Pandemic Diary: April 19th, 2020 (Please Do Not Worry About Me)

This morning, I am reading a story from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune newspaper, about an Ironman triathlete in his thirties (clearly healthy by any standard, and fitter than most people) who very nearly died from COVID-19.

Coronavirus survivor Ben O’Donnell (source)

If this is not a warning that the young and healthy are not immune to COVID-19, I don’t know what is. And, as someone who is not-so-young and definitely-not-so-healthy, it is worrisome. I cannot get this virus. I will not get this virus, even if I have to self-isolate in my apartment until there is a vaccine (which is estimated to take 12 to 18 months, if things move at hyperspeed).

Many of you who are reading this blog have reached out to me to express your concern. I want to assure everybody that I am coping as best I can under the circumstances. Yes, it means that some days I will not lie and say that everything is fine, because frankly, some days are rough.

But I will continue to do the best I can to take care of myself, and reach out for help when appropriate. I check in with my psychiatrist who prescribes my anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications biweekly, and I have now entered into a second counselling relationship with a friend of a trusted friend, who has experience with peer counselling in a healthcare setting and has worked as a volunteer at a crisis hotline.

If things get bad (and by “bad”, I mean that my chronic clinical depression makes a serious and long-lasting resurgence), then I will do what needs to be done, go back on sick leave from work, and focus on getting better again. I know the drill; I’ve had it happen to me before and I will get through this. The last time I went on sick leave for depression, I was away for two-and-a-half years, but I fought my way back (with the help of virtual reality, which I firmly believe got my neurons firing properly again) and I have every intention of fighting just as hard if the blackness and bleakness descends upon me again.

Back then, I wrote:

I’ve been under a doctor’s treatment for depression since my mid-twenties, and I probably would have benefitted from seeking treatment even sooner than that. At times, my episodes of depression have been so severe that I have had to go on extended sick leaves from work. I’ve even been hospitalized twice when I was at my very worst. I have had to work very hard to crawl back from the edge of the black pit of despair, more than once in my life.

I first got my Oculus Rift headset back in January 2017, when I was on sick leave for depression from my job, and my life was feeling pretty bleak. Shortly afterwards, I also got the Oculus Touch hand controllers to be able to handle objects in VR.

I have no scientific proof, but I do believe that using that VR headset regularly—creating art using TiltBrush and Oculus Medium, using apps like Guided Meditation VR and Nature Treks VR, and interacting with other avatars and exploring new experiences in High Fidelity and the then-closed Sansar beta—was indeed a beneficial factor in my most recent recovery from depression. The best way I can describe it was that VR got my neurons firing again!

Some would no doubt argue that too much use of a VR headset is isolating, which I can understand if you are only playing solo games, or spending innumerable hours immersed in VR. However, in many games, and especially in most social VR spaces, you are often interacting with other people, which would counteract the isolation aspect somewhat. I also strongly recommend taking the time to build up your tolerance to VR, starting from sessions as short as 10-15 minutes, and building up slowly from that. I am a little concerned when I hear about people who boast logging 5, 6, 7, 8, or even more hours at one stretch in VR. Everything in moderation is the key here.

And when you’re too depressed to set foot outside your front door, it can sometimes be easier to slip on a VR headset to visit people and places! No need to get dressed up, or to put on your “happy face” to face the world. There have often been times in the past when I have felt extremely anxious, and I was able to load up the Nature Treks VR app in my Oculus Rift and relax on a calm, sandy beach lined with swaying palm trees, listening to the pounding surf, or just put myself within a mountain-ringed meadow of wildflowers, watching birds and butterflies. Much cheaper than an actual flight to a vacation spot! And you can revisit any time you like, with very little fuss.

I do find it ironic that the empty space I cleared in my bedroom to use my wireless Oculus Quest VR headset is now piled with canned goods and other pandemic preps! However, I still have my trusty original Oculus Rift VR headset, which I still use almost daily. In fact, I even brought home the Oculus Rift and Touch from my work computer (purchased for my suspended research project), sitting in its original box in the middle of my messy living room, and I can honestly say that I have an emergency back-up unit in case any part of my current Oculus Rift/Touch setup fails on me! (The cable attaching the Rift to my high-end gaming computer seems to be the thing that gives out first, according to various user reports.)

When I went to pick up my upholstered office chair last week to soothe my raggedy ass (link is quite safe for work), I also took home my work PC’s ergonomic keyboard and wireless mouse, in case either of those on my personal computer goes kaput on me while in self-isolation, Yes, I have worn through a couple of keyboards and mice in my day. At the moment, I have literally rubbed off the letters on some of the keys on my Microsoft ergonomic keyboard! Good thing I am (almost) a touch typist.

One final note. And I am going to put this is boldface type to make it extra clear:

I use this blog to vent.

In other words, this is an outlet for me. If I am having a bad day, you will most certainly hear about it. This does not mean that I am in any imminent danger of self-harm. It just means that I am complaining about things that are going wrong and how I am feeling, just the same as I would complain to my best friend or my Mom or my shrink about having a bad day.

Some people (in those oh-so-far-away pre-pandemic days) would go to the gym or to the bar and complain to their workout friends or their drinking buddies. I complain to my internet community: to my Discord server, to other Discord servers I belong to (and believe me, I keep bumping up against that 100-Discord-community limit all the time!), to the Second Life community forums (everybody knows Vanity Fair is Ryan Schultz, honey!), to my social networks like Twitter and Reddit…you name it. I have outlets, and I know how to use them. I’m sure you do too, if you think about it.

If what I share here on this blog concerns and worries you, and if you choose to reach out to me to check that I’m doing okay, God bless you for your thoughtfulness and kindness. But please, be assured that I know what I have to do to take care of myself. It’s been learned through 56 years of trial and error, sometimes the hard way, but I have learned.

So please don’t worry overmuch about me if I do vent here. It’s just steam and a whistle from a kettle, and the water has been boiling at quite a pace this past month.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

Stay safe and stay healthy!

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The Coronavirus Pandemic Continues to Impact Supplies of Virtual Reality Headsets

If you are looking for my blogposts about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, please click here


The virtual reality news website UploadVR has reported:

Valve warned us that supplies for its Index VR headset would be limited when it went back up on sale this week. And it wasn’t kidding.

Within less than an hour of going back online, the full Index kit is backed up to shipping after eight weeks. In fact, people on Twitter report that that was the case around 30 minutes in to them going back on sale. Some users also had trouble completing their orders, which may have lost them an early unit. The headset on its own ships between eight to ten weeks and Index controllers are scheduled between three to five weeks. Base stations by themselves are totally sold out, too.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S also remain heavily backordered. In quite an unprecedented situation for VR, it’s now practically impossible to buy an Oculus or Valve VR headset through an official online retailer…

Basically, if you are waiting to purchase an Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift S, or Valve Index, you’re going to be waiting for several more months. The only VR headset that has not been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic is the HTC Vive, which is manufactured in Taiwan. In fact, this global public health crisis might actually lead to more business for HTC.

HTC Vive Logo

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.

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!