SAN JOSE, Calif.—The fusion of Oculus and Facebook continues apace at this year’s sixth annual Oculus Connect conference, with this year’s biggest example coming in the form of Facebook Horizon: a new VR chat app exclusive to Oculus whose mix of cartoony avatars, social spaces, and playable games resembles current VR mega-hit Rec Room. The app won’t premiere until “early next year” as a closed beta, but in the meantime, we got a chance to test it out—and learned about the crazy plan Facebook has for its first foray into social VR.
After testing the solid-if-early app, I asked two Facebook representatives about existing social-VR apps like Rec Room and VRChat, which have their own creative, organic approaches to making strangers meet each other in VR. Facebook says it’s going to try something we haven’t yet seen in any chat app, VR or otherwise: a fully staffed concierge service.
After going through Horizon‘s tutorial, “you’ll encounter humans that are part of our team in the product, known as ‘Guides,'” Facebook’s AR/VR experiences director, Eric Romo, told Ars Technica. “Those are the people who will be trying to set the tone of what the environment is.” When asked to clarify whether these would be paid Facebook staffers, sitting in microphone-equipped headsets and waiting for new users to appear, Romo answered, “Yeah!” He added that these staffers would be “saying, ‘How can I help you? What can I show you to do?'”
VR “time out?”
This is arguably Facebook’s most intense plan yet to introduce users to a new product. No existing Facebook feature or associated app (i.e., WhatsApp, Instagram) has ever included an expectation that a live human will appear as a greeter, host, and assistant upon first boot, as opposed to serving in a formal customer service or technical support position.
I asked what Facebook’s approach would be should a user hop into this onboarding process with trolling or abuse in mind. Might the meanest Horizon users get put into VR “time out,” or worse, for lashing out at official Facebook humans?
Facebook AR/VR content marketing head Meaghan Fitzgerald made clear that Horizon‘s VR greeters are “not going to be moderators, they’re not going to be enforcers of rules.” She added that FB will rely largely on built-in blocking and reporting tools to assess whether or how users might be restricted for abusive behavior (and she was careful not to describe any types of Horizon-specific discipline in the works).
“But [Horizon Guides] model the behavior,” Fitzgerald continued. “People who come into these environments—a lot of research shows they’re not intending to go in—sometimes they are, sometimes people want to cause trouble. But more often, they don’t know how to behave. If you see someone running around and screaming, you’re going to run around and scream. If you see someone having a conversation about, ‘Hey, here’s a new activity, want to go check it out?’, that changes the tone of the space. People are really influenced by that.”
When I pressed on this question of how Facebook is preparing to enter the intimate world of VR chat spaces (with its own employees in the social crosshairs, to boot), Romo conceded that the “closed beta” descriptor was crucial this far ahead of the app’s launch. “It’s completely fair to say that we have a lot to learn, which is why we’re starting slowly,” Romo said. “There are lots of vectors for potential challenges that we need to face, and we need to learn them slowly as we move forward.”
Dogfighting as a Trojan horse
As far as the app itself, which I tested within Oculus Quest, make no mistake: this is Facebook’s version of Rec Room. That means it revolves around social spaces and mini-games as ways for friends and strangers alike to meet and hang out in VR.
The app already includes one incredible Trojan horse to usher people into social VR: a dogfighting-meets-soccer game in which your handheld Oculus Touch controller becomes a fighter plane. Use your hand’s position to manually steer the plane in relative space, and the third-person camera around you will move in kind, as opposed to magically warping a fighter plane around.
The effect might sound uncomfortable as described, but I was floored by how remarkable this “paper plane” flight model felt and worked in action. The connection I felt to a plane in my hand arguably helped my brain translate how much a VR battlefield moved around me. Between my hand’s position and a joystick, I was able to smoothly and carefully maneuver a plane through cave doors and under other large objects while aiming weapons and items in a two-on-two “plane soccer” game.
When I wasn’t piloting a plane, I was walking around, waving hello, talking to nearby strangers, and making finger-gun and thumbs-up gestures with my hands. (Make a thumbs-up and your avatar will smile; thumbs-down, you’ll frown.) In one social space, I saw a Facebook staffer pick through a built-in inventory of geometrical shapes, then copy, paste, and manipulate the shapes to build nearby geometry like a tree. That same staffer also made a very simple if-then programming note to govern a silly prop in a beachside lobby: toss three fruits into a basket and an umbrella would pop out. I could hold that umbrella while chatting with folks on the beach.
“We definitely want you to meet people you don’t know,” Romo insisted during our interview, and a mix of open social spaces, mini-games, and world-building possibilities makes sense for that ambitious goal. But that mission statement, about hanging out with strangers, is a sharp detour from the company’s previous VR-chat app, Facebook Spaces, which Horizon‘s team confirmed is being sunsetted in favor of Horizon. Nobody had an estimate for when Spaces will be powered down.
Facebook has clearly put a ton of work into the friendly-yet-not-uncanny look of its cartoon avatars. In particular, I noticed “resting nice face” and lively virtual eye contact in all of the VR avatars I talked to during my test. But this is yet another combination of VR apps and avatars that Facebook is resetting to present a whole new chat interface in a span of only a few years. Between that fact and the team’s repeated warnings about “early days” for the app, we’re still waiting for Facebook to inspire confidence that it will launch a social-VR app and stick with it for more than two years.
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