Editorial: Some Thoughts After Facebook Connect 2021

See also: my thoughts on the John Carmack keynote.

From now on, we’re going to be metaverse first, not Facebook first.

—Mark Zuckerberg, Connect 2021 keynote
Mark Zuckerberg unveils Facebook’s new company name and logo

Well, I was going to watch the Connect 2021 keynote on the Facebook Connect website, only to be met with this large pop-up at the bottom of my screen when I loaded the page (see the green arrow below):

The pop-up reads, in part:

To help personalize content, tailor and measure ads and provide a safer experience, we use cookies. By clicking or navigating this site, you agree to allow our collection of information on and off Facebook through cookies.

So I decided to watch the keynote via UploadVR‘s YouTube channel instead, because there was absolutely NO way that I was going to blithely sign off on yet another instance of Facebook’s pervasive surveillance capitalism ecosystem. (Oh, HELL no.)

So, I am going to do something a little different today. I am going to be updating this blogpost with my thoughts and opinions, as they come to me, so you might want to drop by later today to see what I have to say. I will probably be spending the rest of today listening to and reading various people’s reactions to the announcements made during this keynote address.

So, stay tuned! Watch this space. I will be posting updates throughout the day. 🙂

UPDATE 1:37 p.m.: I am watching the UploadVR team on YouTube (as avatars in a virtual world) discuss the keynote. (In his initial comments, David Heaney suggests that the problem is not so much Facebook as the CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself, and the way he runs the company.)

UploadVR reacts to the Facebook, erm… I mean, Meta keynote

Right now they’re talking about the surprising decision that Meta is apparently reconsidering the requirement to sign up for a Facebook account in order to use virtual reality hardware and software. Is the company going to reintroduce Oculus accounts? David Heaney suggests that many people will likely not want to create any account with Meta. (As for me, I voted with my wallet and my feet last October, when Facebook insisted that you had to have a Facebook account to use Oculus devices, going forward.)

The URL meta.com redirects to about.facebook.com/meta; here’s a look at the new website:

The new Meta website

And at least two people have already mentioned to me that their next-generation headset project codename “Cambria” sounds an awful lot like “Cambridge Analytica” 😉 which is not an association I would want for my product!

UPDATE 1:59 p.m.: Andrew Bosworth has announced that Facebook Reality Labs is now just Reality Labs:

I left the UploadVR discussion on YouTube, and I jumped into the Twitter Spaces room, hosted by noted Facebook/Oculus gadfly Cix Liv. I will post more updates later, stay tuned!

UPDATE 4:22 p.m.: Jack Morse of Mashable wrote, in a brief article titled Facebook Connect: Pay no attention to the scandal behind the curtain:

At Thursday’s Facebook Connect presentation, the CEO unveiled virtual and augmented reality technology that seems designed to change a world already struggling with Facebook’s effects on it. The small, often unmentioned speed bump in the way of this lofty dream? Much of the showcased tech is years, if not decades away — and may never exist at all.

The vaporware of Facebook Connect, along with the multiple cringe-inducing attempts to wink at the audience and a performative name change to “Meta,” served as a big “look over there!” to a world transfixed by the Facebook Papers.

“Imagine if you could be at the office without the commute,” offered up Zuckerberg, accompanied by a series of clearly computer generated images of a man waving to his digital coworkers that bear no resemblance to Facebook’s more rudimentary current offerings. “You would still have that sense of presence, shared physical space, those chance interactions that make your day, all accessible from anywhere.”

Without a doubt, the dream promised Thursday by Zuckerberg and Facebook Reality Labs VP Andrew Bosworth is glossy and exciting — assuming one doesn’t stop to think too much about it. However, the idea that we’ll all primarily live, work, and play in a digital virtual or augmented reality space mediated by a company like Facebook is not one to celebrate.

UPDATE 6:12 p.m.: Well, I’ve had an opportunity to let the messages of this keynote sink in, and I let them percolate a bit. I’m ready to share some of my thoughts and impressions.

First, it’s clear to me that Facebook is listening to the intense backlash it received from the virtual reality community when they announced last October that users of Oculus hardware would have to set up up accounts on the Facebook social network. And the six-hour outage of Facebook’s servers not only took down Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp—they also seriously impacted users of Oculus VR headsets.

The fiasco only underscored how unnecessary it was for Oculus to be yoked to Facebook, and the blowback seems to have been felt. It would appear that, at least for business users of Oculus headsets, the company is considering allowing users to use an account unlinked to Facebook. Now, whether or not they move ahead with it is another thing, but the fact that Mark Zuckerberg himself announced it in his keynote is significant. Facebook blinked.

Second, it’s very clear that Facebook (sorry, Meta) is going to be a metaverse company now. Full stop. What this means is that everybody and his dog are going to learn and understand what this whole “metaverse” concept is all about. We’re all going to be bombarded with metaverse-related content; it’s going to be hard to avoid! As I often like to say, a rising tide lifts all boats. The company spending millions (make that billions) of dollars to build, sell, and promote metaverse products and services means that all companies in the arena will also see some renewed interest—particularly if they can capture a niche market that mighty Meta is overlooking!

Third, I found it very interesting that there were no new products or services announced, nothing that is shipping very soon (for example, Horizon Worlds is still in invite-only beta two years after it was first announced). There was a lot of renaming of things that already existed: Facebook is now Meta, Oculus Home is now Horizon Home, etc. A lot of things were mentioned that are nowhere near delivery.

There was precious little information about the new headset, codenamed Cambria, other than an acknowledgement that they are working on something more high-end than the current Oculus Quest. Those who predicted an announcement of an Oculus Quest 3 or Oculus Quest Pro must have been disappointed.

All in all, there was a high level of vagueness and hand-waving in the entire keynote, an irritating lack of specifics, and a whole lot of artistic interpretations of what the metaverse could look like (e.g. three-on-three basketball with remotely located opponents, which at least commentator has some serious issues with).

And frankly, some of the metaverse use cases presented today were not particularly ground-breaking. For example, surfing in the virtual world is hardly a novelty; Second Life has a very active surfing community. And the architect using his hands to blow up a building so he and his colleague could take a look inside is also not a new concept; there are already professional, collaborative VR platforms which can do this (one example is The Wild).

So, overall, meh. The only thing I really got from this message is that Facebook (sorry…Meta) is throwing out teasing crumbs of what it is working on, trying desperately to reinvent itself, and willing to throw billions of dollars at an attempt to repivot. However, it’s going to take more than a new name and logo to fix the many serious and ongoing problems the company faces. And most people know that.

For many people like me, it’s already too late. I’ve essentially left, and I’m not coming back (notwithstanding an untouched copy of Beat Saber sitting on the hard drive of my personal computer, and an aging Oculus Rift VR setup on my office computer, purchased for a research project that never came to fruition). Those are my sole remaining ties to Facebook (sorry, Meta…it’s going to take some time to get used to the new name).

However, IF they do remove the requirement to set up a Facebook account to use an Oculus device (I mean, Meta device, since the Oculus brand name is going to be dumped), AND IF whatever they propose to replace it with actually safeguards user privacy, instead of subjecting users to ever more intensive schemes of surveillance capitalism in search of profits, THEN I might consider coming back. IF. MAYBE.

But I honestly don’t believe that Meta can pull it off—at least, not with Mark Zuckerberg at the helm. And, given the way the Meta is structured, they cannot get rid of Mark. Oh, Meta will coast merrily along for years to come, raking in billions of dollars in profits and investing a fraction of it in cutting-edge research. But if it’s all going to be part of a walled ecosystem, where Meta sets the rules and you have to agree to have your personal data strip-mined and sold to the highest bidder in order to participate, then I don’t give a damn how cool it is. I’m not buying.