I've watched people all around the world debate death — and what happens in the afterlife — inside a stunning Tibetan temple. I've walked around a jaw-dropping Alice in Wonderland exhibit, curated by a talented artist, inside the annual Burning Man festival. I've listened to amateur singers perform on stage while gliding inside a skating rink.
"In real life?" you ask. Nope. I experienced all the aforementioned events (yes, even Burning Man) while strapping on my Meta Quest 2 headset and diving into Microsoft's spectacular AltSpaceVR app.
For the uninitiated, AltSpaceVR was the closest thing we had to a metaverse utopia. Stepping inside a personalized 3D avatar, you could do almost everything you could do in real life — play basketball, meditate inside a lush landscape, attend pool parties, go clubbing, hop into a karaoke bar, watch comedians bomb during amateur night, and more — with a fantastical twist.
For example, I once attended a rave inside AltSpaceVR, but unlike in real life, I could strap on a pair of butterfly wings (and other funky costume items), enabling me to fly around the "outdoor" space. I could rock out on the ground or headbang to the DJ's music while hovering in the air.
But now, that's all over. Microsoft decided to shutter AltSpaceVR by March 10, and truth be told, I'm gutted. It was the only app that was closest to 'Ready Player One' as we know it. The only other tech giant working on anything remotely similar is Meta — we're screwed.
Why AltSpaceVR was the closest thing we had to an ideal metaverse
Yeah, there are other social VR apps like VRChat and Rec Room, but none are remotely as refined as AltSpaceVR.
The former is a cartoonish nightmare filled with total anarchy (I, by the way, got the opportunity to explore VRChat's seedy strip club community). VRChat gives users too much leniency regarding avatar modification, making the worlds look bizarre. I've seen Kermit the Frog, Patrick Star, a vast array of anime characters — and even Breaking Bad's Walter White Jr. They can all be resized to users' liking, too, so you can see some avatars practically poking out of the roof as well as ultra-tiny characters that wander by your feet. VRChat also is notorious for its trolling and bullying problem, but the folks behind the app seem to think that "just block 'em" addresses the issue.
Rec Room is the best out of the two options, delivering an incredible number of immersive games like laser tag inside gorgeous LED arenas and paintball with fun places to hide from enemy fire. However, if I didn't know any better, I'd think it was a pre-school sim. There are too many damn rowdy, squeaky-voiced children on this app.
AltSpaceVR, on the other hand, resolved the flaws highlighted in both aforementioned apps, offering an immersive metaverse experience that blurs the line between simulation and reality. In AltSpaceVR, besides changing your avatar's hair, skin, eye color and clothes, you cannot modify it further. As such, everyone's eyes meets yours. (They're not towering over you or nipping at your feet like VRChat.) AltSpaceVR also features mods and admin whom don't play around. With zero tolerance for hateful tirades and other experience-ruining BS, mods aren't afraid to swiftly hit the ban button, which I appreciated. On top of that, AltSpaceVR, unlike the other two apps, targets users 18 years old and up (opens in new tab). Even if you breathe like a child, you're getting kicked out, so it has more of a mature, grown-up vibe.
Secondly, unlike VRChat and RecRoom, AltSpaceVR is graphically stunning, from the beautifully constructed vivid 3D avatars to community campsite that looks like a cross between the Garden of Eden and Vail, Colorado.
As such, the metaverse market is losing its VIP player, leaving us with a bunch of benchwarmers with little to no potential.
But what about Meta's Horizon Worlds metaverse app?
Horizon Worlds, taking notes from Roblox and Minecraft, is Meta's embarrassing attempt at materializing "the metaverse" into reality. I'd describe it as a mega VR playground where you can meet strangers and friends, but it's buggy AF and the graphics are an eyesore.
I explored Horizon Worlds a few times, but eventually abandoned it out of boredom. And guess what? I'm not the only one. According to a report from The Washington Street Journal, "most visitors to Horizon generally don’t return to the app after the first month." At launch, Meta was hoping to attract 500,000 monthly users, but as of October 2022, the social media giant drew in less than half of that figure (200,000). Ouch! To put it into perspective, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp collectively attract nearly four billion average monthly users.
According to an internal Meta document WSJ acquired, an employee described Horizon Worlds as a "cold, empty world." Hell, at one point, Horizon Worlds was broadcasting a whole Katy Perry concert inside the app — and it was a total wasteland.
Look at this ! I went to a Katy Perry concert in the #metaverse and it was empty AF. Where is everybody?! #katyperry #vr #virtualreality #quest2 #tech #metaquest2 #technews pic.twitter.com/vROnovT1JCOctober 18, 2022
The saddest part is that Meta, as per The Verge, is pouring billions of dollars into making "the metaverse" a thing, but Horizon Worlds is the best it could come up with?
Horizon Worlds isn't all bad; it has some entertaining aspects. For example, you can meet up with a friend in the metaverse and get teleported through a marathon of games, including a fun challenge that requires you to use a catapult to destroy your opponent's pirate ship. Again, I find the graphics to be too rudimentary, but being dropped into a variety of different games with your friend definitely keeps things interesting.
However, Horizon Worlds simply doesn't encapsulate what most people think of when they hear the word "metaverse" (a simulated universe that mimics real life). Sure, you can play games inside Horizon Worlds, attend open-mic nights, and other events, but something felt off. After mulling it over, I finally put my finger on it: it doesn't "flow" like the real world.
What do I mean by this? Well, in AltSpaceVR, the first place you're dropped into is your apartment. Yes, you have your own humble abode in AltSpaceVR! People can visit you inside your home, too.
From there, you can teleport to the community campsite (AltSpaceVR's central hub where you can meet up with friends and socialize with strangers), which is not only visually stunning, but features plenty of interactive features. For example, you can grab a marshmallow on a stick, place it over the campfire, and watch it roast — but don't overcook it because it will burn! You can even "eat" it (it disappears when you put it up to your mouth). See? Real-world flow!
With Horizon Worlds, on the other hand, you don't have your own apartment. Everyone's basically a hobo in Meta's rendition of the metaverse. The app, like AltSpaceVR, has a central hub called The Plaza, but it's not nearly as interactive nor fun.
This isn't to say that AltSpaceVR didn't have its cons. For example, I wish my apartment was more customizable, ensuring that my metaverse home reflected my funky personality and campy tastes, but I haven't seen any significant upgrades to the app since I started using it in 2020. (This should have been my first clue that Microsoft had intentions of abandoning the app).
Microsoft, according to TechCrunch, decided to sunset AltSpaceVR — our last hope for anything remotely successful in the VR metaverse market — to shift its focus toward Mesh (the company's VR workplace collaboration platform). Lame!
At the outset, I mentioned all the spectacular events I attended via AltSpaceVR, but it's also worth noting that the app developed a heart-warming reputation of being a welcoming virtual space that attracted a cornucopia of weekly and daily meetups, including LGBTQ+ get-togethers, faith-based gatherings, free educational classes, Alcoholics Anonymous, therapy sessions, language exchanges, and more.
At one point, I even saw a wedding — yes, two people actually tied the knot in the metaverse — on AltSpaceVR's event calendar, but I didn't get a chance to attend.
But Microsoft wants to wipe this gem off the face of the planet, leaving us with lowbrow apps like VRChat, Rec Room and Horizon Worlds, to chase futile ambitions. (I've already expressed my thoughts on how I feel about "the powers that be" pushing this VR workplace nonsense — it's laughable).
At this point, I'm even more skeptical about whether a platform within the metaverse market will ever reach Ready Player One nirvana, but if we ever do, mark my words: Meta won't be the one to do it.