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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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 avatars, Passthrough, 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.
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 nota 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.
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).
Facebook earned roughly 86 billion dollars in profit last year, mostly from its data-harvesting/advertising business. It therefore has ample deep pockets to fund an army of public relations staff to curry favour with the news media in order to revise its less-than-rosy corporate history. And no, some people are NOT having it, and pushing back:
(Thank God for the salty counterpoint of Twitter. And yes, I know, Twitter has its problems, too. But at least Twitter gives you better control over what you see in your timeline, including blocking any promoted tweets that happen to irk you.)
So, I therefore take anything that Facebook says with a grain of salt. The news that Facebook has decided to take on the metaverse has already resulted in videos such as this one, by Thrillseeker:
“Biggest VR Announcement of the Decade”? Really? I would beg to differ. (That particular section starts at the 5:13 time mark in the video. There are quite a few other interesting news items which Thrillseeker covers in this video, by the way.)
Here’s a quote from that video:
What’s more shocking is that Facebook says they don’t want to own [the metaverse], they want to help build it, which immediately raises a red flag to me. Facebook has been pretty open about wanting to practically own VR. They’re not just a player in the industry at the moment, they’re essentially an entire team that owns the referee and the field you play on, having more than 60% market share in PCVR and nearly 100% market share in standalone VR.
As I said up top, Facebook’s past corporate history shows that it tends to dominate rather than participate in those markets it enters. Combine that with Facebook’s horrible track record with respect to user privacy and algorithm-driven psychological manipulation, which has contributed to a more divisive society rife with conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation, and I share Thrillseeker’s feelings of worry and skepticism at the idea of a Facebook-imprinted metaverse. I don’t trust Facebook.
Casey Newton: Because I know some people are going to hear this vision for the metaverse and just reflexively wish that you wouldn’t build it. They’ll say, Facebook wasn’t governed effectively when it was in two dimensions, and trying to build it in three dimensions is pure hubris. And people feel that way for different reasons. But one that has come up a lot over the past couple of weeks is misinformation. President Biden has since walked this back, but on Friday he was talking about misinformation related to COVID vaccines. And he said, “Facebook is killing people.” How do you respond to the idea that Facebook has played a role in making people hesitant about getting vaccinated?
Mark Zuckerberg: Well, I think that our basic role here — and I appreciate you mentioning the fullness of the context there, because I do think that the president offered more context on that after his original comment. There’s multiple prongs here. One part of it is we need to basically help push out authoritative information. We do that. We’ve helped, I think it’s more than 2 billion people around the world, access authoritative information about COVID over the course of the pandemic by putting it at the top of Facebook and Instagram. We’ve helped millions of people, including here in the US, basically go use our vaccine finder tool to actually go get their vaccine. So I’m quite confident, just looking at the analytics and the net impact, that we’ve been a positive force here…
And for the metaverse, I think that there are different types of integrity questions. One of the big issues that I think people need to think through is right now there’s a pretty meaningful gender skew, at least in virtual reality, where there’s a lot more men than women. And in some cases that leads to harassment. And I think one of the things that we’ve been able to do better in some of our experiences than some of the other games and things out there is give people easier tools to block people, just be able to have a sense of when there might be harassment going on, to keep it a safe space that can be inclusive for everyone, that everyone wants to be a part of.
Because ultimately, you’re not going to have a healthy and vibrant community if it skews so much towards one gender or the other, or a whole part of the population just doesn’t feel safe. So this stuff is going to be critical. It’s not just critical for having a good social impact, it’s critical for building good products. And it’s something that we’re focused on from the beginning here.
Essentially, Mark resorted to corporate bafflegab in responding to Casey’s question, sidestepping what was at the heart of the question: trust in what Facebook does.
Facebook Reality Labs is “standing up a Metaverse product group”, but it isn’t clear what this actually means…
The group will be led by former Instagram VP of Product Vishal Shah, and will report directly to [Facebook Reality Labs Vice-President Andrew Bosworth…
But there’s an important question the announcement didn’t answer: what exactly is this “metaverse” group building?
At first glance you might assume the answer is Facebook Horizon. But Horizon is only a part of this group. As the announcement notes, Horizon’s lead will report to Metaverse lead Vishal Shah.
Horizon was marketed alongside Quest 2 and was originally supposed to launch in 2020, but is currently still in a closed beta. Facebook no longer actively markets Horizon, and hasn’t given any specific updates on its progress.
It’s clear that Zuckerberg has been thinking about this metaverse idea for a while. But the timing of Facebook’s announcement is interesting, to say the least. Facebook has “a history of doing these kinds of technical projects that look like they might be revolutionary at times when they’re being criticized for their lack of social responsibility,” Jen Goldbeck, a computer scientist and professor at the University of Maryland, told Ars.
It’s probably an overstatement to say that the metaverse news was released to serve as an intentional distraction from the company’s current problems. But the thought undoubtedly crossed someone’s mind at the company. There’s a “70 percent” chance that Facebook’s metaverse project is a “distraction from all the bad things that are going on,” Goldbeck said. “The last thing they want is more discussion of their algorithms and Q-Anon and extremist groups.”
…I think it’s easy, and wise, to be skeptical of Zuckerberg and Facebook being the ones to pioneer the Metaverse, given the company’s history. Oculus has already run afoul of its users by experimenting with in-game, in-headset ads (literally the thing the villain of Ready Player One was trying to engineer), but past that, the entire point of the Metaverse runs contrary to what Zuckerberg seems like he’s trying to build. Facebook products, whether Facebook itself or Instagram, are about a digital presence for your real self, or at least a happier, filtered version of yourself. A main ideal of the Metaverse is about not being who you really are, and the ability to be anyone at all. Facebook won’t even let you use a fake name, and is busy harvesting all your personal data that it shares far and wide with advertisers all over the planet. A core tenet of the Metaverse is the ability to hide your true identity and retain all the privacy you could ask for. It’s the exact opposite of the entire history of Facebook.
Zuckerberg talks about sitting on his friend’s couch as a hologram like that’s some sort of pinnacle Metaverse experience. It’s cool tech, it is not the Metaverse, and I think he’s missing the point of the entire concept, along with why people actually want this thing built in the first place. I do not want to sit on my friend’s couch as a hologram. I want to attend a virtual Ariana Grande concert as Batman.
I have done a factory reset on my Oculus Quest (first edition), and it sits quietly in its box, waiting to be shipped to my sister-in-law in Alberta, where she plans to use it in her work with developmentally-challenged adults. I have completely deleted both my Facebook and Oculus accounts, and I asked Facebook to delete all my personal data. The Facebook app has never graced my relatively new iPhone. I even installed Privacy Badger and uBlock origin to block the setting and sending of tracking cookies to Facebook while I surf the Web! I think I have burned my bridges pretty effectively. (Now, I am not kidding myself, I am quite sure that Facebook has some sort of “shadow account” on me.)
In fact, the only remnant of Facebook left in my life the Oculus Rift I had purchased for my suspended research project, which sits in my office at the University of Manitoba Libraries, untouched as I continue to work from home during the pandemic. (I’m still figuring out what my new academic research project will be!) That VR headset has an Oculus account, and I have a little under two years to decide if I want to get a Facebook account for it when I am forced to do so. I can tell you one thing: if I do, it sure the hell won’t be in my name! I’m quite sure that many institutions of higher education are dealing with the thorny issues of being required to set up Facebook accounts for Oculus hardware. I’m also quite sure that Facebook/Oculus has lost some business because of that requirement!
At the same time, I am glad that the Oculus Quest 2 is selling well. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” as I like to say, and greater consumer uptake of VR will only mean good things for the entire VR/AR/XR ecosystem. People whose first taste of virtual reality is in an Oculus Quest will no doubt migrate to other hardware over time (many people are eagerly awaiting to see what Apple will do). I’ll tell you one thing: I trust Apple with my privacy way, waaay more than Facebook! I watch with amusement as the privacy battle between Facebook and Apple continues.
My experience with Facebook has informed the skepticism with which I look at all social media platforms, including the ones I use the most: Twitter and Reddit. I still derive value (and leads for potential blogposts!) from both, and I intend to continue to use them, and I still hang out on the new drop-in social audio apps Clubhouse and Spotify Greenroom (although I suspect that the Clubhouse boom has turned into a bust). However, I will never again use social media without wondering about data and privacy issues. Remember, if it’s “free”. YOU are the product!
I’ve also been watching Facebook take its first tentative steps into introducing advertising in Oculus apps. The BBC reported:
In what the social network described as an experiment, ads will begin to appear in a game called Blaston with other developers rolling out similar ads.
It said it would listen to feedback before launching virtual reality ads more widely.
It also revealed it is testing new ad formats “that are unique to VR”.
But in a blog on Oculus’s website, the firm said: “We’re exploring new ways for developers to generate revenue – this is a key part of ensuring we’re creating a self-sustaining platform that can support a variety of business models that unlock new types of content and audiences.”
Barely a week has passed since Facebook started testing ads in Oculus apps and already the initiative has run into trouble. On Monday, one of the handful of developers involved in the initial ad experiment said it was pulling out of the test. Resolution Games tweeted that it had decided that in-app ads were not suitable for its multiplayer shooter game Blaston after “listening to player feedback.”
The developer had encouraged its user base to leave their thoughts on an ad feedback channel on its Discord server. As spotted by Upload VR, angry players had also review bombed Blaston on the Oculus Store and Steam shortly after its participation in the ad trial was announced.
Resolution Games’ decision marks a setback for Facebook’s burgeoning ad strategy for Oculus. After squeezing more ads into Instagram and its main platform, the company risked irking passionate gamers by bringing ads to VR. Unlike those other services, Oculus isn’t free: An Oculus Quest 2 headset alone starts from $299. While Blaston is also a paid game.
I have been informed that, in fact, Facebook sells the Oculus Quest at a loss, hoping to earn back that money through software sales for the platform (which makes sense). In a discussion with Voices of VR podcaster Kent Bye (whom I admire greatly), I mentioned that I didn’t feel the need to subscribe to VRChat Plus, and he challenged me to consider the alternative: paid advertising in VRChat. I can tell you that the very thought made me shudder, and I changed my mind in a hurry, happily shelling out for a VRChat Plus subscription. And apparently, they are selling well:
Our community has shown their support by buying our optional subscription, VRChat Plus, which unlocks some enhancements and perks. VRC+ has been greatly successful, and has been instrumental in helping us expand via features like Regions. We plan on expanding VRC+ by enabling purchases on the Oculus platform, as well as allowing players to gift subscriptions to each other. We are so grateful to our community for their support!
I also find myself wondering about Facebook’s latest attempt at a social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, which many people expected to be launched by now, and which seems to be stuck in closed beta testing. I don’t regret not participating in Horizon by boycotting Facebook, not for one instant, but I do find the delay in launch perplexing. I have heard second-hand accounts that, while the in-world building tools are nice, there’s not a lot to do, and user moderation has been a problem area, despite Facebook’s surveillance attempts, which I mention in this blogpost. The longer it takes for Facebook to roll out Horizon, the more people wonder what’s really going on.
If you knew that Facebook was doing all of this … gold star, I guess. You spend way too much time on the internet.
…The company’s constant tinkering raises the question: Is Facebook trying so hard because it’s excited about what’s next, or perhaps because, like its peers, it is no longer so adept at predicting and then leading digital revolutions?
(The entire On Tech column is well worth a read, by the way.)
Anyway, these are just some assorted musings about Facebook this lazy Saturday morning. As always, I’d love to hear your comments and perspectives! Feel free to join the burgeoning RyanSchultz.com Discord server, where well over 500 of us like-minded social VR/virtual world enthusiasts gather to discuss, debate, and argue about the ever-evolving metaverse and all the companies building it! Or just leave a comment on this blogpost, thanks!