At Facebook’s Oculus Connect 6 VR developer’s conference I tried an early version of the company’s unified social networking space “Horizon” that’s coming in early 2020.
The intent in Horizon is to build a shared network of virtual spaces with games, physics and interactions not possible in the real world. If Horizon sounds like Rec Room, VRChat or Altspace that is because it is like Rec Room, VRChat or Altspace — except Horizon requires your Facebook account. The first thing Facebook showed me was how to block people who bother me. As memory serves, the button was available near my wrist and when I pressed it I saw some options for what do with the report that looked very Facebook-esque.
Facebook Account Required
“You still will use your Oculus ID,” said Meaghan Fitzgerald, head of product marketing for AR/VR content at Facebook. “Your name in Horizon is your Oculus identity, but we do require a linked Facebook account and that lets us do some great things around both safety – making sure it’s backed by a real person – but also for the people who want to invite more of their social network from their Facebook world into their VR environment. [With Facebook integration] they have better tools to do that – they can share out to groups and communities. But it is a Facebook product and we want to take advantage of the social features that Facebook has built as we’re thinking this through.”
Facebook’s terms say “you cannot use Facebook if…you are under 13 years old.” Where other social services, like Rec Room, let you get online and playing with other people without even registering a real email address, Facebook is going to back its social service with Facebook’s policy which demands accounts operated by people who “use the same name that you use in everyday life” and are asked to “provide accurate information about yourself.”
“Nothing about Horizon or the social features we’re launching affects third party apps,” explained Eric Romo, product director at Facebook who co-founded Altspace before it ran out of money and sold to Microsoft.
It is worth noting that while Horizon features expressive cartoon-like avatars for launch, Facebook teams are hard at work on ultra-realistic human representations they call “codec avatars” that could ultimately be tied to your real world identity in the same way Horizon will be. Codec avatars are still years away and they’ll likely require a new generation of VR headsets to work, but the same way your iPhone or Android phone authenticates its operator using biometric signals, future VR headsets may authenticate the user in hopes of establishing trust and security online.
Visual Scripting In VR
I visited three worlds from Horizon’s “skyway” including a simple made in VR game. I took control of a giant mech and fought against another giant mech controlled by another player. The second simulated place in Horizon showed me some of the “world builder” tools built by a Facebook guide — they built the pieces of a tree right in front of me and then grew in size to become a giant and then placed the tree in the environment. I did not test the world building tools myself. Facebook describes the tool as a kind of in-VR visual scripting system. The Horizon beta in early 2020 should include the building system.
“Yes so that is absolutely part of the beta,” Fitzgerald said in an interview at OC6. “It’s one of the main things we want to start getting feedback on and see how people use it and what sort of experiences they create. As you can see, it’s pretty robust, you can do a lot with that in terms of enabling some multiplayer experiences, scoreboards and the ways you can interact with objects. Or you can just have it really simple. You can have somebody who is the beginning of the learning curve and just make a really nice environment. So that range is really important.”
Hand Tracking Possible
The launch timeframe Facebook provided for Horizon — early 2020 — is the same release window the company provided for its hand tracking development tools. I asked the company if Horizon would support the forthcoming controller-free input system that can be used for menu navigation and system control.
In Horizon, hand tracking would immediately enable social expression via hand signals.
“Horizon will use Touch controllers when we ship the beta next year,” a Facebook representative wrote in an email. “That said, of course, our teams will continue to explore different ways to enable more social expressiveness in Horizon as we gather feedback during the beta.”
The third simulated destination I tried was made in Unity — the game-making toolset Facebook tried to acquire in the past — and this world featured what seemed to be more game logic and interactivity than the previous worlds.
Facebook is positioning Horizon as including destinations built in both traditional game tools like Unity with a programming language like C# as well as those built in VR with Facebook’s world building tools.
“In the visual scripting work that the team is doing, and the creative tools in general, we are squarely focused on can you allow people who are not professional creators, people who are not programmers, people who are not software engineers – can you give them the tools that they need to creative an interactive experience that has replayability,” Romo said. “We just want you to build communities, we want you to find things to do, we want you to find people to do it with, but not necessarily say Horizon will have every experience you could ever imagine and be the only app you will ever need.”
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to reach 1 billion people with VR technology. I asked whether that goal meant the company would build a flat screen version of Horizon.
“Social needs to be everywhere. If you’re going to interact with people synchronously, we really think that social needs to eventually be everywhere,” Romo said. “ However, we are squarely focused on the Rift and the Quest for now. We think it’s important to figure this out, we have a lot to learn on how do we get this experience right.”