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: Will Facebook Horizon Succeed If You Can’t Be Anybody But Yourself? (What Fourteen Years of Second Life Has Taught Me)

If anybody had told me, at the start of my 14-year Second Life journey, that my main avatar (the one I use the most) would be a woman, I would have laughed my damn head off. It would have never even occurred to me that I could be a woman. When I started off, I created an avatar that, more or less, looked like me, dressed like me…was me. The first two alts I created were also male (here’s an old picture of the three of them, way back in 2007, gathered around a cozy pixel campfire):

My first three SL avatars: Heath Homewood, Morden Winkler, and Notecard Writer

And yet, almost fourteen years later, here I am, Vanity Fair, wearing a slinky new ombre dress I picked up at ViSion with the free L$300 gift card available from their booth at the seasonal Shop and Hop (which ends tomorrow, by the way, so hurry down to pick up the fabulous freebies!), elegantly sipping coffee from my limited-edition Lab Gab mug (thanks, Xiola and Strawberry!) and sedately listening to the tunes at the new, upstart Frank’s Jazz Club…and dressed to kill, honey! 😉

Which got me to thinking.

Second Life has been an unparalleled opportunity for literally hundreds of thousands—even millions—of people over the past 16 years, to step outside their own skins and become somebody else for a day, a week, a month, a year…or forever.

At various times in the past, I have been (and sometimes still am):

  • a medieval lute and harp player, serenading fantasy roleplayers in drafty stone castles and at jousting tournaments
  • an urban angel with a neon halo, dressed in black from head to toe, patroling the mean streets
  • a six-year-old girl with a teddy bear, who skips everywhere she goes
  • a very prim and proper 1950s housewife (complete with pearls!)
  • a Chinese emperor—and a Chinese empress!
  • Britney Spears (“It’s Britney, bitch”)
  • Cher, surrounded by an army of animated cockroaches, belting out “If I could turn back tiiime…If I could find a waaay…” on an endless loop, as she wanders various post-apocalyptic worlds in Second Life! (Uhhhm, that would be Cher singing, not the cockroaches—although that would be pretty funny, too!)
  • a satyr
  • a stripper for cash tips (link is safe for work)
  • a fat cop who likes to hang out at donut stops
  • a plus-size female model
  • Queen Elizabeth I in full regalia
  • Elvis Presley (complete with white sequin jumpsuit, microphone and wearable spotlights!)
  • a male moon fairy—and a female fairy godmother!
  • a flaming phoenix
  • a gypsy fortune teller (complete with crystal ball)
  • a very old man in a Hugh-Hefneresque smoking jacket, puffing away contentedly on his pipe
  • a 1960s hippie chick
  • Ennis Del Mar (and Jack Twist!) from Brokeback Mountain
  • a male Na’vi warrior from Avatar
  • a Victorian parlourmaid (whom I like to stick in rather unexpected places like clubs and stores, where she busily dusts and vacuums)
  • a Johnny-Depp-lookalike pirate with a parrot on his shoulder
  • a Japanese geisha
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • a vampire
  • Mary Poppins (complete with levitating umbrella and carpetbag, she once memorably dive-bombed an S&M orgy in Second Life while staying completely in character!)
  • a Bollywood movie star
  • Michael Jackson
  • a goth girl who only wears three colours: black, white, and red
  • a mermaid
  • Paris Hilton (“the Paris Hilton of Second Life” from that long-ago CSI:NY episode)
  • an Afro-Canadian woman
  • an Indigenous/First Nations Canadian woman
  • a white-haired old woman for Caledon/steampunk/Victorian roleplay
  • Santa Claus
  • a Bavarian German man in lederhosen with a beer stein
  • a Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter wizard
  • a drag queen
  • a circus clown
  • a timberwolf
  • a large, fire-breathing dragon
  • a court jester
  • a ball-joined china doll
  • a stern Roman Catholic sister armed with a ruler to inflict God’s punishment on sinners! And sometimes, just to get a laugh, I have her being followed around by a flock of penguins…
  • and the list goes on, and on, and on…

And it makes me wonder: just how successful will the new Facebook Horizon be, if they insist that you be, essentially, your own rather boring self, linked to your personal Facebook account, and unable to throw on the guise of somebody else?

The very thought would horrify most Second Life users, who are so used to being somebody else, and hiding behind an avatar name, and often roleplaying somebody (or something) completely different from their real lives. And the same would apply to many of the newer social VR platforms, like VRChat, where everybody you meet seems to want to be an anime girl or a Disney character on the lam from their corporate lawyers.

Fourteen years of Second Life has taught me that the ability to be somebody else—walk around in someone else’s skin—can be an insightful, instructive, transformative, and even delightful experience. And I rather doubt that Facebook Horizon is going to be able to replace that, at least to start. (I mean, there’s no lower half of your body on the Horizon avatars! Think of the loss of shoe-shopping opportunities alone… 😉 )

If Facebook Horizon won’t let you be somebody else, will it still have the same appeal? Will it attract a different audience? These are good questions to ponder as we watch Facebook roll out Horizon this year.

Facebook Horizon: Friendly, yes…but what if you can’t be a fire-breathing dragon?