Further Details on the Facebook Horizon Closed Alpha Test

Welp, it’s official. I will not be part of the closed alpha test of Facebook Horizon. (Boo hoo.)

But somebody who was accepted shared the following email message:

We can learn a few new things from this email:

  • There will be a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) which all alpha testers must sign before being accepted. Facebook will, unsurprisingly, keep a tight lid on any information about its new social VR platform. (I expected this.)
  • Things are moving much more quickly than I expected; it would appear that Facebook will indeed launch the closed alpha “in the next few weeks” with this first accepted group of testers, as I previously reported.

And (as I expected), my private email to Janet Lee, the Product Marketing Manager of VR/AR Experiences and the executive who appears to be in charge of this closed alpha, has gone unanswered.

But it would appear that Facebook is not letting a coronavirus pandemic get in the way of their plans to launch Facebook Horizon, as I had speculated earlier this year. Good for them. A new social VR platform could prove to be very popular in these times of global pandemic!

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News: Facebook Horizon to Launch a Closed Alpha This Spring

Finally! I have heard through the grapevine that Facebook will be launching a closed alpha of their social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, this spring:

As I have written before, I did sign up for the alpha as soon as I heard about it, but I have not yet received an email. Sigh. I have sent an email to Janet Lee, inquiring if I might still take part (although from this email it sounds as if they have already made their first selection of applicants).

And, by using the word alpha instead of beta, it sounds as if Facebook Horizon is still a bit rough around the edges. (When Sansar launched their invitation-only testing back in 2016, they called it a beta test.)

UPDATE 1:22 p.m.: Apparently, there was an alpha before the beta for Sansar, which was before my time.

UPDATED! Editorial: Why Facebook Horizon Will Be Delayed

Facebook was originally planning to launch their social VR platform, called Facebook Horizon, in a closed beta test early this year. Many people were expecting an announcement at their annual Facebook F8 Developer Conference, or perhaps at the Game Developers Conference.

Well, on February 27th, TechCrunch reported that Facebook was cancelling its F8 conference, citing coronavirus concerns:

Facebook  has confirmed that it has canceled its annual F8 developers conference over growing concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

More specifically, the company says it’s canceling the “in-person component,” which would have been held in San Jose, Calif. There may still be video presentations, along with live-streamed and local events, under the F8 umbrella.

“Celebrating our global developer community at F8 each year is incredibly important to us at Facebook, but we won’t sacrifice the health and safety of our community to do so,” said Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook’s director of developer platforms and programs, in a statement. “Out of concerns around COVID-19, we’re cancelling the in-person component of F8, but we look forward to connecting with our developer partners through local events, video and live streamed content.”

And more recently, it was announced that the Game Developers Conference, which was supposed to take place this month, would be postponed until later this summer. UploadVR reports:

The organizers of the Game Developers Conference postponed the event after sponsors, attendees, journalists, and developers decided not to come due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

In recent days some of the event’s biggest supporters including Epic, Unity, Facebook, Sony, Amazon, and many more, along with a large number of journalists and developers, pulled out of attendance at the event. Many companies encouraged their employees not to travel to the March event in San Francisco.

Here’s the statement from organizers:

After close consultation with our partners in the game development industry and community around the world, we’ve made the difficult decision to postpone the Game Developers Conference this March.

Having spent the past year preparing for the show with our advisory boards, speakers, exhibitors, and event partners, we’re genuinely upset and disappointed not to be able to host you at this time .

We want to thank all our customers and partners for their support, open discussions and encouragement. As everyone has been reminding us, great things happen when the community comes together and connects at GDC. For this reason, we fully intend to host a GDC event later in the summer. We will be working with our partners to finalize the details and will share more information about our plans in the coming weeks.

The SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and resulting travel restrictions has led to dozens of conferences around the world being cancelled or postponed. Many major corporations such as Amazon, Facebook and Google are also restricting or outright cancelling employee travel.

I think all this means that Facebook will likely postpone the launch of Facebook Horizon, since they won’t have any suitable venue at which to make a splashy announcement. And let’s face it, with the world being so preoccupied with this expanding global public health emergency, any platform launch would likely be muted, sidelined, and overlooked. People have other, much more pressing, priorities at the moment, like trying to find supplies of Purell hand sanitizer and 3M face masks.

Another complicating factor, as I have reported before, is that supplies of both Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S VR headsets are simply unavailable in most markets, due to the coronavirus shutting down many Chinese factories. Apparently, production of the Valve Index VR headset is also being negatively impacted. The HTC Vive headset is manufactured in Taiwan, and so far does not appear to have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. (Here’s a February 28th article from IGN on how SARS-CoV-2 is impacting the manufacture and sales of VR headsets.)

Of course, Facebook may just decide to launch Facebook Horizon in closed beta anyway, using livestreamed video and other not-in-person means, but I think they will choose to hold back. A company that makes billions of dollars in profit from advertising knows full well the benefit of a well-timed product launch, with an all-out advertising push. The timing is just plain wrong.

P.S. I am curious though; has anybody been invited yet to take part in the closed beta test for Facebook Horizon? I haven’t (but then, given how critical I have been of Facebook on this blog, I wasn’t expecting to be invited). Any anonymous tipsters want to whisper in my ear? 😉

UPDATE March 3rd: I’ve heard through the grapevine that Facebook will be launching a closed (invitation-only) alpha of Facebook Horizon this spring.

Editorial: My Social VR/Virtual World Predictions for 2020

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Now that I am (finally!) finished my annual holiday tradition of utterly ransacking all the Advent calendars and December shopping events I can find in Second Life—the better to clothe my small army of alts with fashionable freebies!—it is time to turn my attention to predictions for the coming year.

Let’s start with a look back at my predictions for 2019, shall we? I said then:

  • That Second Life would “continue to coast along, baffling the mainstream news media and the general public with its vitality and longevity”, and that “the ability to change your first and last names in SL will prove very popular—and also very lucrative for Linden Lab”. Well, I am going to stick to that prediction. Implementing avatar name changes in SL turned out to be a thornier problem than Linden Lab anticipated, hence the delay, but they now have eight years of pent-up demand for this feature, and I anticipate that it will still prove popular—and profitable—for Linden Lab. I myself upgraded one of my alts to Premium to be able to change her legacy name of Bumbly Rumpler. (I know. I know. I don’t know what I was thinking at the time!) I also snagged her a lovely new riverside Victorian Linden Home in the process.

  • That OpenSim would move on implementing virtual reality support, but (as far as I can tell), that work has stalled or been abandoned. To be honest, I have barely set foot at all in OpenSim this past year, so I regret that I am not in any position to make predictions for 2020!

  • That “one or more blockchain-based virtual worlds are going to fold”—a prediction which has come true, at least for MATERIA.ONE, which has not officially folded, but is currently on an indefinite hiatus. The landscape is littered with various blockchain-based projects that are either dead, moribund, or stuck in pre-development hell: Aether City, Ceek, The Deep, MARK.SPACE, MegaCryptoPolis, The Sandbox, Stan World, SuperWorld, Terra Virtua, and VIBEHub. And yet, somehow, new crypto projects keep appearing, hoping to become the next Bitcoin.

    However, three blockchain-based virtual world projects appear to be doing well—Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space—and I expect that they will all continue to do well in 2020. I note that both Decentraland and Cryptovoxels have tended to rank in the Top 5 in sales volume on the OpenSea marketplace (this screencap is from a tweet made Dec. 27th):

I’m already working on a predictions blogpost for the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds in 2020. Among my predictions is the following: if Linden Lab cannot find a way to increase the overall number of users in Sansar within the next 12 months, even with a pivot to (and an exclusive focus on) live events, then the company will do one of three things:

– convert the existing Sansar code to open source and let the community take it over (which I think is the least likely option);

– sell Sansar to another company and keep Second Life running (or perhaps sell off Linden Lab and all its assets entirely to another company); or

– shut down the Sansar project completely (which I think is the most likely option).

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the honeymoon period for Sansar is OVER.

I am increasingly worried (even heartsick) over the future of Sansar.

  • That “the Oculus Quest VR headset will ignite the long-awaited boom in virtual reality”. I think that we can agree that the Oculus Quest has been a runaway success. Facebook is apparently selling the units as fast as they can make them, and they are now backordered until late February 2020. (The Valve Index is also selling well, and also similarly backordered.) I do predict that this will bring many more people into those social VR platforms which can natively run on the standalone Quest headset, such as VRChat, Rec Room, and AltspaceVR.

  • That “Linden Lab’s launch of Sansar on Steam will likely have only a modest impact on overall usage of the platform”. I deeply regret that this prediction has come true in spades. I said at the time that Linden Lab ditching its SandeX and launching Sansar on Steam would be a terrible mistake, and I take no pleasure in being proven correct. Sansar has been pummeled by negative reviews by Steam gamers, adding to the general sense of malaise about the platform in the past year, especially since approximately 30 staff working on the project were laid off by Linden Lab a couple of months ago, in an attempt to trim their continued financial losses. This was a move which was probably imposed on CEO Ebbe Altberg by the Linden Lab board of directors, who are probably very worried that if Sansar tanks, it will take down Second Life with it.
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

O.K., now that we’ve looked at how well my predictions for 2019 have fared, now it’s time to peer in my crystal ball and make some new predictions for 2020.

First, all current social VR platforms and virtual worlds will struggle with a key problem: effective promotion. Getting the word out to the public about the various platforms is proving to be more and more difficult in an age of social media overload and short attention spans.

We can expect to see more partnerships between various platforms and influencers (such as Sansar’s continued partnership with the VR vloggers Cas and Chary, and my own recent sponsorship and advertising deal with Sinespace). By the way, my partnership with Sinespace is not exclusive, we can still see other people 😉 and I am still actively looking for other advertisers and sponsorships for my blog and the Metaverse Newscast show (hint hint).

Second, every single eye will be on Facebook as they launch their new social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, early in the new year. It’s disgusting to me how even the smallest Facebook announcement gets oceans of fawning mainstream press coverage, and you can certainly expect Horizon to suck up all the oxygen in the press room when it gets closer to launch date. If Facebook Horizon, backed by the almost limitless resources and reach of its ambitious parent company, fails to take hold in 2020, then that will be the clearest indication yet that the nascent social VR industry is in trouble (and that I might be out of a job!).

Third, as I have said above, I am extremely worried about Sansar. The Sansar website has recently had a complete redesign to focus almost exclusively on live events:

It would appear that Linden Lab is going all-in on Sansar as a platform for live events, to the detriment of other features such as avatar customization (I don’t expect anything new this coming year). However, competition in the live events market in 2020 is likely to be intense, with the following products also planning to focus on hosting such events:

  • Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR (which has also recently announced a pivot to live events);
  • VRChat (which is already home to popular talk shows such as ENDGAME, and many other regular live events);
  • Wave (which has already pulled off some spectacular musical events such as the recent Lindsey Stirling concert);
  • Upstarts such as Ceek and Redpill VR (which are in various stages of pre-development and may or may not launch in 2020);
  • Not to mention that Facebook will also want to muscle in on this extremely lucrative territory (with Oculus Venues, and probably Facebook Horizon, too)—and Facebook will not hesitate to ruthlessly use every tool and tactic at their disposal to achieve market dominance (including “hiding” posts about competing platforms in their Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp social network users’ newsfeeds). Facebook also has deep pockets to ink deals with major talent, locking them into exclusive deals to appear on their platforms.

Expect many skirmishes on the live events battlefield in 2020, and also expect some causalities to occur.

Fourth, Second Life will continue to coast along as it always does, still boasting approximately 600,000 regular monthly users in recently released statistics by Firestorm, and still making millions of dollars in profits, both for its content creators and for Linden Lab. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and I see no sign of it stopping anytime soon. I predict that SL will still be around five years, perhaps even ten years, from now, and that people will still be logging in, and still merrily ransacking Advent calendars 😉 …and I will continue to blog about steals, deals, and freebies in Second Life!

Fifth, we can expect to see the upcoming Educators in VR International Summit as an example of an increasingly important use of social VR platforms in 2020: conferences. This is a natural fit, and one that saves precious resources (such as airline fuel) in an increasingly environmentally-conscious world. We can expect to see more conferences and meetings hosted in VR as an alternative to real-world meetings (although, as High Fidelity found out, the remote workteams support marketplace isn’t quite there yet, since the vast majority of companies still expect their employees to show up to their offices rather than work remotely from home). I think it’s going to take another generation for that shift to take effect in any widespread fashion.

Sixth: those social VR platforms which currently lack an in-world economy, currency, and a marketplace for user-created content, will be moving towards implementing those features. VRChat already has a booming off-world economy in the creation and sale of custom avatars. We already know that both VRChat and Rec Room are making plans in this area, based on job postings on their websites, but we can also expect other platforms to take this step, taking their cues from the continuing success of the mature, fully-evolved in-world economy of Second Life.

Platforms where people can make money tend to attract droves of new users, appealing to their greed and the universal desire to strike it rich (Decentraland as a more recent example; although its continued success is not 100% guaranteed, investors have sunk a lot of money into it, and it will be interesting to see how this ultimate expression of virtual, cut-throat capitalism will evolve and grow over the next year).

Finally, at some point Apple (and other companies, including Facebook) will launch the first consumer-oriented augmented reality headsets. The over-hyped Magic Leap One has turned out to be rather underwhelming (and underselling) so far, but who knows? Perhaps future AR products may ignite consumer interest, and have an as-yet-unknown impact on the current crop of social VR platforms.

Perhaps the big bet we all placed on virtual reality has been misplaced? We won’t know the answer to that hypothetical question until at least another decade has passed. Of course, some social VR platforms may decide to extend support to whatever AR/MR/XR hardware becomes available in the future, too. Anything can happen.

So these are my social VR/virtual world predictions for 2020. Please check back in a year, and we’ll see just how accurate I was!

Image by Jim Semonik from Pixabay