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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A VRChat Avatar with Full-Body Tracking Dances to Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why VRChat is still pulling in the crowds: a simply mesmerizing YouTube video of an expertly-rigged custom avatar operated by a user wearing an HTC Vive VR headset, hand controllers, and three Vive Trackers securely attached to his feet and body:

This video was posted to the VRChat subReddit. When asked about his setup, the user said:

Usual HTC Vive setup + 3 trackers and strap belts for them. I used to have a wireless adapter, but the cables kept breaking (lose contacts from jumping around, 30 bucks for each cable set…), so I just ditched it and got used to dancing with cables around me LOL!

And when asked how to managed to secure the trackers to his feet, he replied:

I have them strapped really tight a bit above my ankles. My feet are too thin for tracker straps and stepping on the straps gets uncomfortable after a while.

I honestly cannot wait until the day that other virtual worlds like Sansar support Vive Trackers (or a similar technology) to allow for full avatar body movement. Can you imagine what fun we’ll have?

What Happens to the HTC Vive If HTC Folds?

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HTC (the makers of the HTC Vive VR headset) is experiencing no shortage of troubles, according to this report from Engadget:

HTC can’t catch a break. The company has announced that in June its sales fell “nearly 68 percent,” according to Reuters. Earlier this week, the company revealed it would cull some 1,500 employees from its Taiwan manufacturing division in its chase for profitability. The last several years haven’t been kind to the company, rife with reorganizations (including one earlier this year), key staff members resigning and desperate efforts to put money in the bank by seemingly any means possible — including selling its Pixel team to Google for $1.1 billion.

Recently, the company combined its virtual reality and mobile divisions in an effort to refocus. Given this week’s news, and the Pixel sale as evidence, it wouldn’t be surprising if, in a last-ditch effort to return to profitability, HTC sold its Vive team to Valve. The two worked closely on the device, and it’s not like Valve’s coffers will run dry anytime soon.

Where would that leave HTC though, like BlackBerry? Vive is the company’s last stand, from the looks of it, and selling it off sounds like a Hail Mary. More than that, pulling a BlackBerry only works if the handsets HTC produces capture the market, something that hasn’t happened in years. And unlike BlackBerry’s keyboards, HTC doesn’t have one defining feature, let alone two (a reputation for enterprise-grade security). The new reduction in headcount probably won’t have the same financial benefits of the Pixel sale, but we’ll have to wait for HTC’s next earnings report to know for sure.

Which raises the question: what happens to the HTC Vive if HTC folds? It’s unlikely they would shelve the prodcut (as the article mentions, they would probably land up selling the Vive to their partner Valve), but if it does happen, it would leave us with one fewer option for high-end VR headsets.

Given the fierce criticism that the company has received over the expensive pricing of its new Vive Pro headset, in addition to all the other bad news at HTC, it seems possible that they may shut down. A sales drop of 68% is a serious problem. Can HTC survive?

What do you think? Please leave a comment with your thoughts. Thanks!

UPDATE: Michael Siebielec commented on Facebook:

If Vive folds it would send a shockwave through the VR investment community which I believe is on thin ice already. With only Microsoft and Facebook, two big profit only centered corporations that will drop VR in a heartbeat if it doesn’t grow more rapidly from a niche to a billion dollar cash cow in a year or two as those original rosy projections have all soured. Sony only sees VR as a toy add-on that isn’t performing high enough for them to tout enthusiastically at E3 very loudly and MS has no plans for VR on the XBOX One. I love VR but can see it going the way of 3D TV quickly with the next and coming economic downturn. Look how quickly Sony dropped 3D cameras and camcorders as well as the 3D option on their TV lines when profit margins weren’t met. I don’t think Microsoft is really invested in VR at all and at this point is just hoping AR will make those billions for them. Facebook could drop Oculus at the next board meeting if the investors want a little higher dividend next quarter. Hopefully the Asian market will keep growth coming as they are the new economic powerhouse in the world and manufacturers of all the tech. Having to import 3D Blu-ray releases from Europe because US distributors won’t carry a niche product in our fragile economy is a great example of how corporate America will throw consumers under the bus to show a little extra profit on the quarterly spreadsheet. Hopefully we can survive as a niche market until the next commercial VR push when big corporate support fails. Hate to be a downer but I don’t think it looks good at all.

30 Days in VR, 5+ Hours a Day: Could You Do It?

One of the problems in virtual reality is that the current level of hardware is still somewhat bulky and uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. I get tangled up in the cable, on warm days sometimes it gets sweaty inside the headset, etc. My personal limit when I wear my Oculus Rift VR headset is about two hours, then I definitely need to take it off and rejoin the real world! Most people probably wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) use a VR headset for more than an hour a day.

So, how would you feel if you spent all day, every day in VR for a whole month? Someone in Italy is doing just that. His name is Enea Le Fons and he is a VR developer.

Enea in VR 12 Apr 2018
Enea Le Fons (from the blog The Ghost Howls)

Skarredghost of the blog The Ghost Howls has blogged about the HTC Vive-sponsored marathon:

And he loves VR, he loves experimenting and he also loves opensource and free software. He has this idea of making the world better, of letting people live freely and exchanging their expertise. He has this idea of a VR ecosystem that is completely free of chains. So he proposed to HTC to live 30 days in VR in a way that in these 30 days he could develop very cool things like AI bots and VR locomotion systems while being inside virtual reality with other people helping him remotely… and then share everything developed there to the community as open source software. Isn’t it cool? Yes, it is. That’s why HTC couldn’t do anything but accepting his proposal. This way has born the #30DaysInVR project.

Of course he won’t stay 24h a day in VR for 30 days, this would be potentially too extreme for his health at this point of the technology (even if he actually told me that he would really love to stay for a month completely in VR). He has started with five hours of immersion each day and has incremented the duration of his immersions until he has arrived to many hours a day. That’s impressive.

It looks like he is going to document his 30-day journey on YouTube. Here is the video from Day 1:

And you can follow him on various social media: