This is the third article this year dealing with Facebook. I don't work for Facebook. Promise. In fact, for the most part, I don't even like Facebook—certainly not the "social media" aspect of it that uses marketing and advertising to take advantage of people, while collecting data for third-party access. It's done a number on the U.S. elections, is the primary driver of misinformation, and I also think that it's high time for Mark Zuckerberg to step down. He's not built for leadership.
I've kept an eye on Facebook this year because I do believe that the problems they have with their social media empire overshadow some of the quality work they do in philanthropy, open source, hardware, and other departments. Facebook has a high quality open source team exploring data and building great tools, while some divisions of the company (e.g., Instagram, Oculus) have a limited form of autonomy.
I've written (and spoken) in the past about the value of both Facebook's research initiatives and their hardware deliverables, as well as the importance of virtual reality and augmented reality. Two things occurred in the past month that provide additional evidence that Facebook is all-in on virtual world-building and the Oculus.
The first (and more recent) is the announcement of the Oculus Quest 2. We don't have official sales numbers on the original Oculus Quest, but rumors are that it sold well (and sold out) during the holiday season last year, and that it's been a popular hardware device given our current self-isolation thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The writing on the virtual wall is clear: In the age of the pandemic, people still want social interaction. COVID-19 has made us cautious, and virtual communities are emphasizing safety and social interaction—something you can't have right now.
The hours we spend on social media [has] increased [during the pandemic]. A recent Statista survey showed that 29.7 percent of U.S. social media users used social media 1-2 additional hours per day. eMarketer notes that 51% of U.S. adults are using social media at higher rates during the pandemic.
Social virtual reality, or social VR, has seen an increase in users too. Social VR apps like Rec Room, BigScreen, VRChat, and AltSpace have all seen an increase in traffic. AltSpace is even hosting one of Burning Man's virtual worlds from this year's virtual event.
Facebook announced the Oculus Quest 2 with enough lead-time towards the 2020 holiday season to spark interest, and although this isn't a massive upgrade for the device, it is a significant increase in hardware specs.
First, let's take a look at the primary complaints about virtual reality gear (we covered this in a previous article):
Even with 4K resolution, YouTube 360 in the Oculus is jarringly blurry with most videos, especially when combined with the screen door effect. In fact, I would argue that the screen door effect is a bigger detractor than the resolution. Some high definition and 4K videos look great, but are held back by the nature of pixel-based screens. These things have made gaming the default utility of the device because without clarity, real-world explorations through video are simply a novelty.
Additionally, with VR, productivity applications aren't going to be useful with a headset as bulky as the Oculus. [...] Nobody wants to sit with it on his or her head for 8 hours though. [...] Although Magic Leap has been a disappointment as a company, the device is lighter weight than the Oculus. Google might have given up on Google Glass for consumers, but the augmented reality (AR) device showed the potential for size reduction. Now with rumors every other month of Apple jumping into the VR game, we can expect that competition to corner the mark will push innovation.
Some of the more impressive features in the new Oculus Quest include a higher resolution display with 50% more pixels at 1832 x 1920 pixels per eye. The display is a single LCD that allows for super high resolution and better visuals and is supports 90Hz. There are also improvements in the software: The Oculus Quest 2 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 platform with 6GB of memory, making it flexible to switch between all-in-one and PC VR gaming.
On the outside, the Oculus Quest 2 is smaller and 10% lighter than the previous generation and with a soft strap and is fully wireless. There are also adjustable optics so you can fit the device to your needs. The new Touch controllers that come with the device will deliver a better feeling of hand presence by offering better ergonomics and longer battery life.
You can see that Oculus (and the industry as a whole) is starting to address some of the more specific issues with the hardware—namely, increasing the resolution. The hardware has not gotten significantly smaller, but Facebook is starting to toy with augmented reality glasses that are significantly smaller than their VR counterpart, so work is being done to address the everyday wearability of world-building devices. Outside of the size, the two most important aspects (again) are resolution (addressed with the latest release) and the screen door effect (which will require greater resolution, but also some advances in technology to move away from pure pixel-based solutions).
Just as Facebook began to prepare their announcements for the Oculus, Bill and I both received an invite to Facebook Horizon. Horizon is Facebook's open virtual world—their attempt to build a virtual space to mimic their social space. Horizon has been teased for quite some time, and the original release date was back in March. Horizon very simply describes itself as:
[...] a social experience where you can explore, play and create.
From TechCrunch's write-up:
Launching in early 2020 in closed beta, Facebook Horizon will allow users to design their own diverse avatars and hop between virtual locales through portals called Telepods, watch movies and consume other media with friends and play multiplayer games together, like Wing Strikers. It also will include human guides, known as Horizon Locals, who can give users assistance and protect their safety in the VR world so trolls can’t run rampant.
As part of the launch, Facebook will on October 25 shut down its existing social VR experiences Facebook Spaces and Oculus Rooms, leaving a bit of a gap until Horizon launches. Oculus Rooms debuted in 2016 as your decoratable private VR apartment, while Spaces first launched in 2017 to let users chat, watch movies and take VR selfies with friends.
Then early 2020 came around with no release.
The delay had some people wondering if it was even happening at all and just how far behind the technology was.
Upon gaining the invite, I spun up my visor and dove into the virtual world. What immediately struck me was the emphasis on security and privacy. Although Facebook Horizon uses real names, security is front-and-center. Horizon's controls appear when you look down at your wrist. There are three buttons: One for menu, one for mute, and one for entering into a safe zone. In this zone, the world melts away, people gray out, and you're still inside the virtual space, but now disconnected from the social aspects. In a beta virtual world, this functionality is fully thought out, fully fleshed out, and fully functional. You can tell that Facebook and Oculus spent a lot of time and concern over how to make Horizon better and safer than the discourse on Facebook's social timeline.
It's clear that Horizon paid close attention to AltSpaceVR (the Microsoft purchased VR space company), as it attempts to turn itself into the the gathering platform for virtual world explorers. AltSpaceVR recently revamped their avatar creation process and has pursued large event gatherings (like the aforementioned Burning Man), creating quality recreations of these large festivals. During DEF CON 28 (which was entirely virtual), a conference attendee created a virtual space to mimic the villages that would have been present had the physical conference actually taken place.
Horizon is new to the world-building game, but there is a ton of blank slate potential:
The app (service? social network? gamespace?) is, in Facebook's own words, "an ever-expanding universe of virtual experiences designed and built by the entire community." That means you can hang out and chat with people in Horizon using custom VR avatars, or play games and activities built with the app's internal tools. In that respect Horizon is similar to Roblox, which has gained huge popularity by letting users build their own experiences.
"In many ways, it reminded me of the white void from The Matrix—a room filled with limitless potential and creativity,"" says Engadget's Devindra Hardawar on Horizon's creative mode. "Within a few minutes, my guide turned the empty space into a virtual beach, complete with sand, water and a golden sunset horizon. All the while, I spent a few minutes trying to create a palm tree."
Facebook Horizon might be trailing companies like AltSpaceVR, but even with Microsoft's backing, the virtual community space is not innovating so dramatically that Horizon is that far behind. Even in beta with some poor movement controls (I really don't like movement in Horizon's virtual world) and a lot of crashes, Facebook Horizon might not be as polished as the marketing video that promoted it, but it's on par with AltSpaceVR in terms of features and cartoonish environments.
When we've discussed VR in the past, it's been about whether or not VR is dead. But Bill and I have both moved passed this in order to explore the innovative technology and software at the ends of the spectrum. Dead or not, world-building is not going anywhere. Minecraft is still big. So is SIMS. The larger the open world in a video game, the more people get hooked on the grinding. With virtual reality, navigating the power of apotheosis in a virtually expanding digital environment is highly cathartic, and has been a bit of an obsession since I first received my Oculus and experienced the TRON-like whale swimming overhead. The future of VR is a Caprica-like series of digital worlds created by users.
With Facebook Horizon, there is a noticeable gap between what the marketing video promised and what was delivered in the beta, but that gap isn't so large that any disappointment sets in. Instead, you see the potential and can almost grasp the future.
When in creator mode you can become a giant to work on large-scale structures, or scale yourself down to work on little details. The core of creating is Horizon is a set of light-weight modeling tools which allow you to combine and modify primitive shapes to build environments and props.
Many of the features you’d hope to see are there: grouping, painting, basic texturing, plane snapping, and axis sliding & rotation. There’s also arrays, which allow you to quickly and precisely duplicate objects or groups of objects, making it easy to make repeating structures like stairs, windows, or entire buildings.
Basic scripting is also possible in Horizon, allowing creators to add game logic to their Worlds. I haven’t had the chance to dive into the scripting tools yet, but from my experience as a player, it seems that they can enable some surprisingly complex behaviors.
Facebook's world-building controls almost border on the intuitive. If the almost makes you laugh, remember that this is a beta suited for everyday geeks and early-adopters, and yet the controls for building your own virtual environment are highly polished with only a few quirks taking away from the experience. You can easily switch between an explorer travelling around your own space to god-mode where you hover above (or below) your digital-space expanding and moving objects.
Object creation can easily be done through a menuing system, and this system offers simple geometric shapes, as well as complex—but commont—objects such as transporter doors. Scaling of objects can easily be accomplished in god-mode with standard selection and zoom. Moving objects is also just as easy. Want to add some color? Just choose some painting options from the menu and have at it.
Despite the detractors, the future is bright for virtual reality and world-building in particular, and it isn't just me running around saying this.
[Navah] Berg adds that currently, in social media, people learn through shared passions and build relationships by relaying stories/content via a screen. For her, VR takes it to another dimension, where new friends and new memories converge through an immersive lens that feels as though they are in the same shared space while given tools to use together, before ever meeting IRL.
Bill and I have both had our struggles in the early world-building experiment, but none of those struggles have taken away from the excitement of such an expansive world-building exercise. Space might be the final frontier, but that doesn't mean there aren't parallel frontiers to experience by going inside our virtually connected brains and the worlds we build to connect with one another.
(Photo of "horizon" by WhatiMom)