In an article published today in The Wall Street Journal, titled Company Documents Show Meta’s Flagship Metaverse Falling Short (archived version here), Jeff Horwitz, Salvador Rodriguez, and Meghan Bobrowsky report that Meta’s flagship social VR platform, Horizon Worlds, is falling short of the company’s own internal performance expectations. They write:
Meta initially set a goal of reaching 500,000 monthly active users for Horizon Worlds by the end of this year, but in recent weeks revised that figure to 280,000. The current tally is less than 200,000, the documents show.
Most visitors to Horizon generally don’t return to the app after the first month, and the user base has steadily declined since the spring, according to the documents, which include internal memos from employees.
By comparison, Meta’s social-media products, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, together attract more than 3.5 billion average monthly users—a figure equivalent to almost half the world’s population. Horizon is currently reaching less than the population of Sioux Falls, S.D.
In a survey of Horizon users, Meta researchers said users reported that they couldn’t find metaverse worlds they liked and couldn’t find other people to hang out with. Other complaints included that “people do not look real” and that the avatars don’t have legs.
The researchers noted that the survey included only 514 people because the available pool of users to survey is “small and precious.”
The number of Horizon users online at the same time, known as concurrency, trails far behind both the socially-focused upstart VRChat and Second Life, the pioneering cyberworld that was launched in 2003, said people familiar with the matter.
The WSJ report also states that only 9% of the worlds built by creators are ever visited by at least 50 people, and most created worlds are never visited at all. Also, men outnumber women in Horizon Worlds by two to one, a gender imbalance that can lead to women being harassed and feeling unsafe.
Among the persistent complaints from early adopters and testers, according to the documents, are that users have trouble adjusting to the technology, and that other users behave badly.
On a recent night, a female Journal reporter visited one of Horizon’s most popular virtual worlds, the Soapstone Comedy Club. It had about 20 users in it, all appearing as avatars. When the reporter introduced herself and tried to conduct an interview with a small group, one user replied: “You can report on me, baby.” The same user then asked her to expose herself.
One user who was flirting with a woman in the crowd was interrupted by what appeared to be his real-life girlfriend yelling obscenities at him in the background.
According to the documents, men outnumber women in Horizon by two to one. One safety feature Horizon has introduced is an option for users to create the equivalent of a 4-foot personal boundary for their avatars to deter unwanted physical contact.
Even worse, the WSJ article reports that “more than half of Quest headsets—the entry model costs about $400—aren’t in use six months after they are purchased, according to people familiar with the data.” This news greatly surprises me, because I would have assumed that, even if Horizon Worlds is not attracting and retaining users, at least consumers who bought the wireless virtual reality headset would be using it for games.
Plug-and-play is a term often used to refer to something you can simply install by plugging it into one of the ports on your personal computer (usually USB), where it automatically sets itself up and it just works, right out of the box, without any fuss or futzing about. (I am old enough to remember the pre-USB days. Hell, I still remember in my high school days having to stick stacks of 80-character punchcards into card readers to submit programs! Yes, Auntie Ryan is as old as dirt, sweetheart!)
Over two days this week, I set up two new pieces of hardware in my office at the University of Manitoba Libraries: a brand new desktop personal computer with a high-end graphics card, and a new virtual reality headset tethered to it.*
Yes, I finally cut my very last tie to Facebook/Meta, gleefully packing up my old Oculus Rift headset, and uninstalling all traces of the Oculus software from my former PC before it goes on to its next owner! I doubt anyone will want the now-antiquated Rift, but at least my old PC should gladden the heart of whoever receives it!
And it struck me (as I was relaxing on the sofa today after a busy, sweaty, sweary Thursday and Friday) that over the past six years, I have set up no less than four different models of virtual reality headset:
An original Oculus Rift, bought in January 2017 (followed by a second Rift for my work computer later that same year);
An HTC Vive Pro 2 headset, bought last month to replace my work Oculus Rift.
Of these, only the Quest was a wireless VR headset; the Oculus Rift, Valve Index, and HTC Vive Pro 2 are all what are collectively termed PCVR, that is, virtual reality headsets that require a cable to a high-end gaming computer in order to work. Of course, even the Quest could be turned into a PCVR headset with the addition of a cable and some extra software, something I eagerly tested out myself as soon as I could! However, the primary purpose of the Oculus Quest, both version 1 and version 2, was as a standalone device to be sold at a cheaper price, to entice more of the general public to dip their toe into VR waters, and get them hooked! (I have been reliably informed that Meta sells the Quest itself at a loss, in order to recoup that loss and earn the real profits through the sale of games and apps via the Oculus Store.)
However, PCVR is—still, six years after the first consumer models arrived on the marketplace—an absolute pain in the ass to get set up! Allow me to recount my experience of installing, configuring, and troubleshooting my PCVR setup this week.
In the box which contained my HTC Vive Pro 2 office kit, was a large paper document listing the dozens of cables and other parts, with a website address from which I could download a setup program, which was supposed to install all the software I needed, and walk me step-by-step through the setup of my VR headset and controllers. Despite install attempt after attempt, the setup program kept hanging at the 5/6th point, leaving me to attempt to piece everything together on my own.
I landed up spending over an hour in text chat with a support person on the Vive customer support portal, who talked me through a complete reinstall of all the software components (I never did get the step-by-step walk-through of device setup that I was expecting, which was disappointing).
I was supremely grateful for the friendly, reassuring and professional tech support person I was chatting with, however, and I commend Vive for making it quite easy to reach out for immediate help when I got stuck (quite unlike my previous horror-show of tech support when my Valve Index headset at home broke earlier this year). Don’t get me wrong; I still love my Valve Index, but my customer support experience in March 2022 was so horrible that I would hesitate to purchase another VR headset from Valve in future. Valve could learn a lot from Vive!
Finally, I left work on Thursday evening with a fully working system after a full day of frustration, fussing and futzing! On Friday I returned to face a brand new set of challenges: installing various social VR platforms, and getting them to work properly with my new Vive Pro 2 setup. By the end of Friday, I finally had set up working access to VRChat, Neos, and Sansar, and in each I had my fair share of bugs and problems (partly because I was so unused to the Vive wand hand controllers, which take some getting used to). It was frustrating and exhausting.
Which brings me the point of this editorial rant: why, six years into the age of consumer virtual reality, is it still such a daunting task to set up a tethered virtual reality headset? How is it that you basically need the knowledge and expertise akin to someone at NASA Mission Control in to put a PCVR system together and get it working right the first time? It’s akin to asking people who want to drive to buy the car frame from one manufacturer, the interior seats and steering wheel from a second company, and the engine and transmission from yet another firm, and then giving them a set of IKEA instructions and a hex wrench and telling them, good luck, buddy!
I mean, if even I, with all my previous virtual reality and computer assembly experiences over the decades (and an undergraduate degree in computer science, to boot!) had trouble pulling everything together, what does that say about the average, non-technical consumer that just wants everything to work? Virtual reality in general, and PCVR is particular, is still way too far away from plug-and-play consumer friendliness, and the VR industry needs to address that hurdle before it can see more widespread adoption. If you want to throw money at a problem, throw some at this!!!
The one thing that the Quest still has going for it, despite its association with Meta’s sketchy embrace of surveillance capitalism, is this: out of all the VR setup experiences I have had to date, it was easily the closest to plug-and-play! (All I needed was a cellphone.)
Don’t get me wrong; I know that Steam, Vive, and Valve also collect customer data. It’s just a question of how much data, and how much you trust the companies collecting it. That why I have zero trust in Meta, and it’s also why so many people are watching carefully to see how and when Apple enters the VR/AR marketplace. (Apple is not perfect, but at least I trust them with my privacy. They also have a reputation for creating beautifully-designed, plug-and-play, consumer-friendly devices!)
Things are, as always, going to be interesting to watch over the next couple of years!
*For those of you who are interested in the specifications of my new work setup, here they are: a Dell Optiplex 7000, running Windows 10, with an Intel Core i7-12700 CPU with 32GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070 GPU, and an HTC Vive Pro 2 office kit (VR headset, 2 base stations, and Vive wand hand controllers).
Have you joined the RyanSchultz.com Discord yet? You’re invited to be a part of this cross-worlds discussion group, with 685 people participating from every social VR platform and virtual world! We discuss, debate and argue about the ever-evolving metaverse and all the companies building it. You’re welcome to come join us! More details here.
My sole remaining connection to Meta (formerly known as Facebook) is the now-somewhat-antiquated Oculus Rift headset attached to my work computer at the University of Manitoba Libraries, where I work as a science librarian. I do plan to replace it with an HTC Vive Pro 2 kit sometime later this year, the same model I specified in my proposal for a virtual reality lab for the Libraries, a task which took up a significant chunk of my spring.
A bit of background: Librarians at the U of M are members of the faculty union, and have a right and an obligation to pursue research, and I purchased the Oculus Rift to work on a social VR project which I regretfully had to suspend, due to it being wildly overambitious (more details here). Then, the pandemic happened and a monkey wrench got thrown into everything, and I have yet to determine the future direction of my social VR research. (My work on this blog is considered part of my research! Among those tasks I have on my to-do list is the reorganization and updating of my ever-popular list of metaverse platforms, as well as my spreadsheet of social VR platforms.)
Anyway, I bought (or rather, the University bought for me) the Oculus Rift before Meta/Facebook changed the rules two years ago, and insisted that all Oculus/Meta VR hardware users had to set up accounts on the Facebook social network in order to use their devices. That move was unpopular, especially among the VR community, and many complained (including myself, vociferously, in several editorials such as this and this), but to no avail. This corporate decision was the last straw for me, and I publicly declared a personal boycott, from that point on, of Meta hardware and software. (Hence my plan to upgrade my work Rift with a Vive Pro 2.)
When I set up my Rift, all I needed to do is set up a (separate) Oculus account. While Facebook/Meta kept prompting me to link my (non-existent) Facebook account to my Oculus account, by that time I had already fully departed from the social media platform.
Recently, I received the following email from Meta, which I present in full:
•A Facebook account is no longer required to use Meta VR devices. Instead, you can update your Oculus account to a Meta account, which lets you log into your VR devices and view and manage your purchased apps in one place. You can set up a Meta account using your email address or Facebook account, and as part of the process we’ll migrate your existing VR information (including apps, achievements, and friends) to this account.
•If you don’t want to set up a Meta account right now, you can continue using your Oculus account until January 1, 2023. After this date a Meta account will be required to continue using your Meta VR devices.
•End date for Oculus account support: We also added a statement as a reminder that support for Oculus accounts will end on January 1, 2023 and you will need to set up a Meta account to continue using our VR devices thereafter.
We’ll notify you when the Meta account is available so you have more choices over how you express yourself in VR. To learn more about these updates please visit our blog post.
The Meta Team
“More choices over how you express yourself in VR” (insert vomit emoji)
Meta Quest’s Facebook account requirement to be replaced with Meta Account, which isn’t a social media account, but will also REQUIRE Meta Horizon profile (is a social media account) w a Follower model (can be set to private) & setting options of Public, Friends/Family, or “Solo”.
More information on this new Horizon World Profile can (oddly) be found on the Oculus blog, because the Oculus Profile Friends model will be deprecated & replaced by Horizon World Profile with Instagram Follow model, & will also be available on the web (?) https://www.oculus.com/blog/meta-accounts/
Meta making its first moves to manage identity in the metaverse: “Your Meta Horizon profile is your social profile in VR and other surfaces, like the web” includes unique profile username, displayed profile name, and “your profile photo, avatar, and more.”
Meta headsets will no longer require a Facebook account from next month.
In August Meta will “begin rolling out” Meta accounts, which can be used to set up Meta headsets. You’ll still be able to link your Facebook account to your Meta account to message and call Facebook friends from inside VR, but this is no longer required.
If your Facebook is currently linked to your Quest, you can choose to unlink it when you set up your Meta account.
Meta has different deadlines for when VR users will need to create a Meta account, and they depend on how people currently sign in to their VR devices. If you’re a new VR device user or previously merged your Oculus account with your Facebook account, you’ll be prompted in August to create a Meta account and Meta Horizon profile. People who previously merged their Oculus accounts with their Facebook accounts will be able to unlink them as well…
Meta will ask for your name, email address, phone number, payment information and date of birth for age verification when you create this new type of account. Meta says this information will be private and that users will be able to create multiple Meta accounts.
It’s hard to definitively answer this question. First, the new account system hasn’t gone live, so we can’t test one crucial aspect of the change. According to Meta, anyone who switched from an Oculus account to a Facebook-tied identity will be able to decouple all Facebook identity information while creating a new Meta Account starting in August.
We want to see what this update looks like: how software-purchase transfers will work, what notices may appear on affected Facebook accounts after the transfer, and how aggressive the company will be about asking Quest users if they’re really sure they want to sever Facebook from their headset experience. (Meta has already indicated that it will let users attach Facebook and Instagram credentials if they want.) Facebook representatives have not answered our questions about these concerns as of press time.
Well, I think this all comes down to one word: TRUST.
And frankly, Meta/Facebook has proven, time and time again, that they cannot be trusted. Past behaviour, unfortunately, is often an excellent predictor of future behaviour. This applies to corporations as well as people.
Their decision to force a Facebook linkage to their then-Oculus VR hardware was ill-advised and poorly-received. I chatted via the RyanSchultz.com Discord with my friend Theanine, who had first alerted me to this news. He said, “Yup, I don’t know anyone who thought the FB requirement was a good move. It’s like they never bothered to get user feedback first.”
Here’s another snippet of our conversation (shared with permission):
Ryan: One thing I will be asking is: well, just HOW different will a Meta account be from the Facebook requirement?
Theanine: That’s the question. There’s people criticizing the move, saying that it changes nothing, because the potential for datamining is still there.
And you can bet your bottom dollar that Meta is going to find any way they can to wring every penny from its users, collecting all the information that it can to sell to advertisers—whether or not you choose to link your accounts on the Facebook or Instagram social networks.
Backtracking on the Facebook requirement might look good, but the fact remains that Meta, still, has an anti-competitive stranglehold on the wireless VR headset market with its Meta Quest 2 product. (And it certainly doesn’t help that, at the moment, its nearest competitor, the Pico G2 4K, is owned by TikTok’s corporate parent, the Chinese company ByteDance. I’m still holding out hope for the LYNX project in France, which has had a successful Kickstarter campaign.)
Meta is going to use every tool and tactic at their disposal (including the billions of dollars of advertising revenue the company earns) in order to maintain that market dominance—and part of that dominance includes the strip-mining of your personal data, regardless of how you connect to their products and services.
So yes, I am wary of this move. While I applaud Meta’s removal of the Facebook requirement, like Kent Bye and Sam Machkovech, I want to see the details. At the moment, this is just spin by some handsomely-compensated public relations executives.
So my personal boycott of Meta hardware and software will continue, except for my work Rift, which I will be replacing this year. Once that is done, I will have burnt my last bridge with Meta, and believe me, it’s going to take more that slapping a fresh coat of paint on my soon-to-be-deleted Oculus account to win me back.
Thank you to Theanine for the heads up on this story, for giving me permission to quote him, and for providing many of the news media links I referred to in this blogpost!