September 28, 2023
Meta once again let the public join its annual Connect conference in virtual reality − via Horizon Worlds, its multiplayer virtual platform.
Last year, I entered the metaverse to report on the event from the safety of my tiny London apartment.
One year on, it's time again to dust off my VR headset and jump into one of the biggest tech events of the year.
It’s been quite a year
This year's Meta Connect almost felt more pivotal than the last one. With AI taking the metaverse's center stage, Meta clearly tried to up its game compared to last year.
The entire look and feel of Horizon Worlds was given an overhaul to make it feel more grandiose, with brighter colors and more to interact with than previous iterations.
Upon joining the event in VR, you were greeted with turnstiles where you could press a button to choose a tag that best represented you – I saw an awful lot of ‘gamers’ and ‘tech fans’ but not a lot of ‘media.’
As you passed through the corridor towards the main event, you were greeted with a balcony overlooking the stage itself. The whole event was made up to look like a real-life tech showcase. In fact, it reminded me of the look and feel of this year's Google I/O back in May.
Meta clearly tried to offer more for VR attendees. Last year's Connect had the odd gimmick here and there but it was few and far between. This year, Meta tried to up the ante with users able to obtain 'achievements' for completing various tasks in the environment – counting on the gamer's compulsive need to collect.
New additions to this year included a ‘museum’ that featured just two exhibits … greatly stretching the definition of the term.
There were also interactive museum displays, like this one where you could take a photo of a fox and it would transform once you take a photo, for some reason.
And yet, despite the attempts to feel more grandiose, the VR event still felt sparse. What summed it up for me was the fact Meta left in what was quite clearly an empty exhibit at the museum. Just a blank wooden wall and an empty plaque.
The viewing experience wasn’t much better
At last year’s Connect, when you entered Horizon World every user came into the hub area. If you wanted to watch the keynote, you were transported to one of several theatres.
This year, Meta did away with the individual spaces, instead it just had one open viewing area. And while it could be viewed as an attempt to get the entire Horizon World community to watch the keynote together, I couldn’t help but be embarrassed by the crowd size.
At any one time, I counted no more than 20 people. Perhaps users were placed into one of several hub worlds? I'm not sure, but what was certain to me was how apathetic the whole environment felt, like Zuckerberg showing off his brand new headset when in actuality just a handful of people were using the existing hardware to watch the unveiling.
Obviously, the Quest 2 and other units have sold well, but I digress.
What I’m trying to say is that for all the talk of building the next generation of interactions by Meta, the whole experience just felt flat.
Take the new gaming spaces in the hub world – there were three new spots users could visit to try out some of the top games on the Quest store, like Citadel, Bobber Bay Fishing and Super Rumble. And yet, there were just tens of players in those spaces at any one time.
Not all that’s grandiose is gold
For all of Meta's talk at Connect 2023, it was difficult to watch the event in VR.
Maybe it was just that I’ve lost my VR sea legs. For example, the ironically uncomfortable 'comfort assistance' for users remains on by default in Horizon Worlds. This narrows your vision while moving to make it more comfortable but instead does the complete opposite and provides an ever-appearing black void whenever you move, which adds to the nausea of using the device.
After reflecting on this event, I can see why there weren’t so many ‘media’ users in the event – it was just so darn tough to report on a tech conference with a device on your face. Every few minutes I was lifting the headset, writing a few lines, then putting the gear back down.
The reality of attending Connect 2023 was that another platform, VRChat, essentially ruined it for me by giving me a far better experience. After I attended Connect 2022 in VR last year, I went and dove into wider VR experiences and came across the wonderful VRChat, which does exactly what Horizon Worlds does but feels way more supported. Going from VRChat to Connect 2023 felt like being spoiled with a fine steak and then given a Big Mac – and you can’t go from one to the other while expecting the same. I think that’s what wrecked it for me.
The cynic in me does have some hope – seeing Meta's deal with Roblox and Microsoft to bring Xbox Cloud Gaming to Quest are signs of good things to come. But Connect 2023’s VR experience left me with a disappointed taste in my mouth.
Now excuse me while I go play VRChat, which had legs long before Horizon Worlds did.
Read more about:ChatGPT / Generative AI
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