Editorial: Social VR Has ARRIVED (And Two Other Things to Keep in Mind)

Just a few scattered thoughts, blogged in quick takes and snatches in between my training and committee duties on a very hectic day in the life of this academic librarian.

First: social VR has officially ARRIVED, people. Sept. 25th, 2019 is the date that everybody begins to take social VR seriously. Facebook’s entry into the social VR market today, with the announcement of Facebook Horizon, is the clearest sign yet that social VR is moving from a niche market into the mass-market mainstream.

It’s not if it will happen, but when, and how quickly it will take off from here. Remember that VR hardware is no longer the bottleneck it once was; Mark Zuckerberg said today that wireless Oculus Quest headsets are selling as fast as Facebook can make them, and soon you will be able to access Oculus Rift content via your Oculus Quest headset (although it’s still not clear how processor-heavy environments like Sansar will fare).

Second: Facebook will dominate the social VR market and crush competitors. If you are not convinced of this, I suggest you Google “snapchat facebook ftc” (or just click that oh-so-handy link) and read some of the articles outlining Facebook’s tactics in their attempt to snatch marketshare away from rival SnapChat. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported:

Facebook Inc. for most of the past decade was Silicon Valley’s 800-pound gorilla, squashing rivals, co-opting their best ideas or buying them outright as it cemented its dominance of social media.

Now the knives are coming out. A number of Facebook’s current and former competitors are talking about the company’s hardball tactics to investigators from the Federal Trade Commission, as part of its broader antitrust investigation into the social-media giant’s business practices, according to people familiar with the matter.

One of them is Snap Inc., where the legal team for years kept a dossier of ways that the company felt Facebook was trying to thwart competition from the buzzy upstart, according to some of those people. The title of the documents: Project Voldemort.

Among other things, Snap accuses Facebook of “discouraging popular account holders, or influencers, from referencing Snap on their accounts on Instagram, which Facebook owns”. Now stop and think about what would happen if Facebook decides not to promote those posts that refer to Sansar, High Fidelity, or VRChat on your Facebook friends feed.

The WSJ article goes on to say:

In recent months, the FTC has made contact with dozens of tech executives and app developers, people familiar with the agency’s outreach said. The agency’s investigators are also talking to executives from startups that became defunct after losing access to Facebook’s platform in addition to founders who sold their companies to Facebook, according to some of those people. The discussions have focused on the aggressive growth tactics that propelled Facebook from a social network for college students 15 years ago to a collection of services now used by more than one in four people in the world every day.

Facebook can and will use whatever tools and tactics available to dominate the market and crush their competitors in the social VR marketplace. And Facebook has tons of money at their disposal to spend on advertising, lawyers, programming talent, etc. Whatever they need, they can buy—and they can buy it several times over, if necessary. Linden Lab, High Fidelity, VRChat, and other social VR platforms need to pay attention and act accordingly. Facebook is playing to win, and they are playing for keeps.

Third: Innovative social VR platforms will still be able to survive, if they can offer something that Facebook Horizon cannot. In other words, it’s not time to panic yet. For example, Linden Lab’s Sansar will still allow for much more realistic-looking, full-body, dressable human(oid) avatars. And we know from 16 years of Second Life that people will invest significant amounts of time and money on their avatar appearance. For example, let’s compare a Facebook Horizons avatar, from a picture used in Facebook’s own promotion:

A Facebook Horizon Avatar (Source)

With a recent picture of a modern, mesh-body Second Life avatar:

A recent Second Life Pic of the Day

Here’s another Second Life avatar, in fact the very picture I use to illustrate the term avatar on my definitions page:

I actually bought my main Second Life avatar’s eyes after
seeing this picture of a truly stunning Second Life avatar and
reading through the detailed styling notes on her blogpost
to find the store that sells those exact eyes in Second Life…
you are NOT going to see anything like this in Horizon yet!

And here’s a couple of examples of Sansar avatars (the first one is courtesy of blogger Chic Aeon):

I think you’ll agree that Sansar (and yes, even 16-year-old Second Life!) can give Facebook Horizon a definite run for its money in the avatar appearance market! But keep in mind: this is just the starting point for Horizon. Facebook can and will keep iterating, working tirelessly on improving the Horizon avatars until they look as good as—or even better than—Second Life’s and Sansar’s. Count on it. It’s the new arms race.

Another key point: there are tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of Second Life and Sansar users who eschew human avatars altogether, choosing instead to be tinies, furries, robots, mermaids, centaurs, mechanical spiders—you name it. For all we know, Horizon may insist on human-looking avatars, at least to start. So other platforms may still be able to carve out a lucrative niche market for themselves.

I’m sure you can think of other examples. For example, I rather doubt that Facebook Horizon will allow adult content like Second Life does.

However, if your social VR product does not offer anything remarkably different from what Horizon offers, Facebook will relentlessly steamroll right over you without a second’s hesitation (see my second point, above).

OK, that’s all my thoughts for now. I might have more to add this evening as I reflect a bit more on all of today’s announcements from OC6.

Oh, and as you might have guessed, I have already put my name down to be on the early list of beta testers when the closed beta test of Facebook Horizon does launch sometime in early 2020. One way or another, I am going to be among the first people who kick the tires on Horizon!

And I’m even willing to compromise my principles and re-establish the account I shut down on the Facebook social network, yes, the very same one where I asked the company to delete all of my personal user data collected over the 13 years I was on Facebook, as my New Year’s resolution at the end of 2018. (I don’t expect to recover anything I lost; I will essentially be starting from scratch. And anyway, I used the same email address to register my Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest, so Facebook has all my VR hardware and software data, anyways.)

I know, I know, I know…I know. I am totally and completely caving in! Don’t judge me! After all, unless there is a very strict non-disclosure agreement that I have to sign and abide by as a beta tester, my blog readers are counting on me to report on all the social VR platforms that I encounter, and that includes those run by the mighty behemoth Facebook.

After all, this blog started off as a tiny blog devoted to Sansar. And it grew over time to encompass all the social VR platforms and virtual worlds, and even a few non-combat, open-world exploration, puzzle, and lifestyle games. I’m even covering the blockchain-based virtual worlds! (And that’s another area Facebook wants to muscle in on, with its recently-announced Libra cryptocurrency.)

Face it: it’s Facebook’s world. We just live in it.

UPDATE 7:03 p.m.: UploadVR has posted a four-minute YouTube clip from today’s keynote, focused on Facebook Horizon:

And TechCrunch has a good overall report on Facebook Horizon, drawing the inevitable comparison with Second Life, and including a few images of the platform that I haven’t seen posted anywhere else:

At first glance, Horizon seems like a modernized Second Life,  a first-person Sims, a fulfillment of the intentions of AltspaceVR and a competitor to PlayStation’s PSVR Dreams and cross-platfrom kids’ favorite Roblox. Back in 2016, Facebook was giving every new Oculus employee a copy of the Ready Player One novel. It seems they’ve been busy building that world since then.

Facebook Horizon will start centralized around a town square. Before people step in, they can choose how they look and what they wear from an expansive and inclusive set of avatar tools. From inside VR, users will be able to use the Horizon World Builder to create gaming arenas, vacation chillspots and activities to fill them without the need to know how to code.

An example of the build tools available in Facebook Horizon

You could design a tropical island, then invite friends to hang out with you on your virtual private beach. An object creator akin to the Oculus Medium sculpting feature lets you make anything, even a custom t-shirt your avatar could wear. Visual scripting tools let more serious developers create interactive and reactive experiences.

Facebook details its Horizon safety features on its “Citizenship” page that explains that “As citizens of Facebook Horizon, it is all of our responsibility to create a culture that’s respectful and comfortable . . . A Horizon citizen is friendly, inclusive, and curious.” Horizon Locals will wander the VR landscapes to answer questions or aid users if they’re having technical or safety issues. They seem poised to be part customer support, part in-world police.

Horizon makes perfect sense for a business obsessed with facilitating social interaction while monetized through ad views based on time-spent. It’s easy to imagine Horizon including virtual billboards for brands, Facebook-run shops for buying toys or home furnishings, third-party malls full of branded Nikes or Supreme shirts that score Zuckerberg a revenue cut or subscriptions to access certain gaming worlds or premium planets to explore.

As Facebook starts to grow stale after 15 years on the market, users are looking for new ways to socialize. Many have already ditched the status updates and smarmy Life Events of Facebook for the pretty pictures of Instagram and silliness of Snapchat. Facebook risked being cast aside if it didn’t build its own VR successor. And by offering a world where users can escape their real lives instead of having to enviously compare them to their friends, Horizon could appeal to those bored or claustrophobic on Facebook.

Facebook Horizon Locals (Horizon’s in-world guides)

TheNextWeb notes, with just a hint of snark:

If nothing else, I picture this digital world dripping with ads after just a short time. I don’t want to picture that, but ads are the backbone of Facebook‘s business, and I can’t believe they’d miss the opportunity to shove even more of them into our faces.

Facebook to Launch Its Own Social VR Platform in Early 2020, Called Facebook Horizon

More details later, but Mark Zuckerberg has announced the name of Facebook’s social VR platform: Facebook Horizon, which will launch sometime next year:

The avatars seem to be upper-body only, at least from the screen captures I took directly from Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote presentation (note that these first couple of images seem to be more stylized than the later images in the update below, which I suspect are much closer to what the avatars actually look like):

So there you have it! The 900-pound gorilla of social VR has been announced. And you can bet that Facebook is going to use every single tool and tactic at its disposal to make sure that Horizon is your social VR platform. Count on it.

Sansar, High Fidelity, Sinespace, Somnium Space, VRChat, and Rec Room—and all the other existing social VR platforms—now have a new and formidable opponent.

I will try to write up another blogpost this evening when I get home from work, with details of other announcements made today at OC6.

UPDATE 12:52 p.m.: Here’s a few more screenshots of Facebook Horizon, which plans to have its closed beta launch early next year. It was announced that everybody in attendance at the keynote will receive an invitation to the closed beta.

The avatars remind me strongly of Facebook Spaces—not necessarily a good thing. It’s clear that they will be more cartoon-like than realistic-looking (at least they won’t be the extremely low-poly ones used by AltspaceVR and Rec Room):

In the following screenshot, you can just make out name tags over the avatars’ heads (which I assume you can turn on and off as required):

And it would seem that Horizon will have in-world building tools, similar to the venerable prim-building tools available in Second Life, but hopefully more powerful:

Also, it would appear that you are going to have to have an account on the Facebook social network in order to participate in Horizon. I am not happy about this, but this is hardly a surprise. I will be more surprised if you don’t have to have a Facebook account to use Horizon.

Remember, Facebook can leverage off the estimated 2.7 billion people around the world who use Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, or Messenger each month. An estimated 2.1 billion people use at least one of the Facebook family of services every day. Stop and think about the huge competitive advantage that gives Facebook.

And… well, OK, I want to get my hot little hands on an invitation to the closed beta of Facebook Horizon early next year, which apparently all the attendees at today’s keynote will receive. I need to know: is there anybody at OC6 willing to give me their invite? I want to get into that closed beta!

UPDATE 1:35 p.m.: Here’s an update directly from Facebook about Facebook Horizon:

VR is already a great place to hang out with friends, play games, and watch movies. It’s also a fantastic way to learn new skills and explore our world. Human curiosity and connection are central to each of these experiences, and they’re also at the heart of Horizon. Starting with a bustling town square where people will meet and mingle, the Horizon experience then expands to an interconnected world where people can explore new places, play games, build communities, and even create their own new experiences.

Before stepping into Horizon for the first time, people will design their own avatars from an array of style and body options to ensure everyone can fully express their individuality. From there, magic-like portals—called telepods—will transport people from public spaces to new worlds filled with adventure and exploration. At first, people will hop into games and experiences built by Facebook, like Wing Strikers, a multiplayer aerial experience.

But that’s just the beginning. People will also jump into various other Horizon worlds, built using the World Builder, a collection of easy-to-use creator tools. Everyone will have the power to build new worlds and activities, from tropical hangout spots to interactive action arenas, all from scratch—no previous coding experience needed. Whether people choose to build, play, or simply hang out, Horizon will ensure a welcoming environment through new safety tools and human guides—Horizon Locals—to answer questions and provide assistance, if needed.

As we focus our efforts on launching Facebook Horizon in 2020, we’ll be closing down Facebook Spaces and Oculus Rooms on October 25. We’re grateful to each and every one of you who joined us in those experiences and have followed us on this journey—and we look forward to having you join us in Facebook Horizon in 2020.

The Horizon beta will open early next year. Sign up at oculus.com/facebookhorizon/sign-up to be notified when the beta opens in 2020. We can’t wait to see all of the new experiences, communities, and worlds people will build together.

OC6 Starts Today: What Will Facebook Announce?

Today is the opening day of Oculus Connect 6 (OC6), a two-day event at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in sunny, warm California, and it’s all everybody who is anybody in virtual reality and augmented reality has been talking about for weeks.

Even Facebook’s CEO has been in on the game, teasing users with cryptic announcements such as this one:

(RPG is short for role-playing game, in case you’re not up on the lingo. And Ready Player One, of course, is last year’s hit movie about virtual reality.)

Mark’s Facebook post led UploadVR to speculate:

What exactly could Zuckerberg be teasing here? In Ready Player One, the Oasis is an all-encompassing virtual metaverse that allows anyone to be whoever they want and do whatever they want. It’s so good that humanity basically loses itself inside the new world. We don’t think VR is quite ready for something of that scale, but this tease could be taking the first steps towards something like that.

We’ve written in the past about how confusing Facebook’s scattered social VR policy has been. Facebook Spaces appears to be all but forgotten about, Oculus Rooms never left Gear VR and Go, and Oculus Quest still doesn’t have its own social VR experience powered by Facebook.

Could we perhaps see Facebook announced a definitive social destination across Oculus Rift and Quest? … Maybe we’re just getting carried away, but it’s an exciting thought.

We’ll have to watch along with the keynote to find out.

Unfortunately, I am stuck here in the plunging autumn temperatures of Winnipeg, teaching undergraduate agriculture students how to use the library effectively to complete their assigments. So, alas, I am going to have to rely on second-hand accounts of what’s going on at OC6. If I am lucky, I might be able to catch the livestreams of Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote address and other events on the OculusConnect.com website, while I am multi-tasking (here are more details on how to watch from CNET). Of course, it’s not the same thing as actually being there.

And I am hoping (much like UploadVR) that there will be some sort of hint of Facebook’s code-named “Metaverse” social VR platform for Oculus Go, Oculus Quest, and Oculus Rift and Rift S users (which I’m willing to bet will be based on Oculus Home). Facebook has the capacity to steamroller the nascent social VR marketplace, and they’re not above using some dirty tactics to gain market share from competitors, according to a report compiled by SnapChat of their aggressive tactics, which has been submitted to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

So, stay tuned. Some interesting announcements may come out today or tomorrow.