Editorial: Facebook and Oculus Have Too Much Power Over Virtual Reality and the Metaverse

Facebook already has amply demonstrated how little they value the privacy and data rights of its users, in a succession of scandals uncovered by the New York Times and many other news media over the past couple of years (image from Forbes).

Facebook has the resources to capably crush competitors. Strip-mining the data of the estimated 2.7 billion people worldwide who use Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, or Messenger each month has been extremely lucrative for the company. (The five billion dollar fine the U.S. FTC recently levied against Facebook for their privacy lapses was a mere slap on the wrist, given the income the company generates each year from advertising. Mark Zuckerberg probably found the money from his couch cushions.)

I have already written about industry gossip that Facebook is plowing resources into creating a metaverse platform for all its Oculus VR hardware users. I willing to bet, dollars to doughnuts, that the Facebook metaverse is going to look a lot like Oculus Home, which is the where you are deposited when you first put on your headset. You can now visit other people’s homes, and recent updates include the ability for users to create their own spaces by uploading their own 3D models.

Some Examples of Oculus Home Interiors

Even better, Facebook gives you free furniture every week you sign into Oculus Home at least once, which you can use to decorate your space. It’s not hard to see how this can compete with social VR platforms like Sansar and virtual worlds like Second Life. And Facebook has deep pockets to fund advertising campaigns that companies like Linden Lab cannot ever hope to match.

And, of course, there is the complete line of Oculus VR hardware, including the popular new wireless Oculus Quest headset, which Mark Zuckerberg recently reported is selling as fast as Facebook can make them.

Which leads to the point of this editorial: in this evolving metaverse of social VR and virtual worlds, is too much power concentrated in the hands of a single, monolithic, profit-obsessed company? I would argue that Facebook is aiming for complete and utter domination of the VR universe, just as they already have in the social networking space, by creating a walled ecosystem with the Oculus Home and the Oculus Store that will have a negative impact on other companies trying to create and market VR apps and experiences. The field is already tilted too much in Facebook’s favour, and the situation could get worse.

Now, you can argue that Facebook has competition from other VR headsets such as the HTC Vive line of products and the Valve Index. And the Steam software distribution platform is an alternative to the Oculus Store. I understand that my purchased programs from the Oculus Store can still be played on an HTC Vive or Valve Index with the Revive software, which is somewhat reassuring to me (although I suppose there is nothing really stopping Facebook if they choose to block that avenue at some point in the future).

More concerning to me is that, at some point, I may be forced to get an account on the Facebook social network to use apps on my Oculus VR hardware. In fact, this has already happened with the events app Oculus Venues, which I recently discovered requires you to have an account on the Facebook social network to access.

Sorry, but after all the Facebook privacy scandals of the past couple of years, that’s a big, fat “Nope!” from me. I asked Facebook to delete its 13 years of user data on me, and I quit the social network in protest as my New Year’s resolution last December, and I am never coming back. And I am quite sure that many of Facebook’s original users feel exactly the same way, scaling back on their use of the platform or, like me, opting out completely. I regret I ever started using Facebook thirteen years ago, and that experience will inform my use (and avoidance) of other social networks in the future.

Yes, I do know that I have to have an Oculus account to be able to use my Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest VR headsets, and that Facebook is collecting data on that. I also know that the Facebook social network probably has a “shadow account” on me based on things such as images uploaded to the social network and tagged with my name by friends and family, etc., but 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 I highly recommend you watch).

We’ve already seen how social networks such as Facebook have contributed negatively to society by contributing to the polarization and radicalization of people’s political opinions, and giving a platform to groups such as white supremacists and anti-vaxers. The Great Hack details how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data without user knowledge or consent to swing the most recent U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favour, and look at the fucking mess the world is in now just because of that one single, pivotal event.

We can’t trust that Facebook is going to act in any interests other than its own profit. Facebook has way too much power, and governments around the world need to act in the best interests of their citizens in demanding that the company be regulated, even broken up if necessary.

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Facebook Demos Highly Realistic Avatar Facial Animation

My Twitter feed keeps delivering news nuggets this week! This is an update to a blogpost I had written earlier this year on this technology.

Facebook Reality Labs has published a research article in the journal ACM Transactions on Graphics, which shows cutting-edge avatar facial animation using multiple cameras attached to a VR headset, and a new multiview image processing technique. (The full paper is free to download from the link above.) The researchers also gave a presentation at the SIGGRAPH 2019 computer graphics conference in Los Angeles.

The results are impressive, giving an avatar human-driven, lifelike animations not only of the lower face but also the upper face, which of course if covered by the VR headset:

This is light years ahead of current avatar facial animation technology, such as the avatar facial driver in Sinespace, which operates using your webcam. Imagine being able to conduct a conversation in VR where you can convey the full gamut of facial expressions while you are talking! This is a potential gamechanger for sure. It’s not clear when we can expect to see this technology actually applied to Oculus VR hardware, however. It might still be many years away. But it is exciting!

Addressing the Elephant in the Room: Social VR Sustainability

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

I have been enjoying my self-imposed vacation from the blog. It’s given me an opportunity to step back, enjoy the all-too-brief Canadian summer, and reflect a little bit. I’m going to start easing back into blogging over the next week. There’s certainly no shortage of things to write about!

Yesterday, Gindipple shared his most recent compilation of Sansar user concurrency statistics, and while they do show a slight increase in the average number of users over time, it’s clear that users have not exactly rushed to embrace Sansar in the way that Linden Lab has been hoping:

Inara Pey has done her usual excellent job of summarizing last week’s Sansar Product Meeting, and she shares the following item from the discussion:

It’s now almost two years since Sansar opened its doors to the public, and general user concurrency is still only in or around the mid-20s level. This has raised questions of Sansar’s sustainability, and whether the Lab have set any goals for the platform that need to be achieved in order for it to be continued, etc.

Landon McDowell, the Lab’s Chief Product Officer, and the person most directly in charge of Sansar’s development, responded thus to one of these questions:

I am not going to put any date on the board. I think we’re taking this day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, release-by-release, and we want to see what is happening and what is resonating and what isn’t … I believe steadfastly in the future of virtual worlds, that what we’re doing here is really important … Are we happy with the result? I’m not happy with the result; I would want a million people in here today, and we’re obviously not there.

But in terms of sustainability, I think we know what our limits are, and we are proceeding accordingly. If we have 50 people in here in a year then yeah, I’m going to be really massively disappointed. I think everybody here is working hard to make this an absolutely monumental success … I feel that everyone that’s here is here because they’re digging something about what we’re doing, and I want that to spread like wildfire quite frankly. So we definitely have hopes and ambitions.

But again, I’m not going to put a dot on the board of, “this date and this time, this number of users”. I think we want many more users in, and we want them relatively quickly, and we go from there.

While it is good news that Linden Lab appears to have no internal make-or-break date for Sansar, the fact remains that the company is putting time and money into a platform that, so far, is not attracting a lot of use.

The elephant in the room of social VR, not just for Linden Lab but for all companies in this marketplace, is sustainability. Many companies are pouring resources into various social VR platforms, in hopes that they will be able to relight the same spark that ignited over a decade ago with Second Life. Most projects have not had a great deal of success yet. The few social VR platforms which have attracted some attention to date (VRChat and Rec Room) face a daunting transition to an in-world economy, plus a slew of technical problems trying to shoehorn their experiences into wireless VR headsets like the new Oculus Quest in order to reach the broadest possible potential audience. Add to that rumours that Facebook is reportedly working on a major social VR initiative for all its Oculus VR hardware users, which will likely upend the current marketplace. The road ahead is rocky indeed.

Given the significant compromises that have had to be made to VRChat in order to get it to run at all on the Quest, and the rather disappointing results, it seems Linden Lab’s decision to not support an Oculus Quest version of Sansar is a wise one. Inara reports:

Oculus Quest support:  As has been previously indicated, this is not currently on the cards. The Quest processor and general capabilities are seen as being unable to handle to quality of content LL want to provide without massive amounts of auto-decimation, which can be problematic. However, as the capabilities of emerging VR systems continues to improve and Sansar improves in terms of performance limits, the hope is that the two will converge at some point in the future.

And that convergence may come sooner than you think. It is interesting to note that at least one eager early adopter has reported that he is able to use the PC streaming app ALVR to play Sansar on the Oculus Quest. (“PC streaming” refers to the use of sideloaded Quest apps to enable your desktop computer to stream VR games directly to your Quest. You’ll have to sideload the app onto your Quest, and then install a coordinating PC program before you can start playing. These programs, such as ALVR and VRidge, are new, highly experimental, and currently require a certain level of geek skills to set up and use. But they will no doubt become easier to use over time.)

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

However, as Landon McDowell says, I’m still a fervent believer in the future of virtual worlds. I still believe it’s a question of when and where, not if, social VR takes off and virtual worlds have a renaissance. High Fidelity’s recent pivot towards business users is just one example of a social VR company adjusting its sails to meet evolving conditions. Expect more such shifts as the market grows and changes.

Stay tuned! As I often say, things are getting interesting!

UPDATED! Not Taking “No” for an Answer: The Developers Behind The Expanse Have an Unexpected Hit on Their Hands with SideQuest

This story is a perfect example of not taking “no” for an answer, and how what could have been a setback was instead turned into a golden opportunity for one company!

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

I first wrote about The Expanse social VR platform back in April. The company behind The Expanse, a fledgling virtual world, had wanted to launch their product on the Oculus Quest, but they were among the many software developers told “No” by Facebook, which appears to have taken a much more stringent approach to curating content on their new standalone headset. UploadVR reports:

“Originally it was intended to provide a way for us to get our game The Expanse to users of the Oculus Quest headset as our submission pitch was declined by Oculus – something we understood as many more well established apps were also being declined. It then struck me that maybe some of those other developers could also benefit from a super easy sideloading process with things like drag and drop and several apps inbuilt,” Harris wrote to me in a message on his Discord group. “SideQuest is a sideloading tool at heart and actually works with any android device but it has evolved into an unofficial source for apps that you wouldn’t otherwise get on Quest. I would love to see it fill the niche of a testbed for pre-release/alpha/beta testing or for deploying demos for users to try out. I have no plans to monetize SideQuest like a traditional app store as I don’t want to affect the Oculus bottom line and I would love to work with Oculus to become an alternative route for apps and games that have been declined or otherwise or just want to test cutting edge features. I think there has been a lot of discussion around games being declined and I would love if SideQuest could provide a more positive spin for Oculus and Facebook in those scenarios. I guess i see it as a stepping stone to a application for the full oculus store down the line.”

Sideloading is the process of adding apps to your Oculus Quest that are not currently in the Oculus Store. And, as it turns out, there happen to be a lot of software developers (and end users) out there who wanted to be able to sideload their applications. And that’s when the SideQuest project really took off in popularity, and gained a life of its own! (There are other ways to sideload apps on the Quest, but SideQuest makes it simple to do. In fact, in the short few weeks that the Quest has been out, there have already been several iterations to the software to make it even easier to use.)

One very popular feature of the SideQuest software is the ability to add custom songs to the collection of music by which you can play the rhythm VR game Beat Saber. The SideQuest app links directly to the BeastSaber community website, and adding new tracks is as simple as setting up a developer account for your Quest, connecting your Quest to your Windows, Mac, or Linux computer, and clicking a few buttons! Here’s the page with all the details. And here’s a step-by-step YouTube tutorial by the Virtual Reality Oasis:

Congratulations to the team at The Expanse! The SideQuest software is free, but if you want to support their work, here is a link to their Patreon, or you can send a donation via PayPal. If you want more details on The Expanse and SideQuest as they evolve, you can join their Discord channel.

And this whole episode reminds me yet again of the lesson that Friendster never learnedthe people who create the software platforms (in this case, Facebook) think they have control, but it’s really the end users who shape the service and build the community that they want to see. Past a certain point, there’s very little that Facebook can do to stop this, short of completely shutting developers out, which they won’t do. And if they’re smart, Facebook will welcome this, and work with it.

UPDATE 6:43 p.m.: This last paragraph has brought a swift rebuttal from a commenter on the Oculus Quest subReddit, who says:

FFS, no. Facebook is 100% in control. They allow SideQuest. Go ask PSVR Beat Saber players how they “shaped the service” to get custom songs on the PS4. Hint: they didn’t. Sony has that shit locked down like Fort Knox. Oculus could easily require sideloaded apps to be signed with a development license to run. It’s only by their good graces that sideloading and modding is as easy as it is, so don’t pretend for a minute that you’re sticking it to the man. Be grateful there’s some cool folk at Oculus who want us to be able to do this.