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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

I Threw a Holiday Party in Horizon Worlds. It Didn’t Go Well

I am, to put it mildly, a “metaverse” skeptic. The term entered common parlance without really referring to any specific technology, and companies like Meta, née Facebook, that promote it most heavily don't seem to be very good at building … whatever it is. However, I'm open minded. So when my editor came to me with a challenge to spend time during the holidays in “the metaverse,” I was down to give it a shot.

I failed. Or the tech failed me. I'm not really sure which. But here's how it went down.

The idea was simple. Companies like Meta claim that their “metaverse” platforms are going to bring people together, right? Well, the holidays would be a perfect time to test this. It's a time for social gatherings, often involving loved ones from other states or even countries. If ever there was an opportunity for new tech to connect physically distant people … well, it would be March 2020. But the holidays are a close second.

The platform we decided to use was Meta's Horizon Worlds. And it's worth noting that this choice is a result of starting this experiment from the end. If the goal was simply putting different people together in the same virtual room, that exists! We've spent a whole pandemic in Zoom calls and Discord parties and Animal Crossing

So, if “the metaverse” exists at all, how is it different? Well, the first problem I hit is that hardly anyone owns a VR headset.

Yes, VR Is Still Niche

I asked everyone I could think of to help me with this experiment. I asked friends, I asked partners, I asked family. I asked people who lived thousands of miles away, and I asked friends who lived down the street. It's not that no one I talked to was willing to try this experiment with me. It's that no one could.

Though willingness was in short supply, as well. One friend in particular—someone I love dearly and won't get to see for the holidays, in other words a perfect candidate for this experiment—said she'd be willing to help. Grudgingly. The idea wasn't appealing on its own, though. “I feel like VR would just be a stark reminder that you're not here.” Still, she agreed to try it out in principle—but she couldn't because, like everyone else I knew, she didn't own a headset.

Maybe I was just unlucky, but I'm probably not alone. Hard data is a little hard to pin down—in part because many polls lump together owning a VR headset with merely using one—but one survey from eMarketer released in 2021 estimated that by this year, only 31.3 million people in the US would “experience VR content” once a month in VR. Note, that's not “own a VR headset.” 

Even the most successful VR headset, the Meta Quest 2, has only sold 15 million units since its launch (and that number was announced just before a $100 price increase). For some context, the PS5—which came out around the same time and has suffered from nearly constant supply shortages—has sold 25 million units in the same time frame. The Switch has sold 114 million units.

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Reasonable people can debate whether or not a social VR application is meaningfully different enough from, say, a video game to earn an entirely new moniker. What reasonable people cannot disagree about is that the majority of people simply don't have regular access to VR yet.

So, failing to find enough VR headsets among my friend group, I turned to a demographic that was likely to have a much higher proportion of early adopters: the nerds who work at WIRED.

The Dreaded Company Holiday Party

If the experiment was to spend time with my loved ones during the holidays in VR, the results are simple: I failed. Cut and dry. But I still wanted to try out the technology, so I asked several coworkers if they'd join me for an event everyone looks forward to: a company holiday party with your coworkers and not nearly enough booze.

In the end, I got a total of four volunteers. Two—Adrienne and Parker—had their own headsets and were able to join from home. One was in the WIRED office, and another joined after seeing her trying to hang out with us. The word “trying” in that sentence, though, says a bit about what the process was like.

For starters, organizing an event using Horizon Worlds is far from intuitive. I spent a couple of hours trying to figure out how to add people to a group—without having to add coworkers as friends on my personal Facebook account. I eventually found an obscure tool that lets you generate a shareable link, much like Zoom, but it was far from intuitive. We all also had to go through a lengthy process involving updating apps, restarting our headsets, and creating new profiles, depending on how recently we'd touched our devices.

Even after creating our group, one of my colleagues had trouble joining our voice chat. And by that I mean they were never able to get it to work. Most of us were able to chat and wander around in the virtual space together, but one person was stuck miming and occasionally pinging us in Slack. Every office party has that one person who just stands there and doesn't say much, but it's usually their choice.

“I really wanted this to work! And I have a major only-child complex that's triggered because I couldn't join in the fun,” she told me later in Slack.

For those who could join, though, the app was surprisingly fun. As everyone, including me, has pointed out, virtual social apps are nothing new. To make up for this, Meta has created a number of scenes that players can wander around in, and some physics toys and games they can play with.

In the default zone, Adrienne found a basketball court where she tricked us into believing she was amazing at free throws by using the auto-aim ball. In an arcade scene, I found a whack-a-mole-style game that was fun for a minute. Parker, noted musician of the group, gravitated toward a spot on a stage where you could pick up (but not really play) a set of virtual instruments.

Cutting-Edge Gaming … From 2006

The most interesting bit for me, though, was a virtual air-hockey table. Adrienne and I stood at opposite ends, grasped our mallets, and smacked the puck back and forth. Now, when I'm in a real arcade, I'll gravitate to air hockey like a moth to a lamp, so I was expecting to be let down. And I kind of was. The game would lag out if the puck started moving too quickly. But I was still impressed that I was playing a game like this with someone a thousand miles away.

This was the kind of thing that I could actually see having potential in the future. Online gaming is nothing new, but for the most part it's limited to things you can play with a keyboard or a controller. But with less lag and maybe finer-grained input controls, physics-based video games could have real legs in the long term. So to speak.

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After spending a bit of time playing around in a snowy, Christmas-themed setting (which had very little in the way of interactive toys), we found our way to a virtual laser tag arena. Like the air hockey table, it wasn't exactly robust. Moving around the massive arena was pretty clumsy, and the guns felt about as responsive as a Time Crisis cabinet. But, again, I was playing laser tag with people on opposite sides of the country. That's pretty cool.

It also illustrates the problem with Meta's vision of VR—and especially anything you might call “the metaverse”—today. These physics toys are kinda neat. They also lack any kind of depth. At best, they're tech demos.

If Horizon Worlds had come out in, say, 2006, it might've taken the world by storm. A technology that showed it was possible to use handheld controllers to interact with physics-based games? That sounds incredible! It also describes the Wii. A virtual social world where you could interact with others in a low-poly avatar? South Park was already parodying World of Warcraft a month before the Wii came out.

Putting all that in a VR headset isn't a trivial task, but we don't live in 2006 anymore. In retrospect, the arcade environment in Horizon Worlds was fitting. In 2022, a physics toy doesn't have the depth to shake up the video game industry, much less the very fabric of our digital social lives.

And that's without getting into the physically challenging aspects of our party.

“Party’s Over, My Battery’s Dead”

The as-yet-unsolved problem with VR is the headset itself. Unlike TVs, monitors, or even phones, wearing a VR headset is physically taxing in a way that those other devices aren't. Prior to our party, I moved my coffee table to make more space in my living room. I put on my comfiest shoes, because standing in one place for too long can start to strain, and I made sure my headset's battery was charged. 

I was ready for the long haul. But the long haul wasn't very long. After about an hour and fifteen minutes, we called it. Most of our headsets were already flashing low-battery warnings. The Quest 2 is rated for two to three hours of battery life, but this depends on what you're doing with it, and the physics games and voice chat probably weren't helping.

Mostly, though, it was getting tiring and awkward. At least on my end. Taking a sip of cider meant pushing up my headset, which in turn dropped me out of the game and cut off the voice chat. My face was getting sore from the pressure of the headset—despite the fact that I'd bought the nigh-mandatory Elite Strap to make it sit better on my head. (Incidentally, this accessory has also seen a price bump since I bought it.)

It's not that I didn't have fun. Despite my reservations and skepticism, I'm generally a fan of VR on its own! I still regularly play Beat Saber; Blaston is, well, a blast to play in short bursts; and while it's not my favorite in the series, the Room's VR game is excellent.

But the existence of those games only illustrates the lack of depth in Meta's offerings. We had fun wandering from one physics toy to another, but we spent very little time with any of them. Throwing basketballs, whacking moles, and playing air hockey was only engaging for a few minutes at a time. We played laser tag longer than anything else, but after one game, everyone was more or less done, and so were their batteries.

I walked away wondering how much longer we might've played if we'd simply had a Jackbox party instead. How many more of my friends and loved ones could I have included if I'd used the technology everyone actually has, instead of trying to force it with this fun but niche toy.

As I took off my headset and kicked off my shoes, I thought, Maybe we just need to be patient and let Meta figure out how to lead the way in this brave new world of social virtual-game worlds. Then I sat down at my desk and hopped into Discord to play Overwatch 2 with friends.

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