We're standing in an escape room space, where one of us is trying to guide a block into a target and communicate to the other person, standing behind a wall at a control panel. CNET colleague Joan Solsman and I are in this world, but haven't seen each other in person for months. It's weird, fun stuff, the sort of thing maybe you did in escape rooms in person once. In fact, VR has immersive theater and escape room experiences, but Facebook's building its own funhouse. Facebook Horizon is a colorful, creative, seemingly wide-open world, and a competitor to Microsoft's Altspace VR, VRChat, and Rec Room. It's free. It's only on Oculus Quest and Rift. It's entering invite-only beta now. And, we still have a lot of questions.
Our first demo of Facebook Horizon was a year ago at Oculus Connect, and it seemed bright and Disney-like and a mystery in terms of how privacy and safety would be enforced. Things have changed a lot in a year. We're all using virtual apps in all sorts of forms now, and games like Fortnite, Animal Crossing, and Roblox are their own metaverses, too. But Facebook's mission for Horizon remains largely the same.
As Facebook nears its yearly AR/VR conference -- which is being renamed from Oculus Connect to Facebook Connect -- it seems like a reordering of the company's virtual goals is in process. Facebook Horizon seems like a centerpiece, some sort of social hub that, oddly, Facebook's been lacking in VR. Social apps like Spaces, Rooms and Venues have flitted in and out, but Horizon could be the bigger-picture solution.
Into Facebook's world
Horizon's head was a founder of Altspace VR, and the vibe is similar. We create cartoony avatars, and can zap into lobbies or hub worlds. But there's also a feeling of Minecraft here, or Roblox. The ability to make and share creations is clearly aimed at game-playing and experience-crafting, which could make Horizon feel like a multiverse theme park.
Our brief tour showed us a few of the spaces created with Horizon's in-world creative tools. We started in a balloon-launcher game called Balloon Bash, shooting targets as we ran around a mazelike map. Then we entered an escape-room-like game show world called Interdimensional where we competed in timed puzzles. It was pretty fun, and that game show gave a much greater sense of the competitive multiplayer things Horizon could be capable of.
Then we gathered in a space to use the creative tools, and things got weird. Facebook Horizon is trying to be a relatively easy and fast creative tool, and we tried making snowmen in a vast empty construction space. One of Horizon's wild tricks is that objects (and avatars) can be expanded or shrunk in the creative mode, so we started becoming god-size or ant-size, making models and then shrinking down into them to see them. Perspective got weird.
We made snowman sculptures, then glommed them onto my avatar and danced around. The experience was a little hard to figure out, and sometimes the tools seemed oddly complicated. Also, there were a few bugs: Editing my avatar kicked me out and back to a lobby, and friending people inside Horizon seemed to make us have to exit the app and then re-enter, an odd hiccup.
A world that's continuously recorded and moderated
The weirdest thing of all, to me, is resolving how Facebook handles safety. All of Horizon has in-world staff as well as content moderators, and Facebook will be recording and buffering gameplay experiences in-headset so that moderators can review something after the fact if anyone reports a problem. While Facebook Horizon's creators promise that the buffer is temporary and isn't stored long-term, it's a reminder that Facebook Horizon is a place where a lot of what happens seems to be under observation.
Per Facebook's privacy FAQ on Horizon, "When you submit a report, you will be able to include captured information from what happened in the past. Your Oculus headset will be capturing the last few minutes of your experience in Horizon through a rolling buffer that's processed locally on your device and is overwritten over time. Captured audio data from this rolling buffer is not stored on our servers unless a report is submitted, but we may store other data about your experience in Horizon in accordance with the Supplemental Beta Facebook Horizon Terms of Service."
In Horizon, a wrist-tool brings up settings and world-hopping tools, as well as a shield-shaped safety button. Pressing it removes you from the social setting, muting the universe and entering the Safe Zone. In case of harassment or problem behavior, an incident can be flagged. Players can be muted or blocked. Facebook has a buffer of in-world activity that a moderator can look back on, checking an incident for problematic behavior and following up afterward. We were told Facebook isn't recording in-world activity beyond the buffer, but it's also unclear how these tools will help manage social behavior in large and chaotic situations.
Facebook is also deploying staff who will be in Horizon to model good behavior, as guides or hosts in public spaces. What we don't know is the staff ratio for the number of people who may be accessing Facebook Horizon soon.
The privacy video inevitably gives me an unsettled vibe, versus a comforting one. In this age, and with everything Facebook has been involved in this year, that's inevitable. It's very clear that Facebook is trying to model and enforce good behavior in Horizon, and it's just unclear how that will play out in everyday use. Even Facebook Horizon's creators admit it's a work in progress, which is why it's starting as a relatively closed beta.
Social improv and creativity: Could this work?
Facebook Horizon's beta is starting from a wait list the company established last year, and the amount of people who can get in sounds limited to start, with Facebook promising the numbers will open up more soon.
Horizon seems very intent on creating safe and creative social spaces, but only using in-app tools. Unlike Altspace VR or VRChat, Horizon won't be allowing imports of other 3D models or builds to start. That could hinder artists intending to try Horizon for a staging tool, but it also sounds like Horizon's goal is to make a social improvisational creative experience. The quick-creation possibilities seem a lot different than, say, the individually focused tools in Dreams on PlayStation VR. In Facebook Horizon, it seems very much like the idea is to get a lot of people building together.
One thing that's immediately interesting is how people could perform and collaborate together. Could it be a place where immersive theater experiments like The Under Presents find test grounds, or where escape room ideas can be built? Or, will those immersive artists pick other more open platforms?
Facebook Horizon is already partnering with a variety of creators to make worlds, from escape rooms to game shows. It could be that the future of Facebook VR experiences lies in making Horizon worlds even more than apps. Or, at least, there will inevitably be a tension between both. If someone could play mini-golf or an escape room for free in Horizon, would they pay for or download another VR app?
Facebook is still the big question mark
Facebook isn't exactly a company that people associate with cartoon fun and games lately, and getting lots of people comfortable with trusting Facebook's VR metaverse feels like a big hurdle in the long run. But as a free app and a big playspace on Oculus hardware, it looks like it'll be something worth exploring. I want to go back, and see what strange immersive events are there. I want to try all the crafted game-worlds. And I want to see what it's like to meet up with people there. It seems like it's full of wide-open possibilities, and much like Microsoft's Altspace VR, it could end up having a lot of fascinating events.
Facebook's clearly-stated and continuous goal of social connection through AR and VR looks like it's happening in Horizon, but how deeply this follows through into mainstream Facebook is still unclear. Facebook groups will be able to invite people into Horizon, and Horizon will stream experiences to Facebook outside of VR, but Horizon won't have collaborative tools for PCs or phones like Altspace VR or Spatial do. Inevitably, that may be a necessary step, because not everyone's going to be in a headset. And how successful Horizon is, beyond being an experimental beta for now, will largely depend on how many people decide they trust Facebook enough to want to play in these spaces.