This is worth negative ten billion dollars. I would pay ten billion dollars to never use this again. I wanted to have hope that we could do this, and it would be fun, but I mean, you guys agree that this one of the most buggy software experiences, ever.
—Alex Heath, The Verge (transcribed audio excerpt from the video below)
I’m still percolating, alas, but I did want to share with my readers a couple of YouTube videos which caught my attention.
The first, a 15-minute editorial video by The Verge‘s Adi Robertson, discusses Meta’s new Quest Pro VR headset and its Horizon Worlds and Horizon Workrooms social VR experiences. She and her colleagues did not hold back in their criticisms of both, particularly the Horizon platforms (the quote at the top of this blogpost comes from another writer for The Verge, as a group was kicking the tires on Horizon Workrooms).
The Verge staff make it very clear that they are less than impressed with what is on offer from Meta, and that they do not believe that remote workteams will be using either the Quest Pro or Horizon Workrooms, over a Zoom call.
The popular virtual reality YouTuber ThrillSeeker goes even further in the following 15-minute video, which has already racked up over 400,000 views:
In it, he takes Mark Zuckerberg and his team at Meta to task for dropping the ball with their virtual reality hardware and software strategy to date:
How in the hell did it go so wrong that Meta and Horizon have become the laughingstock of hundreds of videos and publications, and that Quests, for the most part, are just sitting on shelves collecting dust?
Meta, I understand that you are a massive corporation…and that running a business like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Oculus is probably incredibly difficult.
But you have somehow managed to turn one of the coolest things I have ever seen in my life, into one of the lamest jokes in tech.
Among many other criticisms, he accuses Meta (rightfully) of focusing on wireless VR headsets to the exclusion of high-end PCVR (that is, headsets like his and my beloved Valve Index, which require a good desktop computer with a powerful graphics card, and can run a lot of applications which wireless headsets would struggle with.
What I find so fascinating about both these videos is that they are emblematic of a rising tide of antipathy against Meta, as it tries to repivot to become a metaverse company, sinking tens of billions of dollars a year into a VR/AR strategy that might take a decade or longer before it goes truly mainstream (that is, beyond the early adopters and the hardcore gamers). Both videos mention the recent massive layoffs at Meta, a further sign that all is not well with the company as it struggles to find the next big thing after social networking.
Mark Zuckerberg is placing a very expensive bet on virtual and augmented reality and the metaverse, but will that big bet pay off, and when? Stay tuned.
In an article published today in The Wall Street Journal, titled Company Documents Show Meta’s Flagship Metaverse Falling Short (archived version here), Jeff Horwitz, Salvador Rodriguez, and Meghan Bobrowsky report that Meta’s flagship social VR platform, Horizon Worlds, is falling short of the company’s own internal performance expectations. They write:
Meta initially set a goal of reaching 500,000 monthly active users for Horizon Worlds by the end of this year, but in recent weeks revised that figure to 280,000. The current tally is less than 200,000, the documents show.
Most visitors to Horizon generally don’t return to the app after the first month, and the user base has steadily declined since the spring, according to the documents, which include internal memos from employees.
By comparison, Meta’s social-media products, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, together attract more than 3.5 billion average monthly users—a figure equivalent to almost half the world’s population. Horizon is currently reaching less than the population of Sioux Falls, S.D.
In a survey of Horizon users, Meta researchers said users reported that they couldn’t find metaverse worlds they liked and couldn’t find other people to hang out with. Other complaints included that “people do not look real” and that the avatars don’t have legs.
The researchers noted that the survey included only 514 people because the available pool of users to survey is “small and precious.”
The number of Horizon users online at the same time, known as concurrency, trails far behind both the socially-focused upstart VRChat and Second Life, the pioneering cyberworld that was launched in 2003, said people familiar with the matter.
The WSJ report also states that only 9% of the worlds built by creators are ever visited by at least 50 people, and most created worlds are never visited at all. Also, men outnumber women in Horizon Worlds by two to one, a gender imbalance that can lead to women being harassed and feeling unsafe.
Among the persistent complaints from early adopters and testers, according to the documents, are that users have trouble adjusting to the technology, and that other users behave badly.
On a recent night, a female Journal reporter visited one of Horizon’s most popular virtual worlds, the Soapstone Comedy Club. It had about 20 users in it, all appearing as avatars. When the reporter introduced herself and tried to conduct an interview with a small group, one user replied: “You can report on me, baby.” The same user then asked her to expose herself.
One user who was flirting with a woman in the crowd was interrupted by what appeared to be his real-life girlfriend yelling obscenities at him in the background.
According to the documents, men outnumber women in Horizon by two to one. One safety feature Horizon has introduced is an option for users to create the equivalent of a 4-foot personal boundary for their avatars to deter unwanted physical contact.
Even worse, the WSJ article reports that “more than half of Quest headsets—the entry model costs about $400—aren’t in use six months after they are purchased, according to people familiar with the data.” This news greatly surprises me, because I would have assumed that, even if Horizon Worlds is not attracting and retaining users, at least consumers who bought the wireless virtual reality headset would be using it for games.
Yesterday, Alex Heath of the tech news website The Verge covered the current state of Meta’s social VR sister platforms, Horizon Worlds (for consumers) and Horizon Workrooms (for business users), and things are not looking good.
In one of the memos to employees dated September 15th, Meta’s VP of Metaverse, Vishal Shah, said the team would remain in a “quality lockdown” for the rest of the year to “ensure that we fix our quality gaps and performance issues before we open up Horizon to more users.”
It would appear that there are numerous bugs in the software:
“But currently feedback from our creators, users, playtesters, and many of us on the team is that the aggregate weight of papercuts, stability issues, and bugs is making it too hard for our community to experience the magic of Horizon. Simply put, for an experience to become delightful and retentive, it must first be usable and well crafted.”
A key issue with Horizon’s development to date, according to Shah’s internal memos, is that the people building it inside Meta appear to not be using it that much. “For many of us, we don’t spend that much time in Horizon and our dogfooding dashboards show this pretty clearly,” he wrote to employees on September 15th. “Why is that? Why don’t we love the product we’ve built so much that we use it all the time? The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?”
In a follow-up memo dated September 30th, Shah said that employees still weren’t using Horizon enough, writing that a plan was being made to “hold managers accountable” for having their teams use Horizon at least once a week. “Everyone in this organization should make it their mission to fall in love with Horizon Worlds. You can’t do that without using it. Get in there. Organize times to do it with your colleagues or friends, in both internal builds but also the public build, so you can interact with our community.”
It’s never a good sign when you have to basically ORDER your employees to use a product that they are building, is it? The article goes on to say:
He went on to call out specific issues with Horizon, writing that “our onboarding experience is confusing and frustrating for users” and that the team needed to “introduce new users to top-notch worlds that will ensure their first visit is a success.”
Shah said the teams working on Horizon needed to collaborate better together and expect more changes to come. “Today, we are not operating with enough flexibility,” his memo reads. “I want to be clear on this point. We are working on a product that has not found product market fit. If you are on Horizon, I need you to fully embrace ambiguity and change.”
I wonder if part of the problem is that there is such a large team working on Horizon Worlds and Horizon Workrooms, part of a large multinational corporation, with all the bureaucracy that such an organization entails. In addition, there have been rumours of turmoil and turnover in Meta’s staffing, with a number of senior executive departures, such as Vivek Sharma, the former Vice President of Meta Horizon, who left in August 2022. You might remember the kerfuffle when Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg tweeted out a lacklustre picture to promote Horizon World’s expansion into France and Spain (which you can see in the screen capture of Alex’s article above; I wrote about it here). Meta then had to scramble to assure people that they were working on improving the graphics within its social VR platforms.
The WSJ article is a short read, but the NYT one is excellent, giving an in-depth, inside look (using anonymous sources) at what’s going on in Meta as they attempt to pivot to the metaverse. Both are highly recommended reading.
As somebody who writes about social VR and flatscreen virtual worlds on this blog, with a popular Discord server packed with metaverse fanatics and a front-row seat on pretty much everything that has been happening in this space, let me tell you, the past twelve months have been a wild ride. You can even see it in my blog statistics of the number of visitors and views the RyanSchultz.com blog has attracted over the past year:
Together, these events sparked a greater awareness among the general public of the metaverse (as indicated by a corresponding increase in traffic to my blog). However, it would appear that the ongoing crypto crash, combined with Meta’s recent woes and missteps, are causing people to sour on the concept. (And by “people”, I mean the general public, not the metaverse fanatics, content creators and world builders whom I tend to hang out with!)
As an illustration of this, I would like to focus on a recent announcement made by Mark Zuckerberg, about the expansion of their flagship consumer social VR platform, Horizon Worlds, from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. into two new countries, France and Spain:
The first thing I think of when I look at this picture is: hoo boy, somebody working in Meta’s PR department is gonna get fired! You’re trying to sell people on Horizon Worlds with this unappealing, uninspiring, and frankly ugly image on Twitter?
The response to this on two different subreddit communities on Reddit, r/technology and r/Buttcoin, proves to be quite illuminating. (By the way, r/Buttcoin is the blockchain, crypto, and NFTs snark community, where we cryptoskeptics and critics love to discuss and dissect the latest shenanigans, antics, and scams in that world!)
It looks like Mark Zuckerberg watched Ready Player One and thought he would be able to recreate that universe with MS Paint.
“Looking forward to seeing people explore and build immersive worlds!” :: “Work in my content mill, peasants.”
The more money they dump into this dumpster fire, the better chance Facebook finally collapses into the abyss. So keep doing it Zuck.
One much-upvoted comment reads as follows:
No one is building a $1500-2500 PC with [a] dedicated GPU to add a Facebook $600 VR headset to attend work meetings in a virtual space that looks like a kids CGI series from 2004 at a mass adoption level, where the majority of the public would use it daily for 8 hours at work then again for another 4-6 hours “for fun” at home, as the Meta dystopian dream suggests.
Meta has already been subsidizing the costs of their currently meh headset, which they just increased the prices of, as they were losing too much money.
For this to work, the hardware has to be good enough for grandma to be able to buy it on a pension, put it on out of the box and it just works, and it does not make her sick to her stomach in 5-20 minutes due to the low frame rates and quality.
That’s the barrier of entry to the space you need to be able to target… if that old guy at your office struggles with getting their mic to work on MS Teams for a video call every day, as the manager he is not going to order $100,000 worth of gear for your department that is hard to setup and use to meet in the metaverse.
This thing is dead on arrival, but Facebook is also dying/dead in it’s current form, so this Hail Mary [pass] is all they have.
The thing is, this happens all the time with Zuckerberg and his metaverse because Horizon Worlds has looked terrible since its inception and has barely gotten any better over the years, where its avatars still look like Miis from 2012 and they still don’t have legs.
Granted, I understand that showing 2D screenshots of VR is difficult, and that VR generally lags behind traditional console and PC gaming in terms of graphics. And yet that doesn’t change the fact that even within VR, Horizon Worlds is one of the worst-looking offerings I have seen, and that Meta has spent something like $10 billion chasing its Horizon, VR-centric version of the metaverse, even embarrassingly changing their company name to reflect that. And…this is the result.
If I was a Meta stockholder I would be selling the minute I saw that screenshot.
He (and many others) are hoping that nobody remembers Second Life ever existed, let alone that it still does. It has a dedicated audience of somewhere between half to one million users and that’s kinda it. I suspect the future for “the metaverse” is similar.
One r/Buttcoin member posted the following detailed comment:
This is the part I don’t understand. Any “meta” style environment will be incredibly limited in terms of graphics and gameplay due to the need to have a high number of players at once. So who is the target audience?
• Someone looking to play a game is going to go with something like Grand Theft Auto V (and continue to move on to the next biggest thing when they come out). • The live concerts! aspect of the website seems equally absurd given the graphical limitations and that this would be less entertaining than watching a concert on TV. • Your casual Farmville-style person isn’t shelling out hundreds of dollars for a VR headset. • For their “practical” concepts like virtual stores, it seems to invalidate the concept of buying metaverse land as either the system will allow for fast travel style movement (making “premium” land a joke), or not allow for this travelling and completely turn off their customer base for this.
I just don’t see where the interest comes from.
And I chuckled at this wag’s opinion:
Second Life managed to survive because it fostered a community of weirdo people who fetishized the environment. I think the only person who fetishizes Facebook’s metaverse is Zuckerberg.
Absolutely SAVAGE! I live. Somebody else posted this gem to the r/Buttcoin subreddit:
So, what does all this mean? Well, it looks as though the concept of the metaverse, at least among the general public, is going to sustain some reputational damage, at least in the short term (12 to 24 months). Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be such a swing from irrational metaverse exuberance to equally irrational metaverse distaste, even disgust.
Also, this “trough of disillusionment” means that it’s going to be harder to sell consumers and businesses on the metaverse. This will apply both to behemoth corporations like Meta, Apple, and Alphabet (the parent company of Google), as well as to much smaller metaverse-building companies. As I have said before, not all platforms currently being worked on will survive this rough period.
Earlier this week, the alien-wearing-a-human-skin-suit known to us as Mark Zuckerberg posted a VR selfie from inside his company’s metaverse project, Horizon Worlds. The selfie showed off the Eiffel Tower and was meant to announce that his metaverse is expanding to more countries. Instead, however, people immediately began dunking on the terrible picture, the ugly avatar, and how it all looked like it fell out of a 2005 edutainment game…
And that brings us to 2022, where Zuckerberg’s avatar is a legless knock-off of a Nintendo Mii with some really weird buttons and the eyes of a corpse. And this isn’t just how Zuckerberg looks, this is the way all avatars appear in Horizon Worlds. I’ve played enough Horizon Worlds to tell you that the missing legs quickly cease to matter. But the lack of style and the cold, dead aesthetic never goes away.
Sure, part of the reason these avatars and worlds look simple and ugly compared to modern video games comes down to the limited VR hardware in Quest 2 and Facebook’s desire to make VR content that can run on as many devices as possible.
On the other hand, I can find Nintendo DS and Sony PS Vita games with better, nicer-looking art and models than what we’ve been shown so far in Facebook’s metaverse. I also don’t think you can blame the people making this stuff, as I assume they are more than capable of doing better and more vibrant things. But more and more, it seems that isn’t what Meta and Zucklehead want. Instead, they are focused on making a product that can be consumed by the masses and which lacks any defining characteristics in an attempt to get more people to dive in.
This is the exact opposite approach we see in more community-driven VR metaverses like VR Chat, which looks better and feels warmer and more inviting. In comparison, Horizon Worlds looks like an animated video I’d walk by in some fancy hospital while I look for the bathroom.
And if this bland and ugly metaverse is the future Mark Zuckerberg wants and is investing billions of dollars into, I’m worried that it could end up winning out over other, better alternatives simply because he has the money and resources to squash or buy up competitors. Well, if it does win out, at least I’ll be able to skip it and not buy a new VR headset.
Spending by major crypto firms, including the trading platforms Crypto.com, Coinbase Global Inc. and FTX, fell to $36,000 in July in the US, according to ISpot. That’s the lowest monthly total since January 2021 and is down from a high of $84.5 million in February, when the industry flooded the airwaves around the Super Bowl.
Again, Yeee-OUCH!!! And it looks like things are not going to get better anytime soon, as inflation roars and recession looms. People have more important things to worry about (like keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads) than buying virtual real estate on the blockchain!