Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.
Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.
In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.
In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.
This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.
Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”
(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)
The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.
A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”
Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /
Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.
You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.
Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.
** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.
Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.
Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:
LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.
FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.
Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.
TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.
Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.
Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’
All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”
Urbanbase, a Seoul-based company that develops a 3D spatial data platform for interior planning and design, announced today it has raised $11.1 million (13 billion won) in a Series B+ round as it scales up.
This round of funding was led by Hanwha Hotel & Resort, which is a subsidiary of South Korean conglomerate Hanwha Corporation.
Urbanbase, founded in 2013 by chief executive officer and a former architect Jinu Ha, has now raised $20 million (approximately 23 billion won) in total.
Existing investors did not join this round. The company had raised Series A funding of $1.8 million and an additional $1.2 million in 2017 and its first Series B round in April 2020, from backers that included South Korea-based Shinsegae Information & Communication, Woomi Construction, SL Investment, KDB Capital, Shinhan Capital, Enlight Ventures, CKD Venture Capital, and Breeze Investment, Ha said.
The latest funding will be used for enhancing its B2B SaaS, investing in R&D for advanced virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and 3D tools, which are considered core technologies of metaverse that is its new business Urbanbase plans to enter, according to Ha. Global metaverse market size is projected to increase $280 billion by 2025 from $30.7 billion in 2021, based on Strategy Analytics’ report.
Companies that focus on opportunities in the so-called “metaverse” have been growing as part of a next-generation approach to building viable business models in areas like virtual and augmented reality, and all the hardware and software and new tech that are being built for them. Big tech corporations, ranging from Facebook, Intel to Microsoft, are targeting to move in the area. Apple also waded into the area of virtual reality, working on developing a high-end VR headset.
Urbanbase also plans to upgrade its home interior software platform, Urbanbase Studio, that has functions to transform 2D indoor space images into 3D displays via Urbanbase’s patented algorithm, visualize interior products in augmented reality and analyze spatial images based on the AI technology.
Urbanbase claims 50,000 monthly active users with 70,000 registered B2C users. The company has about 50 B2B customers.
“Most of our B2B clients are large conglomerates in South Korea and Japan, for example, LG Electronics, Japan-based Mitsubishi Real Estate Service, Nitori Holdings, Dentsu Group and SoftBank, but we would like to extend our B2B clients base to small, midsized companies and bring more B2C users after closing the Series B+ funding,” Ha mentioned.
Urbanbase is seeking an acquisition target in prop-tech and construction technology sectors, Ha told TechCrunch. Urbanbase currently focuses on developing the interior tools for apartment buildings because about 70-80 percent of total households in South Korea and Japan live in apartments, Ha said, adding that it will diversify its portfolio by acquiring a startup that covers different types of residence.
It currently operates the platform in Korean and Japanese, but it will add English language service prior to entering in Singapore in the end of 2021, Ha said.
Pokémon GO announced yesterday that it will permanently keep an in-game feature that made the game easier to play while social distancing. Introduced at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the feature doubled the interaction radius around key augmented reality landmarks that are essential to gameplay. Though Niantic — parent company to Pokémon GO — removed the feature earlier this month, it chose to permanently reinstate it after weeks of community- and creator-led backlash.
Trainers – we’re looking forward to sharing our plans as a result of the task force on September 1, but one thing does not have to wait! From now on, 80 meters will be the base interaction radius for PokéStops and Gyms globally. (1/2)
— Pokémon GO (@PokemonGoApp) August 25, 2021
Pre-pandemic, Pokémon GO players needed to be within 40 meters of a PokéStop or Gym to interact with it, but with the now-permanent change, the radius is expanded to 80 meters. Incidentally, disabled players found that this feature made the game more accessible to people with limited mobility. As one of the first mainstream AR mobile games, Pokémon GO is virtually unplayable if you’re unable to travel to real-world landmarks like PokéStops and Gyms — so allowing users to interact with these landmarks from farther away (for example, if a wheelchair-user can’t journey off of a paved sidewalk) opened the game up to new players.
Because Pokémon GO has long positioned itself as a game that encourages real-world exploration, worldwide lockdowns posed a unique challenge for Niantic. But by making some small changes — like expanding the interaction radius by just 40 meters, increasing Pokémon spawns and making it easier to obtain more PokéBalls — the game became easier to play from home.
These changes didn’t break the game or contradict its adventurous spirit, which made the rollback of a well-loved upgrade confusing for players, especially in light of the spreading Delta variant. From a financial standpoint, the app thrived during the pandemic. In 2020, Pokémon GO had its best-earning year since its launch in 2016, earning over $1 billion. According to app analytics firm Sensor Tower, this upward trend continued for Pokémon GO in the first half of 2021, with $642 million. This marked a 34% increase in consumer spending compared to the first half of 2020, when it made $479 million.
Dear @NianticLabs your community needs you to address the recent in-game changes to #PokemonGO. #HearUsNiantic we love this game and the communities we've built together. This game thrives on inclusivity and diversity. Show us you understand that. pic.twitter.com/1N6EAaM5m2
— ZoëTwoDots (@_ZoeTwoDots) August 5, 2021
After Niantic reduced the interaction radius, Pokémon GO content creators and community members worked together to write an open letter to Niantic, which caused the hashtag #HearUsNiantic to trend on Twitter. The letter expressed that the increased radius made the game safer, more accessible and less intrusive.
“Encouraging people to explore, exercise and safely play together in person remains Niantic’s mission. The health and wellbeing of players is our top priority,” Niantic’s statement read. The company formed an “inter cross-functional team” to address these concerns and invited prominent Pokémon GO content creators to share community feedback. While expanding the interaction radius is the first result of the task force, Pokémon GO tweeted that it will share more findings on September 1.
TechCrunch asked Niantic why it initially chose to rebuke these gameplay updates despite positive community feedback, increased revenue and an ongoing pandemic, but Niantic declined to comment.
Despite players’ visible negative response on social media, Sensor Tower told TechCrunch that it didn’t see any change in consumer spending or active users for Pokémon GO around the time of the in-game strike. However, there was a significant uptick in negative App Store reviews.
Though the wider interaction radius is now reinstated, some players remain frustrated, since community leaders had previously provided this feedback in June after Niantic announced its plans to roll back these changes.
“Why did it have to take this giant community movement for any of our feedback to be heard?” said creator ZoëTwoDots in a YouTube video.
“Voice skins” have become a very popular feature for AI-based voice assistants, to help personalize some of the more anodyne aspects of helpful, yet also kind of bland and robotic, speaking voices you get on services like Alexa. Now a startup that is building voice skins for different companies to use across their services, and for third parties to create and apply as well, is raising some funding to fuel its growth.
LOVO, the Berkeley, California-based artificial intelligence (AI) voice & synthetic speech tool developer, this week closed a $4.5 million pre-Series A round led by South Korean Kakao Entertainment along with Kakao Investment and LG CNS, an IT solution affiliate of LG Group.
Its previous investor SkyDeck Fund and a private investor, vice president of finance at DoorDash Michael Kim, also joined the funding.
The proceeds will be used to propel its research and development in artificial intelligence and synthetic speech and grow the team.
“We plan on hiring heavily across all functions, from machine learning, artificial intelligence and product development to marketing and business development. The fund will also be allocated to securing resources such as GPUs and CPUs,” co-founder and chief operating officer Tom Lee told TechCrunch.
LOVO, founded in November 2019, has 17 people including both co-founders, chief executive office Charlie Choi and COO Lee.
The company plans to double down on improving LOVO’s AI model, enhance its AI voices and develop a better product that surpasses any that exists in the current market, Lee said.
“Our goal is to be a global leader in providing AI voices that touches people’s hearts and emotions. We want to democratize limitations of content production. We want to be the platform for all things voice-related,” Lee said.
With the mission, LOVO allows enterprises and individual content creators to generate voiceover content for using in marketing, e-learning, customer support, movies, games, chatbots and augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
“Since our launch a little over a year ago, users have created over 5 million voice content on our platform,” co-founder and CEO Choi said.
LOVO launched its first product LOVO Studio last year, which provides an easy-to-use application for individuals and businesses to find the voice they want, produce, and publish their voiceover content. Developers can utilize LOVO’s Voiceover API to turn text into speeches in real-time, integrated into their applications. Users also can create their own AI voices by simply reading 15 minutes of script via LOVO’s DIY Voice Cloning service.
LOVO owns more than 200 voice skins that provide users with voices categorized by language, style, and situation suited for their various needs.
The global text to speech (TTS) market is estimated at $3 billions, with the global voiceover market at around $10 billion, according to Lee. The Global TTS market is projected to increase $5.61 billion by 2028 from $1.94 billion in 2020, based on Research Interviewer’s report published in August 2021.
LOVO already secured 50,000 users and more than 50 enterprise customers including the US-based J.B. Hunt, Bouncer, CPA Canada, LG CNS, and South Korea’s Shinhan Bank, Lee mentioned.
LOVO’s four core markets are marketing, education, movies and games in entertainment and AR/VR, Lee said. The movie Spiral, the latest film of the Saw Series, features LOVO’s voice in the film, he noted.
It is expected that LOVO will create additional synergies in the entertainment industry in the wake of the latest funding from a South Korean entertainment.
VP of CEO Vision Office at Kakao Entertainment J.H. Ryu said, “I’m excited for LOVO’s synergies with Kakao Entertainment’s future endeavors in the entertainment vertical, especially with web novels and music,” Ryu also added, “AI technology is opening the doors to a new market for audio content, and we expect a future a where an individual’s voice will be utilized effectively as an intellectual property and as an asset.”
Founding Partner at SkyDeck Fund Chon Tang said, “Audio is uniquely engaging as a form of information but also difficult to produce, especially at scale. LOVO’s artificial intelligence-based synthesis platform has consistently out-performed other cloud-based solutions in quality and cost.”
LOVO is also preparing to penetrate further to international market, “We have a strong presence in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and are getting signals from the rest of Europe, South America and Asia,” Lee said. LOVO has an office in South Korea and is looking to expand into Europe soon, Lee added.
To celebrate its ten year anniversary, Messenger today announced a handful of new features: poll games, word effects, contact sharing, and birthday gifting via Facebook Pay. But beyond the fun features, Facebook has been testing a way to add voice and video calls back into the Facebook app, rather than on Messenger.
“We are testing audio and video calls within the Facebook app messaging experience so people can make and receive calls regardless of which app they’re using,” a representative from Facebook told TechCrunch. “This will give people on Facebook easy ways to connect with their communities where they already are.”
Although earlier in Facebook history, the Messenger app had operated as a standalone experience, Facebook tells us that it’s now starting to see Messenger less as a separate entity — more of an underlying technology that can help to power many of the new experiences Facebook is now developing.
“We’ve been focused more on real-time experiences — Watch Together, Rooms, Live Audio Rooms — and we’ve started to think of Messenger as a connective tissue regardless of the surface,” a Facebook spokesperson told us. “This is a test, but the bigger vision is for us to unlock content and communities that may not be accessible in Messenger, and that the Facebook app is going to become more about shared real-time experiences,” they added.
Given the company’s move in recent months to integrate its underlying communication infrastructure, it should come to reason that Facebook would ultimately add more touchpoints for accessing its new Messenger-powered features inside the desktop app, as well. When asked for comment on this point, the spokesperson said the company didn’t have any details to share at this time. However, they noted that the test is a part of Facebook’s broader vision to enable more real-time experiences across Facebook’s services.
Despite the new integrations, the standalone version of Messenger isn’t going away.
Facebook says that people who want a more “full-featured” messaging, audio and video calling experience” should continue to use Messenger.
Image Credits: Messenger
As for today’s crop of new features — including polls, word effects, contact sharing, and others — the goal is to celebrate Messenger’s ability to keep people in touch with their family a friends.
To play the new poll games, users can tap “Polls” in their group chat and select the “Most Likely To” tab — then, they can choose from questions like “most likely to miss their flight?” or “most likely to give gifts on their own birthday?”, select names of chat participants to be included as potential answers, and send the poll.
Contact sharing will make it easier to share others’ Facebook contacts through Messenger, while birthday gifting lets users send birthday-themed payments on Messenger via Facebook Pay. There will also be other “birthday expression tools,” including a birthday song soundmoji, “Messenger is 10!” sticker pack, a new balloon background, a message effect, and AR effect to celebrate Messenger’s double-digit milestone.
Image Credits: Messenger
Meanwhile, word effects lets users manually input a phrase, and any time they send a message with that phrase, an accompanying emoji will float across the screen. In an example, Messenger showed the phrase “happy birthday” accompanied with a word effect of confetti emojis flooding the screen. (That one’s pretty tame, but this could be a remarkable application of the poop emoji.) The company only shared a “sneak peak” of this feature, as it’s not rolling out immediately.
In total, Facebook is announcing a total of ten features, most of which will begin rolling out today.
Messenger has come a long way over the past decade.
Ten years ago, Facebook acqui-hired a small group messaging start-up called Beluga, started by three former Google employees (apparently, a functional group thread was a white whale back then — simpler times). Several months later, the company unveiled Messenger, a standalone messaging app.
But three years into Messenger’s existence, it was no longer an optional add-on to the Facebook experience, but a mandatory download for anyone who wanted to keep up with their friends on the go. Facebook removed the option to send messages within its flagship app, directing users to use Messenger instead. Facebook’s reasoning behind this, the company told TechCrunch at the time, was that they wanted to eliminate the confusion of having two different mobile messaging systems. Just months earlier, Facebook had spent $19 billion to acquire WhatsApp and woo international users. Though removing Messenger from the Facebook app was controversial, the app reached 1.2 billion users three years later in 2017.
Today, Facebook has declared that it wants to evolve into a “metaverse” company, and on the same day as the anti-trust filing last week, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a product that applies virtual reality in an impressively boring way: helping people attend work meetings. This metaverse would be enabled by technologies built by Facebook’s platform team, noted Vice President of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky. However, he added that people in the metaverse will still need platforms like Messenger.
“I don’t think messaging is going anywhere, even in the metaverse, because a asynchronous communication is going to continue to exist,” Chudnovsky said. People will still need to send messages to those who aren’t currently available to chat, he explained. Plus, Chudnovsky believes this sort of communication will become even more popular with the launch of the metaverse, as the technology will help to serve as a bridge between your phone, real life, and the metaverse.
“if anything is gonna happen more, not less. Because messaging is that things that just continues to grow with every new platform leap,” he said.
Additional reporting: Sarah Perez
Following its announcement late last month, Facebook’s new 128GB model of the Oculus Quest 2 is now available to buy. You can purchase the VR headset from the company’s website for the same $299 price as the previous 64GB base model. “Long story short? We’ve created this 128GB model so that players can easily store and access more games and apps on a single device,” Facebook says of the new variant.
Facebook announced the 128GB model at the same time it issued a voluntary recall of the Quest 2 to address an issue with the original face insert that came with the headset. The company temporarily stopped selling the Quest 2 for about a month so that it could add a new silicone face cover inside the box of each new unit. If you’re a current Quest 2 owner, you can request Facebook send you the new silicone cover by visiting the My Devices section of the account settings. The new 128GB model also comes with the silicone cover inside the box.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.
Both Facebook and Snap offer tools that allow developers to build out augmented reality (AR) experiences and features for their own respective family of apps. Now, TikTok is looking to do the same. The company recently launched a new creative toolset called TikTok Effect Studio, currently in private beta testing, which will allow its own developer community to build AR effects for TikTok’s short-form video app.
On a new website titled “Effect House,” TikTok asks interested developers to sign up for early access to Effect Studio.
On the form provided, developers fill out their name, email, TikTok account info, company, and level of experience with building for AR, as well as examples of their work. The website also asks if they’re using a Mac or PC (presumably to gauge which desktop platform to prioritize), and whether they would test Effect House for work or for personal use.
TikTok is launching an Effects Studio in beta
— Matt Navarra (@MattNavarra) August 14, 2021
TikTok confirmed to TechCrunch the website launched earlier in August, but the project itself is still in the early stages of testing in only a few select markets, one of which is the U.S.
The company couldn’t offer a timeframe as to when these tools would become more broadly available. Instead, TikTok characterized Effect Studio as an early “experiment,” adding that some of its experiments don’t always make it to launch. Plus, other experiments may undergo significant changes between their early beta phases and what later becomes a public product.
That said, the launch of an AR toolset would make TikTok more competitive with industry rivals, who today rely on creative communities to expand their apps’ features sets with new features and experiences. Snap, for example, launched a $3.5 million fund last year directed toward Snapchat AR Lens creation. Meanwhile, at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in June, the company announced it had grown its Spark AR platform to over 600,000 creators across 190 countries, making it the largest mobile AR platform worldwide.
Image Credits: screenshot of TikTok website
TikTok, too, has been increasing its investment in developer tools over the past couple of years. However, its focus as of late has been on toolkits aimed at third-party developers who want to integrate more closely with TikTok in their own apps. Today, TikTok’s developer website provides access to tools that allow app makers to add TikTok features to their apps like user authentication flows, sound sharing, and others that allow users to publish videos from a third-party editing app out to TikTok.
The new TikTok Effect Studio isn’t meant to be used with third-party apps, however.
Instead, it’s about building AR experiences (and possibly, other creative effects), that would be provided to TikTok users directly in the consumer-facing video app.
Though willing to confirm its broader goals for TikTok Effect Studio, the company declined to share specific details about the exact tools may be included, citing the project’s early days.
“We’re always thinking about new ways to bring value to our community and enrich the TikTok experience,” a TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Currently, we’re experimenting with ways to give creators additional tools to bring their creative ideas to life for the TikTok community,” they added.
Facebook’s journey toward making virtual reality a thing has been long and circuitous, but despite mixed success in finding a wide audience for VR, they have managed to build some very nice hardware along the way. What’s fairly ironic is that while Facebook has managed to succeed in finessing the hardware and operating system of its Oculus devices — things it had never done before — over the years it has struggled most with actually making a good app for VR.
The company has released a number of social VR apps over the years, and while each of them managed to do something right, none of them did anything quite well enough to stave off a shutdown. Setting aside the fact that most VR users don’t have a ton of other friends that also own VR headsets, the broadest issue plaguing these social apps was that they never really gave users a great reason to use them. While watching 360-videos or playing board games with friends were interesting gimmicks, it’s taken the company an awful lot of time to understand that a dedicated ”social” app doesn’t make much sense in VR and that users haven’t been looking for a standalone social app, so much as they’ve been looking for engaging experiences that were improved by social dynamics.
This all brings me to what Facebook showed me a demo of this week — a workplace app called Horizon Workrooms which is launching in open beta for Quest 2 users starting today.
The app seems to be geared towards providing work-from-home employees a virtual reality sphere to collaborate inside. Users can link their Mac or PC to Workrooms and livestream their desktop to the app while the Quest 2’s passthrough cameras allow users to type on their physical keyboard. Users can chat with one another as avatars and share photos and files or draw on a virtual whiteboard. It’s an app that would have made a more significant splash for the Quest 2 platform had it launched earlier in the pandemic, though it’s tackling an issue that still looms large among tech savvy offices — finding tech solutions to aid meaningful collaboration in a remote environment.
Horizon Workrooms isn’t a social app per se but the way it approaches social communication in VR is more thoughtful than any other first-party social VR app that Facebook has shipped. The spatial elements are less overt and gimmicky than most VR apps and simply add to an already great functional experience that, at times, felt more productive and engaging than a normal video call.
It all plays into CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent proclamation that Facebook is transitioning into becoming a “metaverse company.”
Now, what’s the metaverse? In Zuckerberg’s own words, “It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.” This certainly sounds like a fairly significant recalibration for Facebook, which has generally approached AR/VR as a wholly separate entity from its suite of mobile apps. Desktop users and VR users have been effectively siloed from each other over the years.
Generally, Facebook has been scaling Oculus like they’re building the next smartphone, building its headsets with a native app paradigm at their core. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s future-minded “metaverse” sounds much more like what Roblox has been building towards than anything Facebook has actually shipped. Horizon Workrooms is living under the Horizon brand which seems to be where Facebook’s future metaverse play is rooted. The VR social platform is interestingly still in closed beta after being announced nearly two years ago. If Facebook can ever see Horizon’s vision to fruition, it could grow to become a Roblox-like hub of user-created games, activities and groups that replaces the native app mobile dynamics with a more fluid social experience.
The polish of Workrooms is certainly a promising sign of where Facebook could be moving.
The creators of Pokémon GO, Niantic developed one of the first mainstream augmented reality games, boasting 166 million users and over a billion dollars in revenue last year. Taking inspiration from the main series Pokémon games, Pokémon GO uses in-game incentives to encourage users to explore their surroundings, team up with other users to fight legendary beasts, and travel to places they’ve never been before.
Before the pandemic, this posed an accessibility issue — when certain tasks could only be completed by walking a certain distance, for example, it alienated users with physical conditions and disabilities that prevent them from easily taking a walk around the neighborhood. Plus, for players in wheelchairs, it might be impossible to access certain PokéStops and Gyms. It’s necessary to interact with these real-world landmarks to play the game to its fullest.
When much of the world entered lockdown March 2020, Pokémon Go doubled the size of the radius that players can be within to interact with a PokéStop or Gym, widening the radius from 40 meters to 80 meters. So, you could now be further away from a landmark but still reap its rewards. This made it easier for users to play from home, or play outside while social distancing — but it also made the game much more accessible. Plus, for a game that still gets a bad rep for causing traffic accidents, the increased radius helped pedestrian players access landmarks without brazenly jay-walking across the street (to be fair, it’s on users to make smart decisions while gaming in augmented reality — but, Niantic has responsibility here too). And for businesses that happened to be located in a prime location for raid battles, which require players to gather in-person within a Gym’s radius to defeat rare monsters, this meant that Pokémon players could maintain a respectful distance from store fronts while playing the game (later in the pandemic, it became possible to join raid battles remotely — this feature will remain in the game, probably because it proved profitable).
These pandemic incentives were always framed as temporary bonuses, but players embraced the changes — in 2020, Pokémon GO had its highest-earning year yet. Now, the increased landmark radius has been removed “as a test” in the U.S. and New Zealand.
“As we return to the outside world again, these changes are aimed at restoring the focus of Pokémon GO on movement and exploration in the real world,” the company wrote in a blog post. “These changes will be introduced slowly and carefully to make it more exciting to explore the world around you.”
One new incentive gives users 10x XP for visiting a new PokéStop for the first time (or, in real-world terms, visiting a new place). But as the Delta variant spreads in the U.S., players find these changes to be frustrating and misguided. Why roll back features that made the game more accessible while also netting the company more money?
The removal of double distance is nothing short of a slap in the face towards the #PokemonGO Community.
I’ll realistic and say I that I’ll quit GO if changes aren’t being made ASAP.
I REFUSE to cover a game that doesn’t have it’s player base in its best interest.
— REVERSAL – Pokémon GO (@REVERSALxPoGO) August 1, 2021
The Pokémon Go YouTuber, Reversal, who has created sponsored content for Niantic, wrote that he will quit the game if changes aren’t being made ASAP. Other players launched a petition with over 130,000 signatures to keep increased PokéStop and Gym interaction distance. Prominent Pokémon Go content creators like ZoëTwoDots and The Trainer Club have referenced a potential boycott of the game in videos they uploaded today, citing Niantic’s refusal to listen to community concerns after they announced the impending end of pandemic bonuses in June.
“I’m more than down to boycott the game with everyone if we’re vibing that,” ZoëTwoDots, who has also partnered with Niantic, told her 212,000 subscribers. “I know for myself personally, I’m just straight up not spending money in the game going forward until they address it publicly.”
My opinion on the Pokéstop radius hasn't changed. It was a clear quality of life change that was only fully realised because of a (ongoing) pandemic. It has provided accessibility to disabled players, safety to all players, and NEVER affected our enjoyment of exploration. https://t.co/DK1VWkw0ga
— ZoëTwoDots (@_ZoeTwoDots) August 1, 2021
As the game celebrates its five year anniversary, the conflict it now faces isn’t about players wishing for the game to be easier. Rather, this represents a failure by Niantic to listen to its user base, prioritize accessibility, and incentivize users to stay home as COVID-19 cases rise again in the U.S.
“I wanted to discuss this now so that you can see the future that we’re working towards and how our major initiative across the company are going to map to that,” Zuckerberg said on the call. “What is the metaverse? It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”
These comments echoed an interview he gave to The Verge last week, detailing some of the company’s future goals.
The metaverse offers Facebook an opportunity to draw a line between its moonshot efforts and its core business, building a wide-reaching hub that shines on augmented reality and virtual reality platforms but feels just as friendly on mobile and desktop. Zuckerberg’s definition of metaverse is more broad than some others, but comes down to building a version of the web that feels more like an MMO than a collection of web pages.
Early renders of Facebook’s Horizon platform. Image via Facebook.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Facebook was late to mobile. A decade ago, Facebook’s apps were buggy, crash-prone HTML5 experiences, even as smooth native mobile apps were quickly becoming the standard for major software makers. By 2012, Zuckerberg realized that apps were the future — quickly becoming the present — and the Facebook founder scrambled to turn the company’s attention toward mobile at every level. Facebook doesn’t intend to make the same mistake twice. That philosophy first became abundantly clear when the company bought the industry-leading VR hardware maker Oculus in 2014.
“Mobile is the platform of today, and now we’re also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow,” Zuckerberg said around the time of the two billion dollar acquisition. “Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.”
Becoming “a metaverse company” is a further evolution of this thinking. For many, Roblox has seemed to be the clearest embodiment of the metaverse today — a social world where users can jump between virtual experiences while creating their own experiences inside it. It’s notably not a virtual reality experience instead thriving largely on mobile and desktop. Roblox’s vision has resonated with investors, the now-public company is worth more than $45 billion — a fraction of Facebook’s value but more than almost any other games company in the West.
Facebook has been signaling its continued interest in this space. In June they bought a Roblox-like platform called Crayta for an undisclosed sum, and they’ve spent much of the last several years buying up a host of VR-focused game studios.
The company has tried to build its own VR-centric social hubs but most have fallen flat. Facebook’s metaverse-like Horizon platform garnered major headlines when it was announced nearly two years ago, but the company has had little to say during its exceedingly quiet beta period. This week, Facebook’s Andrew Bosworth detailed that Gaming VP Vivek Sharma would be taking over the effort under a new metaverse-centric product group led by Instagram’s Vishal Shah.
There’s a very particular distinction in Facebook’s choice of rebranding itself as a “metaverse” company as opposed to an AR/VR one. While some might have seen specialized hardware as essential to a spatial internet, it’s become increasingly clear that users aren’t clamoring to embrace early headsets even as other new gaming platforms greatly accelerate their growth. While the company’s Quest 2 headset has sold much better than its previous devices — according to Facebook which has yet to release any hard sales numbers — it’s unclear whether they truly need a world full of users with Facebook glasses and headsets strapped to their faces in order to embrace this metaverse ideal — or whether that would just be the cherry on top.