends, artists, musicians from Cambodian Living Arts. It took a twelve hour ride on the Khmer Magic Music Bus to get there, but we got there.

We’d come to show them traditional Khmer instruments people hadn’t seen for two generations. We were also there to watch their traditional Thon drummers play during the New Year’s festivities.

author’s pic, Shanghat Bos Pov

I was there to record and then show the VR content later at fundraisers, where supporters would feel present at the events, and that is just what happened until everything changed and there were no more events because of Covid.

I finally got back thirty months later in Wander.

It is not as hot and humid. I didn’t have to take a long bus ride that was hard on my back. The challenges were different this time. I had to crack the Google Street View code to publish my pictures. It was frustrating and unpredictable.

The Street View app finds faces to blur and blurs them. I blurred some, not all. I’ll learn.

Publishing is an anti-climax because, at least at this point, there’s a wait. My upload needs to become one with the growing Opaque Hole that is Google. I say, ‘opaque,’ rather than ‘black’ because nothing gets out of a Black Hole (except undifferentiated Hawking radiation) but stuff definitely gets out of Google. It’s just not always clear how or why.

Finding my uploaded pictures in the Wander app over the next few days, for instance, had me scratching my head a lot, but somehow I found them and that right there is the exciting part.

Exciting because it was a challenge and I did it, but a longer-lasting exciting too because I now have the power to bring anyone with a VR headset to this place with me at any time.

I would be willing to bet that > 95% of all Wander users go to their childhood home the first time they use the app. I did. Everyone I have ever asked did. I have been to amazing places all over the world but a little suburb of Rochester, New York is where I went first when I could go there in VR because it’s where I first remember being anywhere at all.

When all you have is Street View, you can’t go to the back yard where you played with your first puppy.

When you can add your own images to Google’s unimaginable database, Street View feels different. It feels more like a cooperative undertaking, even though it all goes though corporate servers that we could lose at any time on short notice.

Street View lets me publish my 360 pictures in their correct location on Planet Earth within a framework of billions of other people’s media that doesn’t scroll away into the past and become irrelevant.

In social media news feeds, today’s eyeball-bait is a distant memory by tomorrow, fading rapidly into oblivion.

Street View media is here to stay. As I type those words I know everything is impermanent, but Google’s maps and streets and Earth and all the audacious things they did with all that money has produced something that feels unusually persistent.

That’s why it’s such a high for me to be published there.

Foreign Correspondent’s Club, Phnom Penh wikipedia

My friend Al, who introduced me to Cambodia, likes the view from the third floor of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (FCC) along Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh.

Now we can meet there any time and shoot the shit. We won’t be eating Fish Amok or drinking Mojitos. The view won’t change. I didn’t say it was perfect.

I expect sometime we will sit together in those rooftop corner seats and talk about how much everything has changed.

It’s nice to have two immersive options. One is gritty and hard for Al and I to get to. We can be inside the other one in a minute, with all the rough edges of Cambodia smoothed out, the good news and the bad news.

That would be enough, but there’s more.

I’ve known Al for more than fifty years but I didn’t know Linda at all. She set up the Wander VR Travel Club page on Facebook in 2019 and now it’s a thriving community with 1,400 members. She offered to help me with the tricky uploads part and I would not have cracked the code without her.

She is not building a business or a brand in the commercial sense of the term. She started a community, in the traditional sense of the term. People share great places they find. They get together for tours.

Being a virtual tour guide is already a Thing and it’s only going to become a Bigger Thing. Virtual Tour Guides will be like DJs, curating a flow of experiences all over the world.

Google has already made me a Level II Host and I’m just getting started. If I really bear down I might get a Hoodie with a logo on it in the mail some day.

Not my motivation and not Linda’s. She’s a docent, a native New Yorker tour guide who found a way to do what she loves during lock-down.

The active group that has emerged is a little surprising but it probably shouldn’t be. According to one survey, 3/4 of all Internet users participate in some form of online community and the number is growing.

Slack or Discord servers hold many of them together and there’s 130,000 communities (subreddits) on Reddit alone.

VR adds the special sauce of presence, the sense of being together in a space with other people. A booster shot of connection between stretches of keyboard community.

Wander, in VR, adds one of many people’s favorite activities to the sense of presence, which of course is Travel. Finding new places, revisiting places we have been to before. I have traveled alone and I have traveled with others. Every time I come back, I want to share what I found.

People’s travel slide shows aren’t always great. In Wander, we can contribute our very best and also select the best of what others contribute. Google tells us what people are looking at, with stats for each image. Or in the case of Wander, not what they are looking at from a detached perspective, but what they are immersed in.

Immersed in the latest version of Google’s Street Views, that is. But what about the previous version? Does that fall off the newsfeed? No.

I LOL-ed when Linda the Wander Club admin showed me how to turn the corner of 2nd Ave and 42nd Street in Manhattan, with people wearing masks in 2020, into the same spot in 2016 when no one had masks and the buildings aren’t even the same. She was making a point about glass skyscrapers taking out classic New York architecture, which wasn’t funny.

I was laughing because I didn’t know what else to do. Linda was used to it. I was still back at, ‘Holy Shit.’

Now I see it’s a personal time machine too. It’s hard sometimes to stay out of your own 360 photo. I’m in some that are now published to Street View and I didn’t blur myself. I didn’t want to. A piece of me from 2019 has found its spot.

When Al and I make it back to the FCC rooftop and look down where the Tonle Sap River meets the mighty Mekong, it will probably be our last time there.

I’ll put the 360 camera a few feet away, between us, and take some pics. I’ll publish one so we can meet there beside our younger selves whenever we want.

/Platforms for People #9 — previous issue, Platforms for People #8

If you enjoyed this issue, please Follow us as we expand our coverage of the human and social side of VR and all spatial media.

The Social VR Platforms, Companies, People, and Society tabs at the top of the article are linked to our growing base of very brief, right-to-the-point pieces about social aspects of the Metaverse.

Platforms for People is produced by Tom Nickel. I welcome contributions.

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Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos

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Tom Nickel

Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos

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