The excitement around a metaverse is growing, as it’s not just an idea from science fiction anymore. Facebook Horizon, a user-generated virtual reality world that is still in closed beta testing, might be one of the first steps toward creating one.
The metaverse is the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. Facebook is building its Horizon world in virtual reality, where people can immerse themselves in a virtual space with other friends and create their own social spaces akin to game worlds.
At GamesBeat, we’ve got our own conference on the metaverse coming January 27. So we’re naturally curious about it. I played through a 45-minute demo of Facebook Horizon. The company showed the new demo of Horizon as part of its keynote talks at the Facebook Connect event, where it announced its $300 Oculus Quest 2 VR headset.
I also chatted with Facebook Reality Labs Experiences head of product marketing Meaghan Fitzgerald and product management director Ari Grant. Fitzgerald aptly pointed out that there is no common definition of the “metaverse,” which means many different things to different people.
“We see it as an opportunity to encourage more social interaction in VR, to make social engagement in VR deeper and richer, to help people build their graph of friends to connect with,” she said.
Facebook isn’t trying to compete with the top games on VR platforms, nor is it trying to be something like a movie theater in VR. Facebook Horizon is a place where maybe four to eight people in a group can gather for fun.
Meanwhile, Grant said, “I like to say that the metaverse is a Rorschach test. When you come into Horizon, can you find people aligned with your interests, that are interested in engaging with your hobbies or activities that are relevant? Making a place where you can navigate all these virtual spaces of people and activities that are relevant to you is what we’re looking to do, and we do hope to build an experience that’s meaningful to each person.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Tell me about where Horizon is now.
Ari Grant: There are already so many things on Horizon we’d like to show you. We have escape room puzzle worlds, obstacle course adventure worlds. There are hangout spaces. Yesterday, I was in a giant ball pit with low gravity, hitting them all around. All sorts of different experiences.
We see Horizon as ultimately a community product. You use the activities to help bring people together around shared interests, things they want to experience and do together. You can imagine laser tag where a bunch of people come together, or a place of worship where a bunch of people come and meet up. We look at this almost like Facebook Groups, but you can go into them and do the thing you’re interested in. I think of it as a social network where you make new memories. We can’t do that very easily in existing social networks.
We’re just opening this up to beta, trying to bring more people in. We’re excited to learn what they want to make and do, and start to grow and expand the features that allow these different types of immersive communities that people are looking to build.
GamesBeat: What kind of scope is there? It’s been a while since you started talking about Horizon, and I wonder how big a project it is. Could you compare it to something like Oculus Venues? It looks like it’s a much larger scale.
Meaghan Fitzgerald: We did announce it last year at Connect, and we started working with users to get feedback, particularly on the world-building tools. That was an area where we wanted to put a lot of emphasis, make sure we getting feedback from people who would want to build those community spaces Ari talked about.
When you talk about how big it is, the scope, we see a lot of growth potential in the entire ecosystem of social. We’re running the beta for Venues as well, and Venues is growing. But in terms of the scope of Horizon, the thing that makes it unique is the ability for people to create their own hangout spaces, mini-games, and puzzles using the world builder to expand the world themselves. It isn’t limited by what we build. It’s an ever-expanding universe where communities can form and come together and explore the space together.
GamesBeat: The space looks pretty big. For actual creators, it might wind up being small for them. How did you figure out that this is the right amount of space to build in?
Grant: The creation tools — it’s a pretty wide-open space. It isn’t specifically that we want wide open space. We’re trying to give creators the freedom to do with it as they like. If, in a Horizon world, you want to put up four walls and make a small, intimate space, you can do that. If you want to make it a large area where people go on a roaming adventure, you can. Another thing we’ll often see, it’s almost like a set on a sound stage. They’ll build little different areas that you teleport between during the experience. The wide-open space says, “Hey, use this how you like.” It doesn’t suggest either way.
Right now, we do have limits on how many people you can put into a space. When a creator makes a world, they can choose between four and eight. We started with smaller numbers to make sure we’re helping foster connections and relationships so that people feel they can take a moment to connect and build those relationships. A lot of people in VR don’t yet have friends there, so we’re hoping that will help connect them. As we bring in more people and look to hear what they’re looking for, we expect over time that we’ll keep raising that limit and allow people to make experiences that have more people in them at once.
GamesBeat: If you’re thinking about what you want to have ready at launch, what sorts of experiences are you looking for? How many experiences?
Fitzgerald: We’re pretty excited by how many people are making a lot of content, even during our invite-only beta. I hesitate to put any sort of number on the experiences. But one thing we want to make sure is there at launch, what we’re building, is the safety features that exist around the entire experience. We’ll have people adding a lot more worlds and content, and we want to make sure the experience — this is why we’re doing the invite-only beta, so we can stress test and make sure we’re constantly improving and getting the safety features right.
A few things we’re launching with — you probably saw the sleep mode in the demo, where you can mute lock and take yourself out of the environment for a little break. You can control the environment around you. We’re also training safety specialists, real people who are reviewing the reports that come in and can be a lot more nuanced in thinking about how to handle situations and give us feedback on the process.
Also, just making it easier for people to submit. We have a rolling buffer of audio that’s stored on your device and is only submitted when you send a report. It means people don’t have to type up what happened. They don’t have to figure out how to explain a situation. It can go to those trained safety specialists and be taken care of on that side. Safety is a huge focus for us. We want people to feel in control, to feel welcome, to be empowered to explore and connect with other people as they traverse that growing universe of all the hundreds of worlds, and hopefully many more in the future.
GamesBeat: If there’s a description of what it’s like — do you have a way of describing it for people? Is Minecraft in VR, or something else that you like to call it?
Grant: I like to frame it as Facebook Groups that you can go into and do activities with the people there. Facebook Groups organizes people around an interest. It’s a thing you can go in and do. Another fun framing I like: I look at Facebook and Instagram as a “share” social network, and I look at Horizon as a “do” social network. That’s an easy way to think about it, although it still requires a lot of imagination to figure out what those things mean.
GamesBeat: For things like movie-watching, could you just have an experience ready for that, or do you expect people to create that?
Grant: Currently we don’t have a way in Horizon to play videos. One of the nice things about being in beta is it helps us understand what things people are looking for, and we can prioritize the ones that are the highest priority.
The one thing we do in the worlds we make ourselves — we’re both trying to help inspire people, as well as give people activities to do while the creator community is building. But we also provide templates. If you go into Horizon right now, you can grab a puzzle template that has things like a prebuilt combination lock that you might use in an escape room. In the future, I imagine we might make a theater template, hypothetically, and then people could use or modify and customize that. We’re looking for ways to give people starter setups and make it easy to create, while also making sure the creation tools are so accessible and easy that if someone wanted to make a theater space and cover it with dragons, they could make it their customized space.
GamesBeat: How many people ultimately could be together in one place?
Grant: Right now it’s four to eight. When a creator makes a world, they choose that number. If more people go into that world, it just makes a clone in real time. There’s a duplicate of the world that more people can go into. Over time we expect to increase that number as we work to understand what types of activities are most looking to do.
GamesBeat: Could I buy more space, or buy a bigger group?
Grant: Right now we don’t have any monetization features. The limit is primarily a technical one in the near term, but it’s also a product one. Like I mentioned, we want to help encourage friendships and connections. Right now, when you make a world, you can make a lot of stuff interactive and animated. The more people you let into a world, the world itself is going to become more static because you can only have so many things moving at the same time.
We’re doing more tests. Last week we did a test of an open mic night, where someone could stand on stage and people could watch. We tested that with about 15 people to see how people feel about the size. As you get more and more people you start running into issues of–you want one person to be louder than the others, for example, because they’re the one with the microphone. We want to take the time to understand what kinds of controls or features like that help. But we’re excited to help people–meetups are a type of activity we’re excited about. We look forward to finding the right combinations that help people have larger groups in spaces.
GamesBeat: Does it look very different depending on the hardware you use, whether it’s a Quest or Quest 2 or Rift S?
Fitzgerald: The experience generally looks very similar. With the Quest 2, you do have the improved resolution. You’ll have a slightly higher fidelity with the same experience. But we don’t think this is going to be something that limits anyone’s ability to enjoy Horizon, especially because the focus is on social interactions and being able to enjoy a space together. We want to make sure we’re optimizing for groups and communities. We’ll keep an eye on the experience across all of our platforms. We want all the people across all of our platforms to be able to experience that together.
GamesBeat: If I remember from other worlds, they didn’t want you to bring things into the world that were already made, because there’s a risk of copyright infringement. But can you bring anything into the world that helps you build something, whether it’s images or text or signs, anything like that?
Grant: Right now we don’t have importing from outside of VR. Horizon does have a simple system that allows you to package and share elements. One person could package up something like a chair, and other people could use that chair. The primary use case we expect right now is someone taking the time to build a complex leaderboard, and then other people can use that leaderboard. So we do have that opportunity for people to share and use each other’s stuff. But at the moment we don’t have import from other systems.
We want to make sure that Horizon feels accessible, and we’re excited for people to look around the app and see stuff and say, “I could make that. Let me give that a try.” We think one of the awesome parts of the app is giving anyone that opportunity. But again, being in beta with this early audience, the more we get these things as top requests, we’d love to work with creators to understand what we want to do and support different paths.
GamesBeat: I assume that down the road, you could create commerce that way. People could trade or sell things they’ve created inside Horizon.
Fitzgerald: It’s another area where we’re looking for feedback. We don’t have plans to have monetization in there any time soon. One nice use case I’ve seen pop up, it’s less about trade and more about gifting. People will create worlds or environments for each other. Especially if you have someone who’s a bit more skilled at using the world builder. We had someone in the demo who made a world for one of their colleagues, with all of her favorite things in it. That type of activity, to express yourself through an environment and share that with people, speaks to why we want to make the tools easy for everyone because everyone has that idea for what they can make for someone in their life. It was a meaningful interaction. More of that is the drive we’d like to see early on, and then we’ll refine based on feedback for other ways for people to share their creations.
Grant: We do want to make sure that people have control over what they create. If I make a world today, you can only clone it and remix it if I allow that to be so. A creator can say, “I want to put this in the reusable area, where people can remix this,” or, “No, this is just mine.” We understand that if people put time into a world, they’re going to want to make sure they have attribution. As we grow over time, we’ll look for more ways to offer creators control over how and where their content appears in the app.
GamesBeat: Do you think people will come to think of a world as a geographical kind of place? Or is it more like a world that exists inside of a space that isn’t geographically located? Like the difference between Second Life and a website you visit.
Fitzgerald: I’ll be curious to see how people describe it. The thing that’s important about these places as destinations is that we do hope–we want to encourage people to travel to them together, to make plans to go explore these areas together. Especially now, as we’re bringing more people into VR with Quest 2, whether they see it as the equivalent of a 3D website or as a destination, the behavior we’d like to encourage, and what we think will make these meaningful to people, is that they’re going with their friends, with communities they meet, and they’re meeting in these places to explore or play or create together.
Grant: I think of Horizon kind of like an instant subway system. You go in and just pop out in different places. You don’t necessarily have a physical model of how they’re connected geographically. Horizon lets you create portals that interconnect worlds, so you can make a story with different chapters that go from one to the next, or a creator could make a hub world that links to all their different creations. For me, I have a mental model of how the worlds interconnect, but again, it feels like a subway map, with lines connecting them. It doesn’t really feel like there’s a physicality. It’ll be interesting to see what mental models people adopt in what is essentially a new navigation paradigm.
GamesBeat: Do you think this is your stab at a metaverse?
Fitzgerald: We always struggle with this one, because “metaverse” means so many different things to different people, even internally. We see it as an opportunity to encourage more social interaction in VR, to make social engagement in VR deeper and richer, to help people build their graph of friends to connect with.
The thing that sometimes raises that question is that we do see Horizon as a place where people can connect and form communities and relationships, and then explore all the rest of what VR has to offer. Horizon is not designed to compete with the top games on the platform. It’s not trying to be a movie theater. It’s a place where communities can form, and if they want, there are activities for them. We want to enable those people to come in, but we also want them to be able to share the rest of the VR ecosystem with the groups they form. We’re excited about this being a small next step in building out the social ecosystem of VR.
Grant: I like to say that the metaverse is a Rorschach test. It’s important to point out what Meaghan said, though. When we say that “metaverse” means something different to different people, there’s also an aspect of that in how personal the experience is. What are the types of things you’re looking to do? That’s very much aligned with what we’re trying to do. When you come into Horizon, can you find people aligned with your interests, that are interested in engaging with your hobbies or activities that are relevant? Making a place where you can navigate all these virtual spaces of people and activities that are relevant to you is what we’re looking to do, and we do hope to build an experience that’s meaningful to each person.
Different fictions and other things have portrayed that in different ways. We don’t want to prescribe any specific vision.
GamesBeat: You knew that the metaverse question was coming. Would you want to send people to something like Oculus Venues, since you’re within the same company? If someone wants to watch a movie or an event, you already have something for that. Go through this door and you’re in Venues.
Fitzgerald: That’s definitely something we’ll be open to do, in the same way we’d be open to people traveling from Horizon into any other experience. The party system in Horizon is the same as the party system on the Oculus platform. If you want to keep your cohort together as you go explore another application, that’s something you can do. We’ve set it up that way so you can jump into whatever experience you want next.
Grant: It’s a possible solution we might explore. Again, Horizon is using the Oculus party system, and people are welcome to party up in Horizon so they can go travel and explore other experiences as a group. Based on what we see people doing, we look forward to prioritizing whatever is going to make things easier for people. The vision we hope for is, people who want to get together and do activities together can find those people and find those activities. What we can do to make that easy is what we focus on doing.
GamesBeat: One thing that seems to be hard in these different worlds is trying to get it to load fast. Is that a problem you’re working on? Do you want to somehow trade that off, the speed of loading an experience versus how big that experience is?
Grant: Loading time is one of those things that, in a product like this, you’ll work on forever. Creators are so excited. They always want to make bigger and bigger worlds. Over time we’ll want to keep letting in more avatars and bigger scenes, and that does make the world bigger, but we also have an advantage in exploring solutions like incremental loading, so you can load part of a world and load the rest later.
The big thing for us, though, it’s so cool how anyone can just make a Facebook group and start building a community. We’re excited, in Horizon, for anyone to build a world and start building a community and connecting with people. We want to make sure that the solutions remain relatively easy to use, and that building a world doesn’t require deep technical expertise. A lot of this is going to become a matter of how we balance those tradeoffs. As worlds get larger, loading time is just one example of things we want to keep low, so that when someone is trying to go meet up with their friends they can get there and connect as quickly as possible.
GamesBeat: The Quest 2 is launching in October. Are you trying to align your launch with the new headset?
Fitzgerald: We’re going to take our time on this. We want to get the product experience right. It’s so important for social. We’re not on a fixed deadline. But we do want to make sure as many people can get into Horizon as soon as possible when we’re confident we have that experience right.
GamesBeat: How will the new video resolution with the Quest 2 work with existing software?
Grant: The way the resolution works, it’s pretty standard, what you see in hardware. If you have the edge of something, with more resolution it’ll be automatically refined. If you have a square, the edges will be smoother because of the higher resolution. Everything is going to get that automatic anti-alias. But then it’s up to developers to upload 4K textures. If they have a brick wall in their app, they might want a higher-resolution image. You get a bit of smoothing for free, and then it’s up to the developer as far as what they want to do with the additional screen resolution.
It’ll also improve things like Z-fighting. In 3D, if you have two things that are overlapping each other very closely, small changes in the camera can change which one of those things is in front, because of the precision issue. Things can flicker. Because of the higher precision, you’ll see less of that. The fidelity knob is turned up a little, and all that juice is there for a developer to take hold of. A good analogy would be when the iPhone came out with the Retina displays. The corners will be a little bit rounder, but if you want a higher-quality image, you have to have an artist on your team create them.