Mark Zuckerberg's $1,499 Headphones Won't Help Dead

Mark Zuckerberg’s $1,499 Headphones Won’t Help Dead

At his annual virtual reality conference, Mark Zuckerberg focused on a device that hardly anyone would buy.

While Mark Zuckerberg spoke to the camera in a pre-recorded presentation Tuesday to kick off Meta Platforms Inc’s annual virtual reality conference. , he needed to address the elephant in the room: tremendous doubts had grown about his vision of metaphysics.

New users were finding his main buggy in Horizon, and employees were concerned about the drastic shift to virtual reality that Zuckerberg announced at the event one year ago. They needed a good reason to believe in his vision, but the Facebook co-founder didn’t give them one.

Instead, double down on dazzling people with the latest technology, unveiling an expensive, high-quality headphone that’s hard for anyone to buy. Focus on how the device is used by employers for business meetings, although there is no actual market for that yet.

“Prioritizing devices that support facial expressions and eye contact…Designing new avatars and new avatars with photorealistic images,” Zuckerberg said in closing his keynote, which was light on details such as product timelines or specific contributions from a few big-name partners. such as Microsoft Corp.

While Zuckerberg spent most of the hour-and-a-half presentation as his usual avatar in front of the camera, the Facebook co-founder was touring a virtual platform as a one-off avatar. With smoother face shading and gestures, this was an improvement over the cartoon version that Zuckerberg mocked for publishing in August.

But he also emphasized how Zuckerberg’s obsessive and superficial form of human communication was founded on things like realistic designs of faces that could raise eyebrows, and the repetition of desk trappings like sticky notes and whiteboards in digital form.

Zuckerberg has misunderstood what drives people to new platforms, which are unique experiences and incentives, not incrementally better graphics. Some of the developments in Meta in virtual reality are neat, but Tuesday’s presentation emphasized just how much of a Skunkworks project it should have been and not the company’s entire focus.

Zuckerberg’s pivot toward the metaverse may be dropping as one of the greatest corporate strategic blunders of our time, and his tireless focus on expensive hardware and futuristic services suggests that the leader is increasingly away from how consumers actually use technology.

Initially, the metaverse doesn’t have to exist solely through a VR headset. There are already several very successful metaverse platforms, Roblox Corp. and Fortnite of Epic Games Inc. , with tens of millions of users visiting through laptops and mobile phones, as a kind of casual gaming and social networking experience. Their success comes from offering unique gaming experiences and incentives.

To that end, Andrew “Bose” Bosworth, Meta’s chief technology officer, said Tuesday that the company is “developing Horizon Worlds on the web,” which people can visit on their browsers, confirming a tip he dropped earlier this year. As I’ve argued here, this is a wise move, as it will open up the platform to millions of potential users who aren’t necessarily interested in 3D experiences or wear headphones. But the effort does not appear to be a priority. Bosworth spent less than a minute talking about the browser offering, and he didn’t mention a timeline for its rollout.

Zuckerberg focused on introducing the Meta Quest Pro, a high-spec VR headset that will get more people out of his platform. It costs $1,499, more than three times the price of the current Meta Quest 2 headset, which retails for about $400. He said, “It will help you be more present, more productive, and more of you.”

Quest Pro has some interesting features, including the ability to track facial expressions and see some of the world around you through its viewfinder. However, the odd thing was the target market, which was a business and not the traditional VR audience for gamers.

Employers love software that will make their employees measurably more productive. But virtual reality is not making much of an impact as a corporate collaboration tool, even among Meta competitors. When I reached out to several large companies in August that bought VR headsets in large batches, nearly all of them said they were used for training or events. Even employees at VR companies themselves use Zoom for meetings, not headphones. Zuckerberg is trying to create a market that has barely a poor pitch on “feeling a social presence in a shared space.”

Meta is a mass market company. Almost 3 billion people visit Facebook every month, making it the most active social media platform in the world. Over a billion people visit Meta Instagram and about 2.5 billion use WhatsApp regularly.

These numbers have always been difficult to replicate, but the numbers of active users in Horizon Worlds are alarmingly small in comparison to around 300,000. Rather than increasing that number, Zuckerberg is seeking niche markets for early adopters with money to spend, and experience-driven gamers and employers, rather than ordinary consumers. Investors should be worried. Meta shares are down nearly 4% at the market close in New York on Tuesday, and have lost 62% of their value so far this year. Facebook hasn’t traded that low since January 2017, nearly six years ago.

“We are at the beginning of a new era of computing,” Zuckerberg said. It would be “more social and humane than anything that has ever happened.” But it won’t be anywhere near the size of Facebook.

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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