philip lelyveld The world of entertainment technology


I tried Facebook’s vision for the social future of VR, and it’s full of question marks

Facebook, despite being a social media company, has never gotten social VR right. And this new iteration, which could very well be the social glue that holds all of Facebook's next-gen VR OS together, looks like…well, it looks like NintendoLand.

I've been down this road before: I remember connecting in chats with far-off people in Spaces, and playing board games and watching TV in Rooms, and joining people for live video streams in Venues. Facebook's still trying to figure out how to make VR social and creative. And this is the company's latest attempt to reboot its approach as previous social VR experiences, Spaces and Rooms, get shut down.

I'm reminded of so many things, playing with Horizon: cartoonish and ridiculous VR games like Vacation Simulator and Virtual Virtual Reality. NintendoLand and Nintendo's Miiverse. Disney Infinity. Social apps like Rec Room, VRChat, AltSpace, Sansar, and even the years-ago social demo Sony made (or tried to) on PlayStation VR.

I ask if hand tracking will work with Horizon next year; it's unclear, and probably not right away.

Both the island and the robot boxing spaces were built completely using the in-game creative tools. My final demo wasn't: it's a game Facebook's putting in Horizon, a dogfighting mini-plane sports game that's as fun as most VR games I'd pay for.

"You can imagine that as the user-generated content — the worlds that people build — expands, the proportion that's built directly by us vs built by creators is going to change the balance dramatically," says Facebook's AR/VR Experiences Director, Eric Romo, previously the founder and CEO of virtual social app AltspaceVR, now owned by Microsoft. "That style, and the perception that you get will be influenced by what other creators build."

Despite Facebook making strides in shockingly lifelike virtual avatars, Horizon goes the opposite direction with characters that seem whittled down to basic cartoons. The simplified, Nintendo-like look is intentional, to avoid any uncanny valley.

Facebook admits it hasn't solved social interaction in VR yet, or privacy concerns for that matter. The ways that Horizon solves for handling online behavior aren't apparent from the very pre-made demo I got to experience. Will that blue shield on my arm work for all instances? Will people feel safe?

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