Most people visit virtual worlds through plain old screens. Mark Zuckerberg needs to plan accordingly.
In a few weeks, Mark Zuckerberg will announce a new virtual reality headset from Meta Platforms Inc. Embarrassingly, we already know what it would look like. A video of the alleged device was making the rounds online after someone found one in a hotel room. However, none of that should matter because VR headsets have become a distraction, not an integral part of the early growth of the so-called metaverse, a 3D version of the internet that many see as the next chapter. It turns out that flat screens do the job just fine.
While Facebook has sold about 14 million VR headsets to date, millions more have visited the metaverse through regular 2D screens like the ones you’re looking at now, via apps like Roblox and Epic Games Inc.’s Fortnite. This trend is likely to continue for several years, as VR headsets take time to shrink in size and price.
This puts Zuckerberg in an awkward position. He wants you to buy the Meta headset, better known as the Quest, because that gives him more control over whatever metaverse market he builds along the line. The reason is obvious: for years, it owed the rules of application gatekeepers to Alphabet Inc and Apple Inc. , pay their fees and follow edicts like the App Tracking Transparency prompt that will kick about $14 million from Facebook’s ad. sales this year.
It would be an almost unimaginably painful move for Facebook to make its metaverse Horizon Worlds platform available in the app stores. But maybe there is another way. Facebook can allow people to visit the platform via a simple browser.
Google’s Stadia uses a service called Cloud Broadcasting that allows people to play big video games via Chrome. It’s an expensive process, and it requires powerful servers, but it can help Facebook circumvent Apple and Google while working to attract a large number of new curious users. Meta chief technology officer Andrew Bosworth earlier this year hinted on Twitter earlier this year that a web version was in the cards, but a company spokeswoman declined to provide further details.
“It’s going to be a 3D version of Facebook that looks like a game, but you’ll be browsing it from your desktop,” said Sam Hooper, CEO of metaverse real estate startup LandVault. “It could become the most popular game in the world.”
Even the modest popularity would reassure investors who are likely to dismiss how slow the company’s headphone customer growth has been: 300,000 people have visited Horizon Worlds since its launch last October. You can only access the platform through the Quest 2 headset.
“Facebook appears to be operating from a costly fallacy,” said Wagner James Au, an author and blogger who has covered the metaverse for more than a decade. “There is no data to support the VR headset as a mass market device.”
In fact, flat versions of the metaverse are more popular than 3D versions. About three-quarters of Roblox’s 52 million daily visitors use a phone, while the vast majority of people who use Microsoft Corp’s Minecraft or Fortnite use a desktop computer or mobile phone.
Many metaverse companies have also pivoted to the flat plane. Decentraland, for example, a virtual world for trading crypto assets, was marketed as a “virtual reality platform” when it launched its ICO in 2017. However, all of its users have since visited via their desktop or browser, the company says.
VRChat, a social networking platform with other avatars, was first launched as an Oculus headphone app in 2014. Three years later, it produced a desktop version, and was able to attract millions of other users.
“The problem is the price,” said Artur Sischoff, founder of Somnium Space startup Metaverse, whose users often visit on a browser. The Meta Quest 2 costs about $400, while other competing headphones can go for more than $800.
Entering a virtual world on screen is actually a decent proxy for “real” virtual reality and certainly more engaging than a regular video call, as I found out when Syschoff took me on a tour of the Somnium world during a Zoom meeting. Since I wasn’t technically with him as an avatar, he held a virtual tablet in front of him with a “camera” that would allow me to follow his movements throughout the space.
Watching him point at art in a virtual gallery and navigate through colorful forests, even on my laptop screen, was enough to help me imagine myself there.
So far, Meta marketing has focused on the immersive benefits of VR headsets, creating the feeling that you’re truly with co-workers or within a fitness class. But that’s missing the real selling point for metaverses – the incentives to create new experiences – and you don’t need a VR headset for that.
To attract more people to its virtual platforms, Meta needs to focus less on building high-end headsets, and more on emulating metaverse pioneers like Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft. Almost a quarter of Roblox users have created millions of games for the platform, creating a marketplace for commerce as well as fun. Almost all of its content is user generated, just like TikTok or YouTube, and that’s a big part of its appeal.
Likewise, Zuckerberg must turn his metaphors into a place where creatives can thrive. Facebook’s current push to test tools for content creators appears to be lagging, given how far other pioneers have come.
The focus a lot on immersive technology is putting the cart before the horse. Meta needs to make its metaverse accessible and an attractive place for creators. Moving to “flat” would be a good start.
Parmi Olson is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering technology. She was a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Forbes, and the author of We Are Anonymous.
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