Facebook VR 'Horizon' is a non-starter if it's in a closed ecosystem

At Oculus Connect 6 in September Facebook and its subsidiary Oculus announced a new social hub for the Oculus platform called Horizon.

Many wonderful things were said about making it a central hub for the world to experience VR in a social, inclusive way. In the launch video, they showed us visions of a future where we all get up and excitedly don our headsets to talk to friends all over the world over coffee and pancakes.

Unfortunately, it all means doodly squat because Facebook has chosen to act like Oculus instead of like Facebook.

What is Facebook Horizon?

Horizon is Facebooks attempt to create a social hub for VR. Facebook has tried it before with Facebook Spaces with little success, but we know that social networking is essential to its core brand.

It allows you to connect to a central "world" where you can meet people you know, or even people you don't, and create connections together. They will be a chance to make friends, talk to people over messenger, and even create groups like you would on Facebook.

The game also has worlds for you to visit with its own set of mini-games and social activities to do. You can even make those worlds yourself through a robust set of design tools that can be used entirely through VR headset.

If you have ever played Rec Room — and if you haven't, you really should — it's a lot like that; a large social space, with smaller spaces for groups to have fun, and interact with each other. The world creation is a massive part of both programs and will help keep the program fresh and exciting for years to come.

Facebook is everywhere

It's no exaggeration to say that Facebook is everywhere. The company website suggests that as many as 1.59 billion people are actively using the site every day, and they use it from every device you can imagine.

Around 96 percent of all Facebook users are using a mobile device, and a staggering 25 million of those are using a feature phone to do it. To give you some context, more people use a feature phone to access facebook than have bought VR headsets in the last three years. There are facebook apps available on smart TV's, phones, laptops, tablets, there are even third-party apps to access it from the Amazon Echo.

In short, Facebook is successful because you can use it from almost any electronic device, and it desperately needs to take that ethos over to its VR teams.

VR needs a team effort to succeed

Rec Room

Rec Room (Image credit: Rec Room)

The very best games in VR, the ones that everyone talks about, succeed because they are platform agnostic. Beat Saber is arguably the most popular VR game available right now, and it has sales figures that any indie developer would be thrilled with. It has accomplished all this by being available everywhere.

Rec Room is another example of a game that does well because it is available on every device. Like Beat Saber, Rec Room has been played by over a million users, and when you take into account there are only around 17 million VR users, those are pretty strong numbers.

So to be a successful software developer in VR, you need to be platform agnostic, but Facebook just isn't thinking like a software developer. If Facebook wants to make its software a success, it needs to forget it owns Oculus and offer Horizon out to the VR world at large.

What I see on the Horizon (Get it?)

If Facebook had said, it was going to run the Horizon beta on just the Oculus platform, fine. It's always a good idea to use a small sample of people to work out kinks; it's what betas are for. If they had said "The beta will be Oculus, but the program will be available across all the major headsets at launch" I would have been way more excited than I am right now because numbers don't lie.

It's going to require a company with some serious forward-thinking to break the boundaries and jumpstart the O.A.S.I.S.

If you want to create a social network —one that you can skim useful user data from, with permission of course — then you require the biggest pool of people you can to sample. The Oculus platform is growing, mostly due to the excellent Quest standalone headset, but it still isn't big enough to create the ecosystem Facebook needs for Horizon.

Horizon needs to expand beyond hardware and onto the VR platform as a whole. Oculus programs almost always work on Steam VR, and VR controllers for PCVR are so similar it would be easy to accommodate. PSVR might be more complicated, but it makes perfect sense to be on PlayStations VR platform. It has outsold all the other VR headsets this year by a substantial margin.

By limiting its scope, Facebook dooms an honestly exciting program to be just another failed social experiment; confined to dust like Goggle Plus, or "that one that did the thing with locations or something." Horizon can't succeed if Facebook thinks like a manufacturer and not a software company.

When I see programs like Horizon, or Rec Room, or No Man's Sky VR for that matter, It fills me with hope for VR. The dream of virtual reality is to have a truly global world, where friends from anywhere can be together, and people don't have to be alone. It's going to require a company with some serious forward-thinking to break the boundaries and jumpstart the O.A.S.I.S.

It's a shame that Facebook isn't that company.

If you do want to try the Horizon beta and you are on an Oculus headset you can sign up here. Do me a favor while you are there though, leave them some feedback, ask them to expand the game to every platform, to be forward-thinkers, not isolationists.

James Bricknell

James built his first PC when he was 13 and has never looked back. He can be found on Windows Central, usually in the corner where all the 3D printers are, or huddled around the Xbox playing the latest games.