UPDATED! Editorial: Facebook is Rebranding (And Why It Won’t Make Any Difference)

Anybody notice anything interesting about Facebook’s website for the next Connect conference, which is coming up on October 28th, 2021?

What used to be called “Oculus Connect” for many years, and then was renamed to “Facebook Connect” last year, is now suddenly just “Connect”. You have to scroll down, and hunt around a bit, to find any mention of Facebook on the homepage!

At first I just assumed that (like the renaming of Facebook Horizon to Horizon Worlds), it was a PR move to lessen the association of the now-problematic Facebook brand with the event. But it would appear that it’s more than that.

According to an article published yesterday in The Verge, Facebook is rebranding:

Facebook is planning to change its company name next week to reflect its focus on building the metaverse, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter.

The coming name change, which CEO Mark Zuckerberg plans to talk about at the company’s annual Connect conference on October 28th, but could unveil sooner, is meant to signal the tech giant’s ambition to be known for more than social media and all the ills that entail. The rebrand would likely position the blue Facebook app as one of many products under a parent company overseeing groups like Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and more. A spokesperson for Facebook declined to comment for this story.

Facebook already has more than 10,000 employees building consumer hardware like AR glasses that Zuckerberg believes will eventually be as ubiquitous as smartphones. In July, he told The Verge that, over the next several years, “we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”

A rebrand could also serve to further separate the futuristic work Zuckerberg is focused on from the intense scrutiny Facebook is currently under for the way its social platform operates today. A former employee turned whistleblower, Frances Haugen, recently leaked a trove of damning internal documents to The Wall Street Journal and testified about them before Congress. Antitrust regulators in the US and elsewhere are trying to break the company up, and public trust in how Facebook does business is falling.

I’m willing to bet that the new company name for Facebook will be some form of the word “Horizon”, especially given the that they have renamed Facebook Horizon to Horizon Worlds, and released a corporate social VR platform called Horizon Workrooms. (And I hope that whoever owns the website domain names associated with whatever name they pick makes a whack of money from the sale to Facebook, like the lucky person who originally owned the domain workrooms.com!)

But really, all this is is just a name change. The same fundamental problems that Facebook has are still there; slapping a fresh coat on paint on everything is not going to fix the fact that Facebook requires you to set up an account on its social network in order to use Oculus VR headsets going forward. More and more, people are realizing that it’s not a good ides to trust Facebook with your personal data. As I have written before on this blog:

Another firmly-held opinion: Facebook Inc. has too much influence on virtual reality and the metaverse already. Facebook is a juggernaut, hoping to leverage their existing massive stranglehold on social media (and all its attendant societal ills), not to mention its strip-mining of all the personal data it collects on you (sometimes even without your knowledge or consent; see: the Flo period tracker app), in order to become the dominant player in any market it targets. Witness its recent foray into social audio for just one recent example. Sometimes, it feels like Facebook is just extending itself into every single possible category of product.

Some will respond that Google, Apple, Amazon, and many other firms commit the same level of personal data vacuuming that Facebook does, which is true. However, I actually have more faith that those companies will at least not weaponize their data against me. Few companies have seen the level of public distrust rise as high as Facebook (and frankly, the company’s recent fight with Apple over the latter wanting to make transparent how much data Facebook collects on you, is SO not a good look for Mark Z.).

Time and time again over the years, Facebook has shown that it cannot be trusted (see: the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the incitement of violence in Myanmar, to give just two relatively recent examples of egregious behaviour happening on the platform). Combine that lack of trust with its overweening ambitions, and you have a potentially serious problem.

For me, the absolute final straw came last October, when Facebook announced that owners of Oculus VR headsets had a two-year window to obtain accounts on the Facebook social network for their devices, or potentially lose functionality. (By the way, Facebook has responded to Germany, the only nation I know of so far that has sounded the alarm about forcibly yoking Oculus hardware users to Facebook accounts, by suspending all Oculus sales in that country. As far as I am aware, this is still the case. German consumers can still buy Oculus headsets online from other countries such as France, however.)

I responded by voting with my feet and my wallet, deleting my Facebook and Oculus accounts, and vowing to never again purchase or participate in any Facebook/Oculus hardware and software, a decision which I explain here, and one which I continue to stand by in good conscience. I full well realize that I might be missing out, but I consider the price of admission to be too high (and frankly, too opaque). God knows how my personal data is being used, and Facebook’s track record frankly sucks.

I even went so far as to ask Facebook to delete all the data it had on me, but I also know that the Facebook social network probably has some sort of “shadow account” on me, based on things such as images uploaded to the social network and tagged with my name by friends and family who are still on Facebook. I am going to assume that Facebook has indeed done what I have asked and removed my data from their social network. Frankly, there is no way for me to actually verify this, as consumers in Canada and the U.S. have zero rights over the data companies like Facebook collects about them, as was vividly brought to life by Dr. David Carroll, whose dogged search for answers to how his personal data was misused in the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a focal role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (which, by the way, I very strongly recommend you watch).

And need I remind you that the January 6th, 2021 insurrectionists in Washington, D.C. also used Facebook to help organize? Not to mention the misinformation, disinformation, and crazy conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and vaccines circulating on the platform (although this is a problem on other social media as well). The Facebook social network and its algorithms have become a toxic cesspool, and anything that touches it, or (in the case of Oculus) forcibly integrated with it, becomes tainted by association.

So no, a name change is not enough—not nearly enough.

UPDATE 1:45 p.m.: Of course, Twitter is all over the Facebook rebranding news with its trademark snark. Here’s just a sample of the responses in my feed today:

In fact, the entire Twitter thread by Rick Wilson is required reading! Despite Rick’s feeling that nothing will be done about Facebook, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced that he has added Mark Zuckerberg to a lawsuit relating to the Cambridge Analytica scandal:

UPDATE 2:48 p.m.: I forgot to mention that Carol Cadwalladr of the Guardian (the reporter who broke the Cambridge Analytica scandal) wrote the following in an Oct. 10th, 2021 article titled The latest revelations mark the beginning of the end for the House of Zuckerberg:

And perhaps most toxic of all is the radioactive waste left by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. A new shareholder lawsuit, filed in Delaware, based on freshly disclosed internal documents, claims it can prove that Facebook senior executives and board members lied to investors. If it can do that, it will set in motion a chain of consequences that will make Enron look like a teddy bears’ picnic.

Three years ago, Sandy Parakilas, an earlier Facebook whistleblower, explained to me the power of the SEC, which regulates the financial markets, by telling me that in America, money will enable you to get away with most things. “But the one thing you can’t do,” he said, “is to fuck with our capitalism.”

The UN found Facebook helped facilitate a genocide in Myanmar. We know that it helped foment an insurrection at the US Capitol. And its own research says it is harming teenagers. (A 2019 Facebook presentation slide, just revealed, said: “We make body-image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.”)

That’s all fine, it turns out, but if this suit can prove it’s lied to investors, someone is going to jail. If I were a Facebook employee, I’d be browsing the whistleblower section of the SEC’s website, which grants immunity from prosecution, very, very carefully.

In other words, both the Delaware and D.C. lawsuits mean that Facebook is in serious, serious trouble—no matter what they call themselves.

UPDATED! Facebook Horizon Rebrands, Drops Support for Unity-Based Worlds

Today Facebook announced that it was rebranding its still-in-closed-beta social VR platform, from Facebook Horizon to Horizon Worlds. This move makes sense to me; attaching the name “Facebook” to anything the behemoth company wants to promote is probably a smart PR move, given the recent level of notoriety of their brand and the battering of their public image.

And it would appear that Facebook (which earned a staggering US$86 billion in 2020) is willing to put a microscopic fraction of that income towards encouraging content creators on the newly-renamed platform. According to an official announcement:

When we launched Horizon’s invite-only beta last year, we started to build a creator-friendly space in VR with best-in-class social world-building tools. We’ve spent the past year developing those tools and improving them based on creator feedback. These early creators have grown the social experiences on the Horizon platform, and we’ve been amazed by their imagination and creativity on display. We’re excited to do more to support them, so starting today, we’re launching new initiatives to recognize the efforts of Horizon creators and continue to grow the creator and developer community. 

We’re announcing a $10 million Creator Fund to encourage more people to come build with us as we continue rolling out Horizon in beta. And as we grow the social experiences that are part of Horizon, we’re rolling out a new name for this experience: Horizon Worlds. 

The US$10 million will be distributed through community competitions, via its Creator Accelerator Program, and funding for developers, studios or creators who wish to partner with Facebook. Ian Hamilton of UploadVR reports:

Overall, then, two years after its initial launch Facebook is honing Horizon Worlds around its VR-based creative community with the $10 million creator fund to be doled out through community competitions, an accelerator program, and funding for developers who agree to build for Horizon according to Facebook’s suggested theme.

Facebook said it would add more people to the testing release of Horizon Worlds throughout the rest of 2021.

“We fully expect ticketed events, we fully expect people to be asking for gifting of goods, trading of goods, buying digital goods and items, as well as of course experiences themselves, so subscriptions inside of these experiences themselves,” said Sharma. “I having nothing to announce today in terms of exact features that we’re working on, but if you take a look at what the family of apps at Facebook already support, it’s a pretty good line that we already have the capabilities other places that we can tie all of these things together into a nice bow for our creators.”

There’s a couple of interesting things in Ian’s report that I wish to highlight.

First, that Facebook would continue its “testing release of Horizon Worlds throughout the rest of 2021”. In other words, don’t expect the platform to open up to the general public before 2022. You may speculate for the reasons for that delay. My sources who have visited the social VR platform in person tell me the same two things, over and over again:

  • Horizon Worlds has fantastic in-world building tools (similar in many ways to the prim-building tools in Second Life, where many metaverse content creators got their start); and
  • Horizon Worlds is having difficulty building, maintaining, and moderating its community. Many tell me the platform is deserted, which might be an indication of how few people they have let into the closed beta-testing phase. However, it might also be because people visit, wander around, get bored, and leave (call it “Sansar syndrome”).

Second, please note carefully that the funding is for developers “who agree to build for Horizon according to Facebook’s suggested theme”. Hear that? It’s the sound of potential developers running for the exits. Facebook wants firm control over what kind of worlds you build, and they are willing to dictate themes. From the official announcement:

If you’re a developer, studio or creator and you’re interested in partnering with us for funded opportunities to create experiences for Horizon in a particular theme, you can sign up to learn more about the next set of themes.

Yes, that’s right…Facebook won’t even tell you about the themes unless you sign up. As someone who, on moral principles, refuses to have anything to do with Facebook products and services from now on, I’m not even going to bother. Those of you who have chosen to have their personal data strip-mined for profit by signing off on Facebook’s data and privacy policies can inform me as to what the corporate-approved themes are, mmmkay? Thanks 😉

So, while Facebook might slap a fresh coat of paint on its flagship social VR platform, and throw some of the spare change from Mark Zuckerberg’s couch cushions at content creators, there is, as Vivek Sharma (Vice President of Horizon at Facebook Reality Labs) states in the UploadVR article, “nothing to announce today in terms of exact features that we’re working on”.

Ian Hamilton also reported on Facebook dropping support for Unity:

When the social service was first showcased for Oculus Quest in late 2019 it supported worlds made in Unity which were noticeably more complex and engaging than those made in VR using Facebook’s tools. Unity is the most popular game engine among developers and, alongside Roblox, Rec Room and Epic Games, the companies are on a short list of efforts to build powerful yet easy-to-use tools for interactive 3D virtual world creation. Facebook tried to acquire Unity in the past and the acquisition would’ve given the advertising giant a key toolset that would push many creators to work with the social media company. Instead of selling, though, Unity went public on the stock market in late 2020.

“We don’t have any plans [for] direct Unity-level development on top of Worlds, but absolutely as a VR developer you can build on top of Unity and bring that experience, whether its a game or something else, over to Oculus through the Oculus app store,” said Vivek Sharma, VP of Horizon at Facebook Reality Labs.

As always, I will continue to monitor the situation over at Facebook, and report on developments. You can find all my blogposts about Facebook Horizon, now called Horizon Worlds, here. (I will update the tag later today.)

UPDATE 2:33 p.m.: Right after I published this post, DreamDance, a member of the RyanSchultz.com Discord community, told me:

Ok, so I contacted many friends just now; according to them there was never Unity world-building in Horizon…I don’t like Horizon, but I think he [Ian Hamilton] got stuff mixed up.

(I did obtain DreamDance’s permission to attribute the quote to him/her.)

UPDATE 3:17 p.m.: Ian Hamilton has responded to my inquiry, saying:

Here’s Tested reporting the same thing I did in 2019 — that we were shown by Facebook a world in Horizon made in Unity.

Also, I apologize for saying that Ian Hamilton worked for VRScout in my original blogpost…this error has been corrected. (Sorry, Ian!)

Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms Announces a Collaboration with Zoom

Facebook’s social VR platform for business, Horizon Workrooms (which I wrote about previously here) has announced that they will release a new feature next year: integration with Zoom.

In the official announcement, Facebook stated:

We recently launched Horizon Workrooms on Oculus Quest 2. It’s a new way to collaborate remotely across the world, through the power of virtual reality. And today, we’re excited to announce we’re teaming up with Zoom to integrate Workrooms even more deeply into your everyday workflows, starting next year.

Regardless of physical distance, people can meet up inside Workrooms and feel like they’re in the same room together. With immersive features like avatars and 3D spatial audio, and the ability to access your desktop computer and keyboard seamlessly from VR, Workrooms is designed to improve your team’s ability to collaborate, communicate, and connect. And starting next year, we’ll be taking Workrooms to the next level, letting you easily join Zoom Meetings and use Zoom Whiteboard all from within VR—we’re showing a sneak peek of what it could look like today at Zoomtopia, which you can check out here.

Facebook has bottomless pockets of money (mostly raised by strip-mining your personal data and selling it to advertisers), and it only makes sense that the company will use that income to forge alliances with other well-positioned companies such as Zoom (which I have no doubt profited greatly from the coronavirus pandemic).

UPDATED! Facebook Launches Horizon Workrooms, a Remote Workteams VR App for the Oculus Quest 2

Yesterday, Facebook announced their entry into what I collectively term the YARTVRA (Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App) marketplace, a product called Horizon Workrooms. Here’s the promotional video for this new social VR platform for the workplace:

What is interesting is that Facebook is confident enough in this platform to launch it in open beta, as opposed to Facebook Horizon, which is still in closed, invitation-only beta. And while Horizon Workrooms is, according to the official announcement, “available for free on Oculus Quest 2 in all countries where Quest 2 is supported“, that list of nations notably omits Germany, where the country’s Bundeskartellamt or Federal Cartel Office (FCO) is investigating the company’s decision to forcibly yoke Oculus VR hardware owners to accounts on the Facebook social network.

As to that decision, Facebook states:

When you choose to collaborate with your coworkers in Workrooms, you should feel in control of your experience, and we built Workrooms with privacy and safety in mind.

Workrooms will not use your work conversations and materials to inform ads on Facebook. The audio contents of your meeting are processed on Facebook servers but not stored, unless someone records and sends us a clip as part of a report. In this case, we’ll use the information to take appropriate action and then delete the recordings. Finally, Passthrough processes images and videos of your physical environment from the device sensors locally. Facebook and third-party apps do not access, view, or use these images or videos to target ads. Other people are not able to see your computer screen in Workrooms unless you choose to share it, and the permissions you grant for the Oculus Remote Desktop app are only used for the purposes of allowing streaming from your computer to your headset.

In addition to keeping your information secure, we want everyone to feel safe while collaborating in Workrooms. That’s why anyone who signs up for Workrooms must agree to follow our Facebook Community Standards and Conduct in VR Policy. If other members or content in the workroom violate these policies, you can always contact the team admin who can take action such as removing someone from the Workrooms team. You can also report an entire Workrooms team if you think it’s not following our policies. And If you’re in VR with people who are bothering you, you can report them using the Oculus reporting tool and include evidence for us to review.

Using Workrooms requires a Workrooms account, which is separate from your Oculus or Facebook accounts, although your Oculus username may be visible to other users in some cases—for example if someone reports you for violating our policies and your username appears in the tool. And to experience Workrooms in VR, you’ll need to access the app on Quest 2, which requires a Facebook login. That being said, your use of Workrooms will not make any updates to your Facebook profile or timeline unless you choose to do so.

While offering a free collaborative VR platform on a low-cost, wireless VR headset will certainly be tempting to businesses (and it may sound a death knell to some YARTVRA competitors out there), the requirement to set up a personal account on the Facebook social network to use Horizon Workrooms is going to continue to be a stumbling block for many of the companies that Facebook is targeting with this product (and the bigger the company, the more likely that their legal department is going to have objections).

Still, there are several notable features in Horizon Workrooms. Instead of using an awkward workaround to tap at a virtual keyboard, you can bring your physical desk and a compatible tracked keyboard, where you can see them sitting on the virtual meeting table in front of you. Road to VR reports:

The app includes a fully functional virtual desktop, which leverages a companion app installed on your PC or Mac to stream your computer’s desktop to a virtual screen in front of you. This means you can continue to access your computer even while you’re inside the headset, and you can even share your screen with others in the room.

To make it easier to use your real keyboard that’s on the desk in front of you, Horizon Workrooms supports keyboard tracking which allows it to detect a handful of specific keyboards, and create a virtual representation of them so that you can see and type on without being ‘blinded’ by the headset.

Right now Horizon Workrooms only supports Macbook keyboards, the Apple Magic keyboard, and the Logitech K830, though the company says they’re working to support more in the future.

If you don’t happen to have one of these keyboards luckily there’s a backup option. You can enable a ‘desk passthrough’ view which cuts out a portion of the virtual desk in front of you to show your actual hands on your actual keyboard. I was surprised how well it worked. While the passthrough video quality isn’t good enough to easily make out the letters on individual keys, for proficient typists it at least makes it easy to keep your hands properly aligned and prevents blindly reaching around for your keyboard. Now if only they could support coffee mug tracking too….

While it’s nice to have your usual desktop right in front of you—and all of the productivity capabilities that confers—it’s far from a perfect replacement for your actual PC. Latency between the PC and headset is surprisingly high, making mouse movements and keyboard input much more sluggish than you’re used to (especially if you have a high refresh rate monitor). Hopefully this is something they can improve going forward.

A look at how you can integrate your real-life keyboard into Horizon Workrooms (image source)

Anybody who has tried to use what Philip Rosedale has pejoratively called a “marimba keyboard” (i.e. where you use a mallet-like device to awkwardly type on a virtual keyboard in VR), can immediately see the benefits of this!

Horizon Workrooms also features spatial audio (is this the same as High Fidelity’s product, I wonder?), as well as “new and improved” Oculus Avatars, which are still upper-body only. Other features include whiteboards, where you can flip your Oculus Touch hand controller around and use it as a whiteboard marker. In fact, once you enable hand tracking in the Quest 2, you probably won’t need to use the hand controllers as much, anyway. According to the official announcement:

Workrooms is one of our first experiences that was designed from the start to use your hands, and not controllers, as your primary input. This helps to create a more natural and expressive social experience and lets you switch more easily between physical tools like your keyboard and controllers when needed. (To ensure the best experience, you’ll need to enable hand tracking to use Workrooms.)

Furthermore, Facebook wants to make Horizon Workrooms features available for other Oculus Quest developers to use:

We hope that developers are excited to use many of the same features seen in Workrooms in their own apps, and we’re working hard to bring them to our platform as well. You can already start by using our hand tracking and spatial audio features in your own apps today. And we’re working to bring avatarsPassthrough, mixed-reality desk, and tracked keyboard capabilities to the platform too. We’re excited to continue growing the VR for work ecosystem, and we hope that Workrooms serves as inspiration for how these features can work together.

We think VR will fundamentally transform the way we work as a new computing platform, defying distance to help people collaborate better from anywhere. Horizon Workrooms is a big first step towards this vision, and we look forward to hearing your feedback.

I note with interest that Horizon Workrooms does not appear to be available for the Oculus Rift tethered VR headset, which Facebook has already discontinued in favour of the Oculus Quest 2. I wonder why; no doubt there are still plenty of Oculus Rifts in use. Perhaps Facebook judged that it was not worth the extra work to make it happen, deciding instead to go all-in on the Oculus Quest ecosystem. (Also, the percentage of businesses using Rifts is probably pretty small.)

Horizon Workrooms looks to be a very useful and fully-featured product, which businesses and other organizations can use for free. However, we all already know, after numerous past Facebook privacy controversies, if it’s “free”, you are the product (even with Facebook’s assurances that it won’t use that data it collects to target advertising to you). I will continue to watch and report from the sidelines.

For further information about Horizon Workrooms, please read the official announcement, or visit their brand new website (and I do hope whoever was sitting on the domain name “workrooms.com” was handsomely compensated when Facebook bought it!). I have duly added Horizon Workrooms to my ever-expanding comprehensive list of social VR and virtual worlds.

A look at the new and improved avatars in Horizon Workrooms (image source)

UPDATE Sept. 6th, 2021: Apparently, Horizon Workrooms is not (repeat, NOT) available to Oculus for Business users…say what?!??

We wanted to try it, so we reached out to Oculus since we only have Oculus for Business headsets, and they said it wasn’t available for OfB, which seems to kind of defeat the purpose of this.