Just under a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company he founded as a Harvard undergrad would change its name to Meta. "From now on, we're going to be metaverse-first, not Facebook-first," he said during a virtual keynote at the company’s Connect event.
Zuckerberg has spent the year since hyping all things metaverse. He’s shown off dystopian VR offices, looked at pictures of space in VR with Neil deGrasse Tyson and persuaded more than one professional athlete to play VR games with him. He went on Joe Rogan’s podcast to extol the virtues of mixed martial arts and virtual reality. Rogan even got an early demo of Meta’s new high-end VR headset, which is expected to launch during Connect.
But the metaverse has also proved to be a massive money pit. In the last year alone, the company has lost billions of dollars on its metaverse ambitions, and the trend is unlikely to reverse any time soon. The company, which last year announced plans to hire 10,000 workers in Europe solely to build its metaverse, is now cutting staff and reorganizing teams.
So at this year’s Connect, which kicks off at 10 AM PT tomorrow with a keynote from Zuckerberg, the stakes feel even higher. And we still have a lot of questions about what it really means to be a “metaverse company.”
Can Zuckerberg explain what the metaverse even is (again)?
It’s perhaps the most obvious issue, but in the nearly a year since Zuckerberg first attempted to articulate what a metaverse is, it’s still not very clear. Last year, Zuckerberg described it as “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” The company’s website currently says the metaverse is “the next evolution in social connection and the successor to the mobile internet.”
But what those words mean to most people is fuzzy at best. “Outside of early adopters and tech-savvy people, there's still confusion as to what is the metaverse and what we're going to be doing with it,” says Carolina Milanesi, a consumer analyst with Creative Strategies.
That means Zuckerberg will not only need to offer an understandable definition, but an idea of what it will mean for the billions of people already on his platform. Which brings us to…
Can it ever look cool?
This may not seem like the most important problem facing Zuckerberg’s vision for a mobile internet-replacing metaverse, but it’s one that could go a long way toward building the hype he so desperately craves. Because, right now, Meta’s metaverse looks… kind of crappy.
This was never more apparent than when Zuckerberg very earnestly shared a capture from Horizon Worlds of his avatar in front of a VR Eiffel Tower and Sagrada Familia that could generously be described as flat and amateurish. He quickly followed up with a new avatar, and promised better graphics for Horizon Worlds would be coming at Connect.
But Meta will need to show more than just graphics that look like they were created this millennium. Ideally, it would show a metaverse experience that actually looks cool. Or at least one that could appeal to people already spending time in Roblox or Fortnite or other metaverse-adjacent spaces.
Milanesi adds that it would help to show off metaverse experiences that go beyond just having meetings or hanging out with strangers in VR. “I think there are other use cases either on the education side or on the entertainment side, that might be a bit more interesting,” she says.
However, early signs suggest we shouldn’t expect drastic improvements to Horizon Worlds. According to a recent report from The Verge, the app is so buggy that the company is struggling to get its own employees to use it consistently.
How will it get creators and third-parties on board?
But that brings up another issue: for all of Zuckerberg’s talk about interoperability and making the metaverse an open ecosystem, Meta has so far shown little progress when it comes to bringing outside developers or other companies into its vision in a meaningful way.
They’ve also already alienated many creators and would-be early adopters with a 48-percent commission on sales of virtual items in Horizon Worlds. For a company that has made Apple’s “App Store Tax” a central talking point, and has made investing in creators one of its top priorities, it’s no surprise that a high take feels like a slap in the face to creators.
How will it handle harassment, misinformation and other harms?
Considering Meta’s track record on unintended harms, the company has said surprisingly little about how it plans to address these issues in the metaverse. The company has given cursory nods to trust and safety in the Metaverse — Meta policy chief Nick Clegg has talked about defining standards for the metaverse — but so far the company seems to be borrowing from the same playbook it’s always used.
Already, this is more than a theoretical problem. Meta added a “Personal Boundary” feature in February, billing it as a way for people to protect their personal space while in VR. But that update only came after reports of groping in the metaverse had already gone viral. While that update may address one form of harassment, others have noted it could also encourage other disturbing behaviors, like encircling users in an effort to virtually “gang up” on them.
It also shows that Meta is still largely reactive when it comes to safety issues: spinning up new features and quick fixes in response to a bad news cycle rather than launching with them already in place.
What about AR and non-headset enabled experiences?
We’re expecting Zuckerberg to talk a lot about virtual reality — the company is launching its newest headseat at Connect — but it’s a lot less clear how augmented reality fits into the company’s current plans. Meta has teased AR glasses, but those are likely at least two years away.
And without glasses, much of Meta’s work on AR is limited to in-app effects for Instagram and Facebook, which are popular but definitely not part of any kind of metaverse. And it’s still not at all clear that Meta has a plan for integrating its existing social platforms into the metaverse. In a recent interview with Protocol, Zuckerberg suggested the company was thinking about it, but stopped short of giving any kind of idea as to how this may work.
“For Horizon, making it so that you can create a world and share it on Facebook or Instagram, and people can just jump into it from there — that's going to be pretty valuable,” he said. But, he added, “we need to be careful about not making it primarily a mobile experience.” The reason, he said, is because he wants the metaverse to be about new platforms and technologies, not simply an extension of the mobile products that already exist. But the fact is the market for VR headsets is still tiny compared with the number of people who use Facebook and Instagram.
And if he wants more of them onboard, they should be able to experience the metaverse in some form with the devices they already own.