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Horizon Worlds, Meta's biggest metaverse app, opens to the public

We jumped in ahead of launch. Here's what to expect.

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Horizon Worlds has online games and user-created spaces. It enters public beta today.
Meta

It's been two years since Facebook -- now Meta -- first showed off its VR metaverse app, Horizon Worlds. The app, which was in private beta until now, is at last open to the public starting Thursday. The virtual meeting space and gaming hub is a familiar mix of existing VR social apps such as Rec Room, AltSpace VR and VRChat, but its creation and coding features could set it apart. However, how successful Meta will be at moderating larger groups and preventing toxic behavior in VR remains to be seen.

Facebook's renaming to Meta came with a lot of big metaverse promises. While the company's existing Facebook app looks pretty much the same as always, Meta's looking to build new social apps that bridge VR, AR, computers and phones. Horizon Worlds is, for now, a free VR-centric experience that requires a Quest 2 headset to use. (Meta is ending Horizon Worlds support for the original Quest on Jan. 13.) Much like Meta's workplace-focused virtual office space Horizon Workrooms, which I tried earlier this year, Worlds uses Meta's existing cartoon-like VR avatars to interact. 

I took one more tour of Horizon Worlds along with Meta's VP of Horizon, Vivek Sharma, before the app opened to public access. It was my fourth visit to Horizon Worlds in the last couple of years: My previous visits (here, here and here) were relatively similar in design. Moving around Worlds will feel pretty familiar to anyone who's been in any of the other social VR and metaverse spaces. Basically gliding or teleporting along, I can bring up a menu to choose different worlds or creator-made experiences to teleport into. Portals exist in worlds to link spaces together, a common metaphor in metaverse apps: They're basically links you click on.

Sharma and I (and a few others, including Kevin Reilly, product marketing manager for Horizon Worlds) met in the Plaza, which is where Horizon Worlds guides you through various tutorials. From there we looked at objects being made in Meta's Creator Competitions. Meta already has creators in the app in private beta, but a series of competitions are aimed at challenging people to make mechanics and 3D assets. The timed events deliver cash prizes, and the assets can end up being shared as public assets. The app encourages code-sharing so that builders can quickly riff and adopt ideas others have had, crowdsourcing new mods fast.

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Arena Clash feels like a lot of other VR games on other social apps like Rec Room.

Meta

We then hopped into a multiplayer game of Arena Clash, a three-on-three shooter game made by Meta. Horizon Worlds will lean a lot on games to attract people, much like social-gaming app Rec Room. The games can have their own leaderboards and leveling-up mechanics. There's also a world-hopping mode where friends could randomly jump between mini-game worlds discovering new things together.

Meta CTO-to-be Andrew Bosworth previously told me that Horizon Worlds needed more experiences and things to do before it was ready for the public. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has emphasized that Horizon, to him, is the current centerpiece of Meta's metaverse strategy. 

"There needs to be a social fabric that goes across all of the different layers of virtual reality. That's what we hope to do with Horizon," Zuckerberg said to me back in May. Scanning the available worlds right now, it does seem like a handful of games, experiences and other multiplayer environments are now available. Is that enough, though? Meta's strategy to get more content into Horizon Worlds is to motivate creators to build it.

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Coding tools within Horizon Worlds could set it apart. Will they be easy to use?

Meta

That works alongside an in-VR coding and creation interface in Horizon Worlds. Games and experiences can be opened up to show the code, and in-app building tools can also create objects and other visual assets. I got a peek at how the Arena Clash game can be viewed as its coding blocks: I suddenly became a giant while the world below me turned into a field of toy-like blocks I could open up. While Meta is leaning on a community that shares assets back and forth to grow new ideas, it's still unclear how this collaborative creativity will work with concepts of ownership and commerce in Meta's metaverse.

Also unclear, still, is how community behavior will be moderated. Horizon Worlds does have tools to report bad behavior, using a wrist-activated Shield button to pause experiences when they turn toxic, and mute, block or report someone who's behaving badly. Meta back-records the last few minutes of a flagged incident, and moderators are meant to then review the case and take action afterward. I haven't seen this in action in a public space yet, though. 

There are also general VR behavior guidelines laid out by Meta for Quest owners, but again, how those are actually enforced remains a gray area. Harassment and toxic behavior in VR is real, and Meta will have to prove how these new public spaces will be better managed than other social VR apps, or Facebook itself. Horizon Worlds' public beta is age-restricted to people 18 and over, but with the number of people I know sharing their Oculus headsets and Facebook accounts with kids, it's not clear how that age limit will be enforced.

Horizon Worlds feels charming and familiar while also a bit buggy and cartoonish. How it separates itself from all the other metaverse apps is unclear. Meta's hooking Horizon Worlds invites into Facebook, and aims to make links to Worlds feel more like jumping into Zooms. But there's a lot more work to do before Horizon Worlds ends up feeling like the social universe you have thought was right around the corner.