Editorial: Are Social VR Platforms Dependent Upon High-End PCVR Doomed?

Today’s Melatopia Festival in Sansar: Less than 45 Avatars Total?

This afternoon, I paid a visit to Sansar to attend the virtual version of the Melatopia South Asian festival. I had a chance to catch up with some old friends and listen to some great music. Sansar is still (to my mind) the most beautiful virtual world, with a vibrant marketplace (44,582 items and counting) providing endless avatar customization options (there was even a mini velociraptor avatar running around amidst the crowd at the concert stage!).

But all the while, I had this nagging little voice in the back of my head, asking: Where is everybody?

To the best of my knowledge (and Wookey may correct me if I am mistaken), the Melatopia event never went above a single instance, and there were never more than 45 avatars total present at the festival (and most of the time that I was there, the figure from the Codex was in the low-to-middle thirties). (UPDATE: There was briefly one time in the afternoon where the festival hit a high if 51 avatars, spawning a second instance.)

Even granted that most people would be watching the show via Twitch, Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, I find that to be a shockingly, abysmally low attendance figure, especially compared to the multitudes that would have attended the real-life version of this festival, were it not for the coronavirus pandemic.

Frankly, this blogger has long ago given up trying to chastise Wookey for their puzzling lack of promotion of events on the Sansar platform. There’s only so many times I can write the same editorial: YOU NEED TO PAY FOR PROMOTION. YOU CANNOT EXPECT PEOPLE TO COME TO SANSAR IF YOU DO NOT PROMOTE THE PLATFORM. But my pleas (and those of many other observers) seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Whatever Wookey is doing to promote Sansar, it’s clearly not enough.

But it does raise a bigger question that I have only addressed in passing in earlier editorials discussing and dissecting the demise of the old High Fidelity and the near-death experience and resurrection of Sansar. And that question is: was it a mistake to build social VR platforms that would only run on tethered, high-end virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and the Valve Index? The collective term I and many other people use when talking about these VR headsets, all of which require a high-end Windows gaming computer with a powerful graphics card to run, is PCVR.

Let’s face facts: both now and for the foreseeable future, the clear VR headset of choice by consumers will be the wireless, standalone Oculus Quest, especially now that Facebook has released the newer, cheaper Oculus Quest 2. And Facebook will stop selling its Oculus Rift S tethered, PCVR headset (the successor to the original Oculus Rift) this coming spring. Business Insider reported:

“We’re going to focus on standalone VR headsets moving forward,” the company said in a blog post on Wednesday. “We’ll no longer pursue PC-only hardware, with sales of Rift S ending in 2021.”

The Rift line of headsets required a powerful gaming PC to power virtual reality experiences. The headset connected to the PC with a set of wires, but the latest Oculus Quest headsets are able to replicate this experience with a single detachable USB cable in addition to operating without a dedicated PC.

As such, Facebook isn’t outright killing its PC-driven virtual reality efforts. It will continue supporting higher-end, PC-powered virtual reality on the Quest line of headsets. 

“We’ve seen significant growth in PC VR via Oculus Link,” the blog post said, “and the Rift Platform will continue to grow while offering high-end PC VR experiences like ‘Lone Echo II’ and ‘Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond’ well into the future.”

Two years ago, TechCrunch reported on the disagreements within Facebook over the company’s decision to focus on standalone as opposed to high-end, tethered headsets, saying that Brendan Iribe, the co-founder and former CEO of Oculus, was “leaving Facebook  following some internal shake-ups in the company’s virtual reality arm last week that saw the cancellation of the company’s next generation ‘Rift 2’ PC-powered virtual reality headset, which he had been leading development of”.

If Facebook is leaving the high-end PCVR market, what does that mean for the future of social VR platforms which either do not run on the Quest, like Sansar, or do not run at their full technical capacity, like VRChat? (I wrote about my earlier experiences running VRChat on my Oculus Quest here. Although I’m sure the situation has improved somewhat since then, the fact remains that you still need PCVR to really experience everything that VRChat has to offer.) Are those platforms that run best (or only) on PCVR doomed?

No. So relax. (Yeah, all right, I admit that was a click-bait blogpost title. Sue me.)

While the market for high-end PCVR might mature more slowly than that of wireless VR headsets (and definitely more slowly than most overconfident observers had originally predicted), eventually it will come. Devices may come and go in popularity, but the overall trend is clear: ever more data being pushed to your headset, creating ever more detailed environments. Eventually, that screen door effect that can sometimes make it difficult to read text in a VR headset will vanish. Visual fidelity will only improve from here on in. Consumers and businesses will demand it, and they will buy it. It’s inevitable.

While we do not yet know what future headsets various tech companies have on their drawing boards, we can be assured that other companies will definitely step into the PCVR market while Facebook is stepping out, and up the VR/AR/XR game (many eyes are watching to see what Apple will do, for example). As I like to say, a rising tide lifts all boats. I believe that many people who get their first taste of VR from an Oculus Quest will no doubt graduate to more powerful, tethered devices. (Even Facebook may decide to change their minds at some point in the future, particularly if they should see any potential competitors do well.)

I myself have already placed my order for a Valve Index kit to replace my trusty, four-year-old Oculus Rift, as part of my personal boycott of Facebook/Oculus products and services (more info here). I have heard through the grapevine that they are selling well since Facebook’s decision to force Oculus device users to get Facebook accounts, which is not sitting well with many early VR adopters at all.

And I very much look forward to visiting future virtual festivals in Sansar in my shiny new Valve Index!

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.

Editorial: Why I Think the Oculus Quest Will Be THE Major Virtual Reality Headset of 2020

I’m calling it now, exactly one month before Christmas: this year’s hottest gifts will be Baby Yoda toys and the Oculus Quest.

The Baby Yoda thing is patently obvious (I mean, look at him!), but the Quest? Why do I think this?

Because with the release of the Oculus Link software, the Oculus Quest can now be used both as a standalone VR headset, and as a VR headset connected to a gaming PC to run Oculus Rift titles and apps.

Although I have said that I prefer my Oculus Rift to the Quest/Link setup, and (to be honest) if I were starting over again completely from scratch, I would probably buy the more powerful Valve Index, I do think that the Oculus Quest is going to be the first truly successful consumer VR hardware in 2020.

It’s very attractively priced, and Facebook has already reported that they are selling Quests as fast as they can make them. The company is slowly but steadily expanding the number of apps on their Oculus Quest store. When Facebook loosens their tight curatorial control on the Quest store, and make it easier for developers to submit apps (which I expect to happen next year), we can expect sales of the Quest to boom.

And it will become a virtuous circle: the more popular the Quest becomes, the more developers will create apps for it. The more apps available, the more Quests Facebook will sell.

Mark my words: 2020 will be the Year of the Quest.

OC6 Starts Today: What Will Facebook Announce?

Today is the opening day of Oculus Connect 6 (OC6), a two-day event at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in sunny, warm California, and it’s all everybody who is anybody in virtual reality and augmented reality has been talking about for weeks.

Even Facebook’s CEO has been in on the game, teasing users with cryptic announcements such as this one:

(RPG is short for role-playing game, in case you’re not up on the lingo. And Ready Player One, of course, is last year’s hit movie about virtual reality.)

Mark’s Facebook post led UploadVR to speculate:

What exactly could Zuckerberg be teasing here? In Ready Player One, the Oasis is an all-encompassing virtual metaverse that allows anyone to be whoever they want and do whatever they want. It’s so good that humanity basically loses itself inside the new world. We don’t think VR is quite ready for something of that scale, but this tease could be taking the first steps towards something like that.

We’ve written in the past about how confusing Facebook’s scattered social VR policy has been. Facebook Spaces appears to be all but forgotten about, Oculus Rooms never left Gear VR and Go, and Oculus Quest still doesn’t have its own social VR experience powered by Facebook.

Could we perhaps see Facebook announced a definitive social destination across Oculus Rift and Quest? … Maybe we’re just getting carried away, but it’s an exciting thought.

We’ll have to watch along with the keynote to find out.

Unfortunately, I am stuck here in the plunging autumn temperatures of Winnipeg, teaching undergraduate agriculture students how to use the library effectively to complete their assigments. So, alas, I am going to have to rely on second-hand accounts of what’s going on at OC6. If I am lucky, I might be able to catch the livestreams of Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote address and other events on the OculusConnect.com website, while I am multi-tasking (here are more details on how to watch from CNET). Of course, it’s not the same thing as actually being there.

And I am hoping (much like UploadVR) that there will be some sort of hint of Facebook’s code-named “Metaverse” social VR platform for Oculus Go, Oculus Quest, and Oculus Rift and Rift S users (which I’m willing to bet will be based on Oculus Home). Facebook has the capacity to steamroller the nascent social VR marketplace, and they’re not above using some dirty tactics to gain market share from competitors, according to a report compiled by SnapChat of their aggressive tactics, which has been submitted to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

So, stay tuned. Some interesting announcements may come out today or tomorrow.