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.

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Zoom Goes VR: Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App (Avatars? Who Needs Avatars?)

You might remember that I coined an acronym which I hope starts to catch on in the industry: YARTVRA, which stands for Yet Another Remote Teams Virtual Reality App. This is an emerging use for VR, and I have compiled a list of YARTVRA apps in this recent blogpost.

Well, it would appear that LearnBrite (which I have blogged about before), the company behind Zoom (the well-known, popular remote conferencing service) wants to embrace virtual reality, and hop into the nascent YARTVRA marketplace.

It looks like they are offering a couple of different ways to represent each remote participant. Take a gander at the following one-minute video, showing three men communicating via flat-screen video “avatars” in a 3D photograph of an office:

Watching this, I ask myself: why would anybody want to do this? What benefits does this bring? Sorry, but this is just weird. No avatars at all? Horse confetti?!??

Here’s another one-minute video showing you not only the flat-screen video “avatars”, but also a tantalizing glimpse of an actual, 3D avatar:

In the first part of this video, Zoom again eschews user avatars completely, choosing instead to have each participant displayed in a video screen in a 3D virtual conference room. However, notice at the 0:38 mark in this video, someone puts on an Oculus Quest VR headset, and you can then see his three-dimensional avatar standing in one corner of the conference room.

Here’s another one-minute video (no audio) that shows you a bit more of the setup for the Oculus Quest:

Now, it’s not clear to me if this is a real avatar that you can embody, able to move around the room, or if it is just a stationary object, a placeholder that merely represents the user. Unfortunately, there’s not enough in these videos to be able to tell!

In a page from the LearnBrite website showing you how you set up a virtual room in Zoom, the company states:

Why?

LearnBrite already includes tightly integrated WebRTC conferencing capabilities such as audio, video, VR presence and dial-in by phone.

In some enterprise environments it may be preferable to leverage the tools already in place, this helps with costs and also managing change in an organization. If everyone is already familiar with using Zoom, then adding VR to it can get better user “buy-in” than asking them to use a new or different solution.

But whether or not this is actually something that is going to be truly useful, something that adds a real benefit to remote work team collaboration, remains to be seen. So I’m a little skeptical, and frankly, I want to see more of this in action before I pronounce final judgement (especially how they implement 3D avatars).

As far as I can tell right now, this half-baked solution just gives LearnBrite the bragging rights that they now support Zoom in VR, without a lot of the features seen in competing YARTVRA products. Sorry, but I’m not impressed. This looks like a cheap gimmick to me.

An Early Review of Oculus Link: Play Oculus Rift Apps on Your Oculus Quest VR Headset (And Will It Work with Sansar?)

Nathaniël de Jong (a.k.a. Nathie) is a Dutch YouTuber with half a million subscribers, who often posts review videos of the latest and greatest VR hardware and software on his channel.

Yesterday, he posted the following review of the Oculus Link software which allows Oculus Quest users to play Oculus Rift apps using a cable connected to a gaming-level computer with a good graphics card:

The review is esssentially a rave. The only complaint that Nathie has about the Oculus Quest/Oculus Link setup is that the headset is front-heavy (something which I can also attest to). However, there has been no shortage of headset modding advice posted to places like the Oculus Quest subReddit (for example, attaching a battery pack to the back of the headstrap, which not only redistributes the weight, but also lets you play for several hours longer!).

The Oculus Link software will be available in November 2019, and it will be free. You will need to purchase a USB 3.0 cable; you can buy your own, or you can wait until Oculus sells their own fibre cable for a “best in class” experience, for about US$80/CA$106.

I expect I will be among the first people to test Sansar via the Oculus Quest and Oculus Link, when it becomes available later this year. If it does work, it will truly be a game changer, allowing a potentially much larger audience for apps such as Sansar. And I’m quite sure that Linden Lab will be testing this out too, once Oculus Link is available.

But DON’T buy an Oculus Quest right now, expecting that it will automatically work with Sansar. It’s still too soon to tell; wait for me and others to test it out and report back before you buy. Better to be safe than sorry! Linden Lab is not recommending users purchase the Oculus Quest if they are planning on using it just for Sansar.

Please note that currently, the only VR headsets that Linden Lab officially supports for Sansar are the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive headsets. Some users have reported that they have been able to get Windows Mixed Reality headsets to work with Sansar, but it’s not officially supported (you can get help via the official Sansar Discord). While Linden Lab has reported some work on getting Sansar to work with the Valve Index controllers, it is also not yet officially supported.

UPDATED! Forbes Writer Takes a Hatchet to Facebook Horizon in a Hilariously Badly-Written Article: “Facebook, the drug we snort off the buttocks of a willing and paid for social media pit of despair…”

As could be predicted, there have been oceans of fawning press coverage of Facebook Horizon, since it was announced two days ago at OC6. So I was surprised to find a hilariously bad, savage swipe at the yet-to-be-launched social VR platform, and coming from Forbes business magazine, no less.

In an article titled Facebook’s Horizon VR Promises A New Kind Of Drug For Our Exhausted Reality, consumer tech writer Curtis Silver swandives right into the deep end of the hyperbole pool:

Facebook, the drug we snort off the buttocks of a willing and paid for social media pit of despair, has opened us up to the psychological horror of the world around us. If that’s not enough, now Facebook wants to drag us into VR with its Horizon VR project.

Quick, somebody call the Mixed Metaphor Police! I’ve heard Facebook called a lot of nasty things in my time, but comparing it to hooker off whose butt you snort cocaine is a new one! Except it’s not a hooker’s ass, it’s a pit of despair, get it? (But wouldn’t the cocaine just fall into the pit?)

But wait, there’s more!

If you’ve forgotten, amid all the political wrangling and constant stream of lukewarm fake news into your eyes, Facebook owns Oculus VR, a VR system generally focusing on immersive games and experiences. Well, now Facebook wants to really get involved, introducing Horizon VR during its Facebook’s Oculus Connect 6 developer conference, which took place at the same time we were all watching Amazon introduce a new world of surveillance smart home tech.

Horizon VR, upon first glance, appears to be some sort of leg-less Nintendo Mii meets Second Life apparatus, focusing on creating environments and interactions that appear happy and contained, but will most likely be terrible and insane. It’s intended for use on the Oculus Quest headset, which doesn’t have the computing power of PC-connected headsets. Therefore, Horizon VR is something more akin to the graphical output of a Nickelodeon cartoon rather than a reality-based world.

“Lukewarm fake news into your eyes”?!?? Oh, honey, no. Lukewarm is associated with touch, not sight. Somebody needs to get this writer a proper thesaurus. (And maybe some English lessons.)

Curtis also gets quite a few technical details wrong in this write-up. First, the social VR platform is called Facebook Horizon, not “Horizon VR”, as he keeps calling it (even in the title!). And Horizon is not just for the wireless Oculus Quest headset; it is also intended for the PC-connected Oculus Rift headset. And one of the many OC6 announcements was that soon you will be able to run Oculus Rift games on your Quest using a cable connected to your computer. In other words, there’s really nothing stopping Facebook (or anybody else, for that matter) from making more realistic-looking experiences and avatars. The limit is truly your own imagination.

Anyway, let’s proceed…the writer was comparing Facebook Horizon to a Nickelodeon cartoon…

To Facebook’s credit, that’s a smart move. Reality is certainly something we need less of. Horizon VR offers an escape from the twisted dysfunction of reality, on the surface at least. In screenshots and talking points. [sic] We all know what is going to go down in a virtual world captained by Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Horizon VR might appear to be a cartoonish world of fun interactions and avatars without legs, but users will surely find a way to quickly create a nightmare world that moderators will be unable to manage.

Meanwhile in the real world, the Department of Justice has joined the FTC in an antitrust investigation of Facebook. A new study from the University of Oxford has revealed that (duh) Facebook is the most common platform for spreading disinformation at a government and political level. And in response to anti-bullying and mental health groups, Facebook will begin testing hiding likes to make users feel better. Facebook is an actual hellscape.

You really want to experience that in VR? As fellow Forbes contributer [sic] Paul Armstrong puts it, “As more and more scandals hit Facebook thanks to lax privacy policies of yesteryear (they promise), this bold vision [of Horizon VR] is all well and good but it’s built on the back of something ugly and hence, it’s destined to be tainted from conception.”

Facebook is a drug. Quit Facebook. Seriously. Before it ruins you. The solution to the problems Facebook has deftly unloaded upon the populace and your personal mental health isn’t to begin ingesting your social media drug in the virtual realm, the solution here is to delete Facebook from your phone, wake up and soberly face the real world once again. Only then can you find a viable, real-world escape from the real world. Like bowling, or mini-golf.

Sweet minty Jesus. I am most certainly not a fan of the Facebook social network, in fact I think it has caused some real and serious problems in society. But what story editor okayed this snarky, badly-argued, poorly-composed, half-assed hatchet job?? I mean, it’s one thing to write a well-written, well-reasoned, technically accurate critique of a product. But this mess is none of those things.

To cite just one example, what does hiding likes on a social network have to do with anything?

The writer can’t even get the name of the product straight, let alone the technical details. And there’s a sentence fragment just kind of hanging there in mid-article: “In screenshots and talking points.” And it’s spelled contributor, dear. There’s this wonderful new invention called spellcheck, you should really look into it sometime.

But the biggest problem that I have with this story is it just rather lazily assumes that Facebook Horizon is simply going to be some hellish VR version of the Facebook social network. A social network and a social VR platform are two very different things, used by different types of people for completely different purposes. We won’t know what Facebook Horizon is like until the closed beta test early next year, but we can assume that the company has learned at least a few things about what does and doesn’t work with Facebook Spaces, Oculus Home, and Oculus Rooms. (At least, let’s hope so!)

Is there a chance Facebook Horizon will be a terrible product? Absolutely. But I think it’s just a wee bit early to deem the new social network akin to Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell. And Facebook has already announced that they will be deploying a team of human greeters and guides in an effort to model good behaviour on the platform and counteract griefers.

My God, I can’t believe I’m actually standing up for Facebook! (I must have a fever or something.)

But this article is so God-awful I just couldn’t let it go without comment. Forbes, you can do better than this sloppy, slipshod journalism.

UPDATE 6:39 p.m.: One of my Twitter followers, named Bird, shared this video with me:

And another Twitter follower, James Baicoianu, explains:

In other words, the Forbes website does many of the same evil things of which they accuse Facebook! A perfect case of the pot calling the kettle black.