Editorial: I’m Percolating

Obviously, I may have surprised some observers who expected me, after my self-imposed vacation from blogging this summer, to come busting out of the gate with a flurry of new blogposts. Frankly, I have surprised myself as well.

Oh, Auntie Ryan still has opinions, child. And you all know from past experience that I am certainly not shy about sharing said opinions here. But, this time around, I am biding my time before I set pen to paper (or, in this case, finger to keyboard).

For example, I have lots of feelings about Facebook (none very positive), but rather than just post another rant, I feel like doing a bit more reading, reflection, and investigation, and craft a better-worded argument than I usually do. Perhaps it’s a by-product of teaching university students about the proper way to approach the published scholarly literature while searching for the answer to a research question, something that has been on my mind a lot over the past few weeks.

Every so often, I check my WordPress blog statistics, and for some reason a blogpost I wrote over two years ago about VR pioneer Jaron Lanier and his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is getting increasing amounts of traffic lately. It would appear that some people, at least, are taking a sober second look at the impact of social media on society, and that particular blogpost is coming up in Google searches.

I think such reflection is a good and necessary thing, particularly in this age of divisiveness, conspiracy theories, and highly partisan politics. Throw in a deadly pandemic and a global climate crisis (with out-of-control wildfires in Australia and California just being the most recent evidence of the emergency), and it’s enough to overwhelm and depress anyone. In many ways, 2020 has been a dumpster-fire year.

So it seems like a good time for me to percolate, ruminate…and perhaps spend a bit more time reading and reflecting, rather than just jump right into the fracas like I usually have done. Kent Bye once told me that he appreciates my in-the-moment, “hot take” reporting, but there’s also a lot to be said for a more considered, more informed, more reflective approach to social VR, virtual worlds, and the ever-evolving (and percolating!) metaverse.

For all of its hype and drama—the launch and shut-down of devices, products, and platforms—the metaverse is not going anywhere in a hurry, and neither am I.

Some people may also be surprised that I am still writing about Second Life, which many observers see as quaint and outdated. As I have written before, I consider SL to be the perfect model of a mature, fully-evolved metaverse, one where we can already see many of the features which will appear in newer platforms.

For example, it is no accident that Facebook Horizon has implemented easy-to-use in-world building tools, an echo of the rudimentary “prim building” that Second Life launched with over seventeen years ago. Many experienced metaverse content creators got their start building and selling simple, prim-built objects, expressing their creativity in new and wonderful ways, and making money off their efforts. And we can expect to see more and more platforms move towards the implementation of an in-world marketplace for the buying and selling of user-created content. In this and many other ways, Second Life set the model for other virtual worlds to follow and improve upon.

Regardless of the ultimate success or failure of Facebook Horizon, it will doubtless inspire a new crop of content creators, much like Second Life has done. Those content creators might not stay with Horizon (as many have since left SL, forming a vast diaspora), but their work often continues on other platforms. Each new platform offers a brand new canvas for artists to build and create new visions of virtual worlds. If one world should shut down, there will be a ripple effect, benefiting other worlds.

So, yes, I will still be writing about Second Life, my first love. My endless fascination with SL continues to this day. Over time, I do expect that one or more metaverse platforms will eventually overtake it in terms of sheer popularity and economic success. But for now, at over 17 years of age, it still remains the perfect laboratory for seeing what is possible.

Stay tuned, folks! The ride is just starting to get interesting!

There will be many twists and turns in the years ahead!
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

UPDATED Editorial: From the Outside, Looking In


I can’t sleep. I’ve been tossing and turning since 3:00 a.m., so I finally decided to get out of bed and do what I do when I can’t sleep. Brood. And blog. (Yes, I know: bad combination.)

And, while I was lying in bed, it occurred to me: for the first time ever, I will be writing about a social VR platform on this blog that I may never actually set foot in.

Of course, I am talking about Facebook Horizon.

This manipulated image of the new Facebook Reality Labs logo is courtesy of the insanely talented and creative LokiEliot; the eye is actually not part of the FRL logo pyramid, but as far as I am concerned, it may as well be there.

Kent Bye, host of the influential Voices of VR podcast, shares the growing sense of unease that many informed people now feel about the extent of Facebook’s control and use of the personal data which it collects on you, which of course includes sharing your Oculus VR device data with other Facebook products and services, as evidenced by the following Oculus Support question and answer. It would seem that if you’re in one Facebook product or service, you’re in them all—and it’s yet another good reason for me start moving away from relying on Oculus hardware for any future virtual reality experiences.

Kent Bye, in a tweet yesterday, referenced another observer who compared this Q&A with a quote from the dystopian science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451, commenting:

“Can I chose to not share information about my VR activity…?” “No…” I read this chilling Q&A during @FRealityCrew podcast. Contextual Integrity is an approach to privacy. Facebook says it’s for a safety context, but they don’t limit by context. Could be for data mining contexts.

(The link to the podcast itself is here.)

Again, my response to all this is to steer clear of Facebook. Yes, I full well realize that other tech companies (Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc.) also use data mining on me. But Facebook has already demonstrated in its past corporate history, time and again, that it cannot be trusted with the information it collects on you, and shares with other companies, without your knowledge or consent, other than you tacitly signing off on a lengthy Terms of Service document that only a lawyer could decipher. (Exhibit A: the Cambridge Analytica scandal.)

Therefore, I am quite content to remain on the outside, looking in, rather than continue to be “Under His Eye”, as they say in The Handmaid’s Tale. Simply put, I no longer wish to be under Mark Zuckerberg’s eye—even if it means I will only report on Horizon as an interested observer, as opposed to an active participant.

Yesterday, Facebook launched the invitation-only beta of its Horizon social VR platform, after a short, closed alpha launch earlier this year. According to the official blogpost announcing the beta test:

The invite-only beta will be available on Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform in the U.S. and Canada to start. We’ll welcome more people over time, and you can add your name to the beta waitlist.

Looking at the Facebook Horizon Beta Application form, it seems very clear what kind of people Facebook is interested in inviting into Facebook Horizon at this stage:

  1. They want to know whether you “have…ever created a world, game, or experience in a VR game, in a console/PC game, or in a professional creator tool (such as Unity/Unreal)”; and
  2. They also want to know if you “lead, moderate, or administer an online community (such as Reddit, Facebook Groups, Discord, Twitch, etc.)”.

In other words, they will be giving priority to a) content creators and b) community builders and influencers. The former group Facebook wants to bring in to fully test out its in-world building tools, and (perhaps) the ability to import content from third-party tools, and the latter group they want to get the word out about Horizon to their communities, and generate some positive buzz.

Somewhat buried in the press release is the following information:

Eventually, we envision large spaces where many people can gather in Horizon, but for now, up to eight people can share a space.

So (at least to start), Horizon will be unable to host large events. Unlike Second Life, Cryptovoxels, and Somnium Space, which are one large contiguous landmass, Facebook Horizon will be composed of separate, discrete worlds you select from a menu, much like VRChat, the old High Fidelity and its successor platforms (Tivoli and Vircadia), and Sansar.

There’s so much more Facebook Horizon news to parse than I have time to cover here this morning. It’s 5:30 a.m. and I am going to try to get some sleep (but it’s probably a lost cause).

Facebook Horizon: I prefer to stay on the outside, looking in, thank you…

I wish I had never joined Facebook 15 years ago. I especially regret encouraging friends and family to sign up in the early days. I also wish now that I had never purchased my Oculus Quest and Oculus Rifts (yes, plural—one for home and one for work). I wish that I had never bought many of my VR apps through the Oculus store.

But I can learn from my past mistakes, and I can use that knowledge to make more informed, better decisions in the rapidly-evolving VR/AR/XR marketplace.

And I will continue to write about Facebook and Oculus on this blog, as part of my coverage of social VR and virtual worlds, informed by my experiences to date in dozens of different platforms, since I first set foot in Second Life fourteen years ago.

I might be able to personally boycott Facebook products and services (if not now, then at some point in the future when I sell or give away my Oculus devices), but, for better or worse, Facebook is simply too big a player to completely ignore. And, after all, this is a blog about social VR.

Stay tuned for more coverage!

UPDATE 11:27 a.m.: After finally getting some much-needed sleep, I edited this blogpost a bit, and I also wanted to add a link to an UploadVR article posted yesterday by Jamie Feltham, who interviewed a couple of Facebook employees working on the Horizon project, and received a Facebook Horizon preview before the beta launch of the product.

UPDATED! A Few New Glimpses of Facebook Horizon on Twitter—and Some Reactions

Facebook has just presented a series of short teaser videos about its forthcoming social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, on Twitter (here’s a link to the entire thread).

Among other things, it shows that Facebook Horizon will support collaborative building, including the ability to resize your avatar as needed while building.

The Facebook Horizon avatars (and the rather blocky, Minecraft-esque style of the user-created worlds briefly presented in these teaser videos) leave me rather underwhelmed, especially after having been immersed in Sansar for so long. Sorry, Facebook. Frankly, I was expecting more than this. Even the Rec Room avatars and the updated AltspaceVR avatars look better than these boring, soulless Horizon ones.

The in-world building tools do remind me strongly of building with prims in vintage Second Life, circa 2003-2007. I’m still trying to decide if that is a good thing or not. Remember that many virtual world content creators got their start with prim building in SL, and eventually moved on to other tools (e.g. Blender) and other platforms (e.g. Sinespace). This could be a good decision in a virtual world intended to appeal to novice users. I wonder if Facebook Horizon will allow users to import more complex mesh items created using programs such as Blender, because that building-block stuff is not going to be terribly appealing to many experienced content creators. And user-generated content (plus a marketplace to buy and sell it) will be key to the success of Horizon.

I will be updating this blogpost throughout the next few days with other people’s reactions to these videos.

I’m quite sure that more details (and commentary on these tweets) will follow. It’s still not enough to entice me to renounce my recent decision to boycott Facebook products and services, however.

Thanks to Jin for the heads up!

UPDATE 1:47 p.m.: Well, that didn’t take very long! Lucas Rizzotto, creator of the wonderful VR app Where Thoughts Go, opines:

This looks like the social VR equivalent of a beige wall. I’m astounded that a company spending hundreds of millions of dollars on social VR can only come up with Rec Room, but Pixar.

In the many good comments made on a tweet made by VR vlogger Nathie of one of the new Facebook Horizon videos, Lhun says:

No legs, major lack of immersion, Roblox gameplay. If it’s as easy as Roblox to build things like that, sure, that’ll be popular, but VRChat it ain’t.

Of course, many people are using comparisons to existing platforms and services in talking about Horizon. Hermit tweeted:

Its Rec Room + VRChat with Facebook integration. This is going to be big, but I’m not sure its going to be good-big or horrifying-big, likely both.

UPDATED! Editorial: Facebook Announces That It Will Require All Oculus VR Headset Users to Have Facebook Accounts (and Why I Have Bought a Valve Index as My Next VR Headset)

I am angry. Make that furious. Let me tell you exactly why I am so angry.

Facebook dropped a bombshell announcement today:

Today, we’re announcing some important updates to how people log into Oculus devices, while still keeping their VR profile. Starting in October 2020:

■ Everyone using an Oculus device for the first time will need to log in with a Facebook account.

If you’re an existing user and already have an Oculus account, you’ll have the option to log in with Facebook and merge your Oculus and Facebook accounts.

If you’re an existing user and choose not to merge your accounts, you can continue using your Oculus account for two years.

After January 1, 2023, we will end support for Oculus accounts. If you choose not to merge your accounts at that time, you can continue using your device, but full functionality will require a Facebook account. We will take steps to allow you to keep using content you have purchased, though we expect some games and apps may no longer work. This could be because they include features that require a Facebook account or because a developer has chosen to no longer support the app or game you purchased. All future unreleased Oculus devices will require a Facebook account, even if you already have an Oculus account.

I have written on this blog, at length, about why I distrust Facebook and the reasons I first left the Facebook social network (here, here, here, and here). I would strongly suggest you reread them because I do not intend to rehash all my arguments here, again.

I only begrudgingly rejoined Facebook when it became clear that I would need a Facebook account to be able to use their forthcoming social VR platform, Facebook Horizon. At that time, I still naively felt that it was somehow important to include Facebook Horizon in what I hoped was going to be my continuing, comprehensive coverage of all social VR platforms on this blog.

But you know what? After today’s announcement by Facebook, I no longer feel the need to write about Facebook/Oculus products and services—and certainly not if it means letting Facebook strip-mine even more of my personal data than it already has to date. Enough is enough.

And so I have posted the following short update to my little-used, soon-to-be-deleted Facebook profile:

Today, Facebook announced that it will require *all* users of Oculus VR headsets (Rift, Quest) to create an account on the Facebook social network in order to use them. (Previous to this, you only had to create a Facebook account if you were using a few of their apps, such as Oculus Venues, or the upcoming Facebook Horizon social VR platform.)

Many of you already know that I quit Facebook (and asked them to delete all of the data it had collected on me) as my New Years resolution in December 2019. I only returned because I wanted to be able to write about Facebook Horizon, Facebook’s new social VR platform, when it launches later this year—and THAT required a Facebook account. So I rejoined, even though I have successfully broken my Facebook addiction and I rarely log in anymore.

Given today’s announcement, I have now changed my mind. I will be deleting my Facebook account again later this week, and I will no longer be buying any more VR apps from the Oculus Store. From now on, I will no longer be buying any Oculus VR headsets (my next VR headset will probably be a Valve Index).

I have had enough. This time, I am not coming back to Facebook. You can find me on Twitter (my handle is quiplash).

In addition, I will no longer be covering Facebook products and services on this blog. I now have zero intention of writing about Facebook Horizon, since after deleting my Facebook account, I will not be able to visit their social VR platform. Frankly, I no longer have any desire to see or participate in whatever Facebook is planning.

Also, I will no longer be purchasing any more VR apps from the Oculus Store, instead choosing to buy them from Steam (or directly from the developer, if possible).

I am currently the owner of an original Oculus Rift tethered VR headset (which I bought in January 2017), and an Oculus Quest standalone VR headset (which I bought as soon as they became available in May 2019). They’re well-made devices, which have not given me problems. But I can no longer in good conscience continue to support, in any way, the company that makes and sells them, from this day forward.

As Facebook has stated in their news release:

If you’re an existing user and choose not to merge your [Oculus and Facebook] accounts, you can continue using your Oculus account for two years.

And I intend to use that two-year window to sell or give away my Rift and Quest, and purchase only non-Oculus VR headset(s) from now on. At the moment, I am leaning towards the Valve Index, but we’ll see. I have time; a lot can change in two years. But I have checked and my computer is already powerful enough to run an Index:

My computer is already Valve Index ready!

UPDATE August 19th, 2020: Today, I put my money where my mouth is. I went and placed an online order for the complete Valve Index VR Kit. I am told that it will take eight or more weeks to get to me, because of coronavirus-related delays in production. That’s fine. I can wait. And I’m not going anywhere.

I will be boycotting Facebook hardware and software from this point forward. It’s time for me to kick the Facebook habit, once and for all.

UPDATE August 20th, 2020: I just wanted to update this blogpost to say that, instead of not writing about Facebook and Oculus products and services on the RyanSchultz.com blog, I will still be writing about them in future—just not from a first-person perspective, obviously. I still have lots of opinions about Facebook Inc. and their approach to business and privacy.

And I steadfastly refuse to give Facebook any more of my business, and that means I refuse to join Facebook Horizon.