With virtual reality gradually becoming more mainstream, accelerated by increased take-up amid the COVID-19 lockdowns, Facebook has announced that its new social VR experience platform, called 'Horizon', is now moving into closed beta.
As you can see from the video, Horizon is essentially a sandbox creation tool for social VR, where users can interact and engage with the virtual environment.
As explained by Facebook:
"Horizon invites you to explore an ever-expanding universe of virtual experiences designed and built by the entire community. Everything you see in Horizon, including the Plaza and worlds created by our teams at Facebook, has been built with the Horizon creation tools. In Horizon, you can build the things you want to see and places you want to visit."
Facebook first announced Horizon at its Oculus Connect event in September last year, where it showcased the first stages of the new platform.
It's advanced significantly since then, with the new Horizon platform taking over from Facebook 'Spaces', its original VR social environment.
And that's really the key impetus - while the key lure of VR is immersion, Facebook also wants to maintain its social roots in building its VR experience, in order to maximize engagement.
"Horizon is as much about meaningful connections as it is about creating VR worlds and expressing yourself. Eventually, we envision large spaces where many people can gather in Horizon, but for now, up to eight people can share a space."
So aside from games and cutting edge experiences, which Facebook is also working on, Horizon is more about the social aspect, and getting users accustomed to engaging in digital worlds.
That's the next big step for VR - while it's cool to see things from the perspective of Darth Vader, the real value of VR will be in collaboration, and providing a platform for people to connect in the digital realm.
That will then lead to new opportunities for, say, workplace collaboration, which is likely to become a much bigger element due to the WFH shift, both during and in the wake of COVID-19.
Being able to interact with co-workers as if they're right there beside you could have significant benefits - but in order to get to that stage, Facebook needs to normalize virtual social interaction. Which is still some way off, but the launch of Horizon Beta is another key step.
But of course, adding social elements also adds risk, which could be even more concerning in wholly immersive environments.
This is a key element that Facebook will need to manage, and it's made specific note of this in its announcement:
"You can access a personal Safe Zone through your wrist menu at any time in Horizon. Our research over the past few years has found that when people experience something overwhelming or surprising in VR, they want the option to step away first, and then take action second. Once you’re in your personal Safe Zone, you can mute, block or report people and content around you."
The next stage of cyberbullying could have major impacts, as the virtual environment will increasingly feel like real life. That could make it harder to escape, so it's good that Facebook is making this a priority from the get-go.
That's also the reason why Facebook recently announced that all Oculus users will soon have to sign-in via Facebook, better linking Facebook's reporting processes to its VR arm.
It may not seem like a major update at the moment, but the development of VR is a huge shift, and will become increasingly relevant, in many different ways, over the next few years. Whether you get involved now, or wait it out to see what happens, it will be something that you will be looking into at some stage in future.
That will also mean new opportunities for advertising, marketing, personal branding and related elements.
Horizon, at least at this stage, looks set to be Facebook's major social push on this front. It could be worth getting involved now to stay ahead of the game.
The Horizon invite-only beta will be available on Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform in the US and Canada to begin with. You can sign-up to the beta waitlist here.