Just under a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company he founded as a Harvard student would change its name to Meta. “From now on, we’re going to be Metaverse first, not Facebook first,” he said during a virtual keynote at the company’s Connect event.
Zuckerberg has spent the year hyping everything Metaverse. He’s shown dystopian VR offices, viewed images of space in VR with Neil deGrasse Tyson, and convinced more than one pro athlete to play VR games with him. He went to Joe Rogan’s podcast to extol the virtues of mixed martial arts and virtual reality. Rogan even got an early demo of Meta’s new high-end VR headset, which is expected to launch during Connect.
But the Metaverse has also proven to be a huge money pit. In the last year alone, the company has lost billions of dollars to its Metaverse ambitions, and the trend is unlikely to reverse anytime soon. The company, which announced last year that it would hire 10,000 people in Europe just to build its metaverse, is now cutting staff and reorganizing teams.
The stakes appear to be even higher at this year’s Connect, which begins tomorrow at 10 a.m. PT with a keynote address from Zuckerberg. And we still have many questions about what it really means to be a “metaverse company.”
It’s perhaps the most obvious problem, but in nearly a year since Zuckerberg first attempted to articulate what a metaverse is, it’s still not very clear. Last year, Zuckerberg described it as “an embodied Internet that you’re experiencing, not just looking at.” The company’s website currently states that the Metaverse is “the next evolution in social connection and the successor to the mobile internet”.
But what those words mean to most people is fuzzy at best. “Except for early adopters and tech-savvy people, there’s still some confusion about what the Metaverse is and what we’re going to do with it,” said Carolina Milanesi, consumer analyst at Creative Strategies.
That means Zuckerberg not only has to provide an understandable definition, but also an idea of what this will mean for the billions of people already on his platform. What us to…
Can it ever look cool?
This doesn’t seem like the most important issue facing Zuckerberg’s vision of a mobile-replacing metaverse, but it’s one that could go a long way in building the hype he so desperately craves. Because right now, Metaverse looks… kind of crappy.
This was never more evident than when Zuckerberg very seriously shared a Horizon Worlds shot of his avatar in front of a VR Eiffel Tower and the Sagrada Familia that could liberally be described as shallow and amateurish. He quickly added a new avatar and promised that Connect would bring better graphics to Horizon Worlds.
But Meta will need to do more than just show graphics that look like they were made in this millennium. Ideally, it would feature a Metaverse experience that actually looks cool. Or at least one that might appeal to people who are already spending time in Roblox or Fourteen days or other Metaverse-adjacent spaces.
Milanesi adds that it would help show Metaverse experiences beyond just meeting or hanging out with strangers in VR. “I think there are other use cases either on the education side or on the entertainment side that could be a little more interesting,” she says.
However, early indications are that we shouldn’t expect drastic improvements for Horizon Worlds. According to a recent report by The edge, The app is so buggy that the company is struggling to get its own employees to use it consistently.
How are creators and third parties brought on board?
But that raises another problem: for all of Zuckerberg’s talk about interoperability and transforming the metaverse into an open ecosystem, Meta has shown little progress when it comes to involving outside developers or other companies in its vision in any meaningful way.
They’ve also already pissed off many developers and potential early adopters with a 48 percent commission on sales of virtual items in Horizon Worlds. For a company that’s made Apple’s “app store tax” a key talking point and made investing in developers one of its top priorities, it’s no surprise that high revenue feels like a slap in the face for developers.
How will she deal with harassment, misinformation and other harm?
Given Meta’s track record of dealing with unintended damages, the company has said surprisingly little about how it plans to address these issues in the Metaverse. The company has given a superficial nod to trust and security in the metaverse – meta policy chief Nick Clegg has spoken about defining standards for the metaverse – but so far the company seems to be borrowing from the same playbook it always uses.
Already this is more than a theoretical problem. Meta added a “Personal Boundary” feature in February, billed as a way for people to protect their personal space in VR. But this update came after reports of groping around the Metaverse had already gone viral. While this update may address one form of harassment, others have noted that it could also encourage other disruptive behaviors, such as circling users in an attempt to virtually “ally” with them.
It also shows that Meta is still largely reactive when it comes to security issues: developing new features and quick fixes in response to a cycle of bad news, rather than launching them already.
What about AR and non-headset enabled experiences?
We expect Zuckerberg will be talking a lot about virtual reality — the company is launching its latest headset at Connect — but it’s a lot less clear how augmented reality fits into the company’s current plans. Meta has teased AR glasses, but those are likely at least two years away.
And without glasses, much of Meta’s work on AR is limited to in-app effects for Instagram and Facebook, which are popular but definitely not part of any kind of Metaverse. And it’s still not at all clear that Meta has any plan to integrate its existing social platforms with the Metaverse. In a recent interview with protocolZuckerberg hinted that the company was considering it, but refrained from offering any idea of how it might work.
“For Horizon, there’s quite value in making it where you can create a world and share it on Facebook or Instagram, and people can just jump in from there — that’s going to be pretty valuable,” he said. But, he added, “We have to be careful that we don’t make it primarily a mobile experience.” The reason, he said, is that he wants the metaverse to be on the move New Platforms and technologies, not simply an extension of the existing mobile products. But the fact is that the market for VR headsets is still small compared to the number of Facebook and Instagram users.
And if he wants more of them on board, they should be able to experience the metaverse in some form using the devices they already own.
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