There’s something off about Meta’s advertisements for Horizon Worlds, the social virtual reality app the company hopes to one day be an important component of its currently vaporware — I mean in progress — “metaverse.”
It’s not that the ads are lame, exactly — though plenty of people had a field day dunking on the company’s tone and seeming lack of perspective — it’s that they don’t capture what actual communities already deeply immersed in VR like about the technology, or what’s currently possible in Horizon Worlds in the first place.
Real VR Users — We Met in Virtual Reality, a documentary that premiered in the World Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival offers an interesting counterexample. Filmed entirely within the popular social VR application VRChat by director Joe Hunting, it manages to not really gawk at or essentialize the people who spend time in VR regularly, but show how they use it to complement their real lives. It’s bizarrely, a great advertisement for the post-internet world Meta thinks it could have a big hand in creating, while also showing it might not be as necessary or post-anything as the company thinks.
VRChat is a bit like VR’s wild west. It’s on every major virtual reality platform and yet somehow offers a lot of the flexibility people expect when they think of digital avatars in user-created spaces. From recreated Zillow-listings hosted by furries to the less… eclectic worlds Hunting documents, VRChat basically already does what Horizon Worlds does, just in a way that’s less locked-down or buttoned-up, and even more, actually driven by the users who use the app every day. If VR makes you think of the chaotic battle scenes between licensed characters of Ready Player One, VRChat isn’t far off.
Notably, its avatars also have legs.
Hunting grounds his documentary in human experiences, filling out his cast with a dancer trying to balance building a business teaching dance in VR with a long-distance relationship, a couple who met during the pandemic itching to finally meet each other in real life, and an ASL instructor working at Helping Hands, a user-run sign language school. They all relied on VR to stay connected during the pandemic, and find some amount of social fulfillment just living in virtual worlds for chunks of their day.
Balance — While We Met in Virtual Reality highlights the fun of VR — all shot naturalistically with a VRChat plug-in called VRCLens — it's telling how many of the subjects fixate on aspects of the technology that are already possible with the internet we have today. A nonbinary VRChat user explains to Hunting that they value the way the technology connects them to people on the other side of the world, lets them maintain their anonymity, and have more control over how they visually present themselves. These have all, in one way or another, been possible since the internet’s conception.
The two couples the documentary tracks also demonstrate another balloon-deflating aspect of regular VR use. As much as they enjoy spending time with each other’s digital avatars in VR, even recreating scenarios inside VRChat where they hop on planes to see one another, they all can’t wait to actually do it in person.
I don’t want to undersell the sense of space or embodiment an immersive VR experience can give you, and the ways that could be improved with even better VR hardware — many of the experiences the doc shows off are only possible with HTC’s Vive Trackers. It’s just that We Met in Virtual Reality makes it clear that people are already living in the world Meta’s trying to sell. And they’re doing it without abandoning the real, physical world, or inviting unknown levels of corporate oversight. In that way, virtual reality isn’t the next thing, it’s perfectly fine being an increasingly mainstream companion to the online world we already have.