I’ve intentionally held off wiring about Facebook Horizon, the social media giant’s new “social VR platform” that will be launching in a closed beta in 2020, as I wanted to absorb the news and hopefully avoid the initial blast of hype from pushing me too far into the realm of cynical response.
The announcement of Facebook’s latest attempt to get a handle on VR social experiences came at the Oculus Connect 6 (OC6) event, that took place in San Jose, California on September 25th and 26th. It was greeted with a degree of breathlessness in some quarters, with comments comparing it to Ready Player One’s OASIS and to Second Life.
Those looking at the Horizon promotional video will likely to scoff at such comparisons. Clearly, Horizon as presented isn’t OASIS – but that doesn’t mean that, along with Sansar and other similar platforms, it cannot be a foundational block upon which an OASIS like environment might in time be built upon (if one accepts it will happen, which is absolutely not a given). As such, we shouldn’t read too much into the use of such hyperbole and see it as a means to just dismiss Facebook’s new platform.
When it comes to Second Life, the comparison is perhaps closer (although Horizon as announced has no internal economic system) – but it perhaps tempting to still be dismissive simple because of the avatar appearance, which is clearly inferior and – lacking, shall we say – when compared to SL.
However, Horizon isn’t necessarily aimed at virtual world veterans who might be bothered about whether or not avatars have legs or who see customisation as a “must have”; it’s more likely (initially, at least) going to be directed towards Facebook’s own somewhat captive market, people who may well regard avatar fidelity / customisation as less important than aspects like ease of access to the things they want to do. In this, and while acknowledging it was a beast of a slightly different colour, it’s worth pointing out that the lack of real customisation (and legs and arms) with Wii avatars never stopped Nintendo selling over 100 million units.
More to the point, its also worth noting that the Horizon avatars may still be a far from done deal, as Oculus’s Chief Technology Officer, John Carmack, almost alluded when speaking at OC6:
Our avatars have continuously mutated from little floating heads through three different versions. We do not have this well-sorted out at this point.
– Oculus CTO John Carmack, OC6 (via Venturebeat)
My own reservations about Facebook Horizon to push social VR into the mainstream are far more fundamental, coming down as they do to things like audience, potential growth, market, and the like.
It’s undeniable that Facebook has a massive captive audience. Even with their recent upsets over data privacy, etc., the company still has an estimated 1.6 billion people using its services daily. That is a huge wellspring to tap into with a new product. But a stumbling block here is that many in that audience use Facebook whilst on the go via mobile devices and unhampered by the need to carry / use additional hardware. They also have what they see as their needs for engagement, entertainment, etc., pretty well met by the various services already at their fingertips.
Horizon is VR headset driven so, even among its own captive audience, Facebook needs to persuade people that “something they are already doing”, now requires them to go out and buy a lump of hardware (Oculus Quest) at US$399/$499 (£399/£499) a pop to “do the same thing”. Yes, I know a social VR experience isn’t the same as social networking, but you still have to get people over that hump of understanding – and that’s potentially a hard sell.
And that leads into market and growth. At the start of 2019, Nvidia’s co-founder & CEO Jensen Huang stated the company’s belief that around 4 million PC VR systems have been sold worldwide; even with Oculus claiming around 50% of the high-end PC VR market, that’s not a terribly exciting figure. True, we now have the standalone Oculus Quest, but that is only projected to hit sales of 1 to 1.3 million by the end of the year. So, even with Facebook saying they will be extending Horizon’s reach to other VR hardware in time, the overall VR market remains pretty small – and despite all the projections, it is taking time to grow (even Zuckerberg has stated the market is still “five to ten years” from where Facebook would like it to be).
In this, making Horizon “VR only” tends to feel a little as if Facebook is getting into a position of chasing its own tail: VR needs a platform like Horizon that needs VR that needs a platform like Horizon – and so on. Say what you sill about Linden Lab’s Sansar – at least those with an adequate PC can access it as well as those with VR hardware.
Which is not to say I think Horizon cannot succeed; certainly, Oculus have been down this road a few times with other products so as to have been able to learn a few lessons they can put before Facebook. Although even that is a bit of a double-edged sword; Oculus’ own attempts to leverage social VR haven’t been massively successful,, and they are now going to wind down Spaces and Rooms (both of which have been available to Oculus Go and Gear VR as well as the more recent Quest) due to declining use.
On the social side, looking back, it’s kinda embarrassing at all the stages that we’ve gone through at Oculus. Way back in the early days, I did the social API so people could co-watch Twitch and things. And then we had Spaces and Rooms on Gear and Go. Now we have Horizon.
– Oculus CTO John Carmack, OC6, via Venturebeat
Of course, Horizon will offer a lot more than either Spaces or Rooms, but even so; far from being the “arrival” of social VR, it’s hard not to look on Horizon as more of another step along the way to trying to prove the need for social VR over the more general means of electronic social interaction. And even if the VR market does take 5-10 years to mature – that’s a long time for Facebook to iterate and improve Horizon, and it’s not like they’ll be short of revenue in order to do so.
There are other questions surrounding Horizon. For example, will it have any form of transaction system? If so, what kind? Facebook’s nascent Libra blockchain (assuming it comes to fruition and retains its idealism – see Andreas Antonopoulos’ take on this)? How will people react to Horizon using Facebook’s existing “real identity” and blocking tools and all the baggage of data gathering and use that goes with them? And so on.
But these kinds of questions can only be answered over time and as Horizon progresses; for now, I admit to being curious about Horizon and its potential impact (or otherwise). However, it’s not a platform I’ll be exploring. For one thing, I don’t see the point of investing in VR hardware yet (although that time will likely come). More particularly, even if I had a headset, my personal preference is to keep as far away from Facebook as possible.