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.

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7 thoughts on “Editorial: Social VR Has ARRIVED (And Two Other Things to Keep in Mind)”

  1. Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for the article. I will be interested in your thoughts especially since I just looked at your survey results last year that reconfirm (for me and other OpenSim devotees) that the Second Life and OpenSim platform (which are essentially the same platform is we’re looking at people’s preferences) are still offering what many of us are really looking for. I’m in education and am pretty passionate about the open source, connected, and decentralized nature of OpenSim worlds (I use Kitely and Avacon).

    Honestly, I could barely stand that video trailer for Facebook Horizon. I worked in sales and marketing in years past, and it’s just like going to conferences with all the demos full of hyperbole and bling. The educational world is a sucker for every damn shiny new thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about VR and will sign up to beta test this, but I’ve also got one foot out the door of Facebook already. I’m just seriously in the camp of not wanting to be in the pocket of corporate America. I listened to half of the opening remarks at the development conference this morning and I swear all I heard was the excitement of how much product was flying off the shelves. All I got was the vibe about how much money was about to be made. I really think educators should be taking another look at the OpenSim platform. Kitely should be VR ready. I’ve downloaded the beta viewer, but haven’t tested Occulus Rift with it yet. I look forward to another poll. Thanks for all your writings.

  2. I think for people who have a Facebook account, Oculus device, and want a social VR platform, it will be great. For the masses though…we’ll have to wait and see. I’m doubtful.

  3. I’ve disciplined myself to use the bare minimum of Facebook products as possible. I have to keep Messenger for certain people, so there is no deleting the account. If I were to invest in a Quest, my involvement in Horizon would be just as limited.

  4. I’m somewhat surprised that they’re sticking the Facebook brand on this, considering all the bad press they’ve had the last few years.

    And all the money and talent in the world is no guarantee that they’ll produce a product that succeeds. I was reminded of this recently when I came across an article from the early 2000s about how Microsoft was set to dominate the world. But of the technologies mentioned, only .NET is still around. Passport, Microsoft’s former identity management service, never took off, and Hailstorm didn’t fare any better. A more recent example is Google’s Wave, another ‘killer app’ that fizzled out.

  5. Your comparison of avatar quality is interesting but fails to take into account the performance issues with Sansar’s high poly meshes and photorealistic textures. These are intended for desktopVR and would just not be performant on a mobileVR platform such as the Quest – and that’s the whole point… Facebook is staking a claim to social VR by making the medium as easily accessible as possible, to as many people as possible.

    So while the Quest’s ease of use and accessibility (portability/stand alone) comes at the price of more ‘cartoony’ graphics, I’m not sure if enough people have the hardware to run Sansar’s high end VR (or even the desire to get that creative with their avatars) to really trouble Facebook. They have the money to sell the Quest as a loss leader, and to saturate the market with a highly successful lower spec headset that will define the VR mainstream for years to come. By comparison, desktopVR will, I think, remain a very niche market.

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