Who wants to hang out with strangers in VR? That was the first question I asked myself when Oculus unveiled Facebook Horizon last year. It’s an evolution of the company’s previous social VR efforts, Rooms, Spaces and Venues, with a far grander scale. Horizon isn’t just a place to gather with your friends, it’s a large-scale environment where you can wander, chat with people you don’t know, and hop into a variety of virtual rooms, from game shows to theme park festivities. Even more intriguing: All of those experiences are built within Horizon, and you can also construct your own areas together with friends.
Gallery: Facebook Horizon | 11 Photos
Gallery: Facebook Horizon | 11 Photos
At first, Horizon seemed like yet another crazy experiment from Facebook, leveraging its social strength and limitless resources to build the “ultimate” social VR experience. Given the niche market for VR, though, it was hard to tell how useful Horizon would actually be. It sounded cool, but not necessarily essential (which is where I’ve come down on a lot of Facebook’s social VR swings). But now that we’re living in a very different world, one where we can’t easily visit friends and family, and casual social experiences are limited to cautious grocery runs, Horizon may have a genuine purpose.
Today, Facebook is announcing that it’s opening up Horizon to more beta testers from its waitlist. And its unveiling several environments from VR creators: "Deep Sleep” from Liam McKill, a science fiction space thriller; Sunny Ammerman’s “Sunny’s Place,” a high-end apartment recreation; “H.A.T. Jungle Adventure" by Clint Ferguson; and the fantasy adventure “Alien Catacombs” by Micah Allen. Despite being so different, each experience was created solely using the tools within Horizon, which is a sign of how versatile they are.
After exploring Horizon for a bit with an Oculus Quest, alongside a friendly Facebook tour guide, it’s clear that it has far more potential than the company’s previous forays into social VR. Facebook Spaces and Oculus Rooms were far too limited, and Venues was only useful if there were events you actually wanted to sit through. But Horizon has far greater ambitions: It could end up being the first VR metaverse that’s close to Ready Player One’s OASIS.
I started my experience by customizing an avatar, something I’ve done several times now for various Oculus apps. Horizon’s avatar creator is the company’s most creative one yet, with a wide variety of face shapes, hairstyles and other features to choose from. And if you just want to throw caution to the wind, you can also randomly generate a virtual look for yourself.
Once I hopped into Horizon’s plaza, a large, sparsely decorated public hub, a Facebook guide appeared to lead me through the experience. My first lesson: There was a menu on my left wrist that served as my menu, mic mute button and a way to quickly move into a private bubble. That’s helpful if you ever need some social breathing room, but it’s also a way for you to get away from potential harassers and report them to Facebook. Don’t forget, Horizon is a public social VR experience, with all the upsides and downsides that entails.
My guide and I first jumped into “Balloon Bash,” a competitive water balloon shooter. It was no Call of Duty, but I still had fun trying to splash my guide, all the while dodging incoming fire. The game’s environment was small, but featured bridges, water and other obstacles to help you hide and/or get a leg up on your opponent. And again, it was all the more impressive because it was built using Horizon’s own tools.
Next we skipped over to “Interdimensional,” a virtual game show where we had to team up to solve a virtual puzzle. My guide hopped into a room with a large block in the middle, while I stood outside, looking through a window with an array of buttons in front of me. His job was to assess the room, and tell me which button to hit to move the block into its final goal spot. Our back and forth reminded me of completing escape rooms with friends in real life, and I could easily imagine more complex Horizon environments pushing that idea even further.
As we wound down my visit, we spend some time in Horizon’s creation mode, an empty space where you can build entire environments from scratch with your friends. In many ways, it reminded me of the white void from The Matrix — a room filled with limitless potential and creativity. Within a few minutes, my guide turned the empty space into a virtual beach, complete with sand, water and a golden sunset horizon. All the while, I spent a few minutes trying to create a palm tree. Creation mode unlocks even more menu options on your Oculus joysticks, and you can also make yourself giant or tiny to build out individual components. I’m not much of an artist, but the variety of tools available, and the deep amount of customizability per item, could lead to some truly interesting environments.
Horizon sounds like a social VR dream. But the reality may be much more difficult than Facebook realizes, especially when it comes to security. We’ve seen this story plenty of times: Give people a public space on the internet, and harassment and abuse inevitably follows. The company says moderators will be alerted if people end up reporting, blocking or muting a specific user, or if they notice any other strange behavior. Those mods will be able to listen in on your VR experiences (remember, everything is public), and they also have access to a buffer of recorded world data (though it’s unclear how much data that entails). They’ll be able to ban users outright if they find any violations.
But, really, that’s all just common sense. The real question is how Facebook could help prevent harassment from happening in the first place. Just like going anywhere in public, entering Horizon is a risk. We don’t know how many moderators Facebook will actually have once the service opens up. And it’s hard to tell if these safety tools will be enough if there’s a huge disruptive event, involving lots of bad actors. Clearly, Facebook is still trying to figure all of this out. And until it does, I don’t expect Horizon to leave beta anytime soon.