Two Virtual Reality Designers Discuss Techniques and Strategies for Implementing Safer Social VR (Including an Example from the Forthcoming Facebook Horizon Platform)

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Back at the start of November, two VR designers, Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller, wrote an article for Immerse on aspects of designing safer social VR spaces. That article was recently reprinted on The Next Web news site, titled How to protect users from harassment in social VR spaces, and it’s an excellent read on the subject, which I highly recommend.

In particular, female-identifying users of social VR platforms are often the victims of sexual harassment, research conducted by Jessica Outlaw and others has shown. Michelle Cortese writes:

As female designers working in VR, my co-worker Andrea Zeller and I decided to join forces on our own time and write a comprehensive paper. We wrote about the potential threat of virtual harassment, instructing readers on how to use body sovereignty and consent ideology to design safer virtual spaces from the ground up. The text will soon become a chapter in the upcoming book: Ethics in Design and Communication: New Critical Perspectives (Bloomsbury Visual Arts: London).

After years of flagging potentially-triggering social VR interactions to male co-workers in critiques, it seemed prime time to solidify this design practice into documented research. This article is the product of our journey.

The well-known immersive aspect of virtual reality—the VR hardware and software tricking your brain into believing what it is seeing is “real”—means that when someone threatens or violates your personal space, or your virtual body, it feels real.

This is particularly worrisome as harassment on the internet is a long-running issue; from trolling in chat rooms in the ’90s to cyber-bullying on various social media platforms today. When there’s no accountability on new platforms, abuse has often followed — and the innate physicality of VR gives harassers troubling new ways to attack. The visceral quality of VR abuse can be especially triggering for survivors of violent physical assault.

Cortese and Zeller stress that safety needs to be built into our social VR environments: “Safety and inclusion need to be virtual status quo.”

The article goes into a discussion of proxemics, which I will not attempt to summarize here; I would instead strongly urge you to go to the source and read it all for yourself, as it is very clearly laid out. A lot of research has already been done in this area, which can now be applied as we build new platforms.

And one of those new social VR platforms just happens to be Facebook Horizon, a project on which both Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller have been working!

What I did find interesting in this report was an example the authors provided, of how this user safety research is being put to use in the Facebook Horizon social VR platform, which will be launching in closed beta early this year. Apparently, there will be a button you can press to immediately remove yourself from a situation where you do not feel comfortable:

We designed the upcoming Facebook Horizon with easy-to-access shortcuts for moments when people would need quick-action remediation in tough situations. A one-touch button can quickly remove you from a situation. You simply touch the button and you land in a space where you can take a break and access your controls to adjust your experience.

Once safely away from the harasser, you can optionally choose to mute, block, or report them to the admins while in your “safe space”:

Handy features such as these, plus Facebook’s insistence on linking your personally-identifying account on the Facebook social network to your Facebook Horizon account (thus making it very difficult to be anonymous), will probably go a long way towards making women (and other minorities such as LGBTQ folks) feel safer in Facebook Horizon.

Of course, griefers, harassers and trolls will always try to find ways around the safeguards put in place, such as setting up dummy alternative accounts (Second Life and other virtual worlds have had to deal with such problems for years). We can also expect “swatting”-type attacks, where innocent people are falsely painted as troublemakers using the legitimate reporting tools provided (something we’ve unfortunately already seen happen in a few instances in Sansar).

Some rather bitter lessons on what does and doesn’t work have been learned in the “wild, wild west” of earlier-generation virtual worlds and social VR platforms, such as the never-ending free-for-all of Second Life (and of course, the cheerful anarchy of VRChat, especially in the days before they were forced to implement their nuanced Trust and Safety System due to a tidal wave of harassment, trolling and griefing).

But I am extremely glad to see that Facebook has hired VR designers like Michelle Cortese and Andrea Zeller, and that the company is treating user safety in social VR as a non-negotiable tenet from the earliest design stages of the Horizon project, instead of scrambling to address it as an after-thought as VRChat did. More social VR platforms need to do this.

I’m quite looking forward to seeing how this all plays out in 2020! I and many other observers will be watching Facebook Horizon carefully to see how well all these new security and safety features roll out and are embraced by users.

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Editorial: My Social VR/Virtual World Predictions for 2020

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Now that I am (finally!) finished my annual holiday tradition of utterly ransacking all the Advent calendars and December shopping events I can find in Second Life—the better to clothe my small army of alts with fashionable freebies!—it is time to turn my attention to predictions for the coming year.

Let’s start with a look back at my predictions for 2019, shall we? I said then:

  • That Second Life would “continue to coast along, baffling the mainstream news media and the general public with its vitality and longevity”, and that “the ability to change your first and last names in SL will prove very popular—and also very lucrative for Linden Lab”. Well, I am going to stick to that prediction. Implementing avatar name changes in SL turned out to be a thornier problem than Linden Lab anticipated, hence the delay, but they now have eight years of pent-up demand for this feature, and I anticipate that it will still prove popular—and profitable—for Linden Lab. I myself upgraded one of my alts to Premium to be able to change her legacy name of Bumbly Rumpler. (I know. I know. I don’t know what I was thinking at the time!) I also snagged her a lovely new riverside Victorian Linden Home in the process.

  • That OpenSim would move on implementing virtual reality support, but (as far as I can tell), that work has stalled or been abandoned. To be honest, I have barely set foot at all in OpenSim this past year, so I regret that I am not in any position to make predictions for 2020!

  • That “one or more blockchain-based virtual worlds are going to fold”—a prediction which has come true, at least for MATERIA.ONE, which has not officially folded, but is currently on an indefinite hiatus. The landscape is littered with various blockchain-based projects that are either dead, moribund, or stuck in pre-development hell: Aether City, Ceek, The Deep, MARK.SPACE, MegaCryptoPolis, The Sandbox, Stan World, SuperWorld, Terra Virtua, and VIBEHub. And yet, somehow, new crypto projects keep appearing, hoping to become the next Bitcoin.

    However, three blockchain-based virtual world projects appear to be doing well—Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space—and I expect that they will all continue to do well in 2020. I note that both Decentraland and Cryptovoxels have tended to rank in the Top 5 in sales volume on the OpenSea marketplace (this screencap is from a tweet made Dec. 27th):

I’m already working on a predictions blogpost for the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds in 2020. Among my predictions is the following: if Linden Lab cannot find a way to increase the overall number of users in Sansar within the next 12 months, even with a pivot to (and an exclusive focus on) live events, then the company will do one of three things:

– convert the existing Sansar code to open source and let the community take it over (which I think is the least likely option);

– sell Sansar to another company and keep Second Life running (or perhaps sell off Linden Lab and all its assets entirely to another company); or

– shut down the Sansar project completely (which I think is the most likely option).

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the honeymoon period for Sansar is OVER.

I am increasingly worried (even heartsick) over the future of Sansar.

  • That “the Oculus Quest VR headset will ignite the long-awaited boom in virtual reality”. I think that we can agree that the Oculus Quest has been a runaway success. Facebook is apparently selling the units as fast as they can make them, and they are now backordered until late February 2020. (The Valve Index is also selling well, and also similarly backordered.) I do predict that this will bring many more people into those social VR platforms which can natively run on the standalone Quest headset, such as VRChat, Rec Room, and AltspaceVR.

  • That “Linden Lab’s launch of Sansar on Steam will likely have only a modest impact on overall usage of the platform”. I deeply regret that this prediction has come true in spades. I said at the time that Linden Lab ditching its SandeX and launching Sansar on Steam would be a terrible mistake, and I take no pleasure in being proven correct. Sansar has been pummeled by negative reviews by Steam gamers, adding to the general sense of malaise about the platform in the past year, especially since approximately 30 staff working on the project were laid off by Linden Lab a couple of months ago, in an attempt to trim their continued financial losses. This was a move which was probably imposed on CEO Ebbe Altberg by the Linden Lab board of directors, who are probably very worried that if Sansar tanks, it will take down Second Life with it.
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

O.K., now that we’ve looked at how well my predictions for 2019 have fared, now it’s time to peer in my crystal ball and make some new predictions for 2020.

First, all current social VR platforms and virtual worlds will struggle with a key problem: effective promotion. Getting the word out to the public about the various platforms is proving to be more and more difficult in an age of social media overload and short attention spans.

We can expect to see more partnerships between various platforms and influencers (such as Sansar’s continued partnership with the VR vloggers Cas and Chary, and my own recent sponsorship and advertising deal with Sinespace). By the way, my partnership with Sinespace is not exclusive, we can still see other people 😉 and I am still actively looking for other advertisers and sponsorships for my blog and the Metaverse Newscast show (hint hint).

Second, every single eye will be on Facebook as they launch their new social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, early in the new year. It’s disgusting to me how even the smallest Facebook announcement gets oceans of fawning mainstream press coverage, and you can certainly expect Horizon to suck up all the oxygen in the press room when it gets closer to launch date. If Facebook Horizon, backed by the almost limitless resources and reach of its ambitious parent company, fails to take hold in 2020, then that will be the clearest indication yet that the nascent social VR industry is in trouble (and that I might be out of a job!).

Third, as I have said above, I am extremely worried about Sansar. The Sansar website has recently had a complete redesign to focus almost exclusively on live events:

It would appear that Linden Lab is going all-in on Sansar as a platform for live events, to the detriment of other features such as avatar customization (I don’t expect anything new this coming year). However, competition in the live events market in 2020 is likely to be intense, with the following products also planning to focus on hosting such events:

  • Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR (which has also recently announced a pivot to live events);
  • VRChat (which is already home to popular talk shows such as ENDGAME, and many other regular live events);
  • Wave (which has already pulled off some spectacular musical events such as the recent Lindsey Stirling concert);
  • Upstarts such as Ceek and Redpill VR (which are in various stages of pre-development and may or may not launch in 2020);
  • Not to mention that Facebook will also want to muscle in on this extremely lucrative territory (with Oculus Venues, and probably Facebook Horizon, too)—and Facebook will not hesitate to ruthlessly use every tool and tactic at their disposal to achieve market dominance (including “hiding” posts about competing platforms in their Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp social network users’ newsfeeds). Facebook also has deep pockets to ink deals with major talent, locking them into exclusive deals to appear on their platforms.

Expect many skirmishes on the live events battlefield in 2020, and also expect some causalities to occur.

Fourth, Second Life will continue to coast along as it always does, still boasting approximately 600,000 regular monthly users in recently released statistics by Firestorm, and still making millions of dollars in profits, both for its content creators and for Linden Lab. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and I see no sign of it stopping anytime soon. I predict that SL will still be around five years, perhaps even ten years, from now, and that people will still be logging in, and still merrily ransacking Advent calendars 😉 …and I will continue to blog about steals, deals, and freebies in Second Life!

Fifth, we can expect to see the upcoming Educators in VR International Summit as an example of an increasingly important use of social VR platforms in 2020: conferences. This is a natural fit, and one that saves precious resources (such as airline fuel) in an increasingly environmentally-conscious world. We can expect to see more conferences and meetings hosted in VR as an alternative to real-world meetings (although, as High Fidelity found out, the remote workteams support marketplace isn’t quite there yet, since the vast majority of companies still expect their employees to show up to their offices rather than work remotely from home). I think it’s going to take another generation for that shift to take effect in any widespread fashion.

Sixth: those social VR platforms which currently lack an in-world economy, currency, and a marketplace for user-created content, will be moving towards implementing those features. VRChat already has a booming off-world economy in the creation and sale of custom avatars. We already know that both VRChat and Rec Room are making plans in this area, based on job postings on their websites, but we can also expect other platforms to take this step, taking their cues from the continuing success of the mature, fully-evolved in-world economy of Second Life.

Platforms where people can make money tend to attract droves of new users, appealing to their greed and the universal desire to strike it rich (Decentraland as a more recent example; although its continued success is not 100% guaranteed, investors have sunk a lot of money into it, and it will be interesting to see how this ultimate expression of virtual, cut-throat capitalism will evolve and grow over the next year).

Finally, at some point Apple (and other companies, including Facebook) will launch the first consumer-oriented augmented reality headsets. The over-hyped Magic Leap One has turned out to be rather underwhelming (and underselling) so far, but who knows? Perhaps future AR products may ignite consumer interest, and have an as-yet-unknown impact on the current crop of social VR platforms.

Perhaps the big bet we all placed on virtual reality has been misplaced? We won’t know the answer to that hypothetical question until at least another decade has passed. Of course, some social VR platforms may decide to extend support to whatever AR/MR/XR hardware becomes available in the future, too. Anything can happen.

So these are my social VR/virtual world predictions for 2020. Please check back in a year, and we’ll see just how accurate I was!

Image by Jim Semonik from Pixabay

UPDATED! Editorial: Facebook Announces Even Tighter Integration Between the Oculus VR Ecosystem and the Facebook Social Network

Look, I’ll be up-front and unequivocal about it: I’m no longer a fan of the Facebook social network. I left it at the end of last year as my New Year’s resolution, and I asked them to delete over 13 years’ worth of user data it had collected on me (which, as far as I know, they have done).

And I only rejoined the Facebook social network in October because the company has made it abundantly clear that you will need both an Oculus account and a Facebook account in order to take part in Facebook Horizon, Facebook’s social VR platform which is to launch in closed beta sometime in early 2020. And, as a blogger who specializes in covering all aspects of social VR, I have no choice but to play by Facebook’s rules if I want to set foot on their platform and report on it to you, my readers.

At the present moment, the only time you really need to use your Facebook account when using your Oculus VR hardware is if you want to attend an event hosted in Oculus Venues. But, in an announcement today, Facebook says:

Today, we’re excited to announce the brand-new social experience we debuted at OC6 across the Oculus Platform, powered by Facebook. We already use Facebook to bring people together in Venues, offer features like livestreaming, and provide safety tools like reporting and blocking. Now we’re using Facebook’s technology to roll out new social features in the coming days that will help people build their VR communities, while keeping them safer at scale by backing social interactions with their Facebook identity.

To make sure that people understand these changes, we’re also updating the Oculus Privacy Policy to clarify that these social features are also provided by Facebook. And we’re clarifying how Oculus data is shared with Facebook to inform ads when you log into Facebook on Oculus.

You can see these updates to the Oculus Privacy Policy here to learn more. And you can read our FAQ here for more information.

Facebook will be rolling out several new features to more tightly integrate the Facebook social network into the Oculus ecosystem:

Starting today, when you choose to log into Facebook from the Oculus Platform, you’ll be able to access new social features that make it easier for you to connect with other people, including:

Chats, so you can message your Oculus friends in or out of the headset with quick responses to hop into games together

Join your friends in VR directly from any device with links that open to where your friends are within an app, and see the most popular destinations where people are playing in VR

User-created Events, so you can organize meetups or multiplayer games with friends

Share photos, videos, and livestreaming to Facebook, allowing you to share your favorite moments to Facebook Groups from VR

Parties that any of your Oculus friends can join (previously parties were only invite-only)

Messenger friends can easily join you in VR when you send them links to join you where you’re playing

And your Oculus usage data will be fed into Facebook for advertising purposes:

As part of these changes, Facebook will now use information about your Oculus activity, like which apps you use, to help provide these new social features and more relevant content, including ads. Those recommendations could include Oculus Events you might like to attend or ads for VR apps available on the Oculus Store. These changes won’t affect third-party apps and games, and they won’t affect your on-device data.

If you choose not to log into Facebook on Oculus, we won’t share data with Facebook to allow third parties to target advertisements to you based on your use of the Oculus Platform.

So, Facebook is going to tighten the integration between the Oculus ecosystem and the Facebook social network, including sharing user data between Oculus and Facebook if you are signed into Facebook via Oculus. And going forward, it looks as though it is going to become more and more difficult to avoid signing into your Facebook account while using your Oculus hardware.

You can certainly forget any ideas you might have about creating an anonymous account to use with Facebook Horizon. Facebook clearly wants you to be signed in using your personally identifying account on the Facebook social network, linked to all the real-life information the company has on you. They also want to be able to send data between Oculus and Facebook. All the better to serve you targeted advertising, of course, which is where Facebook still makes most of its money.

You can still choose to keep your Oculus and Facebook accounts separate, of course, but you can bet that there will be further announcements in the new year intertwining the two services ever more tightly, and making it even more difficult to maintain that separation.

Cynics can say that I knew what I was getting into when I decided to purchase Oculus VR hardware in the first place; I currently own (and am quite happy with) my Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest VR headsets. But I am less than happy with today’s announcements, despite Facebook’s best attempts to make them sound like a rollout of wonderful new features.

In short, Facebook wants to gather together all its information about you into one neat, tidy little package to serve to its advertisers—including how much time you spend in what apps and games on your Oculus VR headset. If you don’t want any part of that, then you’d best look to non-Facebook sources for your VR hardware and software, like HTC and Valve.

UPDATE 7:51 p.m.: Ian Hamilton has written an excellent article on all these changes for UploadVR, which includes an extensive question-and-answer session with Facebook. I recommend you read it to get up-to-speed with what’s happening with your Facebook and Oculus accounts. Thanks, Ian!

Facebook Buys the Small Company Behind Million-Selling VR Game Beat Saber

Well, this is unexpected. Today TechCrunch announced that mighty Facebook has bought the tiny Czech company Beat Games, makers of Beat Saber, which is probably the most successful VR game to date with well over a million units sold.

TechCrunch reporter Lucas Matney wrote:

Beat Games was one of the more successful VR game studios out there — they had announced earlier this year that they had sold more than 1 million copies of the game — but part of the reason they were prosperous was because they were so lean. When I profiled the studio last year, they had just 8 employees and had opted out of raising any VC funding.

Meanwhile, as VR’s most popular game, Facebook had a bit riding on their continued success. Facebook highlighted the studio’s success specifically at its its VR developer conference and had included a limited version of the studio’s game for free on its Oculus Quest headsets. Buying the studio means allowing them to expand ambitions without being concerned about profitability.

Beat Games had begun expansion by partnering with musicians to release their songs as levels in the game, partnering with artists like Imagine Dragons and Panic at the Disco to bring paid level packs to Beat Saber. One can imagine that Facebook will have a much easier time making conversations happen with top artists.

One thing that die-hard fans of the game will likely not enjoy is how this acquisition will impact user mods. The studio had introduced tools for users to create their own songs with uploaded audio files and unsurprisingly there’s a good deal of content that’s probably not supposed to be on there. With a small game studio that stuff was more likely to slide, but Facebook has the resources to crack down on it so I’m guessing they’ll have to.

So, you can expect a swift end to the practice of creating and distributing custom songs for Beat Saber, since most of them do not have the copyright holder’s permission to do so. However, Facebook certainly has enough money to ink deals with various record labels to legally put their tunes on Beat Saber.

It will be interesting to see what other smaller VR game developers Facebook decides to snap up. And here’s an intriguing thought: could we someday see a Beat Saber portal built directly into Facebook’s planned social VR platform Horizon?