UPDATED! Editorial: Why Facebook Horizon Will Be Delayed

Facebook was originally planning to launch their social VR platform, called Facebook Horizon, in a closed beta test early this year. Many people were expecting an announcement at their annual Facebook F8 Developer Conference, or perhaps at the Game Developers Conference.

Well, on February 27th, TechCrunch reported that Facebook was cancelling its F8 conference, citing coronavirus concerns:

Facebook  has confirmed that it has canceled its annual F8 developers conference over growing concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

More specifically, the company says it’s canceling the “in-person component,” which would have been held in San Jose, Calif. There may still be video presentations, along with live-streamed and local events, under the F8 umbrella.

“Celebrating our global developer community at F8 each year is incredibly important to us at Facebook, but we won’t sacrifice the health and safety of our community to do so,” said Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook’s director of developer platforms and programs, in a statement. “Out of concerns around COVID-19, we’re cancelling the in-person component of F8, but we look forward to connecting with our developer partners through local events, video and live streamed content.”

And more recently, it was announced that the Game Developers Conference, which was supposed to take place this month, would be postponed until later this summer. UploadVR reports:

The organizers of the Game Developers Conference postponed the event after sponsors, attendees, journalists, and developers decided not to come due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

In recent days some of the event’s biggest supporters including Epic, Unity, Facebook, Sony, Amazon, and many more, along with a large number of journalists and developers, pulled out of attendance at the event. Many companies encouraged their employees not to travel to the March event in San Francisco.

Here’s the statement from organizers:

After close consultation with our partners in the game development industry and community around the world, we’ve made the difficult decision to postpone the Game Developers Conference this March.

Having spent the past year preparing for the show with our advisory boards, speakers, exhibitors, and event partners, we’re genuinely upset and disappointed not to be able to host you at this time .

We want to thank all our customers and partners for their support, open discussions and encouragement. As everyone has been reminding us, great things happen when the community comes together and connects at GDC. For this reason, we fully intend to host a GDC event later in the summer. We will be working with our partners to finalize the details and will share more information about our plans in the coming weeks.

The SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and resulting travel restrictions has led to dozens of conferences around the world being cancelled or postponed. Many major corporations such as Amazon, Facebook and Google are also restricting or outright cancelling employee travel.

I think all this means that Facebook will likely postpone the launch of Facebook Horizon, since they won’t have any suitable venue at which to make a splashy announcement. And let’s face it, with the world being so preoccupied with this expanding global public health emergency, any platform launch would likely be muted, sidelined, and overlooked. People have other, much more pressing, priorities at the moment, like trying to find supplies of Purell hand sanitizer and 3M face masks.

Another complicating factor, as I have reported before, is that supplies of both Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S VR headsets are simply unavailable in most markets, due to the coronavirus shutting down many Chinese factories. Apparently, production of the Valve Index VR headset is also being negatively impacted. The HTC Vive headset is manufactured in Taiwan, and so far does not appear to have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. (Here’s a February 28th article from IGN on how SARS-CoV-2 is impacting the manufacture and sales of VR headsets.)

Of course, Facebook may just decide to launch Facebook Horizon in closed beta anyway, using livestreamed video and other not-in-person means, but I think they will choose to hold back. A company that makes billions of dollars in profit from advertising knows full well the benefit of a well-timed product launch, with an all-out advertising push. The timing is just plain wrong.

P.S. I am curious though; has anybody been invited yet to take part in the closed beta test for Facebook Horizon? I haven’t (but then, given how critical I have been of Facebook on this blog, I wasn’t expecting to be invited). Any anonymous tipsters want to whisper in my ear? 😉

UPDATE March 3rd: I’ve heard through the grapevine that Facebook will be launching a closed (invitation-only) alpha of Facebook Horizon this spring.

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How a Potential Coronavirus Pandemic Will Help (and Hurt) Virtual Reality in 2020

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in the lab. Credit: NIAID-RML

Although I said I would no longer write daily updates about the Wuhan coronavirus (now officially called SARS-CoV-2), I feel that now is a good time to talk about how a potential global pandemic could impact the still-nascent virtual reality market.

The world may be facing a situation not encountered in 102 years, when the 1918/1919 Spanish influenza pandemic swept around the globe in three successive waves in 18 months (in an era before commercial air travel), infecting one third of the world’s population and killing over 50 million people, more than the total number who died in World War I.

Not too long ago, I blogged about the eight tactics used to limit the spread of infectious diseases throughout human history. Of those eight tactics, two—quarantines and social distancing—are already being heavily used in China.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported (archived version):

Residential lockdowns of varying strictness — from checkpoints at building entrances to hard limits on going outdoors — now cover at least 760 million people in China, or more than half the country’s population, according to a New York Times analysis of government announcements in provinces and major cities. Many of these people live far from the city of Wuhan, where the virus was first reported and which the government sealed off last month.

Many infectious disease experts have already stated that they believe that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can no longer be contained to China. Indeed, we are already seeing cases of human-to-human transmission in many countries and areas, notably Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan, including 355 confirmed cases on a cruise ship docked at Yokohama (the largest single infection site outside mainland China). The virus is spreading.

Humanity has no natural immunity to this coronavirus (despite the hucksters taking advantage of the situation to sell you various “immunity boosters”). There is no vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, and there will not be one for at least a year. The World Health Organization has already stated that existing pneumonia vaccines are useless against the specific kind of pneumonia caused by SARS-CoV-2.

In other words, you really can’t prepare your body for this infection. It is true that some people seem to have very light or no symptoms at all (but are still able to infect others). The virus appears to be deadlier to older people, overweight people, and people with pre-existing health conditions, such as asthma and diabetes. (In other words, I am a sitting duck.)

Researchers are still trying to calculate the infectiousness (R0 or R-naught) and case fatality rate (CFR) of this new viral outbreak, and experiments with various treatment options are currently being conducted on infected patients to see what works and what doesn’t. However, all the preliminary reports suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 is about as easily transmissible as the regular, seasonal influenza we see every year.

As an interim measure, it is possible (some would say, likely) that we will begin to see the same kind of social distancing and quarantine policies currently seen in China being implemented by governments around the world. Travel between countries has already been and will continue to be negatively impacted. Major international conferences, such as the Mobile World Conference, are already being cancelled.

All of the preceding discussion is merely preamble to the point I am trying to make: that a potential pandemic will both help and hurt virtual reality.

How will a potential coronavirus pandemic help VR?

I believe that this truly unprecedented combination of circumstances might actually drive more people to embrace virtual reality technology and social VR platforms as a way to safely attend conferences, training sessions, and other events, where it is not physically possible due to pandemic quarantines and social distancing policies. In other words, more people will be exposed to VR, and sooner than predicted, due to the impact of SARS-CoV-2.

Some people (who might not be aware of social VR) are already tweeting about the need for this:

To which I replied:

This situation might even lead to a boom in the use of various social VR platforms (and perhaps even non-VR virtual worlds such as Second Life). We will probably begin to see many more conferences held partly or completely in virtual reality, such as this week’s Educators in VR 2020 International Summit, where presenters and attendees can share ideas and mingle without the worry of being exposed to an infectious virus!

How will a potential coronavirus pandemic hurt VR?

Many factories have shut down production of goods in mainland China, where many of the computer gadgets we use everyday are manufactured. While a potential pandemic might strengthen demand for VR headsets, it might also make it much harder to get your hands on one.

For example, I have already written about the impact that the Wuhan coronavirus is having on availability of the popular Oculus Quest headset, which is now completely sold out in most consumer markets. We can expect to see similar problems crop up with other VR hardware that is fully or partially manufactured by those countries affected by SARS-CoV-2. Tony (a.k.a SkarredGhost) of the VR newsblog The Ghost Howls reports that Beijing-based augmented reality headset maker nReal has completely shut down production, for example.

So, the coronavirus is a double-edged sword with respect to virtual reality.


Good Sources of Information on SARS-CoV-2

Here is my updated list of good, credible, authoritative resources to learn more about the Wuhan coronoavirus (formerly called 2019-nCoV and now officially called SARS-CoV-2; the disease the virus causes is now called COVID-19):

If you want a quick, up-to-date overview of the current situation, here are three good places to check:

Stay informed and stay healthy!

P.S. Effective today, I have created a new blogpost category called Virtual Reality (General), under which I will put those blogposts that talk about VR in a general way that don’t fit under a more specific existing category. I will try to go back and add this category to older blogposts, but obviously, at 1,700 blogposts written to date, I can’t go back and do them all!

The Wuhan Coronavirus Outbreak Impacts the Manufacture and Delivery of New Oculus Quest VR Headsets: Facebook Announces That the Quest Is Now Unavailable In Most Countries

Thanks to the Wuhan coronavirus, the Oculus Quest is unavailable

For the past two weeks—since January 25th, 2020, when there were only 1,438 cases—I have been trying to balance my coverage of “social VR, virtual worlds, and metaverse” (as the tagline of my blog states) with coverage of the rapidly-evolving global health crisis that is the Wuhan coronavirus (more formally known as 2019-nCoV, at least until the authorities give it a proper name or acronym).

There have been many reports in the mainstream news media that the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak in China will negatively impact the manufacture and delivery of everything from pharmaceutical ingredients to automotive parts. Yesterday, the Road to VR website published a news report that illustrates the growing impact that the 2019-nCoV situation is having on the manufacture of VR technology. (Yes, this story is about both virtual reality and the coronavirus. It was bound to happen eventually!)

Titled Facebook Expects Coronavirus Will Have “Additional Impact” on Oculus Quest Availability, the article says:

After being back-ordered by weeks in many regions, Oculus Quest is now “unavailable” from Oculus in 17 out of 23 regions where the unit is sold, including the United States, Canada, and much of Europe. Facebook says the Coronavirus outbreak is to blame.

Responding to a Road to VR inquiry about Oculus Quest becoming “unavailable” in many regions, a Facebook spokesperson shared the following statement:

“Oculus Quest has been selling out in some regions due to high demand. That said, like other companies we’re expecting some additional impact to our hardware production due to the Coronavirus. We’re taking precautions to ensure the safety of our employees, manufacturing partners and customers, and are monitoring the situation closely.”

At the time of writing, the Oculus Quest is now unavailable in the following 17 regions: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

Facebook gave no indication of when it expects the Oculus Quest to be once again available. Given the severe impact that the coronavirus is having on China’s economy, it seems unlikely that we will see any new stock of Oculus Quest VR headsets available anytime soon. How this might impact other Facebook plans for 2020—including the impending beta launch of their social VR platform, Horizon—remains to be seen. (But you can expect resellers on eBay and other places to take advantage of the situation and start selling Oculus Quests at a premium to those people still eager to get their hands on one.)

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!