Home » Meta is doing everything it can to kill the Metaverse, but hopefully Zuckerberg doesn’t destroy VR

Meta is doing everything it can to kill the Metaverse, but hopefully Zuckerberg doesn’t destroy VR

Over the last two years, Meta has sold 15 million of the Quest 2 headsets. While it doesn’t have the best visuals or the kind of processor necessary to produce “can’t tell it from the real world” simulations, it’s a decent example of making good tradeoffs to produce a product that consumers both want and can afford. The experiences that are possible on that headset can involve things that are possible but expensive or difficult in this reality, such as touring cities around the world. It can also include possibilities to play at being a heart surgeon, or a super spy, or a scientist operating a space station in the rings of Saturn.

Not all of these are great, but a few are genuinely jaw-dropping. There are definitely not enough “A-list” titles out there, but there are enough great moments to make “is it available in VR?” the first thing on my list of considerations when seeing a review of a new game. Once you’ve climbed hand over hand up a windy peak, reaching an altitude where eagles are circling below you, then carefully walked along a narrow ledge to access a secret location and really felt like you clambered over the rocks every inch of the way, it’s much harder to get excited about dealing with a game that devolves into pressing the right button.

In the last few weeks, Meta has introduced the Quest Pro. On paper this is a much improved device with a thinner face mask, better screen, more powerful graphics engine, better controllers … all the things that a Quest 2 owner might want after bumping into the limits of their system. But in practice the Quest Pro is a disaster. Its price is $1,500, making it far more expensive than most consumers are willing to pay for a system that’s still only incrementally better than its three-times-cheaper sibling. The Quest Pro is also, while being better than Meta’s other current offering, not as good as some of the high-end headsets that are used in professional markets by designers who want to test-stroll through a new building or get an advanced look at how components fit together in a new car.

It’s too expensive to be a consumer device, not good enough to be a professional device. The Quest Pro falls into a gap where the biggest response seems to be, “Why did they build this?”

But the answer to that question is based in Zuckerberg’s fundamental misunderstanding of what people want from virtual reality. First off, a large part of the cost of the Quest Pro comes because it’s equipped with a host of cameras that look at your face, all with the intent of mimicking your expressions on your VR avatar. This is deeply connected to one of the most costly and intensive efforts underway at Meta: creating avatars that look more like you.

Zuckerberg’s announced goal is to have everyone create a single avatar, ultimately photorealistic, that follows you across the various “metaverse” experiences. That in turn seems to be because he sees anonymity and alternative identities as the source of most issues in social media, and a big threat to VR.

And that’s why Meta is in deep trouble. Because no one wants that. Granted, there might be a few people who think it’s a grand idea to drag around an exact physical copy of who they are in this world, and this life, to every experience they have from climbing the pyramids to searching distant worlds. But it’s a very few.

Because the biggest thing that VR can do isn’t taking you to some other place. It’s taking you out of you. The first time you look down and see the steel manipulators of a robot limb where you expected to find your hand can be extremely disconcerting. But then it is strangely and viscerally liberating. Nothing makes it easier to get in character than getting in to a character.

In one of the experiences available right now on Quest, you find that both of your arms are replaced with the floppy tentacles of a massive city-threatening kaiju. Learning how your motions can direct those sucker-lined tools of destruction across the screaming crowds of puny humans is at first disorienting on many levels. Within minutes, it seems like you’ve always been a towering, snake-armed monstrosity. Bring on the National Guard.

Of all the experiences available on VR, the most popular may be the social space VR Chat. In VR Chat, users can don whatever skin they like in order to dance with, play games with, and simply talk with others. If you’ve ever wanted to let your freak flag fly, there is no place in the multiverse where it flies higher or freer than in VR Chat. Step into any of the many rooms and you may find yourself swapping stories with a talking cat wearing a monocle, a purple gorilla, a hopping Christmas tree, and a pink-haired anime girl with fairy wings. People in VR Chat present however they want to—to the limits of their ability to design, or purchase, an avatar. 

Attempting to pin avatars to reality and to stamp out anonymity is just one part of a fundamental misunderstanding about what people expect from social media … from a guy who really ought to know better. It’s not anonymity that spawns hate speech and ugliness in online spaces. People are perfectly willing to demonstrate their racism, misogyny, and general awfulness even when forced to wear their own name. Five minutes on Facebook or Twitter will confirm this. Five minutes on Daily Kos is also enough to show that anonymity doesn’t automatically lower the quality or raise the heat in online conversations.

Somehow Zuckerberg, like Elon Musk, doesn’t understand how to generate a viable online community. And unlike Musk, he has no excuse.

But that’s only half of what’s wrong with Meta’s vision for VR. The other part is that it seems heavily focused on using VR as a replacement for email, text messaging, and Zoom. Why have a Zoom meeting when you can sit around a virtual table and stare at the virtual faces of your colleagues?

Why? Because it’s ridiculous.

The whole story of how business meetings are conducted over decades is a story of less. Face-to-face meetings can be replaced in many instances by a quick phone call. Phone calls can be made more efficient most of the time as emails. Emails are unnecessary when a quick text message will do.

Dragging five, 10, or 20 people together in a room to force them to sit through an hour of the boss droning on was always the worst, least efficient thing about work. Zoom meetings function as a rare supplement to the text-based functions that actually allow people to relay information more efficiently. Much of that supplement is in the form of allowing you to actually see and hear your co-workers, a function that is not easily replaced by virtual avatars no matter how realistic, or how many cameras are placed on the headset to capture that raised eyebrow or downturned lip.

Zoom meetings are a generally bad way of managing people that should be used very rarely, because meetings are a bad way of managing people that should be used very rarely. The idea of telling people that they can clamp on a VR headset and spend their time in make believe sitting across a desk from a co-worker doing the same has no attraction for anyone. (Except possibly those bosses who miss strolling down the aisles of the office and seeing all those little heads barely visible above the cubicle walls.)

There’s not a lot of difference between Zuckerberg’s conviction that people should work in a VR space and Musk’s demand that everyone get back into the office. Both are silly. One is silly and it includes wearing a headset.

VR is proving to be so capable of doing so many things, but it does them best when it’s not trying to replicate the environment of everyday life. Frankly, we already have that environment. Why do we need two of them? Right now, Meta has what is unfortunately almost a monopoly control over how VR is used in America, and it’s squandering billions trying to turn VR into something no one wants while ignoring 99.99% of what’s possible.


November 2022