September 16, 2020, 12:15 pm
1 | Journey to the center of the live stream
When I heard Facebook’s 7th annual VR conference was happening in VR, I imagined spawning into a movie theatre, perhaps with a red and white striped bag of popcorn at my side. I thought it would be simple to get in. It’s just a live stream. I didn’t expect a 40 minute Dionysian hazing ritual, involving commercials, voice actors, fun house mirrors, hostage role-play, an art exhibit, the presence of angels, a shopping mall spawned from my memories, and a keynote given by a CEO sized like an inflatable tube man outside of a car wash.
The VR stream was happening inside of “Venues.” It is a little known beta app where Facebook tests features for their much anticipated platform called “Horizon,” a Pixar-looking digital wonderland. No one knows yet if Horizon is going to flop, or if it's going to become the Fairyland-turned-Matrix-hellscape-of-the-21st-century. I figured I would check it out and see for myself.
I strapped on a plastic dream machine to my face and began my adventure inwards. Like a pumpkin-headed Tony Stark, I flicked, pinched, twisted, and fingered my way through the Oculus app store. This is how you find apps in virtual reality. You flail your arms around like a lunatic. The app store was an ocean of B-Side content, but it also included a few gems that make sacrificing all of your personal data absolutely worth it. The Table Eleven Ping Pong simulator is all you need to have fun and stay fit in a pandemic. Ah. There it is. “Venues: Early Access Beta.”
2 | The poster for the beta of civilization
I clicked on it, and a full-sized Art Deco movie poster appeared in front of me. But it wasn't advertising a 90-minute flick. Behind this picture was an unscripted immersive simulation, where a team of UX designers filled in for God.
An army of developers are re-building the canvas for a digital society, but who is designing the poster for its first beta? Was there a team of psychology experts behind this first glimpse? Or maybe a consulting firm that specializes in hi-jacking orangutan brains? A pissed off intern on a caffeine binge? A team of futurists?
I was over-thinking again. A casual user would flick on by this image. But my paranoia confirmed that embedded in this poster was Facebook's 8-bit vision of how my grandchildren might grow up.
It featured a carnival of colors graffitied over a polygonal shopping mall shaped like a cowboy cantina, with a roof open to a cloudless starry night. The foreground is littered with cartoon friends, of all ethnicities, each equally without any legs, all gathered in circles to shoot emoji hearts out of their fists as they laugh themselves to death. But your attention is fixed on a female character. She has long, wavy, procedurally-generated hair texture. She turns backwards to face you. Her hands gesture you forward, and her blue eyes scream "Follow me." Levitating above her head is a badge with the "Add friend" icon. She's leading you down a red carpet, through the altar, and towards a sun-drenched electronic music festival, bursting with rays that would break the windows of nearby high-rises. The entrance to the abyss is lined with golden gates.
3 | Meeting Morgan
552.47 megabytes later, I faded out and in to a stranger's apartment. Is this how I get to Facebook Connect?
"Helloooo! My name is Morgan, and welcome to Venues. This is a fun social experience, where you'll feel..."
Within 5 seconds, I was greeted by a professional voice actress. She used her mastery of pronunciation, rest notes, and tonal cues to convince me precisely how I should be feeling.
"You'll feel the energy of watching great entertainment with people from arouuuund the woooorld."
Her voice slowed down on "around the world," as if the script was written for someone who has no concept of how the Internet work.
"First take a look around ... This is your personal space, where you'll get ready before heading out."
I found myself in an upper middle class apartment to pregame in before the conference, but there was no alcohol and all of the doors were glued shut. It featured 30” wide wooden planks, base trim, Greek moldings, West Elm furniture, and one of those over-sized bendy lamps that gives life to a $2,000 per square foot New York City closet. Orange plants breathed pixel dust into the air, and a cracked open window let bright purple abduction light into the room. To my right was a glowing white couch with blood red pillows and no dog fur on it.
"Venues is powered by Facebook, so you can find, connect, and enjoy your time with friends. Just log in to get started!"
Jesus fucking Christ. This was it. This is why everyone on the Internet freaked out two weeks ago. Now I see it. My new friend Morgan is already holding me hostage. If I don’t hand over 14 years worth of photos, ramblings, and whereabouts, I’ll never make it to the conference.
4 | Login with your Facebook account
"Your Facebook login is your all-access pass to everything VR!"
- Log in to Facebook.
- Before we begin, please log into your Facebook account
- Continue with Facebook.
- Facebook identities are private. Others will see you as your Oculus username inside venues.
Before I could take my first steps as a newly born, I was assaulted by a brand. The company's name is in every line of text. Their logo, their bright blue color, their family friendly tone. They're making it impossible for you to forget who owns this. Why is this necessary? I spent a few days in virtual Burning Man earlier this month, and I didn't learn that Bill Gates owned it until after the VR desert orgy.
I was at an impasse. But my curiosity was stronger than my will for privacy.
For immersive journalism!
The sound of bells played, and the blue button jiggled with happiness. A new citizen was born, and the sign-in screen collapsed through a slit in the floorboards. A tall mirror materialized across the room, like the one from Alice in Wonderland, and summoned me over. I suppose I can’t enter the conference as a faceless ghost.
5 | Avatar designer: becoming the Fonz
Next to the mirror was a six foot tall poster with a massive thumbs up, saying 'Express yourself!" Was this permission to go absolutely fucking crazy? Most likely not. True freedom in avatar creation can lead to the unthinkable. VR Chat, a competing social VR app, lets you model your own avatars in Unity. During an evening in VR Chat, you will run across a cast of characters, including, but not limited to: anime fairies, a squad of Mushroom Kingdom gangsters, Jerry Seinfeld, Satan, buff Snorlax, a man made entirely out of post-its, or even Cartman going down on a photo-realistic Ross from Friends. It was a hedonistic void. It was the imagination unchained and pushed past the edge of decency.
But Facebook has solved this problem.
Facebook’s Metaverse is safe for your kids.
Their avatar builder featured a “Sims” like interface from the year 2000, isolating specific features you can customize. 2 body types, 5 face structures, 8 skin colors, 32 eye types, 6 lips, 10 noses, 32 hair styles, 4 eyebrow thicknesses, 32 outfits, and 5 eyewear options. They marketed a "near infinite" amount of combinations, but there are precisely 3,440,640,000 ways to express yourself. These permutations aren’t accidental– they’re data driven. There is room for a unique avatar per Facebook user on Earth (2.7 billion with room for growth).
It was a bummer I couldn’t sport the “Duke” look I had become known for on other platforms - a cowboy hat, purple suit, hypnosis sunglasses, a magic baton, and a patch of facial hair. So I clicked the blue randomizer button to get a quick sense of the cartoon varieties that are possible: Trinity from the Matrix, Seth Anderson, Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg, grandma Jerry Garcia, black guy that looks like white guy with black face, Hey Arnold, the Fonz. Alright, I settled on being cartoon Fonz, a leather jacketed white guy with big hair. I closed out of the avatar editor.
"Looking good, Duke!"
The UX-Gods decided that pre-programmed compliments from a cloud-based LARP machine with no eyes would boost self esteem. Nice.
6 | Weird paintings with Metaverse prophecies
I turned my wrist and looked down at my virtual watch. 30 minutes to kill before the conference. I was in no rush. Embodying the body of the Fonz, I looked around and noticed five pieces of vividly colored artwork hanging around the apartment. Each piece featured a golden frame, but also vertical scratch marks, as if there was a cat trapped in the room who’s faulty code led it to mistake these masterpieces for windows.
The artwork was abstract and hard to decipher. It was very off-brand from Facebook's family friendly tone. It was demented and twisted, almost Podesta-like. The pictures swirled to life with intentions when you stare at them long enough.
- A bearded man with a glass of wine gives a bi-pedal shark a tour of a turtle aquarium.
- Palmer Luckey, the original founder of the Oculus kickstarter, is nailed to a cross, as engineer John Carmack gets dragged away by three green astronauts, and a blue phoenix perches on a street sign.
- Two fellas smoke a blunt in a purple car, a word bubble with “PIFF” seeps out the window, and a city is half-run down with fires and dangling power lines.
- A 300' foot robed goddess with a Super Mario hammer is about to obliterate a city.
- A modern-looking tent house exists on a hill in nature, with a 5G cell-phone tower at the rear, and a family of three praying at a picnic table on the side lawn.
Was there esoteric symbolism at play here? Were these the implications of a society scale Metaverse hiding in plain view? The death of the city, a nostalgic return to nature, and the rise of digital nomads who live a burden free existence inside a data-driven and personalized hallucination?
The Fonz remembered he has no taste for art, and no patience for conspiracy theories, so he moved on.
7 | Quick legal disclaimer: we record your memories
Maybe it was time to head to the live stream? I can’t miss the opening announcements. Why is it so hard to find this place? In order to get to the keynote, I needed to negotiate with a robot, select my body, and find my way out of an Escape Room.
Since all of the doors were glued shut, I figured the only route to the conference was through the glowing vortex at the end of the hallway. The hall was framed by a 4.5” Home Depot door frame. But on the other side of the frame, all of the familiar and human-scale details faded into abstract digital color. Neon rectangles pulsed down each wall, hypnotizing you forward. As I stepped into Charlie’s glass elevator, a pop-up appeared in front of my nose, and Morgan began to speak.
"Before you head to the plaza, I want to let you know that the simulation you are about to experience is completely safe. Every second of what you see and say, eyes open or closed, mic muted or not, is uploaded to a quarantined data center in Nevada, for your own comfort and protection. In case you are ever harassed by an internet-troll or meme-wizard, you can hit the “shield” button on your watch. Your world will fade into an ethereal blue sphere, a choir of angels will calm you, and all of the people around you will be frozen in time. Simply point at the offender, click the “Report” button, and then all of your memories will be transmitted to the Arbiters of Truth, who will use their judgement to sentence the potential offenders to an eternal ban from Facebook, and all of it's related hardware, software, and social features."
It smelled like the Patriot Act, but now isn’t the time for activism. At this point they already have my account, and I'll sacrifice whatever I need to for a good story on my website. “Accept.”
I stepped forward into the glass elevator, and rectangular polygons rushed upwards until my vision was filled with color. It soon faded to a black screen, only showing the Venues logo and white blurry text.
8 | The procedural plaza
I spawned into an Art Deco themed courtyard, around 60 by 200 feet. There were 24 residential units facing inwards, each vacant, with the lights left on. It reminded me of the open-air Tanger outlets in Long Island, where developers slapped Italian balconies onto the side of retaining walls to add nostalgia.
There were no carnies or hucksters in the plaza. No commerce to bring the space to life. No one to sell trinkets or shawarma, $20 massages, or polaroid winter photos with Kris Kringle. Instead, the center of the courtyard featured an art exhibit, a lone tree that perpetually shed orange leaves that disintegrated when they touched the floor.
The ground level edge was lined with 6 storefronts shaped like soccer goals with ambient lights inside. Each one is a portal to an event. I saw images of concerts, developer talks, skits, comedy shows.. I know that comedian! He's dating a girl from my high school. Why's he performing at the same time as the Facebook keynote? Then I remembered– the ground level of virtual cities are auto-generated based on the Facebook profiles of the crowd at any given time.
Our assumption that a city is made of concrete, brick, and mortar is becoming outdated. A virtual city is a whole different beast. The facades are modeled to look familiar: glass, mullions, and signs. But the interior merchandise, celebrities, and propaganda get shot around through underground tubes at light speed, to meet you, the consumer, wherever you happen to be.
Shining in my face was the nearest wormhole to the main event.
There was a red “live” symbol, with the number 1,821 next to it, signaling that it was the largest event hosted in Venues to date. At last! I made it. It took me forty minutes and a couple of mind-fucks, but I'm here. I was at the center of a strange point in history disguised as a cartoon meetup– and I'm rambling voice notes into Otter to remember the whole ordeal.
I shuffled into to the goal post, and my vision crackled with light.
9 | Hypnotized in a floating theatre
I spawned into a theatre, featuring a massive screen, levitating balconies, and an oversized timer. “04:39”
Behind the countdown to the keynote was a weird cyberpunk looking flag that stretched across the screen. It had stripes, stars, and barcodes. American elements, but composed in an unfamiliar way. An anti-surveillance protest flag leading up to the big reveal? Was it a hack? An inside joke? What's with all the weird imagery?
During the count-down, the music of angels filled the venue like it was an Icelandic summer music festival. A bass note droned, while elvish synth pads danced between complex chords. Every time you saw a shift from :00 to :59, a soothing “ding” would echo through the arena as it underwent a subtle color shift.
Amidst this atmosphere of complete and utter serenity, everyone in the audience was mostly dicking around.
The people next to me were shooting thumbs-up emoji's out of their fists. It took me a minute to figure it out, but I soon joined in on the circle jerk. If you held the right combination of triggers and thrusted your fists forward, cartoon thumbs would flutter into the air in front of you. Any time someone did this, their avatar would let out a creepy smile, and a horrendous sound shot from their upper torso:
The Brian Eno soundscape was augmented by white noise jungle chatter, consisting of clicks and clacks and pokes and quacks. No edibles necessary to freak out.
Ten of the sixteen people on my mezzanine level had taken out their selfie-sticks. When your selfie-stick is a 50” weightless mirror attached to a fishing pole, it gives you a full-scale reflection of yourself, triggering an out-of-body experience that’s hard to pull yourself out of.
10 | Godzilla Zuckerberg
The clock hit Zero - and a 90 foot tall Mark Zuckerberg appeared in the amphitheater, in surprisingly high resolution.
"... That's the whole secret. That’s what virtual and augmented reality are all about. Delivering that sense of presence. And that's why a lot of people have been spending more time in VR since the pandemic hit. I know I have. It's a way to get out there when you can't leave your house. With all the heaviness in the world this year, it's also a way to have some fun and find some moments of joy. I've definitely been playing a lot more with friends recently.”
The video switched from Mark's apartment to a montage of the CEO slaughtering waves of zombies, assassinating Hitler, and disarming bombs in VR. Pandemic entertainment with friends. Then he emerged as a Robot avatar, where he and the Facebook Reality Labs team officially announced the Oculus Quest 2 over a game of full-contact zero-gravity frisbee.
11 | The rest of the conference
The Quest 2 was the star of the day. It was the main meme that would escape the conference walls, infiltrate Twitter, and take over Christmas morning. An all-in-one headset, for $299, ushering in a new era of VR. But what followed after the keynote was 9 straight hours of presentations, where Facebook presented how they spent 5 billion dollars on spatial computing research. No questions were allowed.
The small crew that stuck around was shocked into disbelief. Amputees grew and operated virtual limbs. Michael Abrash jail-broke an Apple watch so that monkeys with high neuroplasticity could operate a crane with a 6th virtual finger. Fortnite with Jet Packs in VR. Neural interfaces. Splinter Cell. Assassin’s Creed. And most importantly, a collaboration with Ray-Ban, which involved giving employees free AR glasses, pitched as “all day wearable computers,” with 4 GB of ram, 128 GB of memory, and 8 cameras, which would feed a machine learning algorithm that can convert "ego-centric capture data" into a full-scale, "self-aware," 3D model of Menlo Park.
Let us never forget our keys again.
The event closed with an unscripted presentation by John Carmack, the most honest man in VR. He expressed his frustrations on how Facebook has been unable to launch a decent social experience amidst the pandemic. I felt the same after 9 hours in Venues. A third of the way into his outline, the Facebook camera crew cut him off and forced everyone to go check out the Jaden Smith after-party, where he performed on a motorcycle inside of a candy kaleidoscope.
While it took me 40 minutes to get into the conference, it only took me 2 seconds to get home. Beats the subway.
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