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!

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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?

Editorial: Why I Think the Oculus Quest Will Be THE Major Virtual Reality Headset of 2020

I’m calling it now, exactly one month before Christmas: this year’s hottest gifts will be Baby Yoda toys and the Oculus Quest.

The Baby Yoda thing is patently obvious (I mean, look at him!), but the Quest? Why do I think this?

Because with the release of the Oculus Link software, the Oculus Quest can now be used both as a standalone VR headset, and as a VR headset connected to a gaming PC to run Oculus Rift titles and apps.

Although I have said that I prefer my Oculus Rift to the Quest/Link setup, and (to be honest) if I were starting over again completely from scratch, I would probably buy the more powerful Valve Index, I do think that the Oculus Quest is going to be the first truly successful consumer VR hardware in 2020.

It’s very attractively priced, and Facebook has already reported that they are selling Quests as fast as they can make them. The company is slowly but steadily expanding the number of apps on their Oculus Quest store. When Facebook loosens their tight curatorial control on the Quest store, and make it easier for developers to submit apps (which I expect to happen next year), we can expect sales of the Quest to boom.

And it will become a virtuous circle: the more popular the Quest becomes, the more developers will create apps for it. The more apps available, the more Quests Facebook will sell.

Mark my words: 2020 will be the Year of the Quest.

Editorial: The State of Current Social VR—Has Linking Newer Virtual Worlds to Virtual Reality Been a Tactical Mistake?

Are all the social VR companies going the wrong way?
(Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash)

So, I’m sitting here in front of my computer on an overcast, chilly Sunday morning up here in Winnipeg, with my cup of coffee rapidly cooling beside me, my dirty dishes piling up in the kitchen, dust bunnies gathering in the corners of my apartment, and my wet laundry needing to be moved from the washer to the dryer, and it just seems as good a time as any to pause and ponder the state of current social VR. (Anything to avoid housework!)

And if you’ve been paying attention, like I have, it would seem that social VR is, indeed, in quite the state. And not a good one. Let’s do a quick recap:

First, everybody from Mark Zuckerberg to Philip Rosedale has said the same thing: that consumer uptake of virtual reality is taking much, much longer than originally estimated. It’s making some inroads (Facebook is apparently selling the Oculus Quest wireless VR headsets as fast as they can make them), but we’re not there yet.

Second, there are the metaverse platforms on which companies have spent years of time and toil to build, expecting that influx of consumers in VR headsets, and which, still, sit largely unvisited in spite of their best promotional efforts. In most cases, these companies are now having to make some pretty severe adjustments (a.k.a “pivots”) to their software development roadmaps in an attempt to become profitable, and make their boards and shareholders happy:

  • High Fidelity (which is burning through all that venture capital, and is now trying to re-position itself as a remote workteams platform);
  • Linden Lab’s Sansar (which is relying on the reliable cash cow of Second Life, and has just announced a new focus on live events, at the expense of other features);
  • Sinespace (although nobody really knows how profitable the company is, the platform still seems to be having similar trouble attracting large numbers of users, from what I can tell from my admittedly infrequent visits).

Third, there have been a few early success stories in social VR, but they, too, have some storm clouds on the horizon:

  • VRChat is still the most popular social VR platform, thanks to the livestreamers, and it is coasting along in merry pandemonium, but how long will the company keep throwing money into the platform if they can’t make some sort of profit from it? VRChat is a business, and they face a potentially rocky road in their plans to move to an in-world economy with user-generated content and an in-world currency. Any misstep, and its young, fickle userbase, who are accustomed to everything being “for free”, will abandon it just as quickly as they picked it up in the first place.
  • Rec Room, the second most popular social VR platform, has found a comfortable niche. But is it profitable in the long term? Again, how do they plan to make money off it? It’s a bit of a mystery to me.

So, it would appear that those social VR platforms that do have in-world economies can’t attract large numbers of users, and the ones that don’t have in-world economies might be popular, but obviously can’t keep running indefinitely without a means of generating profit. It seems like a Catch 22, a rather hopeless situation at this present point in time.

Add to this the fact that the 900-lb. gorilla in the room, Facebook, is planning to launch their own social VR platform in 2020, and you’ve got a situation that must be keeping the CEOs of these various companies up at night, pacing the floor, wondering how, when and where it all went wrong.

The fact is, nobody seems to have yet found the perfect mix of features and promotion to snatch the mantle of Second Life. The venerable virtual world, at 16 years old, is still is the most popular platform around, with approximately half a million unique monthly users according to recent statistics provided by Firestorm.

But again, Second Life doesn’t support VR. And, in actual fact, VR users in almost all of the social VR platforms to date are still the minority, compared to flat-screen desktop users (yes, even in VRChat). So perhaps, have all of us made the wrong bet: that virtual reality was going to be key to the success of the next generation of virtual worlds?

It’s certainly not playing out that way, at least not yet. Facebook might succeed with Facebook Horizon, given its almost endless resources, but it hasn’t had a particularly good track record so far (witness the recently-shut-down Facebook Spaces and Oculus Rooms as examples).

If Facebook fails (or fumbles) with Facebook Horizon next year, then that will be the strongest signal yet that linking virtual worlds and virtual reality is, perhaps, a tactical mistake. And if Apple, who has so far stayed away from VR, launches augmented-reality glasses (as some confidently predict), could that be what finally catches fire in the public imagination, instead of virtual reality? Have we made the wrong bet?

So, is the news all doom and gloom? Hardly. There are a few bright spots, metaverse-building companies which are already making a profit:

  • ENGAGE has been able to carve out a profitable niche for itself in the educational market
  • NeosVR is profitable, largely due to its passionate Patreon supporters, and also by offering commercial licenses for businesses and schools (of course, it helps that it has a small, nimble development team!)
  • Cryptovoxels is already earning enough money via the sale of blockchain-based virtual land to support its full-time software developer, Ben Nolan

But even I must admit, these are the exceptions that prove the point: social VR is, by and large, not yet profitable. And the bigger the company, the more trouble it seems to be in. It seems to be the smaller firms that are able to cut costs and find niche markets to excel in and generate profit. Which doesn’t look especially good for Linden Lab and High Fidelity, with their large staffs and all the associated overhead.

So, for the various companies engaged in building the next generation of metaverse platforms, it becomes a waiting game: trying to find some way to survive until such time as social VR is profitable—or just giving up on VR. But I rather doubt that the companies that have already made such a huge investment in virtual reality will pull out now.

Linden Lab has decided to pin Sansar’s future on live events. High Fidelity is hoping that remote teamwork use will keep it going. Every company is going to have to come up with its own strategy to make it through these leaner-than-expected years.