Oculus Connect is dead. Long live Facebook Connect
Last year I had the honor of attending Oculus LaunchPad 2019 and as part of that program was also granted entry to the Oculus Connect 6 conference and the first ever Oculus Education Summit. It was a great time. I connected with several like minds and looking past this turbulent 2020, I've been looking forward to attending future Oculus Connect events.
But as it turns out Oculus Connect 6 will now be remembered as the last Oculus Connect conference. With an announcement made yesterday and the subsequent launching of the official conference site, Mark Zuckerberg announced via his Facebook account that the business unit known as Oculus is being rolled into Facebook Reality Labs. Instead of getting the expected OC7 this year we're getting the first Facebook Connect conference. My interpretation of this change is that Oculus is no longer a company but now one of a handful of product brands owned by Facebook Reality Labs. On the "Careers" page for Facebook Reality Labs this is confirmed.
Briefly after the Facebook Connect website went live, John Carmack's Unscripted Keynote was listed as a session and in the description his title was listed as being the consulting CTO of Facebook Reality Labs. (Facebook Reality Labs is already being abbreviated as FRL on Facebook owned sites) From this we can infer that there is no more Oculus as a business unit. The strategy of creating product lines as their own brand is nothing new. Companies like Nike have been doing this with their Jordan product line of shoes for a few decades now. Also cell phone and computer builders use this approach.
I think most of us were expecting some restructuring to happen. I don't see this change as being impactful to consumers. I do see it as a needed restructuring for expansion with "Reality" products beyond gaming and beyond VR in general. For a few years now developers have been wondering about the distinction between Oculus and Facebook Reality Labs R&D. The perception being, that new concepts incubate in the FRL. Research papers are published from FRL and products funnel down from FRL to Oculus when they are market ready. With that in mind, I think of the previous state of FRL as a sort of beta business entity. Facebook was utilizing it and preparing it for its current role. I believe Facebook intends to introduce several product and service offerings under each of the categories and that: Spark, Oculus and Portal will be brands to themselves under the FRL umbrella. It's possible, I would say likely that- Facebook Reality Labs will not be marketed as a brand. To add credit to this, the leaked images of one of the new products expected to be unveiled at Facebook Connect is a new Oculus branded VR headset.
When Facebook brings their first AR headset to market, I suspect it will be under the Spark brand. Additional products or iterations are likely planned for Portal and will be released under the Portal brand. Facebook Horizon's ability to link applications together and allow groups of users to "teleport" in VR between apps paves the way for a series of Horizon compliant VR apps. Facebook has not denied the possibility of advertising in VR at some point down the road. I really believe that Facebook's aspirations are to make Horizon an ad revenue source and stack it along side their other social properties with deep integration to the Facebook app and desktop experience.
As part of that, I think we will see an ad revenue model launch with Horizon, not only for Facebook but also for Oculus developers to integrate. I'm expecting something similar to Google's Mobile Ads SDK but for this to be sandboxed to apps that integrate with Horizon. This would be a smart move by Facebook, giving them complete control of how ads are displayed in the Horizon metaverse and of course ownership of the ad pipeline and the ability to turn Horizon into a revenue stream. As of now we know very little about what integrating an app with Horizon will involve, but I'm sure we will learn more.
Because the Avatars for the new Venues app look very close to Horizon avatars, I suspect Venues is the first preview of this new social platform. I don't know if the launch of Venues beta means that FRL plans to release Horizon incrementally, with a few core apps like Venues launching prior to the core Horizon metabase opening up. Or if they plan to release both into beta at once.
Facebook Connect Sessions
This years Facebook Connect event is following in the footsteps of virtual conferences held by Microsoft and Apple. I expect pre-recorded sessions created with very high production values, maximizing use of the non-live format and presented in a light edutainment style. There's a lot of talk about how the pandemic of 2020 is changing the future world, including how businesses spend money and coordinate events. I would not be suprisied if some conferences end up sticking with the virtual/remote-only format in the future. Considering the goals of achieving presence and the aims of social VR, I would think Facebook Connect to be prime for such a change.
I selfishly hope that doesn't come to pass, because I greatly value face to face meet ups and face to face networking and when it comes to delivering a compelling replacement for being there at a physical conference, we're still many iterations away.
How Facebook Connect sessions will be different
than past Oculus Connect sessions
Putting the remote/virtual aspect of the conference aside and looking at announced lineup of sessions, the first thing you may notice is that we're getting fewer sessions this year spanning a single day instead of two days. Considering that the Connect event is now an event to showcase all Facebook Reality Labs product offerings/brands (Oculus, Portal, Spark AR and Horizon), as expected the sessions topics are more diversified from a technical content stand-point. For the remainder of this blog post I will discuss details on the known sessions and my expectations for what we might see, based on the descriptions given by Facebook Reality Labs. There are currently about twenty sessions listed, so I will be breaking this post into two parts, with the second post picking up where this one leaves us and finishing out my predictions for where these sessions may take us.
Developer Super Session
Based on description this will be the session that immediately follows the keynote kicking things off. I expect several new technologies/paradigms already mentioned to be formally announced during the keynote and for the deeper dive into some of these technologies to occur during this session along with some iterative changes to existing paradigms.
- Discussion of tools and paradigms to facilitate the new publishing/monetization model for Oculus Quest developers outside the current Oculus Store curation approach.
- New Spark AR development environment with broader scope
- New Horizon specific APIs
- Discussion of how advertising will work in Horizon and how the speculated-to-be-announced new ad model can be utilized by developers as a revenue stream
Possible but unlikely
- New Spark AR development environment with broader scope
- APIs for Portal devices
- Early preview of Facebook Reality Lab's Game Engine product and new Oculus OS
For some time it has been known that Facebook has been working on a their own OS for future all-in-one headsets. They have only revealed that, unlike the current OS for Oculus Go and Oculus Quest this new OS will not be Android based. This is a huge concern for developers, because the availability of common Android tools has enabled rapid Unity and Unreal integration, enabled SideQuest to exist and has given developers a lot of common resources. I expect one of their big goals to be having a unified OS product that could be expanded upon to support all future FRL XR (AR and VR) hardware devices.
If Facebook Reality Labs is going to the trouble to design their own OS product, the question becomes- why wouldn't they also create their own game engine product to enhance the developer experience and compete with Unreal and Unity. Before you scream "conflict of interest", yes I hear you. But Apple has done this for some time. Game Engines' are huge revenue streams in 2020. Sony just put up a $250 million dollar stake in Epic Games. Sony chairman and CEO Kenichiro Yoshida has said the innovations in Unreal Engine was a big part of the interest. Just in the past few days Unity has filed to go public. There's a boat load of money to be made in that space and if you are a hardware vendor with many products on the horizon, it just makes sense have a great first-party tool to give developers the best experience and to turn into a potential revenue stream.
New Ways to Prepare, Promote and Monetize
Based on the description. This will be a deep dive into the new Oculus Quest publishing path for developers who choose not to or get rejected from the official Oculus Storefront's curation process along with some suggestions for marketing. The write-up is a bit confusing, because it says "help customers feel immersed in your game" in context to mixed reality. Mixed Reality can be implemented a few different ways and we know from last years Connect conference, Oculus thinks of mixed reality applicable to Quest as this
From the OC6 session, that is using mixed reality in context of creating better marketing material. Which makes me feel like part of this session will be a rehash or revisiting to show how things have advanced on this front.
- The ins and outs of a new uncurated Oculus Quest publishing path
- Introduction and tools that are going to add value to devs self-publishing
- New subscription based Developer registration model similar to Apple's "annual fee"
based requirement access to "deploy on hardware" features.
This is pure speculation, but I suspect FRL will be providing a lot of support services and great tools to help ease the sting of a yearly fee.
Productivity, Super-powered by VR
I expect this session to do a bit of showcasing of how Oculus Quest and Rift are being utilized by business to improve communication. This may or may not be presented in context of business responding to the pandemic, it will be interesting to see what is shown. A few months back I was able to attend an onboarding session for a virtual meeting app (still in beta so the app and company behind it will remain unnamed) but as part of the presentation we shown how one of the major toy companies is using their XR meeting product, which included pinning concept art and other documentation to walls in the room and allowing meeting attendees to manipulate 3D models of toy concepts. I suspect we'll see use cases in that category and I hope to see some I've never seen or thought of.
- Overview of the new "Infinite Office" which is expected to include: Passthrough keyboard, Passthrough white boarding and virtualized screens
- Light discussion of new Oculus for Business Platform SDK
How Developers and ISVs are Accelerating VR Adoption in the Enterprise
"Trends in the developer ecosystem" in context of Oculus for Business projects. That's what this one is described as being about. Use cases, business models. At Immersha we've very interested in what fellow ISV Partners have found to be working best. Looking forward to this.
- Discussion on Enterprise dev needs
- Success and failure stories from Enterprise endeavors
New Frontiers with Unity's XR Platform
The description says "come learn about the latest advances in Quest development... with Unity [XR Platform]". I suspect this will be a big push for devs to use Unity's XR Framework and their Interactions Toolkit and hopefully discuss a path for utilizing Oculus SDK specific features.
- An overview of Unity Learning's VR Escape Room demo project which was created and optimized for Oculus Quest and released this past Feb. I know this experience uses URP, I believe it also uses Vulkan so it just makes sense The Escape Room demo project and its corresponding virtual class would be part of this.
- Discussion of improvements coming to Unity's XR Interactions Toolkit. What's included with the Escape Room is sort of a beta incarnation the Interactions Toolkit, the interactions toolkit designed to replace the need for something like VRTK.
Possible but unlikely
- Announcement regarding Platform SDK integration with Unity XR Interactions Toolkit
- Big announcements regarding core Unity XR features are unlikely. Unity has their own conferences and it would make sense to reserve major Unity feature announcements for their own events
Avatars and Platform SDK: Presence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Facebook Horizon has been and continues to be a massive undertaking for Facebook Reality Labs. From the talks last year we know Horizon will act as sort of a core met averse that can link a group of users from one experience into another. If you can imagine Horizon compatible apps both from Facebook Reality Labs (first party) and from other developers (third-party), this is the direction they were headed last year. I hope this session gets deeper into the new avatar system from a developer stand-point
- Overview and beta release of new Horizon-enabled versions of some of the core Oculus apps such as Venues, Gallery, TV and perhaps a few entirely new Horizon-enabled apps.
- As work on the giant Horizon core app (what I'm calling the Horizon meta-verse) continues, FRL moves forward with allowing third-parties to implement the new Avatas SDK and utilize Horizon avatars in their apps
- New beta time-frame for Facebook Horizon stated
Possible but unlikely
- The new photo realistic Codec avatars made available in beta.
Onward! Porting form PC VR to Quest
The best talk of OC5 in my opinion was the talk with Gabor Szauer titled Porting you App to Oculus Quest. In that session (embedded below), Gabor went into detail on optimization and overall dev considerations. These are the type of lessons learned from the trenches that every dev at the conference wants to hear about. Although Onward! hasn't been the best received title I imagine this session will be great
- New recommendations on tools, techniques to improve developer productivity on Rift to Quest ports
- Little to no rehash of Gabor's session a few years back at OC5
That wraps up this blog entry. I will continue on sharing my thoughts on the published session list available at the Facebook Connect conference page. Please share your thoughts and I'll be back with Part II in a few days.