Jul 26 2021

Facebook Plans VR Metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg has revealed that he plans to transition Facebook from a social media company to one that build and manages an immersive virtual reality “metaverse”. The idea sounds a lot like Oasis from Ready Player One. The term itself was coined in the 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. The basic idea is of a joining of physical, virtual, and augmented reality into one seamless experience.

It’s an ambitious goal, but given that Facebook is worth about $280 billion, with income of about $29 billion a year, it’s probably more than an empty boast. Facebook has already acquired Oculus, a popular brand of VR headsets, and has been building the infrastructure necessary for such a project. Zuckerberg seems serious. I think something like the metaverse was inevitable, but the question is – is the technology ready?

Right now the VR (virtual reality) market is about $5 billion per year, but projected to grow to $12 billion by 2024. We are still in the early adopter phase (meaning mostly gaming), but transitioning fairly quickly to more mainstream adoption. The Metaverse might be the killer app that pushes VR over the line. Or it make spectacularly fail, indicating that VR is not ready yet. Zuckerberg, however, is wisely hedging his bets. He indicates that the metaverse will exist in VR, AR (augmented reality), and existing desktop and portable platforms. So you won’t need a VR headset to access the metaverse, you can do it over your phone or sitting at your laptop. But if you have VR you will have a much more immersive experience, and perhaps be able to access unique VR features.

According to The Verge interview:

Critically, no one company will run the metaverse — it will be an “embodied internet,” Zuckerberg said, operated by many different players in a decentralized way.

He therefore sees the metaverse like the internet (hence the lack of capitalization, I guess). This seems like a good move – build a platform and let a thousand companies fill it with content. This approach obviously worked for the world-wide web. What will the advantages be (if any) of the metaverse over how we do things now? In the various interviews and descriptions, I don’t see anything that we cannot do right now with existing apps. It seems like the main advantage is that we will be able to do the same things, but in mixed media. For certain applications, being able to engage with VR or AR may be a huge advantage, and provide a superior experience.

This is not uncommon with new technologies, however – that at first it may be a lateral move without any clear advantage over the existing way of doing things. At first the metaverse will be like existing social media and web applications, like Zoom, but with the option of doing it in VR. However, once it is established and the tech is common people may invent new ways to exploit it that go beyond existing possibilities.

The main limitation is that current VR hardware is still relatively clunky. I have a VIVE headset, and I still use it regularly, but only to play video games. It works incredibly well, but it can be tiring to wear the heavy headset for a long time, the angle of view is still limited to 110 degrees, and the controls are not optimal for some applications. I would never choose to work in VR over just looking at a monitor. I look forward to every incremental improvement possible, but that also gets expensive. There are several I have just chosen not to purchase, like a wireless hookup and a slightly increased resolution. I am waiting for more substantial upgrades.

Also, some games are just unplayable for me in VR because of the motion sickness factor. This would likely not be as much of a factor for work applications, but still it would be nice to have some more options to deal with this issue.

There is also the issue of battery life. If I am into a VR game, I have to make sure I am recharging both my hand controllers or I may find that I can’t play because one or both are dead. My headset is hardwired, but if I did go wireless (which would be nice – getting tangled in cords is essentially unavoidable) then I would also have to keep my headset charged. This could be a pain if you were using the VR equipment for hours a day. This is not a deal-killer, but every inconvenience gets piled up on one side of the scale. At some point it’s just easier to sit in front of your nice, large, high resolution monitor.

I suspect that eventually AR may be more desirable. You don’t have to worry about motion sickness, and you can have many of the advantages of VR while maintaining contact with your physical environment. But AR hardware technology also has a long way to go.

In the end I am curious how all this will work out. Again, I think there is a lot to be said for a metaverse platform, and I do think that something like it is inevitable. But I would also like to see some significant improvements in the hardware technology. My hope is that the metaverse will push investment in both hardware and AR/VR apps, creating a technology feedback loop. My fear is that it will flop because the hardware technology is not quite there. Other premature attempts at a virtual office have failed for this reason. Perhaps the best reason for optimism is that Facebook has billions, and they can nurse the metaverse through years of loss before the platform become self-sustaining. The metaverse might become for Zuckerberg what SpaceX is to Musk, and perhaps that’s the point.

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