In early 2020, a small group of Oculus Quest users learned that they were accepted to an invite-only Beta for a VR project by Facebook called Horizon — an interactive world that the company (now called Meta) hoped would become a core building block of what is known as the metaverse.
Some worked in tech, some didn’t. They were early adopters of the Quest who in many cases bought the headset as a recreational device.
In December 2021, Horizon Worlds launched its public beta, making the free app available to Quest users 18 and older in the US and Canada. Since then, it has received its fair share of maligning, not least of all when Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted his Horizon avatar to Twitter, with some declaring the metaverse dead before it’s even fully gotten started.
For the creators in Horizon Worlds, the majority of whom are regular users and not Meta employees, the view is different. These VR entrepreneurs are building worlds — the digital spaces a user can travel to within Horizon Worlds — full time. And they’re not seeing any shortage of work.
Where a digital community is forming
“Metaverse” may be one of the biggest buzzwords of 2022, but actually defining it can be a bit of a challenge. Some use it as a shorthand for any interactive VR space; others refer to Meta’s Horizon Worlds as the metaverse. When you get deep into the world of Worlds and meet the creators who are quietly building its spaces, it’s clear that the it’s still in its infancy.
“What I like to tell people is that Horizon Worlds is part of what we want to model for this real metaverse,” as Matt Torres (screen name Tellous) told Technical.ly. Torres is a former software developer who now works full time as the VP of VRinReview, a Worlds-based contracting company. “My personal criteria for the metaverse is interoperability across different [VR] platforms. It’s that feeling of, this [avatar] is my identity, and it can move across any of these platforms” — that is, more digital spaces than Worlds. “Without that, there’s not a true metaverse.”
Technical.ly learned about VRinReview through Melissa Genao (screen name PigeonNo12), one of the designers and builders of HouseCall VR, a Delaware-founded health center based in Worlds that connects users to information about a variety of health conditions. She has been working full time as an independent contractor in Worlds, too. Her introduction to the space was just a year or so ago, when she came in looking for real people to play chess with.
As the community evolved, it also became more invested in learning to build spaces using Horizon’s built-in tools. Early adopters, such as HouseCall VR founder Dr. Linda Ciavarelli, began contracting creators to design their spaces. As larger companies have started to get into Horizon Worlds, the contracts have gotten bigger, and a small group of people — many of whom first picked up a Quest just to play games — are now making a living in the virtual world, working beside people who may be physically on the other side of the world.
Ashley Briley (screen name Ashes2Ashes2), president of VRinReview, was a CPA for a manufacturing company when she heard about the invite-only Horizon beta on Facebook.
“It looked interesting to me, because I spent a lot of time playing Sims, and it looked similar to that,” Briley said. “After getting in, I published a world and there hasn’t been much slowing down since.”
Briley and Torres live in different cities, but they connected creatively early on and started the business in 2021, not long after being accepted into the beta followed by an accelerator program. In the beginning, Worlds was nearly a blank slate, with tools and features that were very basic. As a work in progress, it went from flat, textureless shapes to what users see now — far more dynamic, but still not the kind of graphics people are used to seeing out of game design platforms like Unity.
Meta offered programs that helped early Horizon builders get off the ground, but a lot of the teaching fell to the users themselves. The tight-knit group knew which users to go to for help with a scripting issue or question about using the toolbox.
The community, centered on the Horizon Creator Community world is still primarily users who are unaffiliated with Meta beyond working in the space and perhaps completing a cohort. Even Meta employees who come into Worlds to offer advice do so in their free time.
“Some of these [Meta] developers were very generous and gave their time to teach us and inspire us,” Torres said. “To this day, you can still attend these scripting sessions that are held weekly where you can go in there and ask your questions to Meta employees who are helping you work through these problems little by little, you just keep getting your skills up.”
Beyond that, a lot of what drives these VR entrepreneurs is seeing other users create impressive worlds that make them want to keep pushing to the next level, the designers said.
It’s hard to truly convey the experience of exploring Horizon Worlds. Video doesn’t do it justice, because they lack the immersiveness of the headset — which is one of the issues that leads to consternation from the outside world. Even for Quest users, casually clicking on popular worlds on their dashboards can lead to an experience that highlights the fact that the app is still in a developing phase: The comedy club might be full of teenage hecklers and the arcade is probably full of kids who are clearly below the age of 18. (A “Mature” feature that would only be allowed for users 21 and over is expected to roll out soon.)
Most of the worlds on the app are far less chaotic and more experimental. Some feel unfinished, like the boxy, minimalist recreation of the “Golden Girls” house. Many are simply atmospheric spaces — no games or entertainment, just immersive experiences. Such was the case for Briley and Torres’ favorite, most inspiring spots.
Briley was drawn to “Tomorrow,” a dark, futuristic work in progress by user lilimirjam that includes a virtual swamp surrounded by towering weeping trees. It was one of the first worlds she found that was both designed and built by a woman. The skills shown in the design of the trees was another inspiration.
“Trees are hard,” Briley told Technical.ly.
One of Briley’s favorite spaces that she designed and built herself, “Wizz-Her Keep,” a feminine play on wizardry with a castle under a starry sky and an interactive guardian protecting the door, doesn’t look like a world built by someone who has ever struggled to make a tree.
Torres drew inspiration from the world “Asian Spring Garden” by user Edamamepp, that includes detailed architecture, gardens and statuesque characters.
“This person definitely hit their build capacity, meaning the shapes that they’re allowed to use in the space,” he said, explaining that there is a limit on the amount of objects a single world can accommodate. A complex feature can take up enough capacity that the creator has to be a creative problem solver to balance it out in other areas.
“I’m a character person,” Tellous said, before leading us to one of his early worlds, a whimsical “flea market” featuring animated insects and interactive activities.
Making connections in Horizon Worlds
Carlos Silva (screen name OcuLos410) is a Horizon Worlds community builder and collaborator who leads weekly Worlds tours and has a talk show in Worlds called Horizon Live. He is also the creator of One Horizon, a network of groups for those seeking a place to fit in on the app (think employee resource groups, but for Quest users).
“One of the things I found when I joined was that there was not really a cookie cutter place for everyone,” Silva said. “Everyone has their own community that they gravitate to. The one thing that I discovered through that was that, in order for all of these smaller communities to be able to have a voice, we’ve got to be able to connect them. So the initiative that I started, One Horizon, basically connects groups, such as ‘Women in Horizon,’ the LGBTQ+ community and ‘Los Amigos Horizon’ for Spanish-speaking countries. We use that platform to help locate other community leaders and bring that up to that same stage to say, ‘Look, Meta, we need help with this, or these are our pain points, or this is the tool we need in order to succeed whether it’s hosting events or just continuing creating worlds.’”
Ultimately, if users don’t like Horizon Worlds, they have every opportunity to help develop it — for free.
“You can build as many worlds as you want,” Silva said. “The tools are literally at your disposal. You click on ‘create world’ and you choose a blank world, or, for a more rich environment, you can start with a template that makes it less intimidating. Everything in here is created in Horizon — there’s no importing, so you can’t bring in video or pictures or sound. You can record through your headset if you want to give people a welcome when they enter your world.’”
Although the number of Horizon Worlds users keeps growing — there were over 300,000 at last count — the world of Horizon creators is not widely known, at least not yet, and that can lead to misconceptions.
“Somebody described Horizon Worlds as being the LinkedIn of VR,” Torres said. (For context, the comment compared Worlds’ conventional-looking avatars compared to VRChat’s anything-goes avatar design.) “And I think that’s just so funny because it’s like we’re building these boundaries around a thing that we don’t understand. But the fact that we don’t understand it shows how it can reach much further.”
“A lot of people, when they hear about the headset, they think it’s gaming and all gaming,” she said. “A lot of people when they actually get the headset and start exploring realize, ‘Oh, wait, there’s fitness apps. Oh wait, there’s social apps. Oh wait, there’s meditation.’ There’s all these different things. It’s not just gaming. I think that’s the biggest myth and misconception that people have about VR in general. And that, when we strap things to our faces, that we’re blocking out a human connection — you’ve got to flip that because we’re actually making more connections.”
Is there a future for Worlds?
Every Horizon Worlds entrepreneur this reporter talked to seems very aware that what you see today is not the endgame. And while we don’t know where the technology is going, there is potential in adopting VR now and evolving with it, wherever it goes, which will likely include augmented reality.
“You’ll essentially be putting on your glasses, and it’s a mixed reality,” Silva said. “You’re not just seeing what’s in this headset, but you see out into the real world as well. If we wanted to go do some grocery shopping and have it delivered and maybe have some dinner delivered, we would be able to do so through the headset and never leave the house. If we wanted to leave the house and walk around downtown in your local city, and you see some art on the side of a wall, that art comes to life. And at the end of that display, it gives you the opportunity to tip that artist to see it again or maybe leave some feedback. Those are the kinds of interactions that they’re trying to build for the future of that mixed reality. We’re building the foundation of these experiences while we’re in VR.”
Whether that is called Horizon Worlds or the metaverse or something else, Genao believes that right now is the time to start paying attention to the space as a creator.
“Everything here is brand new,” she said. “I keep telling new users it is a perfect time to be here. If you’re here to work while the platform is maturing and growing, you’ll learn those concepts and grow with the platform.”
Check out more videos from my Horizon Worlds visit below.
Genao talks about creating a fashion show:
Silva shows how people can make meaningful connections:
Silva gives a tour of a “Metahome” by RexRod:
Briley and Torres talk “metaverse”:
Knowledge is power!
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