Facebook's new attempt at social VR: it's Nintendo Disneyland.
Do I want my virtual life to be Disneyfied?
I get used to my new virtual face and virtual body, crisp and clean and legless. I'm swiping through several options. They're cartoonish, in a 3D-animated Pixar or Dreamworks way. I give a thumbs-up to myself in the mirror. I smile. Thumbs-down, I frown. Thumbs up and thumbs down, I make a shrug-like face.
I'm wearing Facebook's recently released Oculus Quest VR headset, but I'm trying an experience that won't launch until early next year. Soon enough, I'm stepping into a vast outdoor lobby, where canyon-like arches spread overhead. It has a Disneyland vibe, without a doubt.
I'm inside a demo of a beta coming next year for a select group of Facebook's Oculus VR audience. Facebook Horizon is an attempt at a new virtual social experience, one that promises to finally figure out social... maybe. Facebook, despite being a social media company, has never gotten social VR right. And this new iteration, which could very well be the social glue that holds all of Facebook's next-gen VR OS together, looks like…well, it looks like NintendoLand.
I've been down this road before: I remember connecting in chats with far-off people in Spaces, and playing board games and watching TV in Rooms, and joining people for live video streams in Venues. Facebook's still trying to figure out how to make VR social and creative. And this is the company's latest attempt to reboot its approach as previous social VR experiences, Spaces and Rooms, get shut down.
The Battle Bots experience was built using Horizon's creative toolkit.
Build your own Battle Bots
I zap over to a teleport pad, and whoosh, we're off to a robot battle chamber. My host, someone I haven't met in person but who operates another Disney-like avatar, smiles and guides me to where I need to go. Massive robots sit in a hangar space, and we're each going to operate one, Pacific Rim-style. I move my handheld Oculus Touch control stick to zap myself forward in bursts, getting to the place where I grab glove-arms in front of me and then use them to punch with the giant robot on the hangar floor below me. Some jabs and attempts at uppercuts, and I win. I zap to a place where I get my trophy, picking it up using a trigger button on the controller, and holding it over my head while my host takes a virtual photo of me.
I'm reminded of so many things, playing with Horizon: cartoonish and ridiculous VR games like Vacation Simulator and Virtual Virtual Reality. NintendoLand and Nintendo's Miiverse. Disney Infinity. Social apps like Rec Room, VRChat, AltSpace, Sansar, and even the years-ago social demo Sony made (or tried to) on PlayStation VR.
I zap through another teleport pad to Island 23, where there's a tropical beach with a floating squeaking face-thing hovering near a box of giant berries. I hang out while another host shows how she can build things: she grows too many times her size and then starts making a super-tall tree, towering in the sky as she adds leaves at the top. I hold an umbrella, and toss it in the air and catch it again. We all high-five, and fist-bump. It takes learning the right Oculus Touch controller moves. I ask if hand tracking will work with Horizon next year; it's unclear, and probably not right away.
Both the island and the robot boxing spaces were built completely using the in-game creative tools. My final demo wasn't: it's a game Facebook's putting in Horizon, a dogfighting mini-plane sports game that's as fun as most VR games I'd pay for. I grab my plane and control it like a toy with hand, making it dive and rise. The plane flies through a massive arena, where I can pop into tunnels and grab missiles and other power-ups. We're trying to play a 2-on-2 game where I toss a flag to my teammate and he flies through a hoop before the other team can shoot us. It reminds me of the game RIGS for PlayStation VR: it's a weirdly fun little team sport. I don't get nauseous.
Wingstrikers is fun! It's also totally Nintendo-like (or, even, PSVR-esque).
Will it all be Disneyfied?
It looks like Horizon is a set of worlds to zap between, ones that can be created by people for private or public use. But the visual design that I see is Nintendo-style, like Wii Sports Resort or NintendoLand. Happy, fun, and I'm not sure I'd want it all the time. This is a beta, though, and other visual styles could eventually come.
I'm concerned about the whole look of Facebook's virtual future being this Pixar/Disney style. "I think you saw the range of what's possible," says Facebook's AR/VR content marketing head, Meghan Fitzgerald. "We want to see what people do with the tools we give them during the beta before we start changing things up."
"You can imagine that as the user-generated content — the worlds that people build — expands, the proportion that's built directly by us vs built by creators is going to change the balance dramatically," says Facebook's AR/VR Experiences Director, Eric Romo, previously the founder and CEO of virtual social app AltspaceVR, now owned by Microsoft. "That style, and the perception that you get will be influenced by what other creators build."
Despite Facebook making strides in shockingly lifelike virtual avatars, Horizon goes the opposite direction with characters that seem whittled down to basic cartoons. The simplified, Nintendo-like look is intentional, to avoid any uncanny valley. "You can't show too many things because if you get any wrong, it ruins the experience, but you want to show enough that you still delight people," says Romo. While I understand that instinct, the basic few characters I can select in my brief demo seem a far cry from the wilder mix of types in Oculus VR's existing avatar creator kit. I'm okay with some uncanny valley when used well.
What about privacy, or moderation?
Facebook is most interested in testing how group behavior and moderation performs in Horizon. There's a small dashboard on my left virtual arm that, when I turn it, shows a blue shield. If I tap it, the world freezes, and I can report or block whoever I'm with. That's designed to be Horizon's safety tool. We'll see how it goes in real world situations.
Horizon will also appear inside Facebook, alerting people of experiences that could be had. But Horizon will use an Oculus ID instead of a Facebook login, an attempt to build two different graphs of yourself (a "VR graph," and a personal graph). Meaning, maybe, that it'll keep your VR self and Facebook self from intertwining too much.
But Facebook Horizon will only be on Oculus Quest and Rift VR headsets for the closed beta. Any plans for 2D integration in other apps, or in AR, wouldn't be now.
"Some of them will be really open," Fitzgerald says of some of Horizon's virtual spaces, while "having groups that want some invite-only places, and having that be a little bit smaller and just for the people who worked on it."
Facebook admits it hasn't solved social interaction in VR yet, or privacy concerns for that matter. The ways that Horizon solves for handling online behavior aren't apparent from the very pre-made demo I got to experience. Will that blue shield on my arm work for all instances? Will people feel safe?
Guides will be real people. Also, Facebook wants social glue throughout all of VR.
Guides in a post-app world?
How will all this work out in practice? Facebook is apparently using live hosts in Horizon, which will act as Guides in this VR world. It sounds more like a theme park than a social network. I still can't imagine it in action with thousands of dynamic users.
Horizon's social world sounds like more than just an app. According to Facebook, it'll be around in Oculus' future version of VR all the time. "You were just in Horizon in a party, being led around by a guide. That party you can imagine as a system level concept," says Romo. "You could go from Horizon to some other place where you could consume that immersive media and stay with your social connection. It's our job to make that easy and seamless and better along the way, but it doesn't all need to be in Horizon." Fitzgerald adds: "You don't go back to a home screen to go your next activity with your friends. That natural progression with your social journeys is something we think about a lot."
It's (mostly) always sunny in Horizon
And, a week or so later, I still feel a little weirded out by the perpetually sunny vibe of Horizon. I don't always want to live in a Nintendo-Disney world. I'd love to craft immersive experiments, see bizarre worlds like Media Molecule's still-in-beta PlayStation game Dreams. I can't tell how incredible the creative toolset is, although I'm told that the robot-boxing and island experiences were built using Horizon.
But the conversations with all the real yet virtual happy-people were convincing, and I was swept along, and it was like living in a big, fun fantasy playset. Probably the playset Oculus should have had all along. But how will Facebook, a much larger and stranger social universe, play with it? The bigger challenges of controlling a social metaverse are still unknown. Maybe Horizon is better than whatever Oculus had before. But there are a lot of social VR questions Horizon leaves unanswered, too. And it's surprising to me that Facebook doesn't seem to have solved them yet.