Imagine if you could wake up every morning and meditate inside an isolated Tibetan temple in the middle of a foggy, dewy jungle. Once you’ve got your mind right, you can teleport into an art gallery where you can share your interpretations of each masterpiece with real-life strangers behind virtual reality (VR) avatars, eliciting gasps of “Wow, I didn’t think of that!”
Next, you drop yourself into a simulated ice skating party where you can show off your triple-axel jumps while amateur singers take the center stage. Finally, you end the night at a packed virtual discotheque where you elicit laughs from clubgoers as you show off your best dance moves to Ginuwine’s “Pony.” You promise to take this embarrassing VR moment to the grave, yank off your headset and plop yourself into bed.
This mindblowing virtual-reality scenario seems far-out, futuristic and out-of-this-world, but what if I told you that you could replicate it right now in 2022? Would you believe me?
The “Ready Player One” metaverse concept that everyone keeps buzzing about is already damn-near here, but folks seem to be none the wiser. I’ve tested Meta and Microsoft’s metaverse apps via the Oculus Quest 2, and I’ve got the scoop on which tech giant is closest to nailing “Ready Player One” nirvana. Follow along to see which metaverse app takes the crown: Microsoft-acquired AltspaceVR or Meta-owned Horizon Worlds?
Microsoft’s AltspaceVR is far more attractive design-wise than Horizon Worlds.
Although Altspace has a cartoonish aesthetic that isn’t particularly impressive, it looks like a Van Gogh compared to Horizon World’s clunky, polygonal designs. The trees inside Horizon Worlds look like green party hats attached to toilet paper tubes, mountains look like massive triangles with no dimension nor style, and bushes look like awkward balls sticking out of the ground.
AltspaceVR’s design won’t win any awards either, but it’s more visually appealing in an early 2000’s Cartoon Network type of way. When you first log into Altspace, you’ll be dropped into your “home apartment” where it feels like you’re the main character of your own animated show. In the far corner, you’ll see an Xbox console sitting on your desk (a nod to Microsoft, of course!) and a wall of colorful artwork that will capture your attention for a few minutes. The decor is quirky, eclectic and kitschy. The lime-green chaise lounge is an eyesore, but the huge guitar figurines on the wall will catch your eye.
Keep in mind that Horizon Worlds doesn’t have a home environment — at least, not yet. However, like Altspace, you can use different portals to spawn into different game arenas and social rooms.
I also must add that AltspaceVR hosted Burning Man 2021, and it was one of the most exhilarating, trippy VR experiences I’ve ever had. To be fair, Horizon Worlds is still in its nascent stages. It was released publicly in January 2022 while Altspace has been around since 2015 — and Altspace looked awful back then.
Two years later, Microsoft acquired it. As such, the Altspace team had seven years to perfect the app. If Horizon Worlds had nearly a decade under its belt, it would likely look more refined and less rudimentary.
AltspaceVR vs. Horizon Worlds: Fun and games
If you want to knock strangers off their feet with your laser tag skills, or challenge others to a friendly game of paintball, Horizon Worlds is your best bet. Does AltspaceVR have games? Kind of. Unlike Horizon Worlds, you won’t be able to drop into a multiplayer competition with the press of a button. To put it into perspective, the games in AltspaceVR feel more organic and capture the true essence of social engagement in the metaverse.
For example, in Altspace, there’s a main plaza called “The Campfire.” It’s the center of the metaverse in that many people convene there with friends before teleporting elsewhere. It’s a gorgeous environment where you can sit on logs, grab wooden sticks topped with marshmallows, and roast them on the fire while conversing with other users.
There’s a cornhole setup inside the plaza. You can grab a beanbag with your dominant avatar hand and shoot your best shot. While you can play cornhole alone, other players can join, too. In my personal experience, this game is an awesome ice breaker. When other 3D avatars see me playing alone, many want to join, leading me to make new VR friends. Like the real world, there’s no HUD keeping score nor is there a scoreboard keeping track of the game’s top players. This makes AltspaceVR’s games feel less “video gamey” in that you can make your own rules with your cornhole competitors (as opposed to letting the AI dictate how one should play it and when it must end).
I’ve also seen plenty of basketball nets at Altspace parties. You can pick up a ball from the rack and either embarrass yourself by shooting bricks or get some claps by sinking shots. Still, Altspace’s main focus is scheduled events — not gaming. Sure, you may find games inside of these gatherings to stimulate social engagement, you can’t teleport into a dedicated game.
It’s worth noting that Horizon Worlds also has a central location aptly called “The Plaza,” which is mainly for socializing. But if you want to play games, you can teleport into Arena Clash (a 3v3 laser tag game). I had the privilege of playing Arena Clash with several Meta employees, and it’s a total blast. It’s a rip-off of Rec Room’s popular laser tag game, and I told them as much. However, I can’t deny that it’s still a lot of fun.
Horizon Worlds reminds me of Roblox in that there are countless user-created games that you can jump into, which explains why the graphics aren’t always up to par. You have to weed through a lot of crappy games to find diamonds in the rough. On the plus side, I highly recommend Horizon Worlds’ mini games portal where you can congregate with other users and get spawned into different, fun games — one after the other — with your group.
Winner: Horizon Worlds
AltspaceVR vs. Horizon Worlds: Social interaction
Social interaction mechanisms are arguably one of the most important aspects of the metaverse. When you’re expressing sadness, can this be conveyed to your buddies in social VR? Conversely, if you’re happy and excited, how do Meta and Microsoft manifest these emotions in the metaverse? Unsurprisingly, Meta has the edge here.
Meta has been shoving emojis and other reaction-based thingamajigs down our throats via Facebook (and now Instagram) for as long as I can remember, so it’s no surprise that these elements are prevalent in Horizon Worlds. What I love about the social-network giant’s metaverse app is that you can throw your hands up in the air in excitement in real life, and your avatar’s 3D arms will follow — and colorful, celebratory streamers will appear. If you give a thumbs up in the real world, the gesture will manifest in the metaverse, too. Unfortunately, Horizon Worlds can’t “see” us flipping the bird; there are some annoying users in the app who deserve it (I’ll get into this later).
Altspace’s emotes are clunkier. You can use them in the app, but accessing them isn’t efficient. In Horizon Worlds, if you want to give someone thumbs up, well, you simply throw a thumbs up. In Altspace, you have to access an emoji menu, which isn’t as natural as Horizon Worlds’ emote execution. Once you click on one of those emojis, they float out of your 3D avatar like a group of bubbles.
It’d be cool if Horizon Worlds could implement its spatial audio that’s featured in Horizon Workrooms (a metaverse app for the workplace). In Workrooms, if someone is talking to the left of you, it sounded like it. In Horizon Worlds, however, enemies could be standing in a far-away tower, but they sound like they’re talking directly in your ear. Altspace doesn’t have this issue. If someone is too far away, you won’t be able to hear them unless you stand next to them.
As far as the actual users, though, Horizon Worlds has a problem. Who wants to go to an app filled with whiny kids and sore winners? Meta says that Horizon Worlds is for users age 18 and up, but all I’ve encountered are rude, screamy children. Altspace has the same restriction, but they’re better at keeping the babies at bay, thanks to their excellent mod community. They do a great job at kicking Elmo-sounding users — and a**holes — off the platform.
Altspace seems to attract a more mature crowd. I wish I could say the same for Horizon Worlds. On the plus side, you can easily turn on the mute button on both metaverse apps to block irksome users.
AltspaceVR vs. Horizon Worlds: Scheduled events
This is where AltspaceVR shines. In “Ready Player One,” there’s a scene where the main characters have the time of their lives dancing in a whimsical, futuristic lounge in the metaverse. You can do the same in Altspace. I’ve seen divey, bare-bones discotheques with nothing but DJs and VR patrons getting their groove on. Conversely, I’ve been in fantastical raves where you can place lustrous, colorful fairy wings on your back, float up into the sky, and dance to the music like a rhythmic butterfly.
Keep in mind that clubs and raves aren’t readily available at all times. You have to check out the Altspace calendar to see their dates and times. Discotheques are only a fraction of what Altspace offers.
There are open-mic nights where amateurs can perform their talents in front of friendly, 3D avatars (as opposed to intimidating, real life humans). You can hop into karaoke events where you can sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” to a crowd who will sing along to your passionate crooning.
There are also art museums, interactive game shows (to get your “Jeopardy!” on), free educational classes, ice skating parties, coffee shops for laid-back conversations, and more.
Every once in a while, a celebrity or two will appear on Altspace. For example, last year, I stumbled upon a Morris Chestnut interview at a virtual event called Hip Hop Film Festival.
Horizon Worlds has scheduled events, but they’re nowhere near as intriguing as Altspace’s gatherings. I checked the calendar, and as of this writing, there are only two upcoming events: a meditation circle and a Horizon Worlds tour. Yawn!
Overall winner: AltspaceVR
Many are banking on Meta to bring a Ready Player One-esque metaverse to the forefront, but my money is on Microsoft. The gaming giant claims that its $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard is a metaverse play, but I don’t believe them. The Xbox maker is using an overused buzzword to distract us from their true intentions: world domination. Plus, it’s already got Altspace, which can reach “Ready Play One” nirvana if Microsoft continues to expand it.
There’s a chance that Altspace can’t reach its full potential due to the limitations of the Oculus Quest 2’s mobile chip, but there are also factors such as slow VR adoption that hinder Altspace’s growth, too. Can Horizon Worlds potentially pull an upset and beat Altspace in the metaverse race? Not in this lifetime — it’s too rough around the edges.
I’m not sure whether Microsoft plans on using Altspace to further build upon its metaverse vision, but it would be missing out on a massive opportunity if it doesn’t.