For the most part, it came unexpectedly on Friday. I had heard rumors for a month or so that it was coming, but it was Carl Barnhill from 12:30 Media who forwarded me the official news this past Friday: AltspaceVR is closing.
What is AltspaceVR, and Why is it Closing?
For those in the know, AltspaceVR is one of the oldest social worlds in virtual reality. Started in 2013, AltspaceVR was acquired by Microsoft in 2017. Unfortunately for the current user base, Microsoft is shutting down AltspaceVR, with the world officially closing its doors on March 10, 2023.
The uninformed will quickly cite that this is an example of people rejecting virtual reality technology. I think this is a premature observation. Yes, it's well documented how tough it is for large tech organizations in 2023 (I'm willing to bet we'll return to this topic again soon here on the blog). Still, it is important to realize that Microsoft was a little out of its league when it acquired AltspaceVR.
Believe it or not, the makers of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint may not be experts on social community. Even as Microsoft swan-songs AltspaceVR, they touted the next implementation of Microsoft's virtual reality product - Microsoft Mesh! Coming soon to virtual workplaces near you. Who cares about social community? Let's work more efficiently!!!
Why the Metaverse Church is Mourning AltspaceVR
I'm jesting a bit here at M$ expense, but truthfully many dedicated AltspaceVR users are struggling at this closing. We discussed this in the book VR & The Metaverse Church, some passionate people consider AltspaceVR home. As of January 2023, there are more organized churches operating in AltspaceVR world than in any of the other virtual social worlds. AltspaceVR is perceived to be the safest of the social worlds. Microsoft set up AltspaceVR to be family-friendly... users 18-88 years old could be regularly found worldwide, which is why churches liked it. Safe. Comfortable. Controlled.
Strong parental controls. Blended user base. Churches invested time and money into these worlds. And according to Microsoft, churches will not be able to capitalize on that investment after March 10, when Microsoft closes the doors on AltspaceVR. With all due respect, these churches deserve a moment to mourn. Churches like Oasis Church VR come to mind. Their unique approach to church leads them to create a new virtual reality world each week... I would dare suggest thousands of volunteer programmer and designer hours over the past year completely down the drain with Microsoft's decision. VR Church, Cornerstone VR, Lakeland VR, Prayer Garden, Living Room VR, and numerous others scrambling to find a new home.
Some would say that this is the reason why churches should not experiment with virtual reality. Others would say that this is a sign that virtual reality will not succeed. I have a different vantage point. I think the Metaverse Church will be better off due to this decision.
Why the Metaverse Church is Better Without AltspaceVR
Loyal AltspaceVR users want to tar and feather my avatar, but give me a minute to talk through here. I believe missionally, ministry is better outside of AltspaceVR. Closing AltspaceVR down does not mean the end of ministry in VR... the closing is meant to breathe new life into missional vr. To prove my point, let's look at what ministry looked like in Altspace VR, and three reasons why ministry will be better post-AltspaceVR:
Reason 1: AltspaceVR usage has been dropping embarrassingly low. Meanwhile, other worlds like vrchat are growing by leaps and bounds.
Why? Well, the safeness of Altspace... those strong parental controls... the global tech company that didn't want a lawsuit and ruled with an iron fist... that is exactly why people ran from AltspaceVR to some of the other virtual social worlds. Because no one is ruling VRchat with an iron fist. Strangely, we don't trust large tech companies. We trust some organizations we've never heard of over Microsoft. The Church will have far more potential reach outside of AltspaceVR than it did in the world.
REASON 2: ALTSPACEVR WAS SETTING ITSELF TO BE THE "REACH EVERYONE" WORLD... IN THE METAVERSE, YOU CAN'T REACH EVERYONE EFFECTIVELY. INSTEAD OF REACHING EVERYONE, REACH SOMEONE.
AltspaceVR was creating a blended world that reached everyone. The Metaverse is shaping out not to reach "everyone" but to reach "someone," Even massive universes like VRchat and (theoretically) Meta's Horizon Worlds will need to focus on personas and target audiences to be effective. In the growing Metaverse Culture, the Church will succeed in smaller, more targeted conversations.
REASON 3: MISSIONAL IMPLICATIONS IN THE OTHER WORLDS ARE HUGE... BUT THE METAVERSE CHURCH NEEDS TO MOVE AWAY FROM "EVENT" BASED MINISTRY.
In many ways, AltspaceVR was lukewarm. To reach everyone, AltspaceVR failed to connect with anyone. The church has an opportunity to connect with some of these deeper, more focused audiences like RecRoom and VRchat, and start to reach people missionally in these worlds. AltspaceVR was an event world. Altspace thrived on events. Virtual reality continues to shine not for events but with conversations. Worlds like VRchat thrive on dialogue. The lesson for the church? To thrive in the metaverse, we need to move away from events.
Looking for What's Next?
So, if you're looking to explore virtual reality ministry, or you were an Altspace user, and now you're homeless, here's a listing of some other social worlds to explore.
- BigScreen - The Netflix of Virtual Reality. If your church has a strong video product, consider using BigScreen to take your church into the Metaverse.
- RecRoom - Skewing younger and, therefore, more "creative," RecRoom is a great option for people who want to connect with a younger audience relationally.
- VRchat - Essentially virtual reality's "wild wild west" or "red light district" there is a huge missional opportunity here, but this is a dark world in desperate need of light.
- Meta's Horizon Worlds - The current dark horse. It should be incredibly successful, but can Facebook get us there or go the way of Microsoft? Will Meta Horizon Worlds fall under the limitation of many large tech companies that fail because the user base does not trust them?
For more on what the current Metaverse Church looks like, check out my book VR & The Metaverse Church: How God is Moving in This Virtual, Yet Quite Real, Reality, which can be downloaded for free thanks to Leadership Network.