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Meta has another go at selling the metaverse

The company formerly known as Facebook now makes its annual developer conference almost entirely about plugging the concept of the metaverse.

You have to admire how all-in the company is on this nascent technological paradigm, for which significant demand remains decidedly unproven. Having made that move, however, we’re not the only observers to detect a degree of desperation with which CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team continually insist how huge the metaverse is set to be.

The opening keynote (see full recording below) at Meta Connect 2022 of course featured Zuck, doing his best to appear less wooden than he historically has, but nonetheless delivering a classic corporate monologue. He then introduced his CTO, who listed a few data points designed to show the extraordinary progress being made by Meta’s VR platform, as represented by its Oculus brand. Zuck concluded that segment by referring to VR as ‘the next computing platform’.

Assuming the current computing platform is… computers, it’s hard to make meaningful like-for-like comparisons. For the foreseeable future VR will be a fully immersive platform that precludes participation in actual reality. Unless you’re in a specially adapted environment, your movement while using VR gear is restricted to a few gestures while standing still. Meanwhile a distinct advantage of laptops and smartphones is that you largely retain your awareness of the world around you while using them.

So the future of virtual reality presumably looks more like augmented reality, in which devices superimpose digital artefacts on the real world and you can still leave the house with a degree of confidence that you won’t walk into lamp posts or stumble into the road. Any attempt to hype up VR in its current form, therefore, feels disingenuous and premature.

The video keynote went on to detail some VR use-cases such as socialising, gaming, fitness, and productivity, all of which were designed to set the scene for the big reveal. “Virtual reality isn’t some obsure hobby anymore,” was Zuck’s somewhat defensive opening, before adding “but for virtual reality to really reach its full potential, we need to get to the point where the 200 million people who buy new PCs each year for work can do some or all of their work even better in the metaverse.”

That point seems very distant right now, but Zuck reckons he knows the way forward, the first step of which is the new Meta Quest Pro VR headset, as introduced in the video below. There followed a bunch of the kinds of tech specs you would expect of a new piece of hardware, including the presence of a Qualcomm chip specially designed for this sort of thing. There were a few productivity use-cases shared, none of which came close to being ‘killer apps’.

Zuck eventually conceded the point we made earlier; that the metaverse will likely only become a viable mass market proposition once AR is done well. There was talk of the kind of spy glasses Snap dabbled with a few years ago, but soon came the concession that a lot of the tech required to enable this digital utopia is still at an early stage.

Meta should be commended for resisting the urge to try to gaslight the market into thinking the metaverse is an imminently viable concept. At the same time, having bet the future of the company on it, time pressure will continue to grow. The desperation we sense in announcements such as these is probably born of a plea for patience from investors and the market. To earn that, Meta needs to demonstrate significant progress towards the prize every year, of which new VR headsets will soon be insufficient.

 

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