More than two years and a company rebrand later, Meta is finally opening up access to its VR social platform Horizon Worlds. Starting Thursday, people in the US and Canada who are 18 and up will be able to access the free Quest app without an invite.
Horizon Worlds is Meta’s first attempt at releasing something that resembles CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse. It’s an expansive, multiplayer platform that meshes Roblox and the OASIS VR world from Ready Player One. Originally just called Horizon, it requires a Facebook account and lets you hang out with up to 20 people at a time in a virtual space.
“Now we can open up and say we have interesting things that people can do”
First announced in September 2019 as a private beta, Horizon Worlds has evolved from primarily being a Minecraft-like environment for building games to more of a social platform. Its thousands of beta testers have held regular comedy shows, movie nights, and meditation sessions. They’ve also built elaborate objects like a replica of the Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters. “Now we can open up and say we have interesting things that people can do,” Vivek Sharma, Meta’s VP of Horizon, tells me.
During a demo of Horizon Worlds, I was greeted by a few Meta employees at the Plaza, a central gathering place used to enter custom worlds and games built by users. We first visited a creator lounge area where you try custom items being built, like a bow and arrow or paper plane launcher, and enter building competitions to win cash prizes. Then we hopped to another world and divided up into teams to play a battle royale shooting game. After that, I was given a demo of Horizon’s building tools that let you create a world and items from scratch.
A key part of Horizon Worlds is the ability to write basic code that sets rules for how objects work, such as a gun shooting when you press the trigger or a ball bouncing when it touches a surface. The code, which Meta calls script blocks, acts similarly to layers in Photoshop by letting you chain together rules to create complex interactions, such as a leaderboard that automatically updates after a game is finished. “Attaching behaviors to objects is actually one of the biggest innovations that I’m proud of for the team,” says Sharma.
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He says that, so far, Meta employees have been making the script blocks at the request of beta testers and that the company eventually plans to release a free library of them. An asset library of objects is also coming. Right now, the coding for script blocks is done entirely in VR, but eventually, Meta plans to let them be built from a desktop computer.
Safety is a big concern for a VR environment like Horizon Worlds, where you can easily interact with someone you don’t know. Earlier this month, a beta tester posted in the official Horizon group on Facebook about how her avatar was groped by a stranger. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote. “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza.”
Sharma calls the incident “absolutely unfortunate” and says that after Meta reviewed the incident, the company determined that the beta tester didn’t utilize the safety features built into Horizon Worlds, including the ability to block someone from interacting with you. (When you’re in Horizon, a rolling buffer of what you see is saved locally on your Oculus headset and then sent to Meta for human review if an incident is reported.) “That’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable,” he says.
Another unique aspect of Horizon Worlds is the human guides that exist to greet new users as they teleport from the Plaza to different worlds. These guides are power users that Meta employees train to know best practices for navigating Horizon and following its behavior rules. Sharma calls it “one of those areas where we’re doing unscalable things to keep the environment to be a place that’s healthy for communities.”
“Creation is kind of the product”
For now, there’s no way to make money in Horizon Worlds, either as a creator, guide, or player. The plan is to eventually tie it into Horizon Venues, a standalone experience for throwing large events in VR, and Horizon Workrooms, its VR work collaboration software. Until monetization is added, Meta hopes that the world-building aspect of Worlds will entice people. “The act of creating itself is part of the appeal of this thing,” says Sharma. “Creation is kind of the product.”