What’s on the Horizon for Meta’s First Virtual Ecosystem?

After two years of private beta testing, Horizon Worlds — Meta’s first VR metaverse app — finally opened to the North American public in late 2021. Allowing public access to Horizon Worlds was a big deal for Meta (née Facebook), as it signalled Mark Zuckerberg’s real entry point into the metaverse — the oft-mentioned space he’s now positioned his business model around and committed himself to overtake.

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Like many things under Zuckerberg’s watch, the Horizon series (Worlds, Venues, Workrooms) hasn’t launched without a bit of turbulence. From reported incidents of virtual “groping” to a janky, difficult-to-use interface, so far it’s been tricky for users to select Meta’s first offering as their chosen metaverse platform.

What are some of the early pitfalls of the Horizon series? Should they be passed as typical blunders for an entry-level application in a new world, or are they larger indicators that Meta is starting off on the wrong foot? Let’s take a closer look.

Safety risks in the Horizon world

If you’ve been reading the news, sexual assault has become a rising concern in the growing Web3 space. A myriad of experts has started weighing in on the safety risks that an immersive, lifelike online experience can pose — with many leaders suggesting that the effects of sexual harassment in VR could evoke similar responses as a real-life physical experience would. 

At the time of writing, chances are that if you run a quick Google search, reported incidents of virtual “groping” and harassment in Horizon Worlds are likely to be the most popular instances you’ll find in any search result.

While running a beta test in Horizon Worlds, a woman reported being “virtually groped” inside the platform by other male users. Not long after this encounter, Nina Jane Patel reported being “verbally and sexually harassed” by other male avatars inside Horizon Venues.

“You are literally stepping into a 360-degree digital environment,” Patel describes when recounting her experience. “Because virtual reality has been designed to be as real as possible, it is similar to inviting someone into your living room, so the violation feels more acute than it would feel on a social media platform.” 

Moreover, Patel stresses that “sexual harassment and violence is a big problem in the metaverse in its current state.” She’s since had several other women reach out and report having similar experiences in the virtual ecosystem.

Upon further inspection by Meta’s team, Vivek Sharma, Meta’s VP of Horizon, called these incidents “absolutely unfortunate”. However, he also noted that both users had failed to deploy ‘Safe Zone’ — a built-in safety feature that, when switched on, has the ability to prevent other users from touching or interacting with an avatar. 

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With that being said, Sharma also addressed the need for these safety features to be easier-to-find and more accessible for users. He added: “We want everyone in Horizon Venues to have a positive experience, to easily find the safety tools that can help them — and help us investigate and take action.” 

Underaged users have also been cited as risky subjects for the Horizon world at large. Children claiming to be as young as 9 have been reported using each of the apps (registered users are required to be 18 and up), while several other reviews on the official Oculus site include complaints about foul-mouthed youngsters spoiling the experience for adults. Experts have noted that this dangerous mix of children and adults can lead Horizon to become a meeting ground for predatory behaviour.

Sarah Gardner, VP of external affairs at Thorn (a non-profit tech startup focused on online child safety) highlights how sexual predators “are often among the first to arrive” on new online forums that appeal to children. “They see an environment that is not well protected and [that] does not have clear systems of reporting. They’ll go there first to take advantage of the fact that it is a safe ground for them to abuse or groom kids.”

To combat harassment on the platform, Meta has since added an extra layer of protection for Horizon users: “Personal Boundary”, which will now be turned on by default in both Worlds and Venues. Functioning as an invisible virtual barrier around avatars, the “Personal Boundary” feature can prevent other users from getting too close, acting as a “two-foot radius of personal space.”

A failed metaverse gig

During this year’s Super Bowl celebration, popular rock band Foo Fighters performed their first big virtual gig in Meta’s Horizon Venues. Attendees were given a digital hot-seat, with 180-degree cameras positioned around the stage and a “custom stage design, practical effects, sophisticated lighting programs and XR elements blended into the concert scene.” Those who attended the gig were also given the opportunity to socialise in real-time with other attendees, as well as the ability to don their avatars with limited edition Super Bowl attire.

However, if you were one of the concert’s lucky attendees, your review might have looked a little different. Post-gig reports alleged that Horizon Venues suffered from a poor onboarding experience, system crashes and — believe or not in this day and age — capacity issues. Out of tens of thousands of people who expressed interest in attending the VR show, only a reported 13,000 were able to actually get in.

Photo by © Antonio Scorza – Shutterstock.com

Most online events allow people to enter a virtual queue before proceeding onto the actual event (in most cases, this is usually at least 30 minutes before the show starts). This is done to mitigate any impacts that can be caused by too many users flooding in all at once. However, Meta interestingly chose a different approach — one that didn’t allow people access to the event until the advertised 8 PM PT start date. Inevitably, the digital “lobby” crashed from the force of 61,000 people trying to enter the show at the same time.

Again, Vivek Sharma was forced to comment on the controversy — claiming that “problems were caused “by unprecedented demand”. He also added that further opportunities to watch the show would be made available for those who were ultimately unable to attend. 

Despite the attempt, however, this response was highly criticised by Meta Quest users across the globe — primarily due to the fact that the event was well-hyped and advertised during the Super Bowl’s most recent ad campaign.

Enter Workrooms fatigue

Recently, two of my colleagues joined me in trying to set up a virtual meeting in Horizon Workrooms. With each of us sporting a brand-new Meta Quest 2 on-head, we were all pretty stoked to explore how we could carry out our weekly meetings inside a metaverse space.

However, after about 20 minutes of trying to join a single room using our headsets, we ultimately decided to wrap things up and call it an afternoon. Before that, however, we tried several options — such as setting up party calls inside the Quest 2’s built-in interface and configuring our headsets to link with our web browsers. Ultimately, we grew tired of trying out so many logistics just to join a virtual meeting (many of us are still recovering from Zoom fatigue, mind you). 

(We’ve also since had better success with Spatial and Rec Room, but we’ll save that for another piece.)

If you’re able to launch and join Workrooms successfully, you should be able to create a room for a team and allow other users to virtually join using their dedicated avatars. Users who don’t own a Meta Quest 2 can also join the Web2 way — via their web browsers. Either way, meetings in Workrooms should feel akin to real-life meetings: any other avatars can sit beside yours at a virtual table — and team members should have the ability to collaborate on projects immersively (such as being able to share a large blackboard).

Horizon Workrooms

Other users have reported the difficulty of setting up an experience in Workrooms. For starters, users are required to use their PC to create a Workrooms account before being able to use the platform in VR — all after they’re already also required to have a working Facebook account to use a Meta Quest 2. Extra steps are also required to associate the headset with a Facebook account, where users are prompted to enter a special code that is viewable through VR. And if that wasn’t enough, this is all in addition to needing to download a companion app that will mirror the desktop in VR.

While we will likely see this onboarding process become more streamlined in the future, this long sequence of steps feels exhausting to even type about — especially for those of us who have considered inserting a virtual meeting into a day of back-to-back events. Until the program becomes a little more tested and tried, it’s likely that the bulk of us simply won’t find the time or reason to kick this off. Even Web2 platforms (such as Google Meet, Zoom and Miro) still offer faster, more efficient web collaboration tools that get stuff done.

Final thoughts

Everyone’s gotta start somewhere — and Meta shouldn’t be an exception to this rule. Facebook itself wasn’t built in a day. Meta’s staff also seem to be receptive to any raised complaints — an indication that they are at least trying to make improvements in light of a difficult start to 2022.

However, the list of excuses behind these pitfalls is also questionable when they’re coming from a multi-billion dollar company that’s pledged $50 million to build the metaverse responsibly.

As of right now, the Horizon platform has hit up to 300,000 users — that’s 10 times the increase in about three months. But will we see this growth proliferate? Early user growth statistics might look positive — but many experts also believe that Meta will need to iron out a lot of kinks if that’s going to happen.