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Version 10: Can't Afford Stuff Like This
Meta Horizon Worlds memo, FTC antitrust amendment, generative video AI, and trigger warnings in VR
Welcome back to Threshold, your weekly guide to understanding "metaverse" ambitions from Big Tech and the path to commercial viability of AR/VR hardware for mainstream consumers. Plenty happened last week in cyberspace, here's what mattered the most:
Dog Food vs. Dog Water
Last week's big idea was whether or not Meta is "too early" to its vision for a metaverse. The Verge offered an internal company look into Horizon Worlds, where a leaked a memo from VP Vishal Shah showcased struggle to get even its own employees to use the app. Shah wrote, "Everyone in this organization should make it their mission to fall in love with Horizon Worlds."
Yikes. There is no bigger knell then telling people to "fall in love" with something, instead of curiously asking why they don't.
Casey Newton called this an "enthusiasm gap" in his Platformer newsletter. Internal employees are often asked to "dog food" (slang for beta test) new products as part of their employment. So you could say that Horizon Worlds is so bad Meta can't even pay people to use it??
The New York Times had a differing more positive opinion of it in a piece last week, where Kashmir Hill wanted to give it an unbiased try. She wrote, "My goal was to visit at every hour of the day and night, all 24 of them at least once, to learn the ebbs and flows of Horizon and to meet the metaverse’s earliest adopters."
The piece is an honest attempt to understand Horizon's earliest adopters. Not surprisingly, they're in it for the synchronous interaction with strangers. Hill wrote, "Horizon Worlds reminded me of the AOL chat rooms from my earliest days on the internet, in the 1990s — except here I was making eye contact with the people I’d met, seeing their movements and hearing their voices."
I basically grew up in AOL chat rooms, and I'm not sure I get the same vibe from Horizon. AOL lacked voice chat, so it was easy to masquerade among adults even when I was only 10. But maybe that feeling still persists via avatars for some of Horizon's youngest users. The next question is, will they bring all their friends, too? Or is Horizon just "dog water" (slang for bad) grounds for tweens to troll?
Can't Afford Stuff Like This
In the latest antitrust news, FTC revised some of its previous accusations against Meta in the acquisition of fitness app Supernatural's owner Within. Although it's unclear exactly what the amendment entails, a law professor described it as "unusual."
As someone not versed in antitrust law, I can't tell what this signals for the larger VR development and venture community. The startup SimulaVR gave much more helpful insight here, who wrote a blog piece last week about being subpoenaed by Meta as part of the lawsuit, who asked that they assemble a huge trove of data for them in about 20 days. They wrote, "we can't afford stuff like this" at their current company stage. The other companies included in the subpenoea are corporations like HTC, Samsung, and Nintendo.
Bloomberg covered this previously, and given how little I trust Meta, I'd rather not give them any free data about how to faster crush/steal my startup's product. The SimulaVR piece is a reminder of the damage large court cases do to some of the smaller players that aren't in a great position to assemble and respond to complex legal documents.
AI art tools like DALL-E are becoming popular in part because of their immediate and understandable usefulness. Unlike a "metaverse," even my own kids can experience the joy in combing unusual strings of text and seeing what a computer creates. The natural next step for this is video, and TechCrunch covered Google's new Imagen Video platform, which takes strings of texts and generates a video. Video production and effects are hard work, and it seems inevitable that generative AI will help.
The thing the struck me the most though is how dreamlike these videos are. Their fluid sketchy aesthetic makes me feel like I'm inside a computer's version of reality. It feels a bit like Richard Linklater's rotoscoped movie "Waking Life," which I have long obsessed over because of how it feels like virtual reality. If VR is truly a cognitive threshold, will AI technologies like Imagen build the foundations for our future virtual worlds?
Building anything in Horizon World or Rec Room is still too hard, and I'm excited for the day I can generate my own 3D world without the need for clunky modeling programs or a Unity editor.
Any new technology is talked about in terms of its danger. For VR, there's both a physical danger (you're blindfolded) and a psychological danger (if everything feels real, then bad things feel real too).
Last week both were discussed, with a viral TikTok showing a person taking a quarterback hike too seriously. Ouch!
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Kotaku discussed when a trigger warning might be appropriate for VR games, given how much more intense they can be. In Bonelab, a new VR game, there is an opening scene where, "With no further instruction or warning, the only possible action you can take to progress is to place the noose around your neck, which then teleports you to a medieval setting."
Given there isn't yet a separate ESRB rating for VR games, it seems like at minimum there needs to be options to skip more intense scenes, especially when they involve self-harm or suicide. The power of "presence" goes both ways to the brain, and it seems Meta is going to treat mental health the same way it does with Instagram: by largely looking the other way.
Oh, and that weird Northeastern bomb "explosion" at its VR lab? It was as weird as it originally sounded, and turned out to be staged by their lab manager.
Quote of the Week
“If you had to classify a VR killer app, you would have to lean into Beat Saber being that one game or program or however you want to define it. It’s sucked the most people in and had the greatest retention and draw and has become this huge viral thing on YouTube and social media.” - Cloudhead Games CEO Denny Unger (Ars Technica)
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