Editorial: Meta’s Horizon Social VR Strategy Is Currently a Bit of a Mess

As many of you already know, I responded to last October’s announcement by Meta (then still called Facebook) that owners of Oculus VR hardware would have to set up accounts on the Facebook social network, by personally boycotting all Meta products and services—including the Horizon Venues, Horizon Worlds, and Horizon Workrooms social VR platforms. (Here’s the blogpost where I announced my decision.)

Since that announcement (full text here), I have replaced my trusty Oculus Rift tethered VR headset, which up until that point I had been perfectly happy with, with a Valve Index (which I love to use and I consider an upgrade in every single way from the Rift). I also did a factory reset on my Oculus Quest 1, sending it to my sister-in-law in Alberta, who might use it in her work with developmentally-challenged adults (she has no qualms about having a Facebook account, and it’s going to a good cause). I had already deleted my Facebook account previously, and I followed by deleting my Oculus account as well and removing the Oculus app from my iPhone. Yes, I burned my bridges, and I voted with my feet and my wallet!

While it might be considered a bold, gutsy, and even audacious move to boycott what is likely to become one of the significant players in social VR, in a blog specifically about social VR, I am still quite comfortable with my decision four months later. As I wrote on my popular and comprehensive list of metaverse platforms:

I am DONE with Meta, and I refuse to come back unless the company reverses its decision to force its VR headset users to have accounts on the toxic Facebook social network.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I won’t write about Meta and its social VR strategy; it’s just that I won’t be writing about it from a first-person perspective! (And I have a whole network of metaverse enthusiasts, who are not personally boycotting Meta hardware and software, to keep me reliably informed as to what’s going on in-world.)

From my onlooker, outsider perspective, Meta’s social VR strategy seems to be a bit muddled at the moment, with no less than three different social VR apps as part of their current metaverse offerings. And I’m not the only one who has noticed. Tech pundit Ben Lang tweeted yesterday:

Idea: We’re one of the biggest social network companies in the world, let’s make a social VR platform that everyone can enjoy!

Execution:

As a recent Road to VR article written by Ben, titled Meta Plans to Fuse Its ‘Horizon’ Apps & Make Them More Accessible… Eventually states:

Although all three share a common umbrella name, and even share the same avatars, they’re really entirely different applications. You might be sitting right next to your colleague in Workrooms and invite them to watch a show with you in Venues after the meeting, but there’s no seamless way for both of you to actually go from A to B without quitting your current app, launching a new one, and then eventually find each other on the other side. Not to mention dealing with an entirely different interface and features between the two.

In an interview with Digiday, Meta’s VP of Horizon, Vivek Sharma, hinted that the company hopes to eventually bring these experiences together in a more seamless way.

“Eventually, Sharma plans to stitch [the three Horizon applications] together to create a cohesive virtual world,” writes Alexander Lee. “Though he didn’t offer specifics about the timeline for this union or what the overarching platform would be called.”

“You can imagine us building out an entire ecosystem where creators can earn a living, where communities can form and do interesting stuff together,” Sharma told Digiday. “So it’s not just a place for games; it’s not just a place for people to build creative stuff; it’s all of the above.”

At present, Horizon is scattered in more ways than not being able to navigate seamlessly between apps. Accessibility is also an issue… you’ll need an Oculus Quest 2 headset if you want to be able to access all three. If you have the original Oculus Quest you can only use Worlds and Venues. If you have an Oculus Rift you can only use Worlds. And if you have a non-Oculus headset well, you’re out of luck.

Ben Lang raises an important point: everything that Meta is currently doing is constrained to run on Meta’s VR hardware. In fact, I’m not even sure how Meta plans to make Horizon Venues, Horizon Worlds, and Horizon Workrooms available to headsets like my beloved Valve Index. It will be interesting to see how—or even if—Meta tackles this issue.

If they don’t support other brands of virtual reality headsets, the utility of the Horizon line of social VR platforms is going to be limited, particularly as new competitors enter the market (like Apple, who is widely anticipated to launch a VR/AR headset sometime this year or next year).

An Experienced Second Life User Responds to Facebook/Meta’s Grand Metaverse Ambitions: “We’ve Been There, Done That…Two Decades Ago”

Will Meta trample Second Life? (image source)

I was waiting for somebody with deep roots in Second Life to write a complete, detailed response to Facebook (sorry, Meta) and its ambitious plans to build the metaverse, and lo and behold, Phaylen Fairchild rose to the challenge!

In a Medium post written yesterday, titled Facebook Meta Isn’t New. The Future Started in 2003, Phaylen (who actually was the organizer of Second Life’s sixth birthday celebration, SL6B, way back in 2009), shares her opinions about Meta’s grand plans, informed by her many years of experience in Second Life.

Her longform article is insightful, and I very strongly urge you to go over to her website and read it in full. Best of all, the author assumes that you know nothing about Second Life, which is a common trap those who write about SL for an external audience tend to fall into.

Meta offers some pretty amazing concepts such as Avatar creation, shared virtual spaces, immersive environments and user generated content that will take users far beyond the third person experience of simple status box. Facebook Meta will feature teleportation to other users rooms and customized experiences. From inside, you’re no longer an idle profile picture, but a 3-D representative of yourself. Within this world exists a new social media platform called “Horizon.” It promises detailed and expansive worlds with infinite possibilities and will essentially redefine the way we communicate, collaborate and educate.

Within the Virtual world, you can attend concerts or watch a movie with friends. You will be able to go to parties with thousands of other people around the world or watch a sporting event from the front row, listen to talk shows with your favorite celebrities or buy, sell and trade virtual digital goods. Work from your office 3000 miles away or walk with dinosaurs from 40 million years ago in real time without ever leaving your home.

If this sounds familiar, maybe it’s because you’re a fan or Ready Player One or read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Or maybe… just maybe, you did this all before, if you’ve ever logged into Second Life.

Phalyen also interviews former Linden Lab CEO Rob Humble, and quotes a tweet by Robin Harper, a former Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development at Linden Lab, to get their perspectives on what’s happening now with Meta.

Phaylen writes:

Facebook’s transitional to Meta appears to expect that, beyond pitching itself in a well-produced video, it can forgo traditional marketing necessities by leveraging an already embedded userbase of nearly 3 billion people. As a cultural staple, literally the most formidable technological asset in the world, it hopes to parlay its simple web-based presence in our daily lives into a 3-D, immersive world, where from inside, you work, socialize, entertain and share your presence beyond a status update. But already, Meta is falling victim to the same issues suffered by those that came before and ultimately failed.

Cartoon-like avatars instead of Second Life’s extraordinary, photo realistic avatars was partly why users of Google Lively disassociated from their in-world activities. They felt like they were playing a character instead of using it as a representative of themselves. Limited content creation and a lack of open world made it feel boxed in- you were literally in a box, and the interface was unintuitive and disruptive to the user instead of fluid. Second Life boasts everything from sprawling landscapes of golden wheat fields and sparkling oceans on which to take a cruise of race sailboats, to massive cityscapes bursting with activities- even traffic. That developers at Lively thought they could follow that by isolating users to a room in outer space was an unfortunate, tone-deaf introduction as a Second Life alternative.

Comparing Meta’s avatars with Second Life avatars (image source)

In her conclusion, Phaylen explains some important differences between what Meta wants to do and what Second Life has already done, and she emphasizes something which I say often on this blog: that SL is the perfect, mature, fully-evolved model of the metaverse which newer platforms would be wise to study, learn from and emulate.

Zuckerberg and the developers of Meta, which claims it is “A long way out,” could use Second Life as a proof of concept, leveraging the best parts of it, researching the mistakes made, and using those established building blocks to bring it into the 2020’s. But everything in the video published around the web by Facebook that revealed Meta already exists- and in many cases, in a better, more satisfactory framework than they propose. In Meta, you’re not building your world, you’re essentially putting your calling card on things that already exist- such as a logo on a wall or a sign. Second Life proved that user content and world-building are key- we’re putting our signature on our space, not just in a space. There was an intimacy, a personality with what we brought in and used to build up that reflected our identity. The day Second Life launched, it was a massive empty space just waiting for Residents to build and create limited only by the boundaries of their imagination- and it was that canvas that led them to push those boundaries, and by virtue of that, inspire others. What it wasn’t was a catalog of pre-made content, copy and paste code or simply a transfer of well known video games into the virtual realm. Most of what Facebook advertised in its reveal for Meta was pre-existing games made compatible with VR headsets such as the Oculus which will be compatible with Meta- but Meta isn’t necessary to play these games in Virtual Realty or 3-D, most have already been ported to a platform where that is possible, such as Playstation of X-Box. Collaborative meetings already exist as well, with Zoom and Webex leading the charge, which begs the question, how does Meta intend to improve upon these applications rather than simply integrate them?

For old Second Life residents, the announcement of Meta wasn’t all that innovative or awe-inducing.

We’ve been there, done that… 2 decades ago.


Thank you to Neobela for the heads up!

Connect 2021: Some Thoughts After Viewing the John Carmack Keynote

See also my thoughts on the Mark Zuckerberg keynote.

Now obviously the metaverse is the dominant topic of the day, and I was quoted all the way back in the 90s as saying that building the metaverse is a moral imperative, and even back then most people missed that I was actually making a movie reference, but I was at least partially serious about that. I really do care about it and I buy into the vision, but that leaves many people surprised to find out that I have been pretty actively arguing against every single metaverse effort that we have tried to spin up internally in the company from even pre-acquisition times.

You know, I want it to exist, but I have pretty good reasons to believe that..setting out to build the metaverse is not actually the best way to wind up with the metaverse…

The metaverse is a honeypot trap for architecture astronauts.

—John Carmack, Connect 2021 keynote

John Carmack is the former Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Oculus VR, and I had a friend recommend I watch his keynote address from yesterday’s Connect virtual event, so I sat down with a big cup of black coffee to hear what he had to say.

John Carmack is a heavy hitter at Facebook (sorry, Meta) and he usually gives a keynote at Connect. John stepped down as CTO in 2019, taking on the role of Consulting CTO in order to focus more on his artificial intelligence projects.

John was very happy with the launch of the Oculus Quest 2, calling it “better, faster, cheaper—one of those just rare combinations that you you almost never get to have in a product.”

He said he was gently pushing back on the push towards cloud VR rendering, stating that there are still a lot of challenges associated with it. He also said that there were a lot of internal battles over the App Lab, too. He speaks about the internal dissent within Meta over releasing the 120Hz framerate option for the Oculus Quest 2 as well.

John is not afraid to call a spade a spade, and disclose where there has been behind-the-scenes tension and disagreement within the company, which is why so many people look forward to his candid keynotes! In particular (as the quote I highlighted up top indicates), it’s clear John has some reservations about Mark Zuckerberg’s push to repivot Meta as a metaverse company.

All in all, this video is a valuable and refreshing counterpoint to Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote and I would encourage you to watch it in full!


Thanks to Freelight for the heads up!

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.