UPDATED Editorial: From the Outside, Looking In


I can’t sleep. I’ve been tossing and turning since 3:00 a.m., so I finally decided to get out of bed and do what I do when I can’t sleep. Brood. And blog. (Yes, I know: bad combination.)

And, while I was lying in bed, it occurred to me: for the first time ever, I will be writing about a social VR platform on this blog that I may never actually set foot in.

Of course, I am talking about Facebook Horizon.

This manipulated image of the new Facebook Reality Labs logo is courtesy of the insanely talented and creative LokiEliot; the eye is actually not part of the FRL logo pyramid, but as far as I am concerned, it may as well be there.

Kent Bye, host of the influential Voices of VR podcast, shares the growing sense of unease that many informed people now feel about the extent of Facebook’s control and use of the personal data which it collects on you, which of course includes sharing your Oculus VR device data with other Facebook products and services, as evidenced by the following Oculus Support question and answer. It would seem that if you’re in one Facebook product or service, you’re in them all—and it’s yet another good reason for me start moving away from relying on Oculus hardware for any future virtual reality experiences.

Kent Bye, in a tweet yesterday, referenced another observer who compared this Q&A with a quote from the dystopian science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451, commenting:

“Can I chose to not share information about my VR activity…?” “No…” I read this chilling Q&A during @FRealityCrew podcast. Contextual Integrity is an approach to privacy. Facebook says it’s for a safety context, but they don’t limit by context. Could be for data mining contexts.

(The link to the podcast itself is here.)

Again, my response to all this is to steer clear of Facebook. Yes, I full well realize that other tech companies (Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc.) also use data mining on me. But Facebook has already demonstrated in its past corporate history, time and again, that it cannot be trusted with the information it collects on you, and shares with other companies, without your knowledge or consent, other than you tacitly signing off on a lengthy Terms of Service document that only a lawyer could decipher. (Exhibit A: the Cambridge Analytica scandal.)

Therefore, I am quite content to remain on the outside, looking in, rather than continue to be “Under His Eye”, as they say in The Handmaid’s Tale. Simply put, I no longer wish to be under Mark Zuckerberg’s eye—even if it means I will only report on Horizon as an interested observer, as opposed to an active participant.

Yesterday, Facebook launched the invitation-only beta of its Horizon social VR platform, after a short, closed alpha launch earlier this year. According to the official blogpost announcing the beta test:

The invite-only beta will be available on Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform in the U.S. and Canada to start. We’ll welcome more people over time, and you can add your name to the beta waitlist.

Looking at the Facebook Horizon Beta Application form, it seems very clear what kind of people Facebook is interested in inviting into Facebook Horizon at this stage:

  1. They want to know whether you “have…ever created a world, game, or experience in a VR game, in a console/PC game, or in a professional creator tool (such as Unity/Unreal)”; and
  2. They also want to know if you “lead, moderate, or administer an online community (such as Reddit, Facebook Groups, Discord, Twitch, etc.)”.

In other words, they will be giving priority to a) content creators and b) community builders and influencers. The former group Facebook wants to bring in to fully test out its in-world building tools, and (perhaps) the ability to import content from third-party tools, and the latter group they want to get the word out about Horizon to their communities, and generate some positive buzz.

Somewhat buried in the press release is the following information:

Eventually, we envision large spaces where many people can gather in Horizon, but for now, up to eight people can share a space.

So (at least to start), Horizon will be unable to host large events. Unlike Second Life, Cryptovoxels, and Somnium Space, which are one large contiguous landmass, Facebook Horizon will be composed of separate, discrete worlds you select from a menu, much like VRChat, the old High Fidelity and its successor platforms (Tivoli and Vircadia), and Sansar.

There’s so much more Facebook Horizon news to parse than I have time to cover here this morning. It’s 5:30 a.m. and I am going to try to get some sleep (but it’s probably a lost cause).

Facebook Horizon: I prefer to stay on the outside, looking in, thank you…

I wish I had never joined Facebook 15 years ago. I especially regret encouraging friends and family to sign up in the early days. I also wish now that I had never purchased my Oculus Quest and Oculus Rifts (yes, plural—one for home and one for work). I wish that I had never bought many of my VR apps through the Oculus store.

But I can learn from my past mistakes, and I can use that knowledge to make more informed, better decisions in the rapidly-evolving VR/AR/XR marketplace.

And I will continue to write about Facebook and Oculus on this blog, as part of my coverage of social VR and virtual worlds, informed by my experiences to date in dozens of different platforms, since I first set foot in Second Life fourteen years ago.

I might be able to personally boycott Facebook products and services (if not now, then at some point in the future when I sell or give away my Oculus devices), but, for better or worse, Facebook is simply too big a player to completely ignore. And, after all, this is a blog about social VR.

Stay tuned for more coverage!

UPDATE 11:27 a.m.: After finally getting some much-needed sleep, I edited this blogpost a bit, and I also wanted to add a link to an UploadVR article posted yesterday by Jamie Feltham, who interviewed a couple of Facebook employees working on the Horizon project, and received a Facebook Horizon preview before the beta launch of the product.

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