Facebook Horizons

Facebook’s VR (Dys)topia

As I watched Facebook unveil the latest developments in virtual reality at last month’s Oculus Connect developer conference, there were two things going through my mind. First, there’s excitement in hearing about the latest game titles that’ll be available with Oculus VR, but it’s the second that has me the most concerned: the VR incarnation of Facebook that’s being developed that, while fascinating to hear about, is something that people should be wary about because of privacy and safety reasons.

The “Oasis” come true

Named Facebook Horizon, it’s a virtual land that draws comparisons to the Oasis from Steven Spielberg’s movie Ready Player One, a place in which people spend their lives living in VR, ignoring their existence in reality. It’s a place where you can be whatever you want to be. Although Horizon would be a great demonstration of virtual reality, are we really sure that Facebook is the right one to make this version of reality exist?

Users will be able to create their own “destinations” within Horizons, along with custom experiences. You’ll be able to create your very own utopia, or so you think. Facebook has dominated the two-dimensional social network and now wants to conquer the three-dimensional space, opening up a VR play area for its more than 2 billion monthly active users (though only a fraction of them are likely Oculus users).

The promise is that you can meet up with friends, family, and strangers in Horizon, which is like a town square in VR. Besides your own destination space, you can develop games and communities without needing to do any coding. This definitely sounds appealing because it makes VR more accessible to those who won’t want to be subject to the whims of developers (except for Facebook, that is).

You can create your own avatar and if you need assistance, there will be guides available, staffed by human beings. Sounds pretty dreamy, doesn’t it? The video that Facebook’s marketing team put together makes Horizon look like an amazing experience, but just looking closely at it should cause some concern and that’s not even counting the questions you might have about privacy and safety.

For the past six years, Facebook has done two things: launched new hardware and software to gradually improve the VR experience and also tease what the ultimate use case could be. Mark Zuckerberg has touted using Oculus to communicate with friends, colleagues, and family using VR in shared spaces, transporting each other to faraway lands, and more. Though Facebook’s chief executive admits it’ll be a while before VR becomes mainstream, he told CNET in an interview, “we want to help shape the next computing platform to be more about interacting with people and not just apps and tasks” and Horizon is likely the epitome of that evolution.

How much has been really thought through?

Perhaps the biggest concern anyone should have about Facebook Horizon is with safety and privacy. Does anyone fully expect that the social networking company would have its act together by the time this massive-multiplayer VR world is launched? Facebook still has issues around its traditional social network, with users harassed constantly, and plenty of questions still circulating over how secure user data is. The company has said previously that it’s baking in safety and empathy into its avatars and shared spaces, but it’s still worth questioning whether Facebook is solving anything.

“If things get overwhelming, you can tap a shield button to pause and dip into a private space parallel to Horizon,” TechCrunch notes, which is good that Facebook offers some security, but how does it ensure that it doesn’t just contribute to people’s echo chambers? To its credit, the company has already thought about community tools and standards, but is it something that will stick or be serviced in the vaguest of terms? Facebook is having problems with its current standards when it comes to user safety and content so how can we expect it to have things polished by launch time?

In an interview with CNET, Zuckerberg responded to the issue around privacy:

Those concerns will continue to exist and I think there will be new concerns,” he says without elaborating. “There’s still a lot of questions. I don’t think these are things that ever get fully answered — the threats evolve and you need to work on them. But I would hope that by the time these ecosystems are mature, our approaches to those issues will also be quite mature.”

To me, it suggests that as Facebook develops new products to keep people’s attention, the company seems to consider these “threats” as something you can simply file a JIRA ticket for and take care of every now and then, ignoring the fact that it’s causing a significant impact on society.

And speaking of community tools, will Facebook be treating its Horizon agents fairly like it does for content moderators? We know that the latter role isn’t an easy one and much has been said about the psychological harm that has been inflicted on moderators, so how will this practice be improved both for the traditional social network and also for Horizon?

Keeping Facebook fresh with VR

Aesthetically, Horizon looks to be an amazing place worth visiting and setting up shop. Sure, it keeps the “Facebook” experience fresh and modern, offers up new monetization strategies for the company, more data points to collect, and brands will likely flock to it as it gives them a chance to provide more immersive experiences than simply showing off flat images and videos. But for users, it’s just a fresh coat of paint on a social network experience that they’ve been accustomed to for the past 12 years.

Can Facebook succeed when it comes to socializing virtual reality? It has tried but has had a series of missteps, something that Oculus chief technology officer John Carmack called “kinda embarassing”:

“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… Our avatars have continuously mutated from little floating heads through three different versions. We do not have this well-sorted out at this point.”

Even with these mistakes, Facebook continues to march forward to develop a social experience that works in virtual reality. Whether Horizon will work this time, is something worth watching. In truth, if we’re looking for VR at scale, Facebook is the one who could make it happen, but be that as it may, should we take the good with the bad, or should we expect better?