Fb’s new VR chat app will throw paid staffers at “on-boarding” trolls
Facebook Horizon at Oculus Connect 6 in San Jose, California. “/> Enlarge /. Mark Zuckerberg unveils Facebook Horizon at Oculus Connect 6 in San Jose, California.
SAN JOSE, California. The merger of Oculus and Facebook is progressing rapidly at this year’s sixth annual Oculus Connect conference. The biggest example this year is Facebook Horizon: a new VR chat app available exclusively for Oculus and its mix of cartoony avatars, social rooms and playable games, is similar to the current VR megahit Rec Room. The app won’t premiere as a closed beta until “early next year,” but in the meantime we’ve had the chance to test it out – and learned about the crazy plan Facebook has for its first foray into social VR.
After testing the Solid-If Early App, I asked two Facebook reps about existing social VR apps like Rec Room and VRChat, which have their own creative, organic approaches to getting strangers into VR hold true. Facebook says it’s going to try something we haven’t seen in any chat app, VR, or any other way: a full concierge service.
After completing Horizon’s tutorial, “You will encounter people who are part of our team in the product known as Guides,” said Eric Romo, Facebook AR / VR Experience Director, to Ars Technica. “These are the people who will try to set the tone for the environment.” When asked if these Facebook employees would get paid, sitting in microphone-equipped headsets waiting for new users to appear, Romo replied, “Yes!” He added that these employees would say, “How can I help you? What can I show you?”
VR “Time out?”
This is arguably Facebook’s most intense plan to date to introduce a new product to users. No existing Facebook feature or associated app (i.e. WhatsApp, Instagram) has ever included the expectation that a living human would appear as a greeter, host, and assistant at the first start, rather than serving in a formal customer service or tech support position.
I asked how Facebook would proceed if a user entered this onboarding process with a view to trolling or abuse. Could the meanest Horizon users be put on VR break, or worse, attacking official Facebook people?
Meaghan Fitzgerald, marketing director for AR / VR content at Facebook, made it clear that Horizon’s VR greeters “will not be moderators or enforcers of rules”. She added that FB will rely largely on built-in blocking and reporting tools to assess whether or how users might be restricted for abusive behavior (and she was careful not to describe any types of Horizon-specific discipline in the work) .
“But [Horizon Guides] Model the behavior, “continued Fitzgerald.” People who get into these environments – a lot of research shows they don’t intend to go in – sometimes they are, sometimes people want to cause trouble. But more often than not they don’t know how to act. If you see someone walking around and screaming, you will be walking around and screaming. When you see someone have a conversation about, “Hey, this is a new activity, want to try it out?” Leads, changes the tone of the room. People are really influenced by it. “
When I pressed on that question about how Facebook is preparing to step into the intimate world of VR chat rooms (with its own staff in the social crosshairs to boot), Romo admitted that the “closed beta” descriptor so far before the decisive was app starts. “It’s completely fair to say we still have a lot to learn so we’re starting out slowly,” said Romo. “There are many vectors of potential challenges we must face and we must learn them slowly as we move forward.”
Air fight as a Trojan horse
Facebook gave a sneak peek into Horizon in an reveal video, but this isn’t actual app material. Since it is designed for the weaker Oculus Quest, expect lower poly worlds and characters that are somewhat similar to this bubbly cartoony style.
This is more in line with how the app looks on Oculus Quest hardware. This is a reference to the mini-game Rock ‘Em Sock’ Em Robots integrated in the chat app. (It has a different name that doesn’t violate copyright law.)
Oddly enough, this is another example of Facebook ditching a VR avatar system in place of another entirely new system.
A look at the solid dog fighting game. You can’t see how the “VR Third-Person” camera works from this angle, but it’s fantastic in action.
As for the app itself, which I tested in Oculus Quest, make no mistake: this is the Facebook version of Rec Room. That said, it’s about social spaces and mini-games as ways for friends and strangers to meet and hang out in VR.
The app already includes an incredible Trojan Horse that can be used to introduce people to social VR: a game somewhere between dog fighting and soccer, where your handheld Oculus Touch controller becomes a fighter plane. Use the position of your hand to manually control the aircraft in relative space and the third person camera around you will move in kind rather than magically warping a fighter plane.
The effect may sound uncomfortable as described, but I was impressed with how remarkable this “paper airplane” flight model felt and worked in action. The connection I felt to an airplane in my hand probably helped my brain translate how much a VR battlefield moved around me. Between the position of my hand and a joystick, I was able to smoothly and carefully maneuver an airplane through cave doors and under other large objects while aiming at guns and objects in a two-on-two game of “airplane soccer”.
When not piloting an airplane, I would walk around waving hello, talking to strangers nearby, and making finger pistol and thumbs-up gestures with my hands. (Do a thumbs up and your avatar will smile; thumbs down, you will frown.) In a social area, I saw a Facebook employee searching an integrated inventory of geometric shapes, then copying, pasting, and manipulating the shapes, to build nearby geometry like a tree. The same employee also made a very simple if-then program note to rule a silly prop in a beach lobby: Throw three fruits in a basket and an umbrella would pop out. I could hold this umbrella while chatting to people on the beach.
“We definitely want you to meet people you don’t know,” said Romo during our interview. A mixture of open social spaces, mini-games and opportunities to build the world makes sense for this ambitious goal. That guiding principle of hanging out with strangers, however, is a sharp detour from the company’s previous VR chat app, Facebook Spaces, which the Horizon team has confirmed is going under in Horizon’s favor. Nobody had an estimate of when Spaces would be shut down.
Clearly, Facebook put a lot of work into the friendly, but not scary, look of its cartoon avatars. In particular, I noticed “calm beautiful face” and lively virtual eye contact in all of the VR avatars I spoke to during my test. However, this is another combination of VR apps and avatars that Facebook is resetting to present an entirely new chat interface within a few years. Between that fact and the team’s repeated warnings of “early days” for the app, we’re still waiting for Facebook to instill confidence that it will launch a social VR app and stick with it for more than two years.