UPDATED! Editorial: Facebook Horizon Will Require an Account on the Facebook Social Network

You might look like a cartoon, but Facebook still wants
you to back that up with your real-life name and details.

Ian Hamilton wrote an article for UploadVR about Facebook Horizon, dated Oct. 1st, 2019, which finally confirmed my worst fear about Facebook’s new social VR platform: that you will indeed be required to link to your account on the Facebook social network in order to use it.

Titled OC6: Facebook Horizon’s Social Future Built Around Real Identity And Blocking People, Ian writes:

At Facebook’s Oculus Connect 6 VR developer’s conference I tried an early version of the company’s unified social networking space “Horizon” that’s coming in early 2020.

The intent in Horizon is to build a shared network of virtual spaces with games, physics and interactions not possible in the real world. If Horizon sounds like Rec Room, VRChat or AltspaceVR that is because it is like Rec Room, VRChat or AltspaceVR — except Horizon requires your Facebook account. The first thing Facebook showed me was how to block people who bother me. As memory serves, the button was available near my wrist and when I pressed it I saw some options for what do with the report that looked very Facebook-esque.

“You still will use your Oculus ID,” said Meaghan Fitzgerald, head of product marketing for AR/VR content at Facebook. “Your name in Horizon is your Oculus identity, but we do require a linked Facebook account and that lets us do some great things around both safety – making sure it’s backed by a real person – but also for the people who want to invite more of their social network from their Facebook world into their VR environment. [With Facebook integration] they have better tools to do that – they can share out to groups and communities. But it is a Facebook product and we want to take advantage of the social features that Facebook has built as we’re thinking this through.”

Facebook’s terms say “you cannot use Facebook if…you are under 13 years old.” Where other social services, like Rec Room, let you get online and playing with other people without even registering a real email address, Facebook is going to back its social service with Facebook’s policy which demands accounts operated by people who “use the same name that you use in everyday life” and are asked to “provide accurate information about yourself.”

So, as expected, at some point I am going to have provide Facebook Horizon with a my newly re-established (but still empty) Facebook social network account, in addition to my Oculus account, linking all the information that Facebook has on me together. While Facebook is certainly well within its rights to ask this, it does make me uneasy, especially given the privacy and data security scandals of the recent past on their social network (not least, the Cambridge Analytica fiasco where Facebook data was weaponized and used against us to, among other things, help Donald Trump get elected).

Facebook (the social network) makes billions of dollars every year, mostly from targeted digital advertisements based on the user data you provide: your photos, your messages, your likes and dislikes, etc. How all this marketing data will carry over into Facebook Horizon, and how it will be used, is a big question. At this point, we don’t know the details.

But in order to do this marketing and reap its anticipated profits from this new social VR platform, Facebook has to know who you are. And this is not going to sit right with earlier generations of virtual world users, who are used to hiding behind a different avatar name, and an identity and appearance that are created from scratch, and which may have absolutely nothing in common with the person behind the keyboard.

These issues are certainly not new, and they are not limited to social VR platforms and virtual worlds. For example, there was a great deal of controversy over the fact that Google expected users to register for its then-new Google+ social network using their real-life first and last names. There was a great deal of push-back from many Google+ users about the need for people to be anonymous or to use handles or pseudonyms. One example given where such anonymity would be necessary is someone who is fleeing a domestic abuse situation, and who wishes to avoid becoming the target of stalking. This issue was never really satisfactorily laid to rest before Google+ finally shuttered its doors in its failed bid to become the next Facebook.

And, of course, Facebook has long discouraged users of its social network from using pseudonyms, anonymous names, or avatar names. There have been many stories of people who set up Facebook accounts under their Second Life avatar names, only to find them later disabled and removed by Facebook. Wagner James Au of the blog New World Notes wrote back in 2011:

Facebook is reportedly deleting numerous profiles of Second Life avatars on the social network. Among them is Angie Mornington, a well-known personality in SL, who recently received an email from The Facebook Platform Team, informing her that “Your personal account was recently disabled by Facebook.” The message included a link, Ms. Mornington told me, and after clicking it, “I wound up at a page that said that in order to restore my account, I have to scan and upload a government ID showing my real name and photo, with everything else blacked out (social security number, address, etc.) I refuse to do that.”

At the moment, however, there doesn’t seem to be a thorough or systematic purging of Second Life avatars — at least not yet. Over the weekend, I lost about a hundred friends on my own Facebook network, presumably avatars, but I still have hundreds of Facebook friends who are avatars. In any case, it does appear to be a substantial purge, and comes two years after a Facebook rep told me that while the social network requires accounts based on real names and/or identities, “[t]he vast majority of fake accounts on which we take action have been reported to us by other users.” So it’s possible that any purge is actually being driven by a rash of users filing reports against avatar-based accounts. Or perhaps Facebook is becoming more stringent about its policies in the run-up to their IPO.

Not only does Facebook expect you to present as your real-world self in Facebook Horizon (your real name, your personal details, your social contacts, etc.), it would appear that the company wishes to eventually move towards a point where you would even look like your real-world self as much as possible, too, although that technology is still many, many years away from implementation. Ian Hamilton writes:

It is worth noting that while Horizon features expressive cartoon-like avatars for launch, Facebook teams are hard at work on ultra-realistic human representations they call “codec avatars” that could ultimately be tied to your real world identity in the same way Horizon will be. Codec avatars are still years away and they’ll likely require a new generation of VR headsets to work, but the same way your iPhone or Android phone authenticates its operator using biometric signals, future VR headsets may authenticate the user in hopes of establishing trust and security online.

In short, Facebook does not seem to want you to be anybody but your real-life, easily-identifiable, easy-to-market-to self on Facebook Horizon.

What this means is that there is still a significant market opportunity for any social VR platform or virtual world which allows and even encourages you to make your own avatar, completely constructed from the fabric of your own imagination and creativity (including a customized, anonymous name and detailed backstory to match, if you wish to engage in roleplay). A virtual self-representation that has absolutely no links to the real-life you. People want that. People need that escape from reality.

It will be very interesting to see how Facebook Horizon deals with these kinds of challenges when they launch early next year. More and more, it sounds as if Facebook Horizon is going to be a super-hyped-up version of Facebook Spaces where avatars can finally move around freely. If that’s all it will be—yet another opportunity for Facebook to strip-mine our user data and social networks for profit—then I for one will be especially disappointed.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

UPDATE Oct. 6th: We’re talking about VRChat vis-à-vis Facebook Horizon over on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, and I said the following to add to that particular discussion:

Facebook still has the potential to dominate the social VR marketplace and crush competitors. The fact that they are insistent on you linking your account on the Facebook social network to your avatar in Facebook Horizon means that they will NOT attract users who wish to have an avatar completely separate from their real life, which means that it is a market opportunity for other platforms like VRChat to occupy. I don’t think that many people in VRChat will want to give up their custom avatars for a boring, generic human avatar in Facebook Horizon.

And frankly, Facebook is not going after that market. Their intended market is the 2 billion+ people who already are on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, to entice them into social VR. And you can bet that Facebook will advertise the hell of out Horizon. It’s all you’re going to hear about in 2020. And for the average, non-geeky end consumer, Facebook Horizon WILL be their first experience with social VR.

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Oculus Connect 6 Conference Highlight: Max Weisel of Half + Half Talks About Avatar and Experience Design for Social VR

This weekend, I am catching up on some of the presentations that took place at Oculus Connect 6 last week. The conference organizers have posted a handy list of all 53 presentations as a YouTube video playlist.

One of them was a “fireside chat” between Yelena Rachitsky, an Executive Producer at Facebook, and Max Weisel of Normal, the company behind Half + Half, a new social VR platform I wrote about earlier on this blog:

In Half + Half, you and your friends can swim with the fishes, glide through the clouds, play hide and seek, or just… wiggle! The avatars are simply designed but absolutely charming. (They remind me of a mixture of owls, nuns, and Teletubbies!)

The description of this video on YouTube states:

When designing for Social VR, it is important to create a positive experience for everyone. Given the variables that come with bringing strangers together with friends, how do you design with those challenges in mind? Join Max Weisel, Founder of Normal, who dedicated his latest project to tackling this head on. Max will break down how to design for joy, delight and silliness, as well as create interactions that inspire meaningful connections between everyone.

Max spends most of this video talking about the many world and avatar design decisions he and his team made while building Half + Half, especially when you encounter and interact with people you don’t know:

And in the very beginning I think, and at the start of this project, when we were first talking with Oculus, I think everyone at Normal knew the value of social VR and how intimate it feels, and how it’s not an experience you really get anywhere else. But one of the things that we really had to think about was, how do you do that with strangers? You know, what is a meaningful experience with someone you don’t know? And we looked at other social VR apps.

And I think I personally just wanted to avoid putting a bunch of people in a room to talk to each other. I think that there’s definitely value in that, but I mean, I don’t think that I’m particularly good at small talk. It’s actually kind of a lot of work, and so I just wanted to have something where I could go in, have a short, small, meaningful experience with somebody in the [world?], and maybe I add them as a friend, maybe we connect later, or maybe I just have this pleasant memory with them.

Max also shared some great pictures of earlier versions of some of the worlds in Half + Half, such as this early design for the glider experience, where you had to actually lie on the floor! (Note that you can now do this in either a seated or standing position in the actual release of the app, which is a good thing because my Oculus Rift setup is rather constrained in space!)

This is a wonderful talk and I learned a few things about designing for social VR which I didn’t know or appreciate before, so I do recommend you set aside forty minutes to watch this in full. (So far, this video has only had 231 views, which I think is criminally low for such informative content!)

UPDATED! Forbes Writer Takes a Hatchet to Facebook Horizon in a Hilariously Badly-Written Article: “Facebook, the drug we snort off the buttocks of a willing and paid for social media pit of despair…”

As could be predicted, there have been oceans of fawning press coverage of Facebook Horizon, since it was announced two days ago at OC6. So I was surprised to find a hilariously bad, savage swipe at the yet-to-be-launched social VR platform, and coming from Forbes business magazine, no less.

In an article titled Facebook’s Horizon VR Promises A New Kind Of Drug For Our Exhausted Reality, consumer tech writer Curtis Silver swandives right into the deep end of the hyperbole pool:

Facebook, the drug we snort off the buttocks of a willing and paid for social media pit of despair, has opened us up to the psychological horror of the world around us. If that’s not enough, now Facebook wants to drag us into VR with its Horizon VR project.

Quick, somebody call the Mixed Metaphor Police! I’ve heard Facebook called a lot of nasty things in my time, but comparing it to hooker off whose butt you snort cocaine is a new one! Except it’s not a hooker’s ass, it’s a pit of despair, get it? (But wouldn’t the cocaine just fall into the pit?)

But wait, there’s more!

If you’ve forgotten, amid all the political wrangling and constant stream of lukewarm fake news into your eyes, Facebook owns Oculus VR, a VR system generally focusing on immersive games and experiences. Well, now Facebook wants to really get involved, introducing Horizon VR during its Facebook’s Oculus Connect 6 developer conference, which took place at the same time we were all watching Amazon introduce a new world of surveillance smart home tech.

Horizon VR, upon first glance, appears to be some sort of leg-less Nintendo Mii meets Second Life apparatus, focusing on creating environments and interactions that appear happy and contained, but will most likely be terrible and insane. It’s intended for use on the Oculus Quest headset, which doesn’t have the computing power of PC-connected headsets. Therefore, Horizon VR is something more akin to the graphical output of a Nickelodeon cartoon rather than a reality-based world.

“Lukewarm fake news into your eyes”?!?? Oh, honey, no. Lukewarm is associated with touch, not sight. Somebody needs to get this writer a proper thesaurus. (And maybe some English lessons.)

Curtis also gets quite a few technical details wrong in this write-up. First, the social VR platform is called Facebook Horizon, not “Horizon VR”, as he keeps calling it (even in the title!). And Horizon is not just for the wireless Oculus Quest headset; it is also intended for the PC-connected Oculus Rift headset. And one of the many OC6 announcements was that soon you will be able to run Oculus Rift games on your Quest using a cable connected to your computer. In other words, there’s really nothing stopping Facebook (or anybody else, for that matter) from making more realistic-looking experiences and avatars. The limit is truly your own imagination.

Anyway, let’s proceed…the writer was comparing Facebook Horizon to a Nickelodeon cartoon…

To Facebook’s credit, that’s a smart move. Reality is certainly something we need less of. Horizon VR offers an escape from the twisted dysfunction of reality, on the surface at least. In screenshots and talking points. [sic] We all know what is going to go down in a virtual world captained by Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Horizon VR might appear to be a cartoonish world of fun interactions and avatars without legs, but users will surely find a way to quickly create a nightmare world that moderators will be unable to manage.

Meanwhile in the real world, the Department of Justice has joined the FTC in an antitrust investigation of Facebook. A new study from the University of Oxford has revealed that (duh) Facebook is the most common platform for spreading disinformation at a government and political level. And in response to anti-bullying and mental health groups, Facebook will begin testing hiding likes to make users feel better. Facebook is an actual hellscape.

You really want to experience that in VR? As fellow Forbes contributer [sic] Paul Armstrong puts it, “As more and more scandals hit Facebook thanks to lax privacy policies of yesteryear (they promise), this bold vision [of Horizon VR] is all well and good but it’s built on the back of something ugly and hence, it’s destined to be tainted from conception.”

Facebook is a drug. Quit Facebook. Seriously. Before it ruins you. The solution to the problems Facebook has deftly unloaded upon the populace and your personal mental health isn’t to begin ingesting your social media drug in the virtual realm, the solution here is to delete Facebook from your phone, wake up and soberly face the real world once again. Only then can you find a viable, real-world escape from the real world. Like bowling, or mini-golf.

Sweet minty Jesus. I am most certainly not a fan of the Facebook social network, in fact I think it has caused some real and serious problems in society. But what story editor okayed this snarky, badly-argued, poorly-composed, half-assed hatchet job?? I mean, it’s one thing to write a well-written, well-reasoned, technically accurate critique of a product. But this mess is none of those things.

To cite just one example, what does hiding likes on a social network have to do with anything?

The writer can’t even get the name of the product straight, let alone the technical details. And there’s a sentence fragment just kind of hanging there in mid-article: “In screenshots and talking points.” And it’s spelled contributor, dear. There’s this wonderful new invention called spellcheck, you should really look into it sometime.

But the biggest problem that I have with this story is it just rather lazily assumes that Facebook Horizon is simply going to be some hellish VR version of the Facebook social network. A social network and a social VR platform are two very different things, used by different types of people for completely different purposes. We won’t know what Facebook Horizon is like until the closed beta test early next year, but we can assume that the company has learned at least a few things about what does and doesn’t work with Facebook Spaces, Oculus Home, and Oculus Rooms. (At least, let’s hope so!)

Is there a chance Facebook Horizon will be a terrible product? Absolutely. But I think it’s just a wee bit early to deem the new social network akin to Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell. And Facebook has already announced that they will be deploying a team of human greeters and guides in an effort to model good behaviour on the platform and counteract griefers.

My God, I can’t believe I’m actually standing up for Facebook! (I must have a fever or something.)

But this article is so God-awful I just couldn’t let it go without comment. Forbes, you can do better than this sloppy, slipshod journalism.

UPDATE 6:39 p.m.: One of my Twitter followers, named Bird, shared this video with me:

And another Twitter follower, James Baicoianu, explains:

In other words, the Forbes website does many of the same evil things of which they accuse Facebook! A perfect case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Facebook Horizon Will Have a Fully Staffed Concierge Service

I am banging out a very quick blogpost before I head off to work, with a couple of Facebook Horizon-related news items I encountered on my Twitter feed yesterday evening.

John Carmack, the chief technology officer for Oculus, gave a keynote presentation on the second day of OC6 where he talked about Facebook’s previous missteps in social VR. VentureBeat reporter Jeff Grubb writes:

Oculus VR and its parent company Facebook have not yet released the defining social experience for virtual reality. And you might think that is a bit weird for one of the world’s biggest social media companies, and one of its major executives agrees with you. During a keynote presentation at Oculus Connect 6 today, Oculus chief technology officer John Carmack covered a range of topics. Carmack is known for shooting straight and using a lot of technical language. But when it came to talking about Oculus’s social experiments, he used some plain language to admit that the company is still feeling out the space.

“On the social side, looking back, it’s kinda embarrassing at all the stages that we’ve gone through at Oculus,” Carmack said. “Way back in the early days, I did the social API so people could co-watch Twitch and things. And then we had Spaces and Rooms on Gear and Go. Now we have Horizon.” He also noted that the company hasn’t even settled on what player characters should look like. “Our avatars have continuously mutated from little floating heads through three different versions,” said Carmack. “We do not have this well-sorted out at this point.”

And the Ars Technica website had a very interesting article about Facebook’s ambitious staffing plans for Facebook Horizon: the company has plans to incorporate human greeters and helpers as a sort of virtual concierge service, both to help newcomers get oriented and to model proper behaviour on the platform. Sam Machkovech writes:

After testing the solid-if-early app, I asked two Facebook representatives about existing social-VR apps like Rec Room and VRChat, which have their own creative, organic approaches to making strangers meet each other in VR. Facebook says it’s going to try something we haven’t yet seen in any chat app, VR or otherwise: a fully staffed concierge service.

After going through Horizon‘s tutorial, “you’ll encounter humans that are part of our team in the product, known as ‘Guides,'” Facebook’s AR/VR experiences director, Eric Romo, told Ars Technica. “Those are the people who will be trying to set the tone of what the environment is.” When asked to clarify whether these would be paid Facebook staffers, sitting in microphone-equipped headsets and waiting for new users to appear, Romo answered, “Yeah!” He added that these staffers would be “saying, ‘How can I help you? What can I show you to do?'”

This is arguably Facebook’s most intense plan yet to introduce users to a new product. No existing Facebook feature or associated app (i.e., WhatsApp, Instagram) has ever included an expectation that a live human will appear as a greeter, host, and assistant upon first boot, as opposed to serving in a formal customer service or technical support position.

I asked what Facebook’s approach would be should a user hop into this onboarding process with trolling or abuse in mind. Might the meanest Horizon users get put into VR “time out,” or worse, for lashing out at official Facebook humans?

Facebook AR/VR content marketing head Meaghan Fitzgerald made clear that Horizon‘s VR greeters are “not going to be moderators, they’re not going to be enforcers of rules.” She added that FB will rely largely on built-in blocking and reporting tools to assess whether or how users might be restricted for abusive behavior (and she was careful not to describe any types of Horizon-specific discipline in the works).

“But [Horizon Guides] model the behavior,” Fitzgerald continued. “People who come into these environments—a lot of research shows they’re not intending to go in—sometimes they are, sometimes people want to cause trouble. But more often, they don’t know how to behave. If you see someone running around and screaming, you’re going to run around and scream. If you see someone having a conversation about, ‘Hey, here’s a new activity, want to go check it out?’, that changes the tone of the space. People are really influenced by that.”

When I pressed on this question of how Facebook is preparing to enter the intimate world of VR chat spaces (with its own employees in the social crosshairs, to boot), Romo conceded that the “closed beta” descriptor was crucial this far ahead of the app’s launch. “It’s completely fair to say that we have a lot to learn, which is why we’re starting slowly,” Romo said. “There are lots of vectors for potential challenges that we need to face, and we need to learn them slowly as we move forward.”

So, as John Carmack said in the VentureBeat article above, Facebook is going to learn as they go along, starting with the closed beta. All companies do this as they roll out new services, and Facebook Horizon is no exception. (Think of all the changes the Facebook social network went through in 15 years.)

Facebook Horizon is, of course, not the first social VR/virtual world platform to have a formal program of human greeters. Sinespace has had a long-running greeter program in place at their Welcome Centre. High Fidelity did have guides, but I assume that this program was shut down when the company pivoted away from the consumer market to the business market. I can’t think of any other worlds that have human greeters off the top of my head. Linden Lab has experimented with volunteer guides and greeters off and on in the past in Second Life, and as far as I am aware, they have no plans to implement official greeters in Sansar.