Facebook shows its upcoming social VR avatars for Horizon at SXSW

Exclusive: Oculus VP Mark Rabkin talks to CNET about what's next for VR with the Quest

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
5 min read

Facebook's social VR avatars will get more real-time animated gestures and expressions.


It's been nearly five years since the Oculus Rift first promised a wide-open VR future. In 2021, that dream seems closer, but still beyond reach. The Oculus Quest, Facebook's standalone headset line, has been around for two years already. It's finally starting to gain traction, but will it provide the elusive "iPhone moment" for VR? 

As part of this year's all-remote SXSW conference, I talked about where VR is heading next for Facebook with Oculus VP Mark Rabkin. It seemed appropriate to discuss the future of virtual interactions virtually, though we didn't meet over VR. That's probably telling: VR still doesn't have a way to see eye-to-eye with real faces. Instead, you have to settle for cartoon-like avatars. (Microsoft is one of the companies trying to blend the two experiences with its body-scanning "holoportation.")

We discussed the need for VR to become more multipurpose and essential, easier to use, and more flexible with the devices we already have (such as headphones and other peripherals). We also talked about social connection and got a peek at what Facebook's next version of its VR avatars will look like later this year. His comments have been lightly edited for clarity.

"On the experiences side, everything is becoming more social," Rabkin says of Facebook's current VR push, adding that fitness is still a growing part of the picture. 

I asked if VR is heading towards an "iPhone moment," where it becomes more mainstream and multipurpose. Rabkin says, "I think a lot about the early days of PCs. It was hardcore folks, hobbyists, enthusiasts who would tinker who would kind of make it work ... that was VR, even as recently as three, four years ago. Now, it's really expanding into people who want to jump in, people who want to hang out, people who want to play games, people who also want to do more. You don't have to be just a tinkerer anymore."

Mark Zuckerberg recently discussed the importance of evolving social VR avatars in a conversation with The Information, even adding eye and face tracking to the mix. What Rabkin showed me is a look at Facebook's more immediate VR avatar improvements coming to the company's social VR environment, Horizon, which is still unavailable to the public. Rabkin says these improvements are coming soon, and will be available for other apps to use. 

The avatars, which you can see in the clip above, are still cartoon-like, not photo-real. But they move more like something from a Pixar film, with facial expressions and hand movements that seem more fluid and interpreted from voice and controller motion.

Horizon launched in private beta last August, but there's still no public beta yet. A conversation with Facebook Reality Labs' Andrew Bosworth earlier this year suggested that Horizon still needs more work before it could be opened up.

Rabkin also sees Facebook Horizon as being a space for theater-like performances, referencing the work that's been done in VR by apps like The Under Presents, which blends real actors in a social world. 

"I'm also really thinking, how can artists express themselves in there? How can we eliminate distance as a thing? You know, the pandemic brought this to the forefront for us. Everyone's thinking about remote work; I'm thinking a lot about remote art," Rabkin says.

He says that The Under Presents' performances of The Tempest in VR, which brought small groups together in experiences hosted by live performers, changed his perspective on what apps like Horizon could do. He envisions a platform where friends could "hang out, but also with strangers," and an audience, "creating that energy and the vibe, and you'll see a lot of that kind of getting added to Horizon this year. And you'll see that expanding in general throughout the platform."

In a sense, that building out of social spaces and audiences sounds like the VR version of what apps like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces are exploring with audio. 

Existing social VR platforms such as Microsoft's Altspace VR and VRChat have already been home to theater experiments and even an entire virtual Burning Man. Horizon looks to be that theatrical space for Facebook, but it also could be where the company works out some of its social dynamics for VR (or even AR). I asked Rabkin about the differences in dynamics between Zoom and VR, and where he sees the two meeting in the future.


Facebook's expanded vision of work in VR, called Infinite Office, will have virtual monitor tools and tie into cloud services.


"There's a very interesting tension on our teams right now between taking some of the cues from the real world, and social stuff, or stuff that may be just instinctive for people and building it into the products and experiences we have," he says. "And then, exploring on the other side, what should the new norms be? Because the laws of physics, in some ways, are different in virtual worlds...we're thinking about sound. We're thinking about interruption. We're thinking about space. We're thinking about distance. How close is too close? How far is too far?"

And when it comes to needing a Facebook login for Oculus VR and how that will work for Facebook's plans for VR as a corporate-ready work tool, Rabkin discusses a spectrum of video game-like handles and more corporate connection protocols. 

"When you're playing a giant multiplayer game, with teams and some relatively impersonal interactions, you probably want to be a pseudonym. That's a key use case. We're always going to support that. For work, you might present under your real name, but you know, you might have a slightly different identity or a different outfit, even for your avatar even if it's the same likeness and a different way of presenting," Rabkin says, explaining how Facebook logins could branch out to allow for more personas, although still requiring that Facebook ID underneath it all.

"We want to have a lot of flexibility [for users] to be able to present under a pseudonym, login to their work accounts, use Google Docs, use whatever. And I think that combination of things will enable people to present themselves the right way for each experience."