Horizon Worlds is Meta’s most ambitious effort yet to get people to spend time together in virtual reality, having spent billions on the technology and recently made it an even bigger focus as the company touts its “metaverse” ambitions. The launch comes at an exciting time: VR is more affordable, accessible and capable than ever. But challenges remain.
In Horizon Worlds, users inhabit customizable (albeit legless) floating avatars – mine looks a bit like a cartoon version of Me on a Good Hairstyle Day – which some might find creepy or obnoxious. Facial expressions also don’t necessarily match how the person behind the avatar is feeling. For example, I have noticed that it is easy to make the avatar more disgusting but almost impossible to make it sad.
Manual controls can feel choppy and unstable, especially if your virtual self is near collectable VR items. It can also be difficult to find fun things to do in Horizon Worlds, and frankly, the worlds that already exist often seem cooler than they are.
There’s a lot at stake here for Meta, and arguably for anyone who chooses to use VR. The virtual reality market is still small, the IDC technology market study expects 8 million virtual reality headsets to be shipped this year and 14 million next year. But the market continues to grow and Meta is a forerunner. The success (or failure) of Horizon Worlds will likely color user experiences in different VR applications for years to come.
On the square
The first thing you see when you open Horizon Worlds is a menu with three choices for activities: Do you want to play games, go out, or attend an event? Unfortunately, when I tried the app in late December, there weren’t a lot of events in the app. Instead, I spent some of my time hanging out in the Plaza – a general gathering space within Horizon Worlds – and exploring different worlds, both on my own and with a real friend who I saw. joined in virtual reality.
The Plaza is smartly designed, especially if you’re new to VR. Your avatar materializes on a platform from which you can view the avatars of other people who might be there at the time. There are a few simple activity options, such as throwing paper planes and boomerangs at targets, to help you get a feel for how controllers work. It’s also a good place to find someone live (Meta calls them “community guides”, and their avatars have a clear label above their head) who can help you if you have any questions or need. help.
Tag, you are
The Plaza is a nice place to find your bearings – by the end of the year, it was decked out in holiday decor ranging from a happy snowman to incessant Jingle-Bells tinged music. But after about 15 minutes, I was ready to move on.
Where to go? Tapping on one of my handheld controllers brought up the menu which includes everything from a virtual camera to tools for flagging users who behave inappropriately to the ability to navigate different worlds. This menu also includes suggested worlds within Horizon Worlds, some created by Meta, others by users.
One world that Meta has built and promoted is Arena Clash, which is a multiplayer laser tag game. I went on my own and was relieved that another user with a star-shaped nose stud and black metal-rimmed glasses immediately greeted me and asked me to join their team. (Even though I’ve been using VR headsets for years, I’m still hesitant to approach strangers in virtual places.) Life, to ask me to stop screaming. I apologized but, hey, I was working.
For now, at least, Arena Clash shows Horizon Worlds at its best: it’s visually thoughtful, easy to navigate, and, most importantly, fun. It’s the kind of virtual place you can imagine visiting over and over again, and, in fact, I did in the course of a week.
While it was easy to find (and enjoy) Arena Clash, I had a harder time discovering other fascinating worlds. Horizon Worlds offers a few suggestions – a combination of worlds it promotes and worlds targeted at users based on factors like which worlds you “liked” – but it didn’t do a great job of highlighting. the good ones. It is also difficult to search when you don’t know exactly what you are looking for.
A world called Retro Zombies looked promising. You can shoot zombies in what appears to be a vacant mall. But the graphics (including the zombies) were rudimentary and after a few minutes of filming it just wasn’t that exciting.
Eventually I realized that all the worlds users posted are visible in their profiles (and you can see the details of who created a world before visiting it). I found the username for Horizon Worlds itself (Horizon_Worlds) and checked its list. It showed me several interesting new worlds, including Horizon’s haunted house of horrors, with ghosts rising from the walls, spooky animated paintings hanging on the walls, and a Frankenstein lab to assemble.
I can not see you
Beyond struggling to find something fun to do, I also struggled to find my real friend in Horizon Worlds.
One afternoon, I went to the Plaza to meet my friend and Wirecutter Editor-in-Chief, Signe Brewster. In real life, she lives across the country, so we ended up in VR a few times. I arrived, via my avatar, and looked around. I couldn’t find her anywhere. Signs had an equally disconcerting experience elsewhere in the digital space.
We quickly realized that while we were both at the plaza, we weren’t in the same version of the plaza. Horizon Worlds limits the capacity to 20 people per world before automatically placing users in another replica of that world; perhaps there were just too many people in the square one of us had entered.
Eventually, I spotted a portal in the plaza to a snowy world called Santa’s Cave, and headed there to meet Signe. It arrived right after I met a user who told me his mom said he could use the app. We’ve been on the icy ramps of the world, discussing real things like how fast our kids are growing and what holiday gifts are best for toddlers. We used virtual pickaxes to hit pieces of something that could have been ice or rocks. We had a great time catching up, but never found Santa Claus.
Eventually we gave up and headed to Arena Clash for a game of laser tag. It was a fun time, but to keep me coming back Horizon Worlds needs more worlds like this – and Meta will have to convince a lot more of my friends to strap on helmets.