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Facebook announces Horizon, a VR massive-multiplayer world – TechCrunch

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Facebook today announced it’s building its own Ready Player One Oasis. Facebook Horizon is a virtual reality sandbox universe where you can build your own environments and games, play and socialize with friends or just explore the user-generated landscapes. This is Facebook’s take on Second Life.

Launching in early 2020 in closed beta, Facebook Horizon will allow users to design their own diverse avatars and hop between virtual locales through portals called Telepods, watch movies and consume other media with friends and play multiplayer games together, like Wing Strikers. It also will include human guides, known as Horizon Locals, who can give users assistance and protect their safety in the VR world so trolls can’t run rampant.

Users interested in early access can apply for the beta here.

As part of the launch, Facebook will on October 25 shut down its existing social VR experiences Facebook Spaces and Oculus Rooms, leaving a bit of a gap until Horizon launches. Oculus Rooms debuted in 2016 as your decoratable private VR apartment, while Spaces first launched in 2017 to let users chat, watch movies and take VR selfies with friends. But both felt more like lobby waiting rooms with a few social features that were merely meant as a preamble to full-fledged VR games. In contrast, Horizon is designed to be a destination, not a novelty, where users could spend tons of time.

How Facebook Horizon works

At first glance, Horizon seems like a modernized Second Life, a first-person Sims, a fulfillment of the intentions of AltspaceVR and a competitor to PlayStation’s PSVR Dreams and cross-platfrom kids’ favorite Roblox. Back in 2016, Facebook was giving every new Oculus employee a copy of the Ready Player One novel. It seems they’ve been busy building that world since then.

Facebook Horizon will start centralized around a town square. Before people step in, they can choose how they look and what they wear from an expansive and inclusive set of avatar tools. From inside VR, users will be able to use the Horizon World Builder to create gaming arenas, vacation chillspots and activities to fill them without the need to know how to code.

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Facebook Horizon lets you build objects from scratch

You could design a tropical island, then invite friends to hang out with you on your virtual private beach. An object creator akin to the Oculus Medium sculpting feature lets you make anything, even a custom t-shirt your avatar could wear. Visual scripting tools let more serious developers create interactive and reactive experiences.

Facebook details its Horizon safety features on its “Citizenship” page that explains that “As citizens of Facebook Horizon, it is all of our responsibility to create a culture that’s respectful and comfortable . . . A Horizon citizen is friendly, inclusive, and curious.” Horizon Locals will wander the VR landscapes to answer questions or aid users if they’re having technical or safety issues. They seem poised to be part customer support, part in-world police.

Facebook Horizon Locals

Facebook Horizon will include human Locals who provide safety and technical support

If things get overwhelming, you can tap a shield button to pause and dip into a private space parallel to Horizon. Users can define their personal space boundaries so no one can get in their face or appear to touch them. And traditional tools like muting, blocking and reporting will all be available. It’s smart that Facebook outlined the community tone and defined these protections.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Horizon today at the Oculus Connect 6 conference in San Jose. He discussed how “Horizon is going to have this property where it just expands and gets better” as Facebook and the community build more experiences for the VR sandbox.

Facebook Horizon World Builder

Facebook lets you build your own islands and other locales in Horizon

Horizon makes perfect sense for a business obsessed with facilitating social interaction while monetized through ad views based on time-spent. It’s easy to imagine Horizon including virtual billboards for brands, Facebook-run shops for buying toys or home furnishings, third-party malls full of branded Nikes or Supreme shirts that score Zuckerberg a revenue cut or subscriptions to access certain gaming worlds or premium planets to explore.

As Facebook starts to grow stale after 15 years on the market, users are looking for new ways to socialize. Many have already ditched the status updates and smarmy Life Events of Facebook for the pretty pictures of Instagram and silliness of Snapchat. Facebook risked being cast aside if it didn’t build its own VR successor. And by offering a world where users can escape their real lives instead of having to enviously compare them to their friends, Horizon could appeal to those bored or claustrophobic on Facebook.



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Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade leads latest PlayStation game-reveal event

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Sony’s latest PlayStation-focused video reveal event, as part of its State Of Play series, was its shortest yet, lacking announcements on any first-party Sony games coming to either PlayStation 5 or the older PS4. Instead, the event was led by a third-party whopper: a remake of… last year’s Final Fantasy VII Remake.

That definition is a stretch, since this new title may be better classified as a graphical remaster, but there’s a lot going on, as visible in the above gallery. The new game, FFVII Remake Intergrade, will land exclusively on PlayStation 5 consoles on June 10, and in good news, existing owners on PS4 will get nearly all of its content as a free upgrade (so long as they either own the game digitally or have a disc-based PS5). That content includes a sweeping graphical overhaul with new lighting, texture, and particle systems and an optional 60fps mode, plus a new “classic” option for the game’s active battling system. Picking “classic” will let players focus entirely on selecting commands from menus, instead of giving direct joystick control to a “lead” character like Cloud or Tifa.

For existing owners who may have already beaten the game, the incentive to double-dip comes in the form of a new “episode” of content. This will put players in control of original series character Yuffie, and the revealed footage includes her and a companion named Sonon spending time in existing game regions like the Sector 7 slums—and Yuffie using Sonon as a springboard to pull off cinematic, sweeping attacks. To access this new chapter, existing owners will have to pay for the extra DLC, though publisher Square Enix hasn’t yet clarified how much that will cost.

The closest Thursday’s event got to a “first-party” reveal came from Returnal, a second-party project by longtime Sony collaborator Housemarque. We finally learned that the game is launching April 30—and saw the clearest footage yet of its roguelike action. This third-person shooter largely resembles Risk of Rain 2, in terms of pitting players against fantastical, supernatural beasts while letting players access a mix of wild attacks and high-speed dodges. (Though unlike RoR2, Returnal appears to be a single-player affair.) Thursday’s trailer also gave us a peek at a plot tying the game’s “die-and-retry” roguelike loop together, which included a look at the main character’s childhood home (which players could discover and explore in a first-person perspective).

Solar Ash, which was revealed during Sony’s last State of Play presentation, will arrive “later this year” from the team behind beloved indie action game Hyper Light Drifter, and we finally got a firm look at this PlayStation console exclusive’s gameplay. The results look like a cross between Jet Set Radio and Shadow of the Colossus, in terms of high-speed third-person platforming combined with epic “crawl over bosses” encounters.

The PlayStation console exclusive shooter Deathloop received its first hard gameplay reveal on Thursday, as well, and it finally looks like an Arkane Lyon game—meaning, it now resembles its Dishonored first-person-stealth pedigree. Only, imagine that kind of gameplay supercharged with supernatural powers (invisibility, stealth, and magical attacks), 007-styled gadgets, and the tongue-in-cheek, ’70s-technicolor-spy gaming glory of No One Lives Forever. That combination of influences has us excited for what’s to come from this Bethesda-published game (which Sony nabbed before that Microsoft acquisition deal), but we’re still waiting on its release date.

Unfortunately, the highly anticipated video event was utterly bereft of first-party announcements, thus leaving fans in the dark about June’s Ratchet and Clank sequel, let alone sequels to Gran Turismo, God of War, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. For the rest of the event’s announcements and teases, which included a firmer look at upcoming PlayStation 4/5 games Oddworld Soulstorm and Kena: Bridge of Spirits, check out the full 30-minute video, embedded below.

Sony State of Play, February 25, 2021

Listing image by Square Enix

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Review: Thought-provoking sci-fi drama Bliss works on multiple levels

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Enlarge / Greg (Owen Wilson) and Isabel (Salma Hayek) find themselves shifting between a beautiful and an “ugly” world—but which is real, and which is the simulation?

A depressed man finds himself questioning the reality of his existence when he meets a free-spirited woman who insists he’s inhabiting a simulation in Bliss, a new film from director Mike Cahill that stars Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek. Sure, it sounds like an indie riff on The Matrix, and there are a few shared elements, but Bliss is markedly different in theme and tone, and it is very much Cahill’s unique vision.

(Major spoilers below the gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)

As we’ve reported previously, Cahill also directed the 2011 indie sci-fi film Another Earth—his first feature—which received a standing ovation at its premiere and won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Cahill’s 2014 followup feature, I Origins, also snagged the Sloan Prize; in fact, he’s the only director to have twice won the award, so he’s got some serious indie sci-fi film street cred.

The plot of Another Earth centered on the discovery of a mirror Earth planet, where everyone has a doppelgänger. Clearly, Cahill is interested in exploring themes of duality, because he has returned to that rich vein for Bliss (not to be confused with the 2019 Fantastic Fest selection of the same name).

Per the official premise: “An unfulfilled man (Wilson) and a mysterious woman (Hayek) believe they are living in a simulated reality, but when their newfound ‘Bliss’ world begins to bleed into the ‘ugly’ world, they must decide what’s real and where they truly belong.”

Wilson plays Greg Whittle, a divorcée who is stuck in a dead-end job. He spends most of his work time not answering calls as he daydreams of an idyllic world and sketches out his mental pictures of that world. “I don’t know if it’s real,” he muses. “But it has a feeling, and the feeling’s real.”  Not surprisingly, his employer, Bjorn (Steve Zissis), takes a dim view of this behavior: despite firing Greg, the two get into a shoving match and Bjorn hits his head on a table and is killed.

Greg flees the office before the body is discovered and heads to the bar across the street. That’s where he meets Hayek’s Isabel. “You’re real,” she says, telling him that all the people he sees outside aren’t real—the two of them are just in a simulation. To prove it, she demonstrates how she can manipulate people and objects in this “ugly simulation.”

Isabel invites him to stay in her encampment under a traffic bridge, and she introduces him to a crushed yellow crystal hallucinogen. The unnamed drug allows Greg to also manipulate his physical “reality,” convincing him that Isabel is right and this really is a simulation. But then his daughter Emily (Nesta Cooper) tracks him down—he missed her graduation—and Isabel feels threatened by this strong emotional tie. She insists Emily is also part of the simulation and, hence, not real. So she introduces Greg to a second, stronger drug: a blue crystal administered via a nasal injection device. Taking it ejects them both from the “ugly” world and into the idyllic world of Greg’s daydreams.

(Warning: Major spoilers below. Stop reading if you haven’t yet watched the film.)

Specifically, Greg wakes up in a laboratory. He’s attached to a giant computer called the Brain Box. Isabel invented it to plug people into “ugly simulated worlds to generate appreciation for the real world.” Greg doesn’t remember much about this “real” Brain Box world he’s now experiencing, but he soon settles in, as romance blooms with Isabel. But eventually, aspects of the “ugly” world start seeping through, including a ghostly figure of Emily, imploring Greg to come back to her.

It’s the onscreen chemistry between Wilson and Hayek, and the way they flesh out their respective roles, that anchors the film, bolstered by a solid script and some inventive VFX. Those effects are based more on actual photography than CGI (although there is definitely some CGI). Take, for example, the holograms of people projecting themselves onto the streets of the Brain Box world. According to VFX supervisor Luke DiTommasso, Cahill was adamant that these should not resemble the famous Princess Leia hologram in Star Wars: A New Hope. Instead, the look was grounded in photography, exploiting rainbow prism lens flares to achieve a natural chromatic aberration, giving the figures a ghost-like quality.

Particularly when the worlds start to blend together, it might have been easier to simply use CGI. Instead, DiTomasso’s team made good use of the creative (and consistent) set design and Cahill’s long tracking shots to create the illusion of blending realties, augmented here and there with CG elements as needed. Not only did this help rein in production costs, the end result felt more realistic—and both worlds need to feel reasonably realistic in order for the film’s central conceit to work. “If you can shoot something, shoot something,” DiTommasso told Ars about his philosophy regarding CGI. “It you need a duck crossing a street, let’s shoot a duck crossing a street. If you need a duck to tap dance and sing, then we need CGI.” (There are no tap-dancing singing ducks in Bliss.)

So, which world is real and which is the simulation? That is the question. Cahill opts for ambiguity on that score; one can interpret the ending in several different ways. On the most literal level, Greg is an addict whose drug use has estranged his family and gets him fired, sending him spiraling into a hallucinogenic drug spree with Isabel, a homeless fellow addict living under the traffic bridge. Their shared experience manipulating elements of the “ugly” world, and of being in the Brain Box paradise, are part of a drug-induced folie a deux. But the high wears off, and the two worlds start to collide, forcing Greg to make a choice: remain with Isabel in their shared dream world, or stop “chasing bliss” and choose to stay with his daughter in the “ugly” world.

Ugly

There’s strong evidence for that interpretation. Isabel becomes increasingly unhinged, exhibiting classic addict behaviors, and there’s a strong whiff of wish-fulfillment fantasy in the Brain Box world. In the end, Greg gives up the fantasy and chooses the “ugly,” “real” world, even attending his first 12-step meeting. He’s attempting to rebuild his life and relationships, having learned to see beauty even in the “ugly” world.

But there are other elements that cannot easily be explained away, such as what, ultimately, happens to Isabel, last seen facing down several armed cops as she snorts the last dose of blue crystal. Was she shot? Or was she right about the “ugly” world being a simulation, and she returned to the Brian Box world in the nick of time? In that alternate interpretation, Greg chooses to remain in the “ugly” simulation to be with his daughter—willing to make that sacrifice because his love for her is real, even if she is not.

Or maybe reality is determined by whichever world we ultimately choose. In that case, both the “ugly” and Brian Box realms are “real.” How could you ever really be sure? The director’s willingness to let his audience soak in all that uncertainty makes Bliss Cahill’s strongest, most ambitious film to date.

Bliss is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Valve has to provide some Steam sales data to Apple, judge says

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A US magistrate judge has ordered Valve to provide sales data to Apple in response to a subpoena issued amid Apple’s continuing legal fight with Epic Games.

In addition to some aggregate sales data for the entirety of Steam, Valve will only have to provide specific, per-title pricing and sales data for “436 specific apps that are available on both Steam and the Epic Games Store,” according to the order. That’s a significant decrease from the 30,000+ titles Apple for which Apple originally requested data.

In resisting the subpoena, Valve argued that its Steam sales data was irrelevant to questions about the purely mobile app marketplaces at issue in the case. Refocusing the request only on games available on both Steam and the Epic Games Store makes it more directly relevant to the questions of mobile competition in the case, Judge Thomas Hixson writes in his order.

“Recall that in these related cases, [Epic] allege that Apple’s 30% commission on sales through its App Store is anti-competitive and that allowing iOS apps to be sold through other stores would force Apple to reduce its commission to a more competitive level,” Hixson writes in the order. “By focusing… on 436 specific games that are sold in both Steam and Epic’s store, Apple seeks to take discovery into whether the availability of other stores does in fact affect commissions in the way [Epic] allege.”

Just hand it over

Valve lawyer Gavin Skok also argued that responding to the subpoena would be overly burdensome to the company, requiring multiple full-time employees performing hours of work to compile data from multiple sources for each game (as reported by Law360). In his order, Judge Hixson said that the data collection “did not sound that burdensome.” That said, Hixson did agree to limit the response to data starting in 2017 (rather than 2015, as Apple requested) because the Epic Games Store didn’t exist until 2018.

Hixson also rejected arguments that Apple should subpoena individual developers for their pricing and sales data, saying that potential effort would represent an “undue burden” on Apple. The judge added that this sales information is not confidential to the developers involved and that “Valve is running a store, and how much it sells of what is its own information.”

Back in 2018, Valve decided to effectively block services like Steam Spy or Ars’ own Steam Gauge from creating public estimates of Steam game sales based on samples of individual public user account data. Valve said in July 2018 that it was working on a “more accurate” replacement for that Steam Spy data but has only released sporadic and incomplete summaries of the Steam marketplace in the years since.

“Valve’s decision to stay private means that it avoids the public company disclosure and reporting requirements, but it does not immunize the company from [legal] discovery,” Hixson continued. “The protective orders in these actions allow Valve to designate its documents confidential or highly confidential to address competitive concerns, and that protection is sufficient.”

Valve will have 30 days to provide the requested data to Apple.

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