Last year, I avidly watched Mark Zuckerberg and other senior Facebook executives at the Facebook Connect 2021 event, as they proudly announced that the company would be rebranding as Meta, and pivoting to go all-in on the metaverse.
This year, I was too busy with my full-time job as a university librarian to watch the Meta Connect 2022 keynotes live, so instead, I read through the tech news media’s coverage of the event. And, to say the least, that coverage was mixed in its assessment of Meta’s new high-end wireless VR headset, the Meta Quest Pro.
Tony Vitillo (a.k.a. SkarredGhost), an Italian man whose blog, The Ghost Howls, covers the VR/AR/MR/XR industry and the metaverse, wrote:
Let’s be honest: Meta Connect was utterly disappointing.
- The hardware to be launched at the event had already been totally leaked
- We had no unexpected major VR game announced, nor news on GTA or Assassin’s Creed VR
- Most pieces of news were already been announced or were not that relevant. Some of them, like the new avatars, were much worse than expected
It was a very lightweight talk about XR, social, the metaverse, and productivity, with almost no interest in giving important information. For instance, many writings were there for such a short time that I could not even take a screenshot: the price of the Quest Pro was on the screen for like 1 second and then disappeared. Some info was absolutely missing, like the specs of the Quest Pro were not specified during the launch. This was total nonsense.
Devin Coldewey of TechCrunch wrote:
Meta keeps saying VR is the future, but everything it shows us is an inferior rehash of the things we already have. Its event today was, between assurances that everything is great in the Metaverse, a collection of tacit admissions that the best they can hope to do is ape a reality we are all desperately trying to leave behind.
His fellow writer at TechCrunch, Darrell Etherington, had this to say:
At Meta Connect 2022, the company’s annual developer conference for its VR efforts and Oculus hardware platform, the company announced a lot of stuff — but what it communicated more effectively than anything else was just how incredibly thirsty — one might even say desperate — Mark Zuckerberg is for his metaverse bet to pay off.
Yee-OUCH!!! But it wasn’t just the folks TechCrunch who were less than impressed. Sisi Jiang of Kotaku doesn’t think much of the business use case for the new Meta Quest Pro:
Meta just showed off its latest headset, the Meta Quest Pro. While it’s got real-time expression tracking and mixed reality, it’s also going to set you back $1,499. So who’s buying this tech that costs roughly the price of three current-gen consoles? The answer is…working professionals. Mark Zuckerberg wants to replace your dreary work computers with VR headsets…
VR headsets can be clunky, sweaty places, and many people get severe motion sickness in them. Nevertheless, Zuckerberg seems confident corporations will pay top dollar to entrap their workers in them. And maybe they will. VR is currently being used to train surgeons, analyze road scenarios for automobile companies, and design architecture. Maybe I wouldn’t hate myself if I had to write blogs while wearing a plastic headset. Ugh, okay. I can’t do this anymore. I would absolutely hate it. Corporate would have to take my MacBook from my cold dead hands.
Over at The Verge, Adi Robertson details one major drawback of the Quest Pro headset in a detailed, relatively even-handed review:
All these advantages come with one big cost: the Meta Quest Pro’s battery life sounds very bad. I was told the headset would last between one and two hours on a single charge, then take around two hours to recharge, either on the dock or with a cable. (My demo was held at a series of separate stations with multiple Quest Pros, so I didn’t experience the limits firsthand.) That’s a little more than half the time you’d get with a Quest 2, which lasts two to three hours. The back-mounted battery isn’t easily removable like the Vive Focus 3’s, so you can’t just swap it out and keep going.
This narrows the Quest Pro’s flexibility as an enterprise device. HTC, Magic Leap, and other enterprise companies tend to emphasize how long their products will last — offering either comparatively long-lasting batteries or swappable ones.
Jody Serrrano, in a snarkily-titled article for Gizmodo titled Oh Boy, Soon You Can Use Excel in Virtual Reality, had this to say:
I get using Quest for creative and scientific endeavors, such as designing shoes or looking at a virus from all possible angles, but putting on your headset to check your email or make a PowerPoint presentation? Somehow, that just doesn’t sound that exciting.
Jay Peters of The Verge talked about the news that Meta’s social VR platforms will soon add legs to its cartoony half-body avatars, as well as dropping some interesting news that Meta is planning an avatar clothing marketplace:
Avatar legs will be coming first to Meta’s Horizon social VR platform, though it’s unclear exactly when. They’ll be coming to “more and more experiences over time as we improve our technology stack,” Zuckerberg said. During the Connect event, they seemed to move quite naturally, though because it was a prerecorded video, we’re not sure yet how they’ll look in practice.
Meta isn’t just working on legs; it’s planning to add a whole bunch of new avatar-related features. The company is exploring how to make expressive and photorealistic avatars to represent yourself in different situations, for example. You’ll be able to bring avatars to Reels so they can be featured in your videos or to Messenger and WhatsApp for video chats. (They’re coming to Zoom, too.) And Meta is launching an avatar store in VR later this year so you can more easily shop for clothes and specific looks.
But Paul Tasso of Forbes was particularly scathing in his criticism, writing:
When your most significant announcement is the fact that after years and years of investment, you’re on the verge of debuting virtual characters with legs, something has gone wrong.
The entire problem with Mark Zuckerberg’s fascination with the metaverse is that he’s trying to force a sci-fi reality to happen long before the rest of the society wants or needs it to actually exist. His version of an AR/VR-based metaverse remains a niche, not something to focus a trillion dollar company around. And given the trillion dollar company in question, which has spent the last decade rendering Facebook and Instagram close to unusable, this company being trusted with this supposed key part of the future is not something anyone has a lot of faith in.
As they say on RuPaul’s Drag Race, NURSE! Third degree burns over here! (Paul’s not wrong, though.)
But, in addition to the rather underwhelmed response of the major tech news websites, there was something else I noticed. There’s been a shift in attitudes by the general (non-tech) public towards the concept of the metaverse, in the twelve months between Facebook Connect 2021 and Meta Connect 2022. The mood seems to have shifted among some people.
I’m not talking about those people, like me, the early adopters and VR fanatics who have been active and building in various metaverse platforms for years. And I’m not talking about the passionate adherents of the various virtual worlds like Second Life, who were likely around the last time the metaverse was a buzzword. (By the way, The Wall Street Journal’s four-part podcast about Second Life and what it means to today’s metaverse ambitions is one of the best things I’ve listened to in years, and should it be required listening for the employees of any metaverse company seeking to inherit SL’s mantle in the present day—including the beleaguered staff at Meta.)
I am talking about those people who possibly first heard about the metaverse in the splash of publicity which the October 2021 Mark Zuckerberg keynote address at Facebook Connect 2021 ignited. People like the CNBC news correspondent Sam Shepard. Please watch this short news segment where he tries to grasp the concepts; I found it quite illuminating:
In twelve short months, we’ve gone from the general public not really knowing much about the metaverse, to the general public not getting what all this fuss is about, like Sam Shepard.
Even worse, between the ongoing crypto winter and Meta’s many missteps this year, the public is starting to sour on the concept of a metaverse. Most still don’t know a lot about it, but when they see many of the projects to which the term “metaverse” has been attached (like the various now-struggling NFT metaverse projects, and Meta’s attempts to sell Horizon Worlds and Horizon Workrooms), they seem to be developing a distaste for the idea.
I’m sensing a rising tide of antipathy. Many non-technical people, like Sam Shepard, are either scratching their heads, or have already formed a negative opinion. (I’m seeing it arise in places like the cryptosnark community on Reddit, r/Buttcoin, where blockchain metaverse projects like Decentraland are being roundly critiqued, even mocked.)
I predict that the metaverse, at least in the minds of the public, is going to undergo a bit of battering. There’s going to be “a trough of disillusionment” (a term used by Mark Zuckerberg himself in an interview), a period where trying to sell people on the concept is going to be difficult, perhaps even impossible. The tide seems to have turned. Even John Carmack is feeling grumpier than usual.
Many economists are now predicting that 2023 will bring a severe global recession (exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine), and rising inflation sharply affecting the everyday cost of living. People have more important things to worry about—like putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. They likely will have less disposable income to spend on gadgets like a US$1,500 virtual reality headset.
Last Christmas, the Meta Quest 2 was a hot seller. This year, Meta’s Quest Pro, at four times the price and with half the battery life of the Quest 2, will most certainly not be under very many Christmas trees. It’s just not that exciting a product and (at least until there’s a killer app for it), Meta will just keep trying to sell it to businesses and consumers who aren’t yet convinced that virtual reality—and the metaverse—are all that necessary or compelling in the first place.
Brace yourselves: the next few years might be nasty. And I predict that many projects and companies in this space are going to struggle to get attention, attract users, and gain traction. A few firms might decide to repivot (as Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity has already done), to focus on areas where they can make money. Other companies will simply fold.
But those individuals and companies who can tell a story that ignites people’s imaginations, and come up with compelling use cases for virtual reality and the metaverse, might do very well. Savvy marketing and an unshakeable, clearly articulated vision will be key. Who knows, perhaps Mark Zuckerberg’s investments will pay off, in five or ten or twenty years. But it doesn’t look too terribly promising in the short term, does it?