Late last year, the company formerly known as Facebook changed its name to Meta. It was a signal that the world’s largest social media company is fully embracing the “metaverse,” which
allows people to interact in virtual worlds — usually while wearing a headset — as avatars who can play games together, watch concerts, comedy acts and other events, hangout and engage in business meetings without being in close physical proximity.
In many ways, the metaverse is more of a concept than a concrete experience, and some argue that it won’t fully exist until there is interactivity between virtual words with avatars having the ability to travel from one virtual experience to another just as we can move from one store to another within a shopping mall or a business district without changing who we are.
Virtual reality has a close cousin called augmented reality (AR) where computer generated images are interspersed with live images from the real world. Already there are companies, including Google and Microsoft, that make what are essentially eye glasses with transparent lenses that are also computer screens, enabling the user to see their surroundings and what’s on the screen at the same time.
Meta is, of course, not alone. There are other headsets, and there are metaverse-type experiences that don’t require a headset, including the popular Roblox gaming platform.
Time will tell how popular VR and AR will become. There are very strong rumors that Apple is likely to introduce a headset in the next year or two. If so, two of tech’s largest behemoths will be spending billions to promote the technology. Perhaps Microsoft will develop consumer versions of their industrial-strength mixed reality headsets.
In the meantime, Meta is pretty much alone in the “affordable” VR category with its $399 Quest 2 headset, which, unlike previous generations of headsets, is a standalone product that isn’t tethered to a computer. This week, the company announced the Quest Pro which it’s pricing at $1,500, aimed mostly at developers and early adopters.
Quest 2 and new Quest Pro
I’ve been using a Quest 2 for several months and have had a chance to briefly try the Quest Pro from the confines of Meta’s Reality Labs office. The Pro model has several significant enhancements over the Quest 2, but at its price point, is a non-starter for most consumers. It’s not positioned to replace the Quest 2, which will remain Meta’s mainstream VR headset for the foreseeable future. I’ll review the Quest Pro after I get a chance to use it in my home environment, but for now will concentrate on the Quest 2.
My experience with the Quest 2 has been mixed. On one hand, I love the way it’s able to transport me into virtual worlds where I can walk around spaces and look in any direction to see what’s around me. I’m not much of a gamer, but game-play in VR is far more immersive than it is on a 2D screen. I love some of the sports and fitness apps that let you practice boxing, golf, tennis and many other sports. Before using such an app, you need to use the Guardian feature, which creates a boundary to prevent you from hurting yourself, others in the room or knocking over that valuable vase on the table. But once you’ve established your play area, you can work up a sweat just as if you were in a real tennis court or boxing ring.
It was interesting to ride to the moon with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11, and I had fun slicing flying fruit in Fruit Ninja .
There are some drawbacks. The headset isn’t nearly as comfortable as I’d like, though it fits better now that I’ve installed the optional $60 Elite Strap, which makes it a lot easier to adjust the fit, especially for those of us who wear glasses.
I sometimes get a minor headache if I wear the headset for too long. I can’t imagine what it would be like to wear it for hours at a time, but I would hope that people heavily immersed in games would take frequent breaks.
Because VR is so immersive, negative interactions that might annoy you on a PC or phone can be much more intense in VR. I do worry about stalking, harassment and cyberbullying in an environment that can feel very real. Some experiences — like standing at the edge of a tall building — can elicit visceral fear. I avoid virtual roller coasters because they make me feel nauseous. I also worry about highly immersive advertising and product placement’s impact on consumer choices.
While my interest in gaming is limited, I’m very much a social animal, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Meta’s free Horizon Worlds app, which the company describes as “an ever-expanding social universe where you can hang with friends, meet new people, play games (and) attend cool events.”
Horizon World is divided into many different worlds. Some are from Meta, others from other companies and some from individual creators who can build their own world. For newbies, the first stop is usually the Plaza where you can hang out with other users, including a “guide” that is employed by Meta to help new users and keep an eye on things.
While in the Plaza, I had some interesting conversations, mostly about VR in general but sometimes getting into other subjects. Horizon Worlds currently requires users to be 18 or over, but I did encounter quite a few people who, by the sound of their voice, what they were saying and how they were acting, appeared to be much younger. I love children and hope that Meta and other VR developers can find a way to safely create spaces for children and families to get together, but it was at times hard to carry on adult conversations with the kids around. As with most social networking experiences, Horizon Worlds relies on the user’s stated date of birth, which many kids lie about when they sign-up. Meta’s Instagram is experimenting with age verification technology from Yoti that can go a long way toward solving this problem, but it’s not currently widely used on any of Meta’s platforms.
Interruptions aside, having conversations with strangers in VR did feel immersive and genuine despite the fact that the people I was talking with were represented by cartoon-like avatars. Still, their real voice does come through, and that — plus the movement of the avatars — does make it feel somewhat real. The new Meta Quest Pro enables apps to show users’ facial expressions, which should be a major enhancement for social experiences.
Horizon Worlds also has events. I attended a Kelly Clark concert and got within inches of the singer and her band but was also able to move around the auditorium to interact with fellow attendees. Comedy clubs are very popular on Horizon Worlds, but like real clubs, you have to be there while the show is going on.
Other popular social apps on Quest include VRChat, AltSpace VR and Rec Room. There is also a peer counseling mental health app called Innerworld.
Whether virtual reality will become mainstream is anyone’s guess, but along with the 15 million others who have Quest headsets, I’m glad to be getting a relatively early look at what the future might look like.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, a nonprofit internet safety organization which receives financial support from Meta.
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