the bittersweet last hours of Microsoft’s metaverse

Estimated read time 6 min read

“Closure” is not the term that immediately comes to the lips of our interlocutors when we mention 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 break” or “the goodbyes”. For the faithful, it’s not just a plug that we unplug: it’s a whole world that will die on March 10 from 19 o’clock.

The word “twilight” is also used by the Altspace VR company itself, since the press release of January 20 in which it announced that it was closing its service to strengthen the teams of Microsoft Mesh, a virtual reality application intended for companies.

The abandonment is not trivial, less than a year and a half after the rush to immersive online realities initiated by Mark Zuckerberg when he renamed “Meta” the parent company of Facebook. What does a dying metaver look like? To find out, we put on our autonomous virtual reality headset, the Meta Quest 2, to immerse ourselves in the very last days of AltspaceVR.

The first thing we see in this metaverse is a petition to save him from his disappearance. The first thing we see in this metaverse is a petition to save him from his disappearance. ALTSPACE VR / CAPTURES THE WORLD

Twilight atmosphere

It’s noon on March 8th, and the apocalypse seems to have already passed. In front of the home page of the platform, most of the current events do not display any participants. We wander for a few hours in depopulated spaces: an exhibition showing cats drawn by an artificial intelligence, a speed dating space or a gigantic chapel in which the video of an evangelist sermon is broadcast. We are overwhelmed by an impression of loneliness.

This is actually a false start: AltspaceVR lives on American time and wakes up later. Admittedly, users have left in droves since the announcement of the closure, confides a Saudi man met around a campfire. He assures us that as the end approaches, many come back for a last goodbye because the different communities maintain links thanks to Discord or social networks. Has he planned to migrate elsewhere? At the moment, he doesn’t really like other metaverse, especially VRChat, where there are “too many kids, too much noise everywhere and a mess”. The resident of Jeddah is convinced that a new space similar to AltspaceVR will soon emerge.

A space dedicated to romantic encounters... now deserted. A space dedicated to romantic encounters… now deserted. ALTSPACE VR / CAPTURE THE WORLD

Calm and moderation

Even at the height of its activity, the tranquility of AltspaceVR is appreciated. “It’s warm and cozy here,” says the British Nic. Unlike other online spaces, very libertarian, 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 de rigueur. We greet each other before approaching each other (in English), we are polite and the discussions last.

The users we meet are already of a certain age and exchange views on cultural or social topics: we are closer to the Arte audience than to that of TikTok. The majority of avatars also look like normal humans, with clothes and haircuts without much fantasy. With our character with green skin and neon clothes, we show ourselves as a tourist.

Our flashy look stands out in this rather policed space. Our flashy look stands out in this rather policed space. ALTSPACE VR / CAPTURE THE WORLD

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, exchanges like veterans or poignant farewell speeches. “We 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 puts the ambient sadness into perspective. This cheerful resident of the Yvelines is the only French woman we have met. She says that she discovered virtual reality two years ago, thanks to a friend living abroad. This is where they met to discuss, because it is more interactive than a phone call.

The Ile-de-France Sarah is obviously amused to be interviewed from her virtual reality headset. The Ile-de-France Sarah is obviously amused to be interviewed from her virtual reality headset. ALTSPACE VR / CAPTURES THE WORLD

“There is really something special going on here, when we meet, even if it will never replace human contacts,” exclaims the one who admits to being little interested in new technologies.

A few hours later, we join a karaoke gathering about fifty people. Above the stage, pink balloons draw the words “thank you” (“thank you”) and farewell songs follow one another. A man sings My Way Sinatra version and the thirty people in the audience wave their arms in rhythm. Their melancholy is contagious.

“Like in the early days of the Internet”

A farewell party whose title mentioned A farewell party whose title mentioned “reserved for adults”. ALTSPACE VR / CAPTURES THE WORLD

Elsewhere, others dance in futuristic rave parties, retro and themed discos. As the evening progresses, we fail in a striking party called “Bratwurst Sunset Party”. About forty individuals are chatting in a twilight universe dedicated to sausages and beer. The atmosphere is good-natured and everyone is still surprised that a “new” comes to set foot here.

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“It’s a bit like the early days of the Internet. The 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 refers to his podcast in virtual reality. For the moment, what he is most looking forward to is experiencing the end of the platform live: “It’s going to be sublime, a dive into the unknown”, raves this science fiction enthusiast.

Sausages, beer and a sunset to enjoy the last moments of AltspaceVR. Sausages, beer and a sunset to enjoy the last moments of AltspaceVR. ALTSPACE VR / CAPTURES THE WORLD

What will become of all the spaces created by the players? “Microsoft will not keep any archives,” the company tells us. Users are invited to download all their data before March 10th. There is no doubt that their memories will last.

Everything stops but everything continues, assures Johnny Android: “It’s 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 before 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.

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