Facebook, beware: the metaverse is flat

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In a few weeks, Mark Zuckerberg will announce a new virtual reality headset from Meta Platforms Inc. Unfortunately, we already know what it will look like. A video of the alleged device made the rounds online after someone found one in a hotel room. Still, none of this should matter, as VR headsets are becoming too distracting and not integral to the early growth of the so-called Metaverse, a 3D version of the internet that many see as its next. chapter. It turns out that flat screens do the job just fine.

While Facebook has sold around 14 million VR headsets to date, millions more have visited the metaverse through regular 2D screens like the one you’re watching right now, through apps like Roblox and Epic Games Inc’s Fortnite. The trend is expected to continue for several more years as VR headsets are slow to reduce in size and price.

This puts Zuckerberg in an awkward position. He wants you to buy Meta’s helmet, known as Quest, because it gives him greater control over the metaverse market he’s building down the line. And the reason is clear: for years it has been subject to the rules of app guardians Google and Apple Inc. of Alphabet Inc., paying their fees and following edicts such as the App Tracking Transparency prompt that will cost Facebook advertising approximately $14 million. sales this year.

It would be a painful, almost unthinkable step for Facebook to make its Horizon Worlds metaverse platform available on app stores. But maybe there is another way. Facebook could allow people to visit the platform through a simple browser.

Google’s Stadia uses a service called cloud-streaming that lets people play great video games through Chrome. It’s an expensive process, requiring powerful servers, but it could help Facebook bypass Apple and Google while attracting a flood of curious new users. Meta’s chief technology officer, Andrew Bosworth, hinted on Twitter earlier this year that a web version was in the cards, but a company spokeswoman declined to provide further details.

“It would be a 3D version of Facebook that looks like a game, but you would browse it from your desktop,” said Sam Huber, CEO of real estate startup LandVault. “It could become the most popular game in the world.”

Even modest popularity would reassure investors who are likely to balk at the slow growth of the company’s headset customers: barely 300,000 people have visited Horizon Worlds since its launch last October. You can only access the platform through a Quest 2 headset.

“Facebook seems to be running off of a sunk cost error,” said Wagner James Au, an author and blogger who’s covered the metaverse for more than a decade. “There is no data to support VR headsets as being the mass market device.”

In fact, the flat versions of the Metaverse are far more popular than the 3D versions. About three-quarters of Roblox’s 52 million daily visitors are on a phone, while the vast majority of people using Microsoft Corp.’s Minecraft or Fortnite. are on desktop or mobile.

Several metaverse companies have also pivoted to the flat. Decentraland, for example, a virtual world for trading crypto assets, was marketed as a “virtual reality platform” when it launched its initial coin offering in 2017. Yet all of its users have since rendered via desktop or browser, depending on the company.

VRChat, a platform for socializing with other avatars, was first launched as an app for Oculus headsets in 2014. Three years later, it produced a desktop version and was able to attract million additional users.

“The problem is the price,” said Artur Sychov, the founder of metaverse startup Somnium Space, whose users primarily visit on a browser. Meta’s Quest 2 costs around $400, while other rival headsets can exceed $800.

Entering a virtual world on a screen is actually a decent proxy for “real” virtual reality and certainly more engaging than a regular video call, as I discovered when Sychov showed me around the Somnium universe during of our Zoom meeting. Since I wasn’t technically with him as an avatar, Sychov held a virtual tablet in front of him with a “camera” that allowed me to track his movements in space.

Seeing him pointing at art in a virtual gallery and moving through colorful forests, even on my laptop screen, was enough to make me imagine I was there.

So far, Meta’s marketing has focused on the immersive benefits of VR headsets, creating the feeling that you’re really with co-workers or in a fitness class. But that misses the real selling point of the Metaverse – 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 cutting-edge headsets, and more on emulating metaverse pioneers like Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft. Nearly a quarter of Roblox users have created millions of games for the platform, creating a marketplace for commerce and enjoyment. Almost all of its content is user-generated, much like TikTok or YouTube, and that’s a big part of its appeal.

Zuckerberg also needs to turn his metaverse into a place where creators can thrive. Facebook’s current push to test tools for creators seems overdue, given the lead other pioneers have.

Too much focus on immersive technology is putting the cart before the horse. Meta needs to make its metaverse both accessible and attractive to creators. Going “flat” would be a good start.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

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• Can Apple be a privacy hero and an advertising giant? : Parmy Olson

• Don’t expect drones to drop your packages: Thomas Black

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former journalist for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is the author of “We Are Anonymous”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion


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