Facebook Horizon is a virtual reality sandbox universe where you can build your own environments and games, play and socialise with friends. Photo: Pixabay

CAPE TOWN – When Facebook acquired Oculus, a virtual reality headset maker, for $2 billion (R29.97bn), the MIT Technology Review highlighted that Facebook had acquired the virtual reality start-up because it believed virtual reality could be the next big thing after mobile.

Fast-forward three years later, some business publications pointed out Oculus was a headache for Facebook and it was not paying off. 

This week, Facebook finally revealed why this technology is worthwhile for the social network giant. 

It revealed a plan to build a virtual world, called Facebook Horizon, that will be accessible via the Oculus Rift headsets. As interest in Facebook is waning, Facebook Horizon could become the saviour of the social network giant.

Facebook Horizon is a virtual reality sandbox universe where you can build your own environments and games, play and socialise with friends or just explore the user-generated landscapes. Facebook Horizon will enable virtual presence for human beings to do exactly what they do in real life in the virtual world. A human being will have a version of himself/herself or an avatar in a virtual world. 

Facebook Horizon is planned to be launched in 2020, initially in closed beta (meaning only for a select few users). Through Facebook Horizon, Facebook will truly to become a hardware and social network company which is rare in the social network business eco-system. It will mean that to participate in the Facebook virtual world you will need a headset designed by Facebook.

In this virtual world people will choose how they look and what they wear from an expansive and inclusive set of avatar tools which will be created by Facebook. This is huge for the Facebook bottom line. It will be a world with virtual billboards for brands, Facebook-run shops for playing and living in the virtual world, third-party malls full of branded products. 

The value of Facebook Horizon cannot be underestimated. It will enable Facebook to have another revenue source beyond just advertising. 

Facebook has invited early adopters to sign up to form part of early citizens of its virtual world. Before signing up, interested ones are informed about rules of becoming citizens of this virtual world. 

Through Facebook Horizon, Facebook is reinventing social networks. Facebook has been in the line of fire over privacy concerns. 

For example, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal in early 2018 revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent and used them for political advertising purposes.

As future citizens of this new virtual world decide to become citizens it will be important to make informed decisions before getting into a situation that cannot be corrected.

If Mark Zuckerberg ever harboured dreams of world dominion, Facebook Horizon is a perfect platform to fulfil those dreams. If users were fooled in the past to join the giant social network, this time around there’s an opportunity to reflect.

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes wrote an essay for The New York Times in which he suggested that  Zuckerberg is a “good, kind person”, but one whose “power is unprecedented” and whose “influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government”.

The Facebook Horizon will take that power to levels we’ve never seen before. 

As Facebook Horizon is styled after Second Life platform which has been around for the past 13 years, it will be important to learn from the mistakes committed with the Second Life platform which at some point had as many as 900 000 users on its own virtual world. The platform grew to have its own world economy which led to a series of legal and regulatory challenges.

The Facebook virtual world will probably grow more than the Second Life platform. If it does, we should brace ourselves for new challenges and opportunities that will come with the new virtual world. 

Wesley Diphoko is the editor-in-chief of The Infonomist. You can follow him on Twitter via: @WesleyDiphoko

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