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Just two years ago, virtual reality (VR) looked like the surefire, slam-dunk future of social media. Instead of meeting, collaborating and playing in the current Facebook experience, you’d be interacting in some form of mixed reality, in which possibilities were left only to the imagination. Back in 2017, Facebook was the clear leader in the VR/social media space – not only was the company the leading social networking platform in the world, but also it was still fresh off its $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, arguably the leader in the VR hardware space. Moreover, Facebook had just debuted Facebook Spaces, which was being positioned as the killer social media app for VR.
Flash forward to 2020, however, and things look much different. For one, Facebook shut down Facebook Spaces in October 2019, in what has to be seen as at least a tacit sign of defeat. Just as Google never figured out the social media game and eventually shut down Google+, you could argue that Facebook never figured out VR and eventually shut down Facebook Spaces. Despite every effort, Facebook has never really convinced the average Internet user that they needed to spend hundreds of dollars on a VR headset to make their social media experience better. So what comes next?
Facebook VR reboots
One scenario for the future of VR and social media still involves Facebook. That’s because, even though the company shut down Facebook Spaces in late 2019, it did so in order to pave the way for the launch of Facebook Horizon in 2020. In a meeting with developers back in September, CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a preview of what to expect with Facebook Horizon. He described it as a way to play games, build your own experiences, and hang out with friends – and then demoed some examples of cartoon-like avatars (with just half a body) conversing about silly topics in a made-up virtual reality world. Honestly, it looked like a giant Pixar cartoon, and Tech Crunch called it “Facebook’s take on Second Life.”
Which leads to the natural conclusion that, when it comes to VR, Facebook is trying to follow the path established by rivals such as VRChat and AltspaceVR, which are both much more of a VR gaming experience that you play with friends than a true social networking experience. That’s what Facebook Horizon seems to be aiming for – a sort of multi-player VR gaming and entertainment platform with some Facebook integration built into it, so that you can connect your Facebook profile to your Horizon avatar.
Right now, Horizon is still much more of a concept than a reality, (i.e. it’s still in beta) but there are a few hints on the Horizon page about what to expect. One is a real focus on “citizenship” and what is expected of each person signing up for Horizon. Social media platforms are dealing with charges of bullying, intimidation and cyber-stalking, so it’s clear that Facebook wants to be sure that Horizon is a safe space for all.
Another detail that really stands out is the fact that Facebook appears to be positioning Horizon as an Oculus-only experience. It’s sort of an Apple closed ecosystem approach, in which the only way to use Facebook Horizon will be to use Facebook hardware (i.e. an Oculus device) – the same way that Apple wants you to use Apple devices to access Apple content. Thus, if you have any kind of VR headset other than an Oculus headset, you’re out of luck.
The importance of “live” experiences in VR
In thinking about the future of social media and VR, it appears that companies entering the space will increasingly focus on “live” experiences that you can share with others. In the past, Fox Sports has experimented with live VR experiences around sporting events (i.e. two friends in two different cities meeting in VR to watch their hometown teams battle for supremacy). And AltspaceVR has focused on live shows, meetups and classes as a way to attract the casual VR user.
If you think about the importance of live events in the digital media space, it’s easy to see how VR could add some extra functionality and dimensionality to any live experience. A live event like the Super Bowl, for example, would be a great way to leverage the power of VR. It will be interesting to see what 2020 holds for social media and VR. Admittedly, much of the early hype and buzz has worn off VR, but it looks like Facebook and Oculus are going to give it one final try sometime this year.