I didn’t expect to like Facebook’s Horizon.
That’s not to say I really had any idea of what to expect prior to my first visit to the social media giant’s Pixar film-like virtual world. It’s just that after four years of near-constant Facebook user privacy scandals, reports of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s coziness with Trump, and the continuing proliferation of misinformation on the platform, my natural reaction to any of the company’s products — especially one which promises to transplant the entire concept of the social network to a new medium — is one of cautious skepticism.
So you can understand how conflicted I felt when I found myself annoyed that my delightful 45-minute guided demo, punctuated by bouts of shared laughter, had come to an end and I’d spent most of it with an ear-to-ear grin plastered across my face.
All of which is to say: I really like Facebook’s Horizon.
A world of pure imagination
The “creation-focused experience” is gearing up to be an integral part of Oculus’ virtual reality platform, whether that’s on the company’s wireless Quest headsets or its soon-to-be-sunset, PC-connected Rift. Think of Horizon as a mashup between PlayStation’s VR creation sandbox title Dreams, the 3D virtual worlds of Second Life, and the event-focused gameplay of Nintendo’s blockbuster Animal Crossing with a splash of that rounded, Woody-from-Toy Story aesthetic perfected by Pixar. Currently in an indefinite, invite-only beta testing period within the U.S., it’s charming and brimming with user-created possibilities, and Facebook is very much aware of its impending irresistible potential.
“It’s a ‘do’ social network versus a ‘share’ social network,” says Ari Grant, product management director at Facebook Reality Labs Experiences. “I do believe the next wave of social is being with people that matter to you, doing experiences that matter to you, and creating relationships.”
Grant’s referring to Horizon’s suite of creation tools, designed to allow its users to build out worlds, games, and experiences they can share with other Facebook users that come to inhabit its plaza.
“It’s a ‘do’ social network versus a ‘share’ social network.”
Those user-generated experiences can really take the form of anything; they’re only limited by users’ imaginations and the toolset available. But to jumpstart that process, Facebook has committed to programming events for Horizon, at least a “couple a week” according to Grant, that can range from things like haunted houses to escape room puzzle adventures to regular meetup spaces. Grant says there’s also room for users to explore less exciting but more practical use cases that are better suited to their real-world needs, like “tutoring” or even “worship.”
“A great analogy for Horizon is Facebook Groups,” says Meaghan Fitzgerald, head of product marketing at Facebook Reality Labs Experiences, of the shared online spaces that allow Facebook users to connect along similar ideologies. “It gives people the ability to start a community.”
It’s that emphasis on community that lies at the core of the entire Horizon experience.
“The way I really think about Horizon,” says Grant, “is when you interact with people right now, there is a split interaction mode: people around you in real life you have deep connections with, and then people on the internet you get to nerd out about hobbies. … It’s really a split. I think, in life, we strive for people who are both. Horizon gives people opportunities to have both: people who have the same interests as you and want to make memories.”
Currently, the platform allows its creators to add up eight people to instances of its worlds. Those people must also be active members of Facebook’s traditional, hot mess of an online social network — you can’t log into Horizon otherwise. The same goes for Quest 2 users.
You all know the drill by now: If you want to play in Facebook’s version of virtual reality, you have to pay the toll with your user data. Users chortling and cavorting through Horizon’s many, varied worlds are essentially blood-bags of data ripe for Facebook’s invisible swarm of privacy-preying algorithmic mosquitoes. Information pertaining to your avatar, movements, activities, interactions, and voice commands are all fair game for its product-building and ad-serving purposes.
“A great analogy for Horizon is Facebook Groups. It gives people the ability to start a community.”
All of the usual privacy caveats apply. Per the terms of service, “if you create or upload content to Horizon, you grant [Facebook] permission to store, copy, and share it with others.” Also: “You understand that you may be exposed to content from a variety of sources when using Horizon and acknowledge that content may be inaccurate, offensive, indecent, or otherwise objectionable.” So, much like how Facebook and Instagram are infested with QAnon conspiracists and 5G truthers, you will also likely find similarly deluded individuals sucking up Horizon’s virtual oxygen. That’s just the world we live in now, folks.
The good news is that Facebook’s provided for a way to handle abusive individuals you might have the misfortune of interacting with while within Horizon. By selecting the Safety button from a wrist-mounted pop-up menu, you can enter a “bubble” that isolates you from any real-time interaction, rendering you essentially invisible to outside users, and allowing you to file a report.
Grant says that report will include “a couple of minutes” of audio locally processed on your headset on a rolling buffer. “By the time you open up the menu to report something,” he explains of the recording policy, “you’ve missed it. … We don’t store audio from Horizon on our servers unless a person files a report. None of it is stored. Once a report is done being investigated and handled, then we delete those recordings.”
There are other notable quirks to Horizon’s user-generated content policies. If you create a world or object and invite another user to join that creation as a collaborator, you’re effectively granting them shared ownership of your work. That means if you suddenly decide to delete your Horizon account, your creations will persist without you. You can, of course, delete them prior to deleting your account — so it’s not like you’re losing total control. But still, it’s something to be mindful of before entering.
“As long as you have your account, you have control over those worlds,” says Grant.
Anything you want to, do it
Now that we’ve covered the uncomfortable, user-monitoring underbelly of Horizon, let’s talk about the beautiful swan visible above its virtual waters. And, my, is it pretty.
When you first enter Horizon, you’re prompted to create your avatar while facing a virtual mirror. It’s a relatively straightforward process akin to those you’ve encountered in any number of video games, and it’s mercifully not overloaded by a multitude of customization options — not yet, anyway. Horizon’s avatars are expressive and endearing, and you’ll immediately notice that their mouths move in sync with users’ voices. When I met my first guide, VRwithKR, within Horizon’s plaza, I was gobsmacked by just how “real” he felt. The awkwardness and tentative shyness that usually washes over me in something like VRChat, with its way less expressive avatars, was all but absent. I was as engaged with my guide as I normally would’ve been if we’d met at some anonymous corporate conference room or hotel lobby IRL. He just felt real.
The plaza — the meeting ground for users that enter into it — is a simple, welcoming environment that’s dotted by portals to different “worlds.” You can either pass through these like you would in VRChat or search for worlds to visit using the pop-up menu on your wrist and be transported immediately. For the purpose of my demo, I was taken to two worlds created by Facebook employees using Horizon’s creation tools: Balloon Bash and Interdimensional.
Balloon Bash is a multiplayer-style game that saw myself and two other Facebook employees racing around a sandboxed environment under a time limit and shooting at targets with cutesy, canon-like guns. It may not sound impressive until you consider that anyone can take advantage of Horizon’s tools to build these game worlds and objects, and employ scripts to program them.
The second game experience, Interdimensional, offered a variety of mini-games, but we only had time to play one — a co-op puzzle experience. While I waited in an adjacent “room” with a control panel of geometrically labeled buttons in front of me and peered out through a viewing window, my guide was in the interior chamber, calling out directions in the form of those geometric shapes in order to guide a floating cube into a nearby slot. It was surprisingly involved for a simple demo, and left me wondering just what else users could dream up.
The final leg of my guided Horizon demo took place within its creation space and gave me a brief opportunity to build using the tools. To start, I entered into “god mode,” which blew my avatar up to gigantic proportions — giving me and my guides a good laugh — and placed tool palettes on either of my wrists. Within minutes, this vast, white-tiled space was quickly filled by an outsized and disproportionate Olaf-like snowman of my own design. (In my defense, I’d just watched Frozen 2 the night before, and a relatively uncomplicated snowman seemed like the easiest object for me to design given the time constraints.) Before I knew it, my guide was using this monstrous, broke-down Olaf as a makeshift avatar, humorously chasing down the other Facebook guide within my demo. It was silly, but oh so much fun.
And then it was over. My time was up. I said goodbye to my congenial guides, exited Horizon, lost my temporary beta access to its myriad, unvisited worlds, and was then immediately consumed by a desire to return.
I like Horizon. I just don’t like that it’s a Facebook thing.
But I’ll be back.