UPDATE Sept. 28th, 2023: If you’re looking for a good, concise summary of the Meta Connect 2023 event, TechCrunch has you covered.
The Meta Connect 2023 virtual event will start on September 27th, 2023 (today) at 10:00 a.m. PST / noon CST / 1:00 p.m. EST / 5:00 p.m. BST. Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook) will stream the event live on its website. You can also watch the stream on YouTube, Twitch, and via the official Meta page on Facebook. The event will start with a keynote by Meta’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who is expected to officially launch the Meta Quest 3 headset, talk about its features, and give an update on where the company is planning to go with its virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, and extended reality (VR/AR/MR/XR) initiatives over the next few years.
As the BBC reported yesterday, Meta is facing growing skepticism about its metaverse plans and their impact on the company’s bottom line:
Remember the metaverse?
For a while it dominated tech news. A virtual reality world that would be so immersive, so engaging, that we would want to spend part of our lives in it.
Driving the metaverse narrative was Mark Zuckerberg.
The tech billionaire was so committed that in October 2021 he changed Facebook’s name to Meta…
No one could accuse him of a lack of ambition.
But almost two years on, Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse is in trouble.
In April, he was forced to deny that he is now jettisoning the idea.
“A narrative has developed that we’re somehow moving away from focusing on the metaverse,” he told investors in April. “So I just want to say upfront that that’s not accurate.”
On Wednesday, the company holds its annual VR event called Meta Connect.
It’s a chance, perhaps, for Zuckerberg to again explain his reasoning for taking an extremely profitable social media company and diverting its focus to an extremely unprofitable VR venture.
How unprofitable? Well, the most recent figures from Meta are eye-watering.
Reality Labs – which as the name suggests is Meta’s virtual and augmented reality branch – has lost a staggering $21 billion since last year.
Part of the losses reflect long-term investment. Meta wasn’t expecting short-term returns. But the worrying fact for the company is that, so far, there is very little evidence that this enormous punt will work.
I fully expect an announcement that Horizon Worlds, Meta’s social VR platform, will be rolling out to non-VR/flatscreen web and mobile users. Using a Meta Quest 2 test unit purchased for the virtual reality lab project I am involved with at the University of Manitoba, I have paid several short visits to Horizon Worlds, and I am, to put it politely, not a fan. Horizon Worlds is something even worse than boring—it’s soulless. It looks and feels like it was put together by a bureaucratic committee of engineers that was given a task to do, in order to report back to the executives that they did something, but the builders had no real understanding, appreciation, or love of what social VR is and can be. To be frank, I don’t believe that expanding Horizon Worlds access to web and mobile users is gonna bring a hell of a lot more users to the platform. In my opinion, it’s a dog that needs to be taken out back and shot, to be put out of its misery. 🐕
I also briefly tried out Horizon Worlds’ corporate cousin, Horizon Workrooms, and as I have said before on this blog, I find it very hard to believe that any company would actually use this product for a real-world business purpose. In fact, Meta has commanded its employees to “fall in love with Horizon Worlds,” a sign that even their own staff don’t want to use it. (Ironically, Meta is among the many tech firms now requiring its employees to actually show up in their offices 3 days a week, or face termination. I’m quite sure that that strict little edict from HR is really, really gonna encourage more Meta employee uptake of Horizon Workrooms!) I expect some more announcements of integrations with products like Microsoft Office and Zoom, but I’m not expecting anything that is going to make corporate bean-counters sit up and say, “hey, we gotta buy a fleet of headsets, immediately!”
Like many of you, I will be watching the Meta Connect 2023 event live, and I will be updating this blogpost with news as it happens. Stay tuned!
UPDATE 9:28 p.m.: I forgot to mention that somebody—probably Mark himself—is going to proudly announce that the avatars in Horizon Worlds and Horizon Workrooms now have legs. Yawn.
Mark Zuckerberg: Hey, look! Our avatars have legs!
Second Life: Isn’t that just adorable. Meanwhile, our avatars can look like this…:
Second Life: …and your avatars look like this:
(And yes, I know, comparing a social VR platform like Horizon Worlds to a flatscreen virtual world like Second Life, which also has a 20-year head start, is not fair. But honestly, Meta’s avatars have a long, long way to go, in my opinion. Obligatory editorial.)
UPDATE 11:28 a.m.: I’m signed in to a livestream from one of the virtual reality YouTubers I follow, Virtual Reality Oasis, which apparently is starting half an hour before the actual Meta Connect event with a bit of a pre-show, perhaps. I will probably stay on this channel, for the additional commentary by this YouTuber (there’s also a very active comment stream to follow), but I might switch to another source later on. I will be making full use of two monitors here at work on my desktop PC—one for watching the livestream, and the second for blogging on the fly!
UPDATE 11:40 a.m.: Mike’s Virtual Reality Oasis livestream has started; apparently, he is located in a “side office” near backstage or behind the scenes at the Menlo Park auditorium, where the Meta Connect event is taking place (I think I got that part right!). He and another VR expert (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch) will be providing some colour commentary and even taking questions from the over 3,700 livestream viewers. (Unfortunately, this livestream video was marked private after the event, so I cannot link to it.)
UPDATE noon: Meta has just announced a 30-minute delay to the start of the event, which is rather disappointing. Apparently, instead of an indoor stage, this event will be taking place on an outdoor stage in Menlo Park. I will be able to view and post blog updates until around 2:00 p.m. my time (Central Standard Time), so I am only going to be able to comment on the first hour-and-a-half of Meta Connect.
UPDATE 12:18 p.m.: I’ve switched to a different livestream, this one by IGN, with almost 7,000 people watching. Virtual Reality Oasis was reporting problems with both video and audio from the Meta Connect livestream, so I’ll be switching back and forth. (I could also watch it via Facebook, but I’ll be damned if I have to set up a Facebook account just to do that! Back in 2018, I kicked Facebook to the curb, and I have zero intention of returning to its surveillance-capitalism embrace, with the sole exception of a Meta account I set up for the test unit Meta Quest 2 headset I got.)
UPDATE 12:31 p.m.: The show has finally started!
Mark starts off with the usual piffle about “the power of human connection”. 🙄 He’s talking about being in a room with a mixture of real-life humans and holographic humans and embodied AI tools. Mixed reality, smart glasses, and AI are key to what Mark calls the metaverse.
Mark introduces the Quest 3, which he calls “the first mainstream mixed-reality headset” to applause from the crowd, followed by a brief presentation of various examples of this mixed reality in a number of games and apps. Xbox cloud gaming is coming to the Quest later this year.
Augments are persistent, spatially-anchored digital objects (like digital portals and photo albums you can hang on your walls). You can double-tap on your headset to return instantly to the real world.
Now he’s talking about content, including new titles. Meta Quest 3 has twice the graphics performance of any previous headset and is 40% thinner than the Quest 2. Roblox is launching for the Quest, which is going to bring a lot of younger users to the headset!
Mark teased new Horizon content, saying that the visuals are improving. He also talked about tools for business, citing productivity and work apps. Coming soon is something called Meta Quest for Business, with integrations with apps like Office 365 (something that was previously promised). Lack of details is very frustrating!
Meta Quest 3 is shipping October 10th for US$499 (Mark slipped up and said “August 10th” LOL!).
UPDATE 12:47 p.m.: Now the talk switches to artificial intelligence, which is hardly surprising since that is where all the hype went after the previous metaverse hype cycle (which included Mark renaming his company from Facebook to Meta!). A new tool, called Emu (Expressive Media Universe) is an image-generation tool similar to DALL-E 2. You will be able to use AI chat to create stickers (wow, groundbreaking!🙄). AI editing tools will be added to Instagram next month, with a cute demo of Mark applying various textures to his dog, Beast.
(Right now Mark is just spouting AI word salad, and my eyes are rolling so hard they disappeared into my skull.)
Meta AI: your basic assistant you can talk to like a person, help you answer basic questions and requests. Based on Llama 2 large language model, through a partnership with Microsoft and Bing search. Emu: is built into Meta AI with the “/imagine” prompt built into various apps.
Max the sous-chef AI who will help you come up with a recipe, etc. Lily, the personal editor AI that can help you brainstorm and improve your writing. Lorena the travel expert AI to recommend a good national park to take the kids to. These are three of the many different types of AI chatbots Meta is dreaming up to answer queries and entertain you. Meta actually appears to have hired actors and celebrities to play these roles! (Honestly, this is kinda creeping me out.)
Oh, sweet minty Jesus, Snoop Dogg has been cast as your Dungeons & Dragons dungeonmaster. Nope, I’m out…NOBODY WANTS THIS, MARK. I never want to see that cursed image again!!! Who the fuck thought this was a great idea? Mark brought his keynote to a screeching halt as he fumbled with his cellphone to “chat” with Snoop Dogg (who I’m sure is being paid a pretty penny to give up his likeness for this ridiculous idea).
Among the many other “experts” who signed on to be the face of a Meta AI chatbot is Paris Hilton, who role-plays your “detective” (I kid you not):
Dear God, and there are plans to insert these and other AI chatbot avatars into Meta’s version of the metaverse. (I personally would pay good money to avoid any metaverse that has Snoop Dogg and Paris Hilton in it, kthxbai!) And this is not the first time Paris Hilton has tried to imprint herself upon a metaverse: click here to read all about the MATERIA.ONE/Staramba Spaces metaverse debacle, which offered Paris-Hilton-themed NFT metaverse parcels. (Hulk Hogan was another celebrity involved in that particular mess, too.)
Here comes the part where Mark pays lip service to safety and security, since there are some serious user privacy concerns associated with all this new, AI-powered tech (something which Meta has notably been egregious about in the past). “I’m really optimistic about this,” says Mark, and once again, my eyes rolled so far back I was staring at my brain. Yeah, sure, Mark, I really want to have my every conversation with Detective Paris Hilton strip-mined as yet another opportunity to provide data to sell to advertisers for the next Cambridge Analytica scandal. 🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄 As a commenter stated on the r/technews subreddit (source):
Does anyone else think AI chatbots are just another way to harvest data about people by engaging them in conversation?
Now Mark turns to the next generation of Ray-Ban smart glasses, which I must confess look a lot like regular glasses with slightly thicker arms. These new glasses will include Meta AI, so you can bring Snoop Dogg or Paris Hilton wherever you go (shudder). Next year, a software update will make these glasses multi-modal, so you can read signs in foreign languages, for example, which sounds kinda cool.
A brief video was shown where you will be able to livestream what you see from your own glasses to others, using as an example a racecar driver who is presenting what he sees to other viewers watching on their cellphones. These new glasses are available starting Oct. 17th for US$299.
UPDATE 1:16 p.m.: Mark has wrapped up his keynote, and is passing the torch to Meta’s Chief Technology Officer, Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, who in previous years has not shied away from speaking his mind and even criticizing what he sees as some missteps the company has made. He’s talking about the ability to double-tap on the side of your Meta Quest 3 to switch seamlessly between mixed-reality and pass-through of the real world.
You will no longer have to manually set up your play boundary in the Meta Quest 3, which will automatically map the room you are in, and the objects that are in that room, when you put the headset on:
(There are some livestream skips happening now, so I might miss something.)
Okay, I am taking a break, but if I have time later on today, I will add more.
UPDATE 2:02 p.m.: Here’s an article from Variety on the new line of Meta AI chatbots, which apparently also includes Kendall Jenner/Kardashian roleplaying as your “big sis” (gag). Here’s a quote from that article:
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in unveiling the new AI chatbots, said the company wanted to create AIs that have distinct personalities, opinions and interests. “This isn’t just gonna be about answering queries,” he said. “This is about entertainment and about helping you do things to connect with the people around you.”
For now, the celebrity chatbots respond in text — their avatars don’t actually speak their responses. Zuckerberg said voice for the AIs will come probably early next year.
UPDATE 5:44 p.m.: Wow, I thought I had been sarcastic in my remarks about these AI chatbots, but the people over at the celebrity subreddit r/Fauxmoi, are savage! Here’s just a sample of their comments (source):
Ah yes, all the people you’d regret starting a conversation with.
Lmao I hate this.
Also: “Kendall Jenner as Billie, no-BS, ride-or-die companion” 😂 So funny, coming from someone with even less personality than a robot.
It’s giving Black Mirror.
Sounds horrifying. Hopefully it flops hard enough to discourage more companies from doing shit like this.
What the hell is this? Like what is it supposed to be/do? Paris Hilton is ‘Amber’ who is your detective friend to help you solve whodunnits. So they’ve taken real people and turned them into avatars but then also they aren’t really THAT person, they’re someone else brand new who has a completely different personality? What’s even the point?
Please can someone explain??
Meta is embarrassingly out of touch with the world, in a very “hello, fellow teenagers!” kind of way…
So, as you can clearly see, I’m not the only one who thinks this is just weird. I’m left wondering how much of that $21 billion Meta Reality Labs spent this past year went to pay for all these celebrities to agree to be the faces of their chatbots. And I wonder how they’re going to feel when (as is almost inevitable) their chatbot starts to act up and spit out unacceptable or incorrect responses to user questions? What will Paris Hilton do when the chatbot who wears her face goes rogue? I’m quite sure she did not think through all the potential implications of signing away her likeness on the contract Meta dangled in front of her! It really is very Black Mirror.
UPDATE Sept. 28th, 2023 2:54 p.m.: I have gotten busy with my full-time paying job as a university librarian, so I haven’t had much of a chance to watch the rest of yesterday’s virtual event. Once I do, I expect that I will have more to comment on!