To hear it from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in just a few years the entire world will be able to step inside a virtual-reality utopia where they can live their best lives. Remote work meetings that put everyone in the same room, immersive rendezvous with far-flung friends, raves, shopping sprees, card games that for some reason involve a space robot—all of this is supposed to be possible in the metaverse, the concept of a shared, virtual world that Facebook so wants to dominate that it gave itself a new name.
Meta thinks the metaverse is the next evolution of the internet, and it wants to be at the forefront of it. There’s already a problem, though. As Zuckerberg showed off aspects of his company’s metaversal offerings this week, many users chimed in with preliminary reviews: This whole virtual universe thing looks like buttcheeks.
The latest round of art criticism came after Zuckerberg announced the expansion of Meta’s Horizon Worlds VR platform to France and Spain on Tuesday. Horizon Worlds, a free online game you can access using Oculus’ Quest headset, is the most prominent manifestation of the company’s metaverse initiative. The game launched to the public in the United States and Canada back in December, after years of beta testing, name changes, and controversies over user conduct and safety. Horizon Worlds had reportedly gained 300,000 users by February, and desktop and mobile versions are on the way; Meta also plans to release an enterprise VR headset, currently known as “Project Cambria,” later this year, perhaps hoping to capitalize on the late-pandemic resilience of remote work.
It all might add up to the biggest pivot in Facebook’s history since the advent of mobile, and yet the whole thing looks about as bleak and lifeless as the time Zuckerberg was photographed in full-face sunscreen. Netizens were quick to compare the look of Horizon Worlds to that of video games from the turn of the millennium: blocky, blurry, rudimentary. Of course, many of the cultural flashpoints they referenced—The Sims, Nintendo’s Mii avatars, Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” video—were beloved and popular in their time, and in some cases still are today. The dunkfest pointed more toward the fact that Meta has shoveled more than $13 billion into VR development (a sum the company doesn’t expect to earn back for years) while the core product looks like it wouldn’t pass muster on a PlayStation 2. What’s more, you don’t even get a lower body in the metaverse, or even a useful nose!
Inquiring minds really do wish to know why Facebook’s virtual world looks like … that … especially when there are other metaverse options out there. A Forbes contributor wondered whether Zuck even realizes these spaces look awful. A Hacker News poster asked: “Is there no art director? Why is there no lighting?”
There may actually be a good answer to these questions. Given the current state of the tech, the metaverse—or any large, online, immersive virtual world—may work better for more people if it looks worse.
At least, that’s what some have surmised. A Hacker News commenter, responding to the art director question, analyzed the processing power of Meta’s VR gear and concluded it just wasn’t strong enough for a more visually complex product. “Lighting, textures, transparency, and many of the effects that make things look good in modern games, at the resolution and framerate required for smooth VR, can’t currently be done on a $400 headset,” the user wrote. Or, as Slate’s vice president of technology Greg Lavallee put it to me: “In layman’s terms, you can’t wear a PS5 on your face.”
A small headset being unable to handle such a wild world—at least, just yet—compared with the capabilities of a gaming console you view through a screen is certainly plausible. It’s also likely we can’t get an accurate perspective on the metaverse from a social media screenshot, since the actual experience is about the immersion. Horizon developers claimed to Digiday that the game’s interface is far more usable than Epic Games’ Unreal Engine for game development, which has a tool for crafting VR spaces. Besides, the game Roblox, which would fit some definitions of the metaverse, has clunky graphics and “glitchy” controls, but commands 50 million daily active users. Certainly, some visual weirdness can be overlooked if the UX is otherwise a blast. One Redditor wrote back in December that when it comes to the visual components of VR, “they don’t have to be realistic but they have to hold the user’s interest.” (Although the same user was critical of Horizon World’s success on even that score.)
Diami Virgilio, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication who studies digital culture and has written about the metaverse for Slate, offered two more reasons for Horizon Worlds’ seeming underdevelopment, one being accessibility. “For new users who may be struggling with motion sickness or disorientation in VR, keeping it simple is beneficial,” Virgilio wrote to me. “Horizon Worlds seems keyed to [users] who are more likely to be overwhelmed or alienated by some of the other social apps.”
The other factor Virgilio noted is that Horizon Worlds is far from the end-all, be-all of Meta’s VR plans, but merely a first offering, and likely a strategic one. “It seems to be mostly a social sandbox to learn about what users are most interested in for the sake of future profits,” he wrote. “The primary value of Horizon Worlds is developing a cadre of builders and influencers who will evangelize the metaverse vision to others and create experiences that Meta can use in its promotional materials … a free laboratory for the company to learn what kind of digital objects users want and are willing to pay for.” (And what happens next? University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote last year in Slate that Meta’s ambition for VR is to “monitor, monetize, and manage everything about our lives.”)
All of which is to say: Facebook’s metaverse venture will not be limited to the textureless, legless avatars we see bopping around today. If the company’s most visible project in this space looks awful, it’s likely because the tech is still in the works, and it wants to pull users into the space on a Meta-owned platform as soon as possible—and learn from them. Plus, if we know anything about Zuckerberg, it’s that he certainly pays attention when the internet makes fun of him. But given his company’s ambition, penchant for ruthless tactics, and considerable VR investment, it’s way too early to assume that Facebook’s bid for the metaverse will wind up being a joke.
Update, Aug. 19, 2022, at 3:37 p.m.: Approximately one hour after this piece was published, Mark Zuckerberg posted on Instagram that there were “Major updates to Horizon and avatar graphics coming soon.” He directly addressed visual critiques of Horizon: “I know the photo I posted earlier this week was pretty basic. … The graphics in Horizon are capable of much more—even on headsets.” Seems like the man agrees with his critics!
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.