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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UPDATED! Adventures in VR: Oculus Home, Somnium Space, Sinespace

This morning I decided to spend a little time in my Oculus Rift visiting three social VR platforms that I have not spent a lot of time in recently: Oculus Home, Somnium Space, and Sinespace.

Oculus Home

I was genuinely curious about Oculus Home after David Hall posted his video to YouTube, so I made sure to spend some time exploring it and learning about its new features. Basically, you can design your own home (even import your own content now), create multiple homes, and visit other people’s homes. You can set any of your homes to private, friends only, or public.

The software is still a little bit buggy. Multiple times I tried to favourite other people’s homes which I liked and wanted to be able revisit later, but it would not save my choices. Moving around is a bit cumbersome at first, but you can change the default teleport to walk and the default snap turning to smooth turning, so once I was able to fiddle with the settings a bit I felt a little more comfortable. I also encountered a few sticking points in the tutorials, which also could use a bit of tweaking.

Another problem is finding places to explore. There is a Recommended list of homes under Places in the pop-up menu, but it’s rather short (perhaps not many people have set their homes to public yet). Oculus Home is not really set up yet to allow you to easily browse other people’s experiences as you already can in Sansar with the Sansar Atlas, which is sortable in various ways (most popular, recently created, etc.).

And, in what I call “the VRChat/Rec Room problem”, there appear to be a lot of children and immature adults on the platform. Yes, there is asshattery, tomfoolery, and trolling already! It’s hardly surprising, really. After all, anyone who owns an Oculus Rift VR headset has access to Oculus Home.

However, I cannot deny that the experiences I visited were beautifully rendered, especially at the highest graphics settings in the options. I am eager to see where Facebook/Oculus takes this.

Somnium Space

I always have the same problem whenecer I try to start Somnium Space: I can’t remember the automatically-generated password! So I had to go through the whole rigamarole of resetting my password. This time I made sure to check the “remember password” option!

Unlike most other social VR platforms, Somnium Space appears to be one large landmass (mostly empty at this point). There’s a few places to explore, like a seaside town, a working bowling alley, and a shopping mall, but not a lot else yet.

There’s a very handy snapshot feature in Somnium Space which I used to take some in-world photos, but unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you what directory it is saving them to on your hard drive! After hunting around fruitlessly for fifteen minutes, I simply gave up.

There are also teleporters which tell you that can actually use them to teleport from Somnium Space to High Fidelity, JanusVR, and AltspaceVR, but they don’t work. Or at least, I couldn’t figure out how to work them. I gave up on that too.

Somnium Space really could use someone to provide better user documentation of features like the camera and the teleporters. Other than that, they’re off to a promising start, having raised over US$60,000 in their recent IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign.

Also, I decided today to set up a new category on my blog just for Somnium Space.

Sinespace

When I first tried Sinespace in VR last May, it was seriously buggy. I am sorry to report that the situation has not improved any. To enable VR mode in Sinespace, you have to download a special beta OpenVR client, install it, open it, make sure you enable OpenVR in the user settings and then restart the client software. (A bit fussy, in my opinion, compared to the seamless switching between desktop mode and VR mode in competing platforms like Sansar and High Fidelity.)

I found the level of jitteriness to be so severe that I had to take off my VR headset after only a couple of minutes before I got sick. In addition to that, whenever I teleported anywhere, I landed up facing the opposite direction from where I started. The user interface menus are positioned too close to your eyes. At one point, I was looking at the backside of the Explore menu! I could go on, but you get the idea: this is simply not ready for prime time yet. I was actually very disappointed.

UPDATE 9:03 p.m.: Well, I asked on the official Somnium Space Discord server, and someone told me where to find the snaphots I had taken (they were saved to the C:/Users/[username]/Documents/Somnium Space/Tablet Camera folder):

My avatar in Somnium Space
The teleporter I couldn’t get to work ๐Ÿ™

A Look at the New Customization Features in Oculus Home

Some Oculus Home Decorations, Including a Mini Model of the Solar System

I must confess that I haven’t been paying much attention to Oculus Home, which I always saw just as a space to organize your purchased VR games and experiences. But Facebook/Oculus has been slowly but steadily building Oculus Home to the point where we can now consider it a true social VR platform. The VR news site UploadVR reports:

The latest update to Oculus Home adds custom environments support…

Support for user-generated objects was added back in June. A subsequent update even added animation support. And later in the month, the platform added real-time social, allowing up to 7 friends to visit your home and see those custom objects.

But until now the actual home geometry was the same for all users. The background could be changed between hills, space, a bay, or a future city, but the home itself could not.

David Hall (a long-time Sansar resident who has built a number of wonderful experiences including the Lord of the Rings-inspired Dwarven City and the futuristic Avalon social hub) has posted the following video to his YouTube channel. It is a livestream of him showing several of his own homes in Oculus Home, plus a tour of several other people’s homes:

I love the transition effects when David moves from one home to another, the way one home rezzes out of existence, and the new one rezzes in!

Oculus Home already includes functioning weapons such as bows and guns, as well as some cool animated content like a miniature model of the solar system you can see in a couple of visited homes in this video, and in the picture at the top of this blogpost.

I have now added Oculus Home to my list of social VR/virtual worlds.