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Article from Issue 265/2022
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When Facebook renamed itself Meta in honor of its new vision of a virtual reality metaverse, I knew they were taking their initiative very seriously. I will admit, though, it was a little difficult to figure out what they were talking about.

Dear Reader,

When Facebook renamed itself Meta in honor of its new vision of a virtual reality metaverse, I knew they were taking their initiative very seriously. I will admit, though, it was a little difficult to figure out what they were talking about. The visionaries describe a metaverse as a virtual-reality-driven, totally immersive, unified Internet experience – which seems quite bold and revolutionary, but still a little vague. You can always look for clues in science fiction, such as Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash, which is credited with coining the term metaverse, but of course, the desire to interact with people who are far away goes back for centuries.

Meta's Horizon Worlds metaverse platform was in the news this past month, and the news it was in wasn't good. Users complained of bugs and a general feeling that there weren't enough people to interact with in the virtual spaces. Many have also offered that they think it is odd that the people in this virtual world, at least so far, do not have legs and, instead, float around on their torsos. (Meta later announced that it was working on a leggy upgrade.)

The idea behind Horizon Worlds is similar to Second Life and other similar platforms, only with full immersion in virtual reality. Users are encouraged to create their own "worlds" that other users will come visit. However, according to a study in the Wall Street Journal [1], only 9 percent of the worlds are visited by more than 50 people, and most worlds never receive any visitors other than the creator.

The original goal was to have more than 500,000 visitors per month by this point, but the actual number is more like 200,000, and, according to the report, most users don't return to the platform after the first month. Meanwhile, Reality Labs, the branch of Meta that is developing Horizon Worlds, lost $10 billion last year and $5.7 billion already this year.

Perhaps most embarrassing was the leak of internal documents revealing a great deal of skepticism within Meta about the state of the Horizon Worlds platform [2], with complaints of bugs and an underwhelming user experience. "An empty world is a sad world," was a much-quoted quote.

It is easy for us in the press to pile on when an internal memo appears to show that the public line diverges from what the employees are actually saying to each other. In a way, I respect Meta (I still want to call them Facebook) for supporting this level of internal debate over high-stakes corporate initiatives – a lot of companies wouldn't allow it. Still, despite the futuristic trappings, I wonder how much of this story is really about the "what do we do now?" problem that companies often face when they grow very fast and accomplish all of the goals that originally defined them. In such a case, the urge is always to build something new, and to do that, you have to guess which way the industry will grow and try to get out ahead of it. If you guess right, you look like a god; if you guess wrong, you are totally defenseless against the critics, even though the whole thing was a bit of a coin toss from the very beginning.

In one sense, it seems perfectly logical to predict that Internet technology and virtual reality technology would eventually merge in some way – and maybe they still will. And yet, it also seems possible that, in the end, humans might like their virtual reality in small doses and "total immersion" doesn't really thrill anybody – or doesn't thrill enough of us to support the predictions of a revolution. I admit I'm old school, and possibly more than a little ADHD, so maybe I'm not the best evaluator, but for me, sitting around for extended periods in a virtual reality headset seems a little like being stoned, which might appeal for an occasional recreational moment, but as a way of life?

Another thing I'm wondering is whether the Zoom culture that has emerged during the COVID era has changed the way we think about remote human interactions. Zoom meetings, Zoom reunions, and even Zoom happy hours are now commonplace, and, although you are only looking at stationary two-dimensional portraits of the participants, you get to see real human faces in real time, with real facial expressions, instead of cartoonish avatars.

Meta says it isn't worried, because the plan for getting Horizon Worlds off the ground runs through 2030, which is fair, but it also sounds a lot like what Microsoft said about their mobile phone business. Meta execs are telling their employees and stockholders that the success of Horizon Worlds will depend on how well they execute the plan, and that is certainly true, but it will also depend on some subtle assumptions about the nature of humans – in contexts that we can't really test for, and that part will be interesting to watch. But better watch with your headset off.

Editor in Chief, Joe Casad

Infos

  1. "Company Documents Show Meta's Flagship Metaverse Falling Short." Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2022: https://www.wsj.com/articles/meta-metaverse-horizon-worlds-zuckerberg-facebook-internal-documents-11665778961?mod=hp_lead_pos3 [paywalled]
  2. Meta Employees Kind of Hate the Metaverse: https://www.thestreet.com/investing/meta-employees-kind-of-hate-facebooks-metaverse

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