I could not. Or the technology let me down. Not really sure which. But here’s how it turned out.
The idea was simple. Companies like Meta claim their “metaverse” platforms will bring people together, right? Well, the holidays would be the perfect time to test it out. It is a time of social gatherings, often involving loved ones from other states or even countries. If ever there was an opportunity for new technology 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 that of Meta Horizon worlds. And it is worth noting that this choice is the result of starting this experiment from the end. If the goal was just to put different people together in the same virtual room, it exists! We’ve spent an entire pandemic on Zoom calls and Feasts of discord and Animal crossing.
So if “the metaverse” exists, how is it different? Well, the first problem I encountered is that hardly anyone owns a VR headset.
Yes, VR is still a niche market
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 like anyone I spoke to was willing to do that Attempt this experiment with me. Is that nobody I could.
Although availability was also in short supply. One friend in particular, someone I love very much and won’t be seeing for the holidays, in other words a perfect candidate for this experiment, she said she would be willing to help. Grudgingly. The idea itself wasn’t appealing, though. “I feel like VR would just be a stark reminder that you’re not here.” However, she agreed to try it 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. The hard data is a little hard to pin down, in part because so many surveys pool VR headset ownership just using one-but a survey from eMarketer released in 2021 estimated that by this year alone 31.3 million people in the US would “experience VR content” once a month in VR. Note, it’s not “own a VR headset”.
Even the most successful VR headset, the Meta Quest 2, has it only sold 15 million units since its launch (and that number was announced shortly before a $100 price increase). For some context, the PS5, which came out around the same time and suffered almost constant supply shortages-has sold 25 million units in the same time frame. The switch has sold 114 million units.
Reasonable people can argue whether a social VR application is significantly different from, for example, a video game to earn a whole new nickname. What reasonable people He can not I disagree is that most people simply don’t have regular access to VR yet.
So, unable to find enough VR headsets in my group of friends, I reached out to a demographic that likely had a much higher percentage of early adopters: the nerds who work at WIRED.
The dreaded company party
If the experiment involved spending time with loved ones on vacation in VR, the results are simple: I failed. Cut and dry. But I still wanted to try the technology, so I asked several colleagues if they would join me for an event that everyone looks forward to: a company party with your colleagues and not enough booze.
Eventually, I got a total of four volunteers. Two, Adrienne and Parker, had their own headsets and could join from home. One was in the WIRED office and another joined after seeing her try to date us. The word “try” in that sentence, though, says something about what the process was like.
For starters, organizing an event using Horizon Worlds is anything but 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 finally found an obscure tool that lets you generate a shareable link, just like Zoom, but it was far from intuitive. We also had to go through a lengthy process of updating apps, restarting our headphones, and creating new profiles, depending on how recently we’d touched our devices.
Even after creating our group, one of my colleagues was having trouble joining our voice chat. And by that I mean they have never been able to make it work. Most of us were able to chat and roam the virtual space together, but one person got stuck mimicking and occasionally pinging us in Slack. Every office party has that person who just stands there and doesn’t say much, but that’s usually their choice.
“I really wanted this to work! And I have a big one-child complex that triggered because I couldn’t join in on the fun,” he told me later in Slack.
For those who I could join in though, the app was surprisingly fun. As everyone, myself included, has pointed out, virtual social apps are nothing new. To remedy this, Meta has created a series of scenes for players to roam around and some physical toys and games they can play with.
In the default zone, Adrienne found a basketball court where she tricked us into thinking she was great at free throws using the auto-aim ball. In an arcade scene, I found a “poke the mole” style game that was fun for a minute. Parker, well-known musician in the group, gravitated towards a spot on a stage where one could pick up (but not actually play) a set of virtual instruments.
Cutting-edge gaming… Since 2006
The coolest part for me, though, was a virtual air hockey table. Adrienne and I stood at opposite ends, grabbed our clubs and hit the puck back and forth. Now when I’m in a real arcade I gravitate to hockey like a moth to a lamp so I expected to be disappointed. And in a way I was. The game would lag if the puck started moving too fast. 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 as 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 controller. But with less lag and perhaps more granular input controls, physics-based video games could have real legs in the long run. Just saying.
After spending some time playing in a Christmas-themed snowy 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, that wasn’t exactly the case robust. Moving around the huge arena was pretty clunky, and the guns felt just as responsive a Time crisis cabinet. But, again, I was playing laser tag with people on opposite sides of the country. It’s pretty cool.
It also illustrates the problem with Meta’s view of VR, and especially anything you might call “the metaverse,” today. These physics games are quite nice. They also lack any kind of depth. At best, they’re tech demos.
If Horizon Worlds had come out in, say, 2006, it could have taken the world by storm. A technology that has shown the possibility of using handheld controllers to interact with physics-based games? It looks amazing! It also describes Wii. A virtual social world where you could interact with others in a low-poly avatar? South Park was already doing the parody World of Warcraft one month before the Wii came out.
Putting all that into a VR headset is no trivial task, but we’re not living in 2006 anymore. In retrospect, the arcade environment of Horizon Worlds was fitting. In 2022, a physical toy lacks the depth to shake up the video game industry, much less the very fabric of our digital social lives.
And this without going into the physically demanding aspects of our party.
“Party’s over, my battery is dead”
The 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 other devices aren’t. Before our party, I moved my coffee table around to make more space in my living room. I put on my most comfortable shoes, as being in one place too long can start to strain me, and I made sure my headphones 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 him. Most of our earphones were already giving low battery warnings. The Quest 2 has a two to three hour battery life, but that depends on what you’re doing with it, and the physics games and voice chat probably didn’t help.
Mostly though, it was getting tiring and awkward. At least on my side. Taking a sip of cider meant turning my headphones up, which in turn logged me out of the game and cut off my voice chat. My face was getting sore from the pressure from the headphones, despite having bought them the almost obligatory Elite strap to make it sit better on my head. (Incidentally, this accessory has also seen a price increase since I bought it.)
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. Despite my reservations and skepticism, I’m generally a fan of VR on its own! I still play Beat Saber regularly; Blastone it’s, well, a blast to play in short bursts; and even if it’s not my favorite of the series, the VR game of Room it is excellent.
But the existence of those games only illustrates the lack of depth in Meta’s offerings. We enjoyed wandering from one physics toy to another, but spent very little time with any of them. Throwing basketballs, hitting 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 left wondering how much more we could have played if we just had instead a Jackbox party. How many more of my friends and loved ones could I have included if I had used the technology that everyone actually has, instead of trying to force it with this fun but niche toy.
As I took off my headphones and took 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 logged into Discord to play Surveillance 2 with friends.