Seniors and VR: A Natural Fit

This image was posted to the OculusQuest subReddit on July 28th, 2019
by u/milkisnotavegtable of his grandmother in virtual reality, and it is
used with permission
. Thanks, milk!

This evening, I carefully wrapped up my fully-charged Oculus Quest VR headset in one of my old black T-shirts, and packed it into a carry-on bag along with my Oculus Touch hand controllers, the Quest charging cable and a couple of spare AA batteries (just in case!), and took all of it over to my mother and stepfather’s home for our regular Sunday dinner.

I still can’t get my mother to try virtual reality yet (she cites her bad neck arthritis and not wanting to mess up her hair), but my stepfather has taken to it like a duck to water! At first, I started him off slow, with a few stationary scenes from the Nature Treks VR relaxation app: a sandy tropical beach, a mountain forest glade, etc. Then I started up the Titans of Space Plus app, which has just been released for the Oculus Quest, and let him drive his own spaceship through the solar system, exploring the planets and their moons, which he enjoyed tremendously! I think I may have made a new convert.

Which has got me thinking: are seniors an overlooked market segment when it comes to virtual reality? Obviously, most VR games and apps currently in release are targeted to younger audiences, but you might be interested to note that specific VR applications for seniors are being developed.

For example, I have already written about Alcove VR, who has partnered with the AARP to release a beta app for the Oculus Go VR headset, which allows family members to connect in a virtual living room, share videos and games, and help combat the isolation experienced by some seniors.

Rendever has installed its virtual reality platform in over one hundred senior living communities in North America over the past three years, helping those seniors who may be experiencing cognitive decline or mobility restrictions through such techniques as customized reminiscence therapy (allowing them to virtually revisit their childhood home, their wedding site, or another location from their past).

Likewise, many existing consumer apps (like Nature Treks VR and Google Earth VR) can empower seniors to experience new places and do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do because of cost, time or mobility constraints.

It is obvious that seniors’ use of virtual reality is increasing (along with the rest of the general population), and that more and more research and development work is starting to take place on the practical and therapeutic use of VR in settings such as seniors’ communities. And, of course, the non-practical but still essential recreational and fun uses!

So the next time you pay a visit to your grandma or grandpa, pack your Oculus Quest along. You never know what might happen!

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Editorial: My Social VR/Virtual World Predictions for 2020

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Now that I am (finally!) finished my annual holiday tradition of utterly ransacking all the Advent calendars and December shopping events I can find in Second Life—the better to clothe my small army of alts with fashionable freebies!—it is time to turn my attention to predictions for the coming year.

Let’s start with a look back at my predictions for 2019, shall we? I said then:

  • That Second Life would “continue to coast along, baffling the mainstream news media and the general public with its vitality and longevity”, and that “the ability to change your first and last names in SL will prove very popular—and also very lucrative for Linden Lab”. Well, I am going to stick to that prediction. Implementing avatar name changes in SL turned out to be a thornier problem than Linden Lab anticipated, hence the delay, but they now have eight years of pent-up demand for this feature, and I anticipate that it will still prove popular—and profitable—for Linden Lab. I myself upgraded one of my alts to Premium to be able to change her legacy name of Bumbly Rumpler. (I know. I know. I don’t know what I was thinking at the time!) I also snagged her a lovely new riverside Victorian Linden Home in the process.

  • That OpenSim would move on implementing virtual reality support, but (as far as I can tell), that work has stalled or been abandoned. To be honest, I have barely set foot at all in OpenSim this past year, so I regret that I am not in any position to make predictions for 2020!

  • That “one or more blockchain-based virtual worlds are going to fold”—a prediction which has come true, at least for MATERIA.ONE, which has not officially folded, but is currently on an indefinite hiatus. The landscape is littered with various blockchain-based projects that are either dead, moribund, or stuck in pre-development hell: Aether City, Ceek, The Deep, MARK.SPACE, MegaCryptoPolis, The Sandbox, Stan World, SuperWorld, Terra Virtua, and VIBEHub. And yet, somehow, new crypto projects keep appearing, hoping to become the next Bitcoin.

    However, three blockchain-based virtual world projects appear to be doing well—Cryptovoxels, Decentraland, and Somnium Space—and I expect that they will all continue to do well in 2020. I note that both Decentraland and Cryptovoxels have tended to rank in the Top 5 in sales volume on the OpenSea marketplace (this screencap is from a tweet made Dec. 27th):

I’m already working on a predictions blogpost for the various social VR platforms and virtual worlds in 2020. Among my predictions is the following: if Linden Lab cannot find a way to increase the overall number of users in Sansar within the next 12 months, even with a pivot to (and an exclusive focus on) live events, then the company will do one of three things:

– convert the existing Sansar code to open source and let the community take it over (which I think is the least likely option);

– sell Sansar to another company and keep Second Life running (or perhaps sell off Linden Lab and all its assets entirely to another company); or

– shut down the Sansar project completely (which I think is the most likely option).

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the honeymoon period for Sansar is OVER.

I am increasingly worried (even heartsick) over the future of Sansar.

  • That “the Oculus Quest VR headset will ignite the long-awaited boom in virtual reality”. I think that we can agree that the Oculus Quest has been a runaway success. Facebook is apparently selling the units as fast as they can make them, and they are now backordered until late February 2020. (The Valve Index is also selling well, and also similarly backordered.) I do predict that this will bring many more people into those social VR platforms which can natively run on the standalone Quest headset, such as VRChat, Rec Room, and AltspaceVR.

  • That “Linden Lab’s launch of Sansar on Steam will likely have only a modest impact on overall usage of the platform”. I deeply regret that this prediction has come true in spades. I said at the time that Linden Lab ditching its SandeX and launching Sansar on Steam would be a terrible mistake, and I take no pleasure in being proven correct. Sansar has been pummeled by negative reviews by Steam gamers, adding to the general sense of malaise about the platform in the past year, especially since approximately 30 staff working on the project were laid off by Linden Lab a couple of months ago, in an attempt to trim their continued financial losses. This was a move which was probably imposed on CEO Ebbe Altberg by the Linden Lab board of directors, who are probably very worried that if Sansar tanks, it will take down Second Life with it.
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

O.K., now that we’ve looked at how well my predictions for 2019 have fared, now it’s time to peer in my crystal ball and make some new predictions for 2020.

First, all current social VR platforms and virtual worlds will struggle with a key problem: effective promotion. Getting the word out to the public about the various platforms is proving to be more and more difficult in an age of social media overload and short attention spans.

We can expect to see more partnerships between various platforms and influencers (such as Sansar’s continued partnership with the VR vloggers Cas and Chary, and my own recent sponsorship and advertising deal with Sinespace). By the way, my partnership with Sinespace is not exclusive, we can still see other people 😉 and I am still actively looking for other advertisers and sponsorships for my blog and the Metaverse Newscast show (hint hint).

Second, every single eye will be on Facebook as they launch their new social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, early in the new year. It’s disgusting to me how even the smallest Facebook announcement gets oceans of fawning mainstream press coverage, and you can certainly expect Horizon to suck up all the oxygen in the press room when it gets closer to launch date. If Facebook Horizon, backed by the almost limitless resources and reach of its ambitious parent company, fails to take hold in 2020, then that will be the clearest indication yet that the nascent social VR industry is in trouble (and that I might be out of a job!).

Third, as I have said above, I am extremely worried about Sansar. The Sansar website has recently had a complete redesign to focus almost exclusively on live events:

It would appear that Linden Lab is going all-in on Sansar as a platform for live events, to the detriment of other features such as avatar customization (I don’t expect anything new this coming year). However, competition in the live events market in 2020 is likely to be intense, with the following products also planning to focus on hosting such events:

  • Microsoft-owned AltspaceVR (which has also recently announced a pivot to live events);
  • VRChat (which is already home to popular talk shows such as ENDGAME, and many other regular live events);
  • Wave (which has already pulled off some spectacular musical events such as the recent Lindsey Stirling concert);
  • Upstarts such as Ceek and Redpill VR (which are in various stages of pre-development and may or may not launch in 2020);
  • Not to mention that Facebook will also want to muscle in on this extremely lucrative territory (with Oculus Venues, and probably Facebook Horizon, too)—and Facebook will not hesitate to ruthlessly use every tool and tactic at their disposal to achieve market dominance (including “hiding” posts about competing platforms in their Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp social network users’ newsfeeds). Facebook also has deep pockets to ink deals with major talent, locking them into exclusive deals to appear on their platforms.

Expect many skirmishes on the live events battlefield in 2020, and also expect some causalities to occur.

Fourth, Second Life will continue to coast along as it always does, still boasting approximately 600,000 regular monthly users in recently released statistics by Firestorm, and still making millions of dollars in profits, both for its content creators and for Linden Lab. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and I see no sign of it stopping anytime soon. I predict that SL will still be around five years, perhaps even ten years, from now, and that people will still be logging in, and still merrily ransacking Advent calendars 😉 …and I will continue to blog about steals, deals, and freebies in Second Life!

Fifth, we can expect to see the upcoming Educators in VR International Summit as an example of an increasingly important use of social VR platforms in 2020: conferences. This is a natural fit, and one that saves precious resources (such as airline fuel) in an increasingly environmentally-conscious world. We can expect to see more conferences and meetings hosted in VR as an alternative to real-world meetings (although, as High Fidelity found out, the remote workteams support marketplace isn’t quite there yet, since the vast majority of companies still expect their employees to show up to their offices rather than work remotely from home). I think it’s going to take another generation for that shift to take effect in any widespread fashion.

Sixth: those social VR platforms which currently lack an in-world economy, currency, and a marketplace for user-created content, will be moving towards implementing those features. VRChat already has a booming off-world economy in the creation and sale of custom avatars. We already know that both VRChat and Rec Room are making plans in this area, based on job postings on their websites, but we can also expect other platforms to take this step, taking their cues from the continuing success of the mature, fully-evolved in-world economy of Second Life.

Platforms where people can make money tend to attract droves of new users, appealing to their greed and the universal desire to strike it rich (Decentraland as a more recent example; although its continued success is not 100% guaranteed, investors have sunk a lot of money into it, and it will be interesting to see how this ultimate expression of virtual, cut-throat capitalism will evolve and grow over the next year).

Finally, at some point Apple (and other companies, including Facebook) will launch the first consumer-oriented augmented reality headsets. The over-hyped Magic Leap One has turned out to be rather underwhelming (and underselling) so far, but who knows? Perhaps future AR products may ignite consumer interest, and have an as-yet-unknown impact on the current crop of social VR platforms.

Perhaps the big bet we all placed on virtual reality has been misplaced? We won’t know the answer to that hypothetical question until at least another decade has passed. Of course, some social VR platforms may decide to extend support to whatever AR/MR/XR hardware becomes available in the future, too. Anything can happen.

So these are my social VR/virtual world predictions for 2020. Please check back in a year, and we’ll see just how accurate I was!

Image by Jim Semonik from Pixabay

UPDATED! Editorial: Facebook Announces Even Tighter Integration Between the Oculus VR Ecosystem and the Facebook Social Network

Look, I’ll be up-front and unequivocal about it: I’m no longer a fan of the Facebook social network. I left it at the end of last year as my New Year’s resolution, and I asked them to delete over 13 years’ worth of user data it had collected on me (which, as far as I know, they have done).

And I only rejoined the Facebook social network in October because the company has made it abundantly clear that you will need both an Oculus account and a Facebook account in order to take part in Facebook Horizon, Facebook’s social VR platform which is to launch in closed beta sometime in early 2020. And, as a blogger who specializes in covering all aspects of social VR, I have no choice but to play by Facebook’s rules if I want to set foot on their platform and report on it to you, my readers.

At the present moment, the only time you really need to use your Facebook account when using your Oculus VR hardware is if you want to attend an event hosted in Oculus Venues. But, in an announcement today, Facebook says:

Today, we’re excited to announce the brand-new social experience we debuted at OC6 across the Oculus Platform, powered by Facebook. We already use Facebook to bring people together in Venues, offer features like livestreaming, and provide safety tools like reporting and blocking. Now we’re using Facebook’s technology to roll out new social features in the coming days that will help people build their VR communities, while keeping them safer at scale by backing social interactions with their Facebook identity.

To make sure that people understand these changes, we’re also updating the Oculus Privacy Policy to clarify that these social features are also provided by Facebook. And we’re clarifying how Oculus data is shared with Facebook to inform ads when you log into Facebook on Oculus.

You can see these updates to the Oculus Privacy Policy here to learn more. And you can read our FAQ here for more information.

Facebook will be rolling out several new features to more tightly integrate the Facebook social network into the Oculus ecosystem:

Starting today, when you choose to log into Facebook from the Oculus Platform, you’ll be able to access new social features that make it easier for you to connect with other people, including:

Chats, so you can message your Oculus friends in or out of the headset with quick responses to hop into games together

Join your friends in VR directly from any device with links that open to where your friends are within an app, and see the most popular destinations where people are playing in VR

User-created Events, so you can organize meetups or multiplayer games with friends

Share photos, videos, and livestreaming to Facebook, allowing you to share your favorite moments to Facebook Groups from VR

Parties that any of your Oculus friends can join (previously parties were only invite-only)

Messenger friends can easily join you in VR when you send them links to join you where you’re playing

And your Oculus usage data will be fed into Facebook for advertising purposes:

As part of these changes, Facebook will now use information about your Oculus activity, like which apps you use, to help provide these new social features and more relevant content, including ads. Those recommendations could include Oculus Events you might like to attend or ads for VR apps available on the Oculus Store. These changes won’t affect third-party apps and games, and they won’t affect your on-device data.

If you choose not to log into Facebook on Oculus, we won’t share data with Facebook to allow third parties to target advertisements to you based on your use of the Oculus Platform.

So, Facebook is going to tighten the integration between the Oculus ecosystem and the Facebook social network, including sharing user data between Oculus and Facebook if you are signed into Facebook via Oculus. And going forward, it looks as though it is going to become more and more difficult to avoid signing into your Facebook account while using your Oculus hardware.

You can certainly forget any ideas you might have about creating an anonymous account to use with Facebook Horizon. Facebook clearly wants you to be signed in using your personally identifying account on the Facebook social network, linked to all the real-life information the company has on you. They also want to be able to send data between Oculus and Facebook. All the better to serve you targeted advertising, of course, which is where Facebook still makes most of its money.

You can still choose to keep your Oculus and Facebook accounts separate, of course, but you can bet that there will be further announcements in the new year intertwining the two services ever more tightly, and making it even more difficult to maintain that separation.

Cynics can say that I knew what I was getting into when I decided to purchase Oculus VR hardware in the first place; I currently own (and am quite happy with) my Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest VR headsets. But I am less than happy with today’s announcements, despite Facebook’s best attempts to make them sound like a rollout of wonderful new features.

In short, Facebook wants to gather together all its information about you into one neat, tidy little package to serve to its advertisers—including how much time you spend in what apps and games on your Oculus VR headset. If you don’t want any part of that, then you’d best look to non-Facebook sources for your VR hardware and software, like HTC and Valve.

UPDATE 7:51 p.m.: Ian Hamilton has written an excellent article on all these changes for UploadVR, which includes an extensive question-and-answer session with Facebook. I recommend you read it to get up-to-speed with what’s happening with your Facebook and Oculus accounts. Thanks, Ian!

Oculus Quest Now Supports Hand Tracking

Well, the goodies keep coming for the Oculus Quest wireless VR headset! Several weeks after the launch of Oculus Link (which allows you to use your Oculus Quest as a wired VR headset with a gaming PC to run Oculus Rift apps), today Facebook announced that the Oculus Quest will now support hand tracking!

VR YouTuber Nathie had a chance to try out hand tracking at the recent OC6 conference, and he has all the details on this new feature in a new video:

The hand tracking is meant to replace the use of the Oculus Touch controllers. Apparently, you will be able to switch between using your Touch controllers and your hands using your headset. Also, it will likely be some time until your favourite app or game supports hand tracking.

But it is now clear that Oculus Quest (as opposed to the Oculus Rift) is where all the action is happening lately! It’s truly amazing to me how many surprises the Oculus engineers have been able to squeeze out of the Oculus Quest headset this year.