I am banging out a very quick blogpost before I head off to work, with a couple of Facebook Horizon-related news items I encountered on my Twitter feed yesterday evening.
John Carmack, the chief technology officer for Oculus, gave a keynote presentation on the second day of OC6 where he talked about Facebook’s previous missteps in social VR. VentureBeat reporter Jeff Grubb writes:
Oculus VR and its parent company Facebook have not yet released the defining social experience for virtual reality. And you might think that is a bit weird for one of the world’s biggest social media companies, and one of its major executives agrees with you. During a keynote presentation at Oculus Connect 6 today, Oculus chief technology officer John Carmack covered a range of topics. Carmack is known for shooting straight and using a lot of technical language. But when it came to talking about Oculus’s social experiments, he used some plain language to admit that the company is still feeling out the space.
“On the social side, looking back, it’s kinda embarrassing at all the stages that we’ve gone through at Oculus,” Carmack said. “Way back in the early days, I did the social API so people could co-watch Twitch and things. And then we had Spaces and Rooms on Gear and Go. Now we have Horizon.” He also noted that the company hasn’t even settled on what player characters should look like. “Our avatars have continuously mutated from little floating heads through three different versions,” said Carmack. “We do not have this well-sorted out at this point.”
And the Ars Technica website had a very interesting article about Facebook’s ambitious staffing plans for Facebook Horizon: the company has plans to incorporate human greeters and helpers as a sort of virtual concierge service, both to help newcomers get oriented and to model proper behaviour on the platform. Sam Machkovech writes:
After testing the solid-if-early app, I asked two Facebook representatives about existing social-VR apps like Rec Room and VRChat, which have their own creative, organic approaches to making strangers meet each other in VR. Facebook says it’s going to try something we haven’t yet seen in any chat app, VR or otherwise: a fully staffed concierge service.
After going through Horizon‘s tutorial, “you’ll encounter humans that are part of our team in the product, known as ‘Guides,'” Facebook’s AR/VR experiences director, Eric Romo, told Ars Technica. “Those are the people who will be trying to set the tone of what the environment is.” When asked to clarify whether these would be paid Facebook staffers, sitting in microphone-equipped headsets and waiting for new users to appear, Romo answered, “Yeah!” He added that these staffers would be “saying, ‘How can I help you? What can I show you to do?'”
This is arguably Facebook’s most intense plan yet to introduce users to a new product. No existing Facebook feature or associated app (i.e., WhatsApp, Instagram) has ever included an expectation that a live human will appear as a greeter, host, and assistant upon first boot, as opposed to serving in a formal customer service or technical support position.
I asked what Facebook’s approach would be should a user hop into this onboarding process with trolling or abuse in mind. Might the meanest Horizon users get put into VR “time out,” or worse, for lashing out at official Facebook humans?
Facebook AR/VR content marketing head Meaghan Fitzgerald made clear that Horizon‘s VR greeters are “not going to be moderators, they’re not going to be enforcers of rules.” She added that FB will rely largely on built-in blocking and reporting tools to assess whether or how users might be restricted for abusive behavior (and she was careful not to describe any types of Horizon-specific discipline in the works).
“But [Horizon Guides] model the behavior,” Fitzgerald continued. “People who come into these environments—a lot of research shows they’re not intending to go in—sometimes they are, sometimes people want to cause trouble. But more often, they don’t know how to behave. If you see someone running around and screaming, you’re going to run around and scream. If you see someone having a conversation about, ‘Hey, here’s a new activity, want to go check it out?’, that changes the tone of the space. People are really influenced by that.”
When I pressed on this question of how Facebook is preparing to enter the intimate world of VR chat spaces (with its own employees in the social crosshairs, to boot), Romo conceded that the “closed beta” descriptor was crucial this far ahead of the app’s launch. “It’s completely fair to say that we have a lot to learn, which is why we’re starting slowly,” Romo said. “There are lots of vectors for potential challenges that we need to face, and we need to learn them slowly as we move forward.”
So, as John Carmack said in the VentureBeat article above, Facebook is going to learn as they go along, starting with the closed beta. All companies do this as they roll out new services, and Facebook Horizon is no exception. (Think of all the changes the Facebook social network went through in 15 years.)
Facebook Horizon is, of course, not the first social VR/virtual world platform to have a formal program of human greeters. Sinespace has had a long-running greeter program in place at their Welcome Centre. High Fidelity did have guides, but I assume that this program was shut down when the company pivoted away from the consumer market to the business market. I can’t think of any other worlds that have human greeters off the top of my head. Linden Lab has experimented with volunteer guides and greeters off and on in the past in Second Life, and as far as I am aware, they have no plans to implement official greeters in Sansar.