Last month, Facebook announced that it will rebrand its parent company name to Meta Platforms Inc. (Meta) during its annual Connect conference. This comes as no surprise for anyone who has kept an eye on the brand’s latest hardware innovations. With a focus on smart glasses, virtual reality headsets, and lifelike video calls over the internet, Meta hopes to shift beyond its roster of two-dimensional social media platforms to an interactive digital environment it’s dubbing the Metaverse. While the individual Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook apps will remain unchanged, Meta is focused on replicating the feeling of real social presence with interactions over the internet. If Meta pulls it off well, the Metaverse could open the door for new work, social, and gaming possibilities that will impact your everyday life.
And the key there is “if.” I’ve worked around virtual and augmented reality since the consumer launch of VR headsets in 2016, and witnessed many companies striving to create the ultimate interconnected social space over the past five years. Meta is the only corporation with the capital and scale to successfully build out the Metaverse, as seen by its $86 billion in profits last year and its portfolio of successful social platforms used by nearly 3.5 billion people. Here, I breakdown Facebook’s vision for the Metaverse, the gear needed to take you there if you’re thinking of dipping a virtual toe in the virtual water, and what we can expect going forward.
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What Is the Metaverse?
The Metaverse is best summarized as an online digital social space where people can meet, work, and play collaboratively across a variety of devices. Bridging the gap between VR headsets, mobile devices, and laptops, users can “enter” a virtual environment that consists of interconnected worlds from apps to games. A core part of the experience is creating a digital avatar of yourself that helps ground your presence in this next evolution of interacting with the web. If you’re inside the Metaverse using a VR headset like the Oculus Quest 2, you can communicate with others from a virtual environment of your choosing while represented by your digital avatars. Whether you’re in a casual chat with a friend or a work meeting, you can talk to people in the real world through their phone or webcam, while they’re displayed on a virtual screen in front of you.
With remote jobs and hybrid work-from-home schedules now a permanent fixture of many people’s everyday lives, it makes sense for Meta to push on this now. During the Connect conference, Mark Zuckerberg said as much, "Over the last year and a half, a lot of us who work in offices have gone remote...I think remote work is here to stay for a lot of people. So we’re going to need better tools to work together.” Capitalizing on the lack of shared office environments from home, Meta’s Horizon Workrooms app recreates the office experience from anywhere with an internet connection. If you own an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset, you can scan your computer, keyboard, and desk into a virtual space by mapping them out with a passthrough camera and screen casting. This means you can still see your physical computer and use your peripherals with tracking for a Holodeck level of interactivity that blends real world tools with virtual reality environments. In this virtual space you can collaborate with coworkers as if you were in an office complete with spatial-aware audio, have the ability to share screens, and participants in VR or not can draw on a whiteboard from miles apart. People not in VR can still communicate and be part of the experience for an engaging level of collaboration and interactivity a cut above standard video communication services today.
While the avatars in Workrooms are cartoony at best and the environment customization is quite limited, it’s hard to deny that it’s an engaging way of collaborating with others after using the open beta for the past three months. Since you don’t need to jump out of VR to share files or docs, and anyone can access a space without the need for a headset, the blended work environment is what the Metaverse is all about—a collaborative social experience accessible from multiple points. The technology works so well that as of last week, Microsoft announced it too would put resources toward creating a work Metaverse (which it calls Mesh), adding features to its Teams platform over the next year. Employees will be able to meet in virtual offices using VR headsets, chat traditionally over webcams, or equip digital avatars as stand-ins, all while accessing Microsoft’s suite of tools including Power Point for engaging collaborative talks and presentations.
At the start of the pandemic, Zoom made it easy and accessible to share our digital presence from anywhere. Now that we’re at an inflection point where our online existence is more important than our physical presence going forward, Facebook and Microsoft are trying to beat each other to the next evolution of the office. But the Metaverse goes far beyond work with social and gaming applications that allow you to share spaces with other people from around the world.
Why is Meta So Invested?
With a background in successful social platforms that hosts over 3 billion monthly active users, Meta can tap into its existing user base and social network development R&D to flesh out and own the emerging Metaverse as a new digital frontier. By creating the entire infrastructure, Meta owns the hardware and software powering users digital lives. From shopping and browsing social media to watching movies in a virtual theater with people from all over the country, if you can do something in your everyday life, you can bet it translates to the Metaverse. Other than the troves of data Meta stands to gain from this, the company can now offer much more impactful ads or licensing deals for digital items. Ads are a big part of Facebook’s billions in annual profit, accounting for $28 billion of its $29 billion total revenue in the third quarter of 2021. The ability to put ad space in a new world, sell digital items for real money, and attract younger adults to its platforms is a huge opportunity for the brand to boost its revenue.
If you want to see how lucrative these digital items and deals are, look no further than Roblox. Roblox is an online children’s game often credited as a Metaverse pioneer because players can enter the game world from a virtual reality headset, computer, tablet, or phone. While the Roblox IPO launched earlier in March of this year at $64 dollars per share, that’s jumped to $110, a 57 percent increase. With its own virtual in-game economy that can only be bought using real world dollars, user-created content, and collaborations with brands like Gucci and a digital concert with Lil Nas X, the company prints money off of digital items from kids alone. You can see why Meta is willing to spend $10 billion this year alone building out the Metaverse, applying the concept to adults with access to disposable income.
The biggest distinction about Meta’s version of the Metaverse is that it’s VR-centric with a focus on avatars, object interaction, and virtual environments. In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg purchased virtual reality startup Oculus for $2 billion from then 21 year-old founder Palmer Luckey and his co-founders. Facebook proceeded to kick off the consumer launch of VR headsets two years later with the Oculus Rift. Headsets struggled to gain a foothold given the expensive prices, strong computer requirements, and a need for external trackers. This changed in 2019 with the original Oculus Quest system, a fully wireless standalone VR headset that allowed anyone to jump into room-scale VR experiences instantly. For the past two years, the Oculus Quest lineup has been one of the most popular holiday items, leading to exponential growth under the guise of a game console. Over time Meta morphed its priorities to parlay the device into a much larger ecosystem with additional, broader uses than just gaming, with access to apps for work and socializing.
The Gear You Need To Enter The Metaverse
Oculus Quest 2
To fully enter the Metaverse, you’ll need an Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset. I’ve owned this device since its launch last fall. Singlehandedly fixing a majority of the hurdles keeping people out of VR, from a low price point to ease of use, the Quest 2 is a wireless standalone system. Since the OS, graphics chip, and storage components are built directly into the Quest 2, the device functions like a wearable computer. Six built-in external tracking cameras follow the position of your head and hands within a space without the need for separate tracking sensors placed on walls or tripods throughout your room. Alongside the headset and its charger are two Oculus Touch controllers. Similar to a game remote, each features a joystick, triggers, and buttons so you can grab virtual objects and interact with them. Sensors on the top ring portion of each controller track your fingers so you can gesture a thumbs up or manipulate virtual items.
When you first slip on the headset you’ll see a monochromatic view of your real-world surroundings through the Quest 2’s six external tracking cameras. From here you can map out a clear play space to walk around using an augmented reality marker over your floor. Once you confirm your boundary, the world around you disintegrates and you’re transported into a fully virtual 3D environment. Unlike other VR headsets, sound is carried throughout the head strap, piping in full from all directions while also letting you hear ambient noise in reality. When I opt for full immersion, I connect a pair of headphones to eliminate background noise.
Over the past year, I’ve physically walked around virtual casinos, events, and entire cities alongside people from all over the world. You can interact with virtual objects, so in a game like TopGolf VR that means standing sideways while gripping virtual clubs in a bay. The system is satisfying to use and haptic feedback makes it feel like you’re actually holding each item. Beyond multiplayer gaming, I’ve shared virtual spaces with friends from out of state as we watched live real-world events such as NBA games or award shows in Oculus Venues.
I often jump into Horizon Workrooms if there’s a lot of noise at home and I need to focus on my writing. You can even receive phone notifications, from text notifications to social media updates, while in these spaces. While it doesn’t seem like much the Quest 2 has sold over four million headsets in the U.S. alone and has been the most successful VR headset so far. This taste of the Metaverse opened up Facebook R&D to augmented reality and technology paving the way for the Portal lineup and smart glasses development.
Meta Portals serve as both smart displays (with Alexa smart home control) and video-chatting devices grounded in the real world. The Smart Camera and Audio technology in each Portal adjusts the camera and microphone to automatically pan around the room to keep you centered and your voice at a natural volume so you don’t have to yell or whisper. I’ve found this helpful to chat with family members while I cook and move about the kitchen. But even while you’re sitting still, the camera keeps you at an engaging angle—moving around instead of pointing up or downward from a phone in your hand. The result is a lifelike video-chat experience as if you and the person you’re speaking to are talking through a window. This sense of presence lets you feel like you’re together and makes things like watching movies together in a shared space feel natural despite being miles away and over the internet.
The “Do Things Together” button in Messenger opens up a world of interactivity for video calls to keep things engaging and fun. For example, I can read my little sisters a bedtime story with augmented reality effects making each of us a character in the story. I can stream files like photos and watch videos and movies together. And in Zoom, I get the benefits of an auto-following camera and microphone with the ability to crop out my background like when on the computer. Since the Portal Go can connect to my Microsoft work account, my meetings show up in my calendar directly on the Portal, allowing me to view upcoming appointments at a glance and hop directly into calls while using my freed-up computer screen for taking notes or making edits in real time.
Meta is developing live-event platforms so you can feel like you’re attending without leaving home. Also on the horizon are meeting experiences powered by VR inclusive to 2D attendees. The Portal will soon open a screen to the Metaverse from your desk so you can video chat with users inside of a Workrooms on their Quest 2 where you will appear on a screen in front of them and communicate with their avatar. While I’m not sold on avatar-to-real-world video chatting being very popular in the immediate future as a majority of people do not own a VR headset, it will have its place in the coming decade.
Meta is hard at work developing augmented-reality glasses codenamed Project Nazare. At Connect, Zuckerberg showed a render of what these glasses will be capable of with a keynote video in which a person wearing the glasses plans game night with friends over a WhatsApp window floating within their living room. After selecting a game, they walk over to their kitchen overlay the digital board game on an actual kitchen table and their friends appear as avatars in the space. While I have no doubt that augmented reality will reach this level of fidelity within the next three years, squeezing cameras, projectors, batteries, and sensors into a pair of everyday glasses that is comfortable to wear over extensive periods of time proves to be a challenge Meta engineers have yet to solve.
In the meantime Meta has bridged the gap with smart sunglasses in collaboration with Ray-Ban. Ray-Ban Stories models like the Wayfarer and Meteor add technology to play audio, record image and video, as well as command Facebook Assistant. They log still images at a crisp 2592x1944 resolution, but video is capped to 30-second clips at 30 frames per second with a disappointing 1414x1414 resolution. While that’s fine for capturing everyday life and vacation shots, those serious about video quality will lean toward action cameras with higher frame rates and smooth stabilization. Ray-Ban Stories are far from the final play of augmented reality holograms acknowledged by the “first-generation smart glasses” sub-branding. At the moment, they serve as the framework for AR glasses.
The Challenge Meta Faces
Meta is pumping out the hardware to access the Metaverse, but that doesn’t mean anything if people won’t buy into it. The company must overcome a past of unethical data-mining policies, housing divisive propaganda on its platforms, and allowing toxicity to wreak havoc on the mental health of teen users, which have had adverse effects on the sales of its devices. In my own experience, friends haven’t touched Oculus because of wariness over their fears of what data the headset collects. Older family members—the main demographic for the Portal lineup—don’t trust Meta not to listen to them or provide a live feed into their homes. Ultimately, Facebook’s shift to Meta can’t help the brand shed its reputation, but it can help it establish an entirely new space and earn a new core audience. While I don’t believe people will flock to own a virtual reality headset, the way we interact with each other and the focus on presence across multiple platforms to engage and share experiences over the internet is here to stay.