As a leading social media company, it seemed like Meta would be in the best position to create a rich social experience on its XR headsets. But after almost a decade of building XR platforms, interacting with friends on Meta’s headsets is still a highly fragmented affair. With Vision Pro, Apple is taking a different approach—making apps social right out of the box.

Meta’s Social Strategy in a Nutshell

Horizon Worlds is the manifestation of Meta’s social XR strategy. A space where you and your friends can go to build or play novel virtual games and experiences. It’s the very beginnings of the company’s ‘metaverse’ concept: an unlimited virtual space where people can share new experiences and maybe make some new virtual friends along the way.

But if you step out of Horizon, the rest of the social experience on the Quest platform quite fragmented.

The most basic form of ‘social’ is just hanging out with people you already know, doing things you already know you like to do—like watching a movie, playing a board game, or listening to music. But doing any of that on Meta’s headsets means jumping through a fragmented landscape of different apps and different ways to actually get into the same space with your friends.

On Quest, some apps use their own invite system and some use Meta’s invite system (when it works, anyway). Some apps use your Meta avatar and some use their own. As far as the interfaces and how you get in the same place with your friends, it’s different from app to app to app. Some even have separate accounts and friends lists.

And let’s not forget, many apps on Quest aren’t social in the first place. You might have made an awesome piece of 3D art but have no way to show your friends except to figure out how to take a screenshot and get it off of your headset to send to their phone. Or you might want to watch a movie release, but you can only do it by yourself. Or maybe you want to sit back and listen to a new album…maybe you can dig through the Quest store to find an app that allows a shared browser experience so you can listen through YouTube with someone else?

Apple’s Approach to Social on Vision Pro

Image courtesy Apple

Apple is taking a fundamentally different approach with Vision Pro by making social the expectation rather than the exception, and providing a common set of tools and guidelines for developers to build from in order to make social feel cohesive across the platform. Apple’s vision isn’t about creating a server full of a virtual strangers and user-generated experiences, but to make it easy to share the stuff you already like to do with the people you already know.

This obviously leans into the company’s rich ecosystem of existing apps—and the social technologies the company has already battle-tested on its platforms.

SharePlay is the feature that’s already present on iOS and MacOS devices that lets people watch, listen, and experience apps together through FaceTime. And on Vision Pro, Apple intends to use its SharePlay tech to make many of its own first-party apps—like Apple TV, Apple Music, and Photos—social right out of the box, and it expects developers to do so too. In the company’s developer documentation, the company says it expects “most visionOS apps to support SharePlay.”

Image courtesy Apple

At WWDC earlier this year, Apple talked about how it’s expanding SharePlay to take social to a whole new dimension on Vision Pro.

For one, SharePlay apps will support ‘Spatial Personas’ on Vision Pro (that’s what Apple calls its avatars which are generated from a scan of your face). That means SharePlay apps on the platform will share a common look for participants. Apple is also providing several pre-configured room layouts that are designed for specific content, so developers don’t need to think about where to place users and how to manage their movement (and to finally put an end to apps spawning people inside of each other).

For instance, if a developer is building a movie-watching app, one of the templates puts all users side-by-side in front of a screen. But for a more interactive app where everyone is expected to actively collaborate there’s a template that puts users in a circle around a central point. Another template is based on presenting content to others, with some users close to the screen and others further away in a viewing position.

Image courtesy Apple

With SharePlay, Apple also provides the behind-the-scenes piping to keep apps synchronized between users, and it says the data shared between participants is “low-latency” and end-to-end encrypted. That means you can have fun with your friends and not be worried about anyone listening in.

People You Already Know, Things You Already Do

Perhaps most importantly, Apple is leaning on every user’s existing personal friend graph (ie: the people you already text, call, or email), rather than trying to create a bespoke friends list that lives only inside Vision Pro.

Rather than launching an app and then figuring out how to get your friends into it, with SharePlay Apple is focused on getting together with your friends first, then letting the group seamlessly move from one app to the next as you decide what you want to do.

Starting a group is as easy as making a FaceTime call to a friend whose number you already know. Then you’re already chatting virtually face-to-face before deciding what you want to do. In the mood for a movie? Launch Apple TV and fire up whatever you want to watch—your friend is still right there next to you. Now the movie is over; want to listen to some music while you discuss the plot? Fire up Spotify and put on the movie’s soundtrack to set the scene.

Social by Default

Even apps that don’t explicitly have multi-user experience built-in can be ‘social’ by default, by allowing one user to screen-share the app with others. Only the host will be able to interact with the content, but everyone else will be able to see and talk about it in real-time.

Image courtesy Apple

It’s the emphasis on ‘social by default’, ‘things you already do’, and ‘people you already know’ that will make social on Vision Pro feel completely different than what Meta is building on Quest with Horizon Worlds and its ecosystem of fragmented social apps.

Familiar Ideas

Ironically, Meta experimented with this very style of social XR years ago, and it was actually pretty good. Facebook Spaces was an early social XR effort which leveraged your existing friends on Facebook, and was focused on bringing people together in a template-style layout around their own photo and video content. You could even do a Messenger Video Chat with people outside of VR to make them part of the experience.

Image courtesy Facebook

Facebook Spaces was a eerily similar microcosm of what Apple is now doing across the Vision Pro platform. But as with many things on Quest, Meta didn’t have the follow-through to get Spaces from ‘good’ to ‘great’, nor the internal will to set a platform-wide expectation about how social should work on its headsets. The company shut down Spaces in 2019, but even at the time we thought there was much to learn from the effort.

Will Apple Succeed Where Meta Faltered?

Quest 3 (left) and Apple Vision Pro (right) | Based on images courtesy Meta, Apple

Making basic flat apps social out of the box on Vision Pro will definitely make it easier for people to connect on the headset and ensure they can already do familiar things with friends. But certainly on Meta’s headsets the vast majority of ‘social’ is in discrete multiplayer gaming experiences.

And for that, it has to be pointed out that there’s big limitations to SharePlay’s capabilities on Vision Pro. While it looks like it will be great for doing ‘things you already do’ with ‘people you already know’, as a framework it certainly doesn’t comport to many of the multiplayer gaming experiences that people are doing on headsets today.

For one, SharePlay experiences on Vision Pro only support up to five people (probably due to the performance implications of rendering too many Spatial Personas).

Second, SharePlay templates seem like they’ll only support limited person-to-person interaction. Apple’s documentation is a little bit vague, but the company notes: “although the system can place Spatial Personas shoulder to shoulder and it supports shared gestures like a handshake or ‘high five,’ Spatial Personas remain apart.” That makes it sound like users won’t be able to have free-form navigation or do things like pass objects directly between each other.

And when it comes to fully immersive social experiences (ie: Rec Room) SharePlay probably isn’t the right call anyway. Many social VR experiences (like games) will want to be able to render different avatars that fit the aesthetic of the experience, and certainly more than five at once. They’ll also want more control over networking and how users can move and interact with each other. At that point, building on SharePlay might not make much sense, but we hope it can still be used to help with initial group formation and joining other immersive apps together.

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • Nevets

    This and the UX.

    How does Meta get the software basics so wrong?

    • polysix

      Maybe because they are too busy trying not to charge £3.5k for a HMD without any controllers, no PC connectivity and a dangling battery? LMAO.. vision is ass

  • Dragon Marble

    Things you already do, people you already know, devices you already have: your phone. Apple’s emphasis on not breaking existing stuff is both a blessing and a curse.

  • MayorSnow

    This is a major L take. The quest platform is literally engineered around having social experiences. You don’t have to like meta horizons (frankly, it was a flop), but there’s so many other ways to connect within this VR platform such as golfing and watching movies. I’ve connected with tons of people in VR. I’m excited for the Apple VP as well, but $7k to watch a movie with a friend is a bit absurd.

    • Arno van Wingerde

      This is not about the AVPs selling price, which is outside the range of normal consumables and therefore in its current form not a mainstream device. It is about the absolutely clueless mess Meta is making of its software and shows what Apple intends to do. The Apple Vision Pro is the Lisa of Apples VR efforts. The Apple Lisa, which many people do not know, was too expensive and failed, so Apple switched to a more affordable model called the Macintosh – people probably have heart of the one.
      The Vision pro was never meant as a consumer device, but the non-pro, but still expensive model will be going against the Quest4/5 which may well have similar specs by then, but needs a decent software base.

  • shadow9d9

    This is from a website that blames Meta because their friends don’t charge their website, know how to click on a game name to install it, or to play tutorials before their friends show up for multiplayer.

    • ViRGiN

      You forgot to mention even bigger sign, it’s not high-end until it costs $800+

      • Ben Lang

        High-end just means expensive. What’s your definition?

        • ViRGiN

          Wow. Does it really need explaining?
          If it means expensive then why not call it highly priced? Or priced above $800?
          Expensive is very individual.

          Via GPT which kinda nails it:
          When referring to VR headsets, the term “high-end” typically denotes devices that offer the most advanced and cutting-edge technology in the field of virtual reality. These headsets are characterized by their superior build quality, powerful hardware specifications, and advanced features, which collectively contribute to a more immersive and realistic VR experience.

  • Muxik

    Stop brown-nosing Apple

    Spatial Computing or apps social using Apple Vison Pro is not going to happen this century.

  • ZarathustraDK

    So many resources spent on trying to shoehorn people into a particular vision or ecosystem.

    Just make a damn Metaverse Foundation already and hammer out some open source specs everyone can agree on instead of this disparate island bs where sliced bread is invented 20 times over in slightly different proprietary flavors. What they’re inventing is not the metaverse, it’s fracking Streetview for company X’s app-catalogue.

  • Lucio Pascarelli

    Fanboy article.

    “With SharePlay, Apple also provides the behind-the-scenes piping to keep apps synchronized between users, …”

    The hard part is doing it in 3D, giving users a seamless sense of presence. All Apple is talking about is just 2D-apps pasted on flat surfaces.

    It is hard for Meta, and it will be even harder for Apple who does not have a history of reliable cloud services. But even with the simple Horizon’s Worlds, Meta has had a playground to explore and develop the real behind-the-scenes “3D piping”, something Apple still has to do.

    If I were a Fanboi at this moment I would shut up and pray Cook&Co have in them what Steve had…

    • Ben Lang

      The entire last part of the article talks about limitations, including SharePlay on Vision Pro probably not being a good fit for immersive gaming.

  • Duane Aakre

    One of my biggest disappointments with Meta is . . . well . . . I have a $40 Amazon 4K firestick stuck in the back of my TV. I turn it on and up pops the list of all the streaming apps I pay for. I select whichever app I want and up comes a list of TV shows and movies and I pick what I feel like watching, and it just starts playing in the highest resolution I pay for.

    Why doesn’t the Meta software have this same functionality? I mean the firestick probably only has a tiny fraction of the compute power of any Meta headset. There needs to be an icon which brings up all the streaming apps you pay for and lets you quickly start streaming a show or movie to your headset.

    Since the sounds like upcoming Quest 3 Lite isn’t going to come with controllers by default, it seems like streaming video will be one of the main uses like with the Oculus Go. But without a simple easy UI to access all your streaming resources, it will be annoying for the average user that headset is probably targeting.

    And you know any Apple headset will have this functionality bake-in.

    • sfmike

      And the really annoying and disappointing “feature” we have on our Meta headsets are apps like the Prime Video VR that hasn’t worked right for over a year but is still in the store. Two billion dollar companies can’t spare the resources or tech people to fix this ongoing much reported problem. This is why Meta gets a bad reputation. Also they let Hulu go so we can’t use it. Where is Movies Anywhere that should be supported? I’m sure Apple will do a better job at being up to date as the lazy people at Meta can’t be bothered.

  • Thank you so much for writing this down, since it really needed to be talked more about how the 2 companies think their virtual spaces from the software side of things. No question that Apple knows the ins and outs of great UX and tops it off with their ecosystem.
    I‘m eager to know how Samsung/Google will respond to that. More than Meta anyways. Because they just wont get their stuff together and are very much stil experimenting.

  • Chris Meeks

    All of this will be moot when they finally make glassless 3D screens more affordable. Especially the curved models. No one wants to wear an uncomfortable headset for hours at a time to work on floating screens. They want the Minority Repot version of this.

    • wheeler

      I doubt people will want the minority report version of it either (for work/productivity on floating screens). Using your hands out in front of you like that is slow, imprecise (and not due to inaccurate tracking), and too energy intensive. For work on screens, I suspect it’ll be mouse and keyboard, and maybe eyetracking integration in certain scenarios.

  • Chris

    so what if the Vision Pro has better social experiences when most people can’t afford it anyway, that kind of savagely limits the social boundaries from the getgo

  • Facebook Spaces was killed because no one was using it

    • Ben Lang

      Meta’s problem in XR seems to be that when people don’t use things, they assume those things have zero value. They wind up losing a lot of institutional knowledge this way, which causes them to repeat mistakes and waste time reinventing the wheel on a regular basis.

      Facebook Spaces didn’t thrive, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of smart design in the app that could be carried elsewhere: https://www.roadtovr.com/facebook-spaces-shut-down-lessons-not-forgotten/

  • The Werewolf

    By ‘ the Social’ you seem to mean ‘all my friends who can afford, or would be willing to shell out for a $3500 AR headset’… which last time I checked was zero, including myself and I can afford it. M<any of them can't.

    Meanwhile, I hang out with literally 30 to 40 of them on VRChat right now… so maybe the problem is your idea of what 'right now' looks like.

    Vision Pro is a solution in search of a problem that will sell to a bunch of Apple faithful so they sit on couches watching movies and use the iPhone.

    Pass.

    • Ben Lang

      That’s fair, certainly can’t be social if it’s not affordable.

      Unfortunately they have ecosystem lock-in too which creates an additional barrier.

      Both of these need to be solved for ideal social XR.