Oculus Connect 6 Conference Highlight: Max Weisel of Half + Half Talks About Avatar and Experience Design for Social VR

This weekend, I am catching up on some of the presentations that took place at Oculus Connect 6 last week. The conference organizers have posted a handy list of all 53 presentations as a YouTube video playlist.

One of them was a “fireside chat” between Yelena Rachitsky, an Executive Producer at Facebook, and Max Weisel of Normal, the company behind Half + Half, a new social VR platform I wrote about earlier on this blog:

In Half + Half, you and your friends can swim with the fishes, glide through the clouds, play hide and seek, or just… wiggle! The avatars are simply designed but absolutely charming. (They remind me of a mixture of owls, nuns, and Teletubbies!)

The description of this video on YouTube states:

When designing for Social VR, it is important to create a positive experience for everyone. Given the variables that come with bringing strangers together with friends, how do you design with those challenges in mind? Join Max Weisel, Founder of Normal, who dedicated his latest project to tackling this head on. Max will break down how to design for joy, delight and silliness, as well as create interactions that inspire meaningful connections between everyone.

Max spends most of this video talking about the many world and avatar design decisions he and his team made while building Half + Half, especially when you encounter and interact with people you don’t know:

And in the very beginning I think, and at the start of this project, when we were first talking with Oculus, I think everyone at Normal knew the value of social VR and how intimate it feels, and how it’s not an experience you really get anywhere else. But one of the things that we really had to think about was, how do you do that with strangers? You know, what is a meaningful experience with someone you don’t know? And we looked at other social VR apps.

And I think I personally just wanted to avoid putting a bunch of people in a room to talk to each other. I think that there’s definitely value in that, but I mean, I don’t think that I’m particularly good at small talk. It’s actually kind of a lot of work, and so I just wanted to have something where I could go in, have a short, small, meaningful experience with somebody in the [world?], and maybe I add them as a friend, maybe we connect later, or maybe I just have this pleasant memory with them.

Max also shared some great pictures of earlier versions of some of the worlds in Half + Half, such as this early design for the glider experience, where you had to actually lie on the floor! (Note that you can now do this in either a seated or standing position in the actual release of the app, which is a good thing because my Oculus Rift setup is rather constrained in space!)

This is a wonderful talk and I learned a few things about designing for social VR which I didn’t know or appreciate before, so I do recommend you set aside forty minutes to watch this in full. (So far, this video has only had 231 views, which I think is criminally low for such informative content!)

UPDATED! Forbes Writer Takes a Hatchet to Facebook Horizon in a Hilariously Badly-Written Article: “Facebook, the drug we snort off the buttocks of a willing and paid for social media pit of despair…”

As could be predicted, there have been oceans of fawning press coverage of Facebook Horizon, since it was announced two days ago at OC6. So I was surprised to find a hilariously bad, savage swipe at the yet-to-be-launched social VR platform, and coming from Forbes business magazine, no less.

In an article titled Facebook’s Horizon VR Promises A New Kind Of Drug For Our Exhausted Reality, consumer tech writer Curtis Silver swandives right into the deep end of the hyperbole pool:

Facebook, the drug we snort off the buttocks of a willing and paid for social media pit of despair, has opened us up to the psychological horror of the world around us. If that’s not enough, now Facebook wants to drag us into VR with its Horizon VR project.

Quick, somebody call the Mixed Metaphor Police! I’ve heard Facebook called a lot of nasty things in my time, but comparing it to hooker off whose butt you snort cocaine is a new one! Except it’s not a hooker’s ass, it’s a pit of despair, get it? (But wouldn’t the cocaine just fall into the pit?)

But wait, there’s more!

If you’ve forgotten, amid all the political wrangling and constant stream of lukewarm fake news into your eyes, Facebook owns Oculus VR, a VR system generally focusing on immersive games and experiences. Well, now Facebook wants to really get involved, introducing Horizon VR during its Facebook’s Oculus Connect 6 developer conference, which took place at the same time we were all watching Amazon introduce a new world of surveillance smart home tech.

Horizon VR, upon first glance, appears to be some sort of leg-less Nintendo Mii meets Second Life apparatus, focusing on creating environments and interactions that appear happy and contained, but will most likely be terrible and insane. It’s intended for use on the Oculus Quest headset, which doesn’t have the computing power of PC-connected headsets. Therefore, Horizon VR is something more akin to the graphical output of a Nickelodeon cartoon rather than a reality-based world.

“Lukewarm fake news into your eyes”?!?? Oh, honey, no. Lukewarm is associated with touch, not sight. Somebody needs to get this writer a proper thesaurus. (And maybe some English lessons.)

Curtis also gets quite a few technical details wrong in this write-up. First, the social VR platform is called Facebook Horizon, not “Horizon VR”, as he keeps calling it (even in the title!). And Horizon is not just for the wireless Oculus Quest headset; it is also intended for the PC-connected Oculus Rift headset. And one of the many OC6 announcements was that soon you will be able to run Oculus Rift games on your Quest using a cable connected to your computer. In other words, there’s really nothing stopping Facebook (or anybody else, for that matter) from making more realistic-looking experiences and avatars. The limit is truly your own imagination.

Anyway, let’s proceed…the writer was comparing Facebook Horizon to a Nickelodeon cartoon…

To Facebook’s credit, that’s a smart move. Reality is certainly something we need less of. Horizon VR offers an escape from the twisted dysfunction of reality, on the surface at least. In screenshots and talking points. [sic] We all know what is going to go down in a virtual world captained by Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Horizon VR might appear to be a cartoonish world of fun interactions and avatars without legs, but users will surely find a way to quickly create a nightmare world that moderators will be unable to manage.

Meanwhile in the real world, the Department of Justice has joined the FTC in an antitrust investigation of Facebook. A new study from the University of Oxford has revealed that (duh) Facebook is the most common platform for spreading disinformation at a government and political level. And in response to anti-bullying and mental health groups, Facebook will begin testing hiding likes to make users feel better. Facebook is an actual hellscape.

You really want to experience that in VR? As fellow Forbes contributer [sic] Paul Armstrong puts it, “As more and more scandals hit Facebook thanks to lax privacy policies of yesteryear (they promise), this bold vision [of Horizon VR] is all well and good but it’s built on the back of something ugly and hence, it’s destined to be tainted from conception.”

Facebook is a drug. Quit Facebook. Seriously. Before it ruins you. The solution to the problems Facebook has deftly unloaded upon the populace and your personal mental health isn’t to begin ingesting your social media drug in the virtual realm, the solution here is to delete Facebook from your phone, wake up and soberly face the real world once again. Only then can you find a viable, real-world escape from the real world. Like bowling, or mini-golf.

Sweet minty Jesus. I am most certainly not a fan of the Facebook social network, in fact I think it has caused some real and serious problems in society. But what story editor okayed this snarky, badly-argued, poorly-composed, half-assed hatchet job?? I mean, it’s one thing to write a well-written, well-reasoned, technically accurate critique of a product. But this mess is none of those things.

To cite just one example, what does hiding likes on a social network have to do with anything?

The writer can’t even get the name of the product straight, let alone the technical details. And there’s a sentence fragment just kind of hanging there in mid-article: “In screenshots and talking points.” And it’s spelled contributor, dear. There’s this wonderful new invention called spellcheck, you should really look into it sometime.

But the biggest problem that I have with this story is it just rather lazily assumes that Facebook Horizon is simply going to be some hellish VR version of the Facebook social network. A social network and a social VR platform are two very different things, used by different types of people for completely different purposes. We won’t know what Facebook Horizon is like until the closed beta test early next year, but we can assume that the company has learned at least a few things about what does and doesn’t work with Facebook Spaces, Oculus Home, and Oculus Rooms. (At least, let’s hope so!)

Is there a chance Facebook Horizon will be a terrible product? Absolutely. But I think it’s just a wee bit early to deem the new social network akin to Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell. And Facebook has already announced that they will be deploying a team of human greeters and guides in an effort to model good behaviour on the platform and counteract griefers.

My God, I can’t believe I’m actually standing up for Facebook! (I must have a fever or something.)

But this article is so God-awful I just couldn’t let it go without comment. Forbes, you can do better than this sloppy, slipshod journalism.

UPDATE 6:39 p.m.: One of my Twitter followers, named Bird, shared this video with me:

And another Twitter follower, James Baicoianu, explains:

In other words, the Forbes website does many of the same evil things of which they accuse Facebook! A perfect case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Facebook Horizon Will Have a Fully Staffed Concierge Service

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.

Editorial: Some Random Thoughts on the Morning After the Facebook Horizon Announcement

I don’t have a lot of time today, but I wanted to write up a few more thoughts I had about yesterday’s Facebook Horizon announcement.


First: Linden Lab knew something was up. The timing of their splashy revamp of Sansar (the day before the OC6 keynote) was no accident. They wanted to get some media air time before Facebook came in and sucked all the oxygen out of the room! The new promotional video for Sansar is slick, savvy, and obviously designed to entice the curious newcomer:

The big Sansar news on Sept. 24th was the announcement of partnerships with major corporations including Sanrio, Levi’s, and Spinnin’ Records. But there was also a redo of the Sanar logo (switched from red to aqua blue), and some slick new promotional imagery designed to appeal to gamers:

Agent Primus and Agent Forma: Your world is waiting!

Now, many of the features VentureBeat touted about Sansar in their article about the relaunch were not exactly news to long-time Sansarians, or to avid readers of my blog: the new Avatar 2.0 avatars with facial deformation features, the Nexus, etc. But we oldbies are not the target audience here; Linden Lab is now pulling out all the stops to get maximum marketshare and mindshare in a social VR marketplace that suddenly got a lot more competitive. It’s a smart move.

They’ve also got lots of branded events coming up in the next little while to entice people to come visit.

I think it is probably safe to say that many other social VR platforms and virtual worlds were completely caught off guard by yesterday’s detailed announcement of Facebook Horizon, and they will need to take some time to adjust to the new reality, the “new normal”.


Now, back to the main event: Facebook Horizon.

Screen capture from Mark Zuckerberg’s OC6 Keynote Yesterday

You will remember that I left Facebook and Instagram as my New Year’s resolution at the end of 2018, in protest over what I saw as a number of very serious data security and privacy issues with the social network:

I am fed up. I have had enough. And I am fighting back the only way I can: by shutting down my Facebook and Instagram accounts and deleting all of the data that Facebook has gathered on me.

Well, last night I came crawling back to Facebook. But the company did indeed keep its promise: it did not offer to reconnect me with 13 years of data it had on me, which I had asked them to delete. However, Facebook still knows it’s me: many of the initial friend suggestions it made were people who I had been connected to on the previous incarnation of my account. (I politely declined all of them. I am doing things totally differently this time around.)

As it happens, I have used the same email address for both my Oculus hardware account and for my deleted-and-now-reinstated Facebook social network account. I have no idea if Facebook is going to keep those two accounts separate, or try to merge them sometime in the future. In fact, there’s still no concrete evidence to support the thesis that you have to have an account on the Facebook social network in order to use Horizon.

So now I have a shiny new empty Facebook account, but I am approaching this fully forearmed with the knowledge that Facebook will strip mine the hell out of any data I provide, as well as the knowledge that my data can (and in fact, already has been) weaponized by companies such as Cambridge Analytica and used against me.

I am willing to come back, but I am damn wary. And I have essentially locked down everything I can using Facebook’s own security and privacy settings, as well as installing and setting up the excellent F.B. (Fluff Buster) Purity web browser extension. Please note that Facebook does not like F.B. Purity, and will actively block any mention of F.B. Purity on its social network; I only learned about this tool through word of mouth, from other Facebook users. You can read more about it via the link I posted above.

Also, I have registered for the closed beta test of the new Facebook Horizon platform, which starts sometime in early 2020. The application process asked for my Oculus account information I provided when I first purchased and set up my Oculus Rift headset in January 2017, followed by the purchase and set up of my Oculus Quest in May 2019. (I have read on Reddit that Facebook will accept either a Facebook social network account or an Oculus account, but I did not see any option to enter the former, only the latter. Perhaps I missed something.)

All the short registration form asked me for was my gender (male, female, or something custom), what experience I had building content for social VR and virtual worlds (and what tools I used), and whether I lead, moderate, or administer an online community (such as Reddit, Facebook Groups, Discord, Twitch, etc.). I did tell them that I was an influential blogger who writes a blog about social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse, which gets anywhere between 600 and 6,000 views per day. (I forgot to tell them that I also have a popular Discord discussion forum associated with my blog. Oh well.)

The worst that can happen is that Facebook decides I am not worthy to enter the closed beta test, in which case I will need to examine my options. Also, Facebook may ask beta testers to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), which is fairly common in these sorts of cases. For example, even though I was accepted into the Sansar closed alpha/beta testing back in December of 2016, I was not allowed to blog about anything I saw in-world until the open beta launch on July 31, 2019—and I also had to receive explicit permission from Linden Lab to post pictures taken before that date on my blog, as a sort of history of Sansar’s early development. We may face the same situation with Facebook Horizon. We’ll see. It’s still very early days.


It wasn’t until late last night that I realized several unusual things about the veritable flurry of announcements made at OC6.

First: Facebook still does not have a single social VR platform to bring together Oculus Go, Oculus Quest, and Oculus Rift users! Facebook Horizon is only intended for the Oculus Rift and the Oculus Quest. What this means for Oculus Go users is unclear.

Second, Facebook has announced that they will be shutting down both Facebook Spaces and Oculus Rooms on October 25th, 2019, presumably to free up staff who will be deployed to work on Facebook Horizon.

I will not be sorry to see Facebook Spaces go; as I have said before on this blog when making predictions in December 2018:

…we might yet see the launch of a new social VR platform backed by Facebook, after they decide to ditch the lamentable Facebook Spaces once and for all. Maybe it will be based on Oculus Rooms; maybe it will be something completely different. But despite my negative feelings about the social networking side of Facebook, they still have the hardware (Oculus), the money, and the reach to be a game-changer in social VR. (Just not with Facebook Spaces. At this point, they should just kill the project and start over. Any improvements will be like putting lipstick on a pig.)

Yep. Take that mutt out back behind the woodshed and put it out of its misery… I really doubt anybody was using Facebook Spaces anyway, despite courageous efforts by people such as Navah Berg to promote it. And I’m quite sure that the entire episode was instructive to Facebook about what works and doesn’t work in a social VR platform.

And Oculus Rooms was only for Gear VR and the Oculus Go, which means that they will have no Facebook-branded social VR platform at all. This is, of course, an opportunity to other, third-party platforms which support Gear VR and Oculus Go, such as AltspaceVR, Rec Room, Bigscreen, and vTime XR.

Interesting times ahead!