Farhad Manjoo: My Sad, Lonely, and Expensive Adventures in Zuckerberg’s Virtual Reality

Farhad Manjoo: My Sad, Lonely, and Expensive Adventures in Zuckerberg’s Virtual Reality

Just what does the Meta get for all the money you spend on the “metaverse”?

(Eric Risberg | AP photo) Seen on a device screen in Sausalito, California, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces his new name, Meta, during a virtual event on Thursday, October 28, 2021. Zuckerberg spoke about his latest passion – creating reality. A virtual “metaverse” for business, entertainment and meaningful social interactions.

Where does all the money go?

Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, is investing staggering sums in what it calls “the metaverse,” a virtual reality wonderland that Mark Zuckerberg argues represents the future of human communication.

But to me, the more interesting questions about the metaverse are less social than financial. When I wear the company’s latest virtual reality headset, the $1,500 Meta Quest Pro, and parachute into Horizon Worlds, the virtual Meta theme park, the future of human communication isn’t what I’m left wondering. Instead, it’s the case for the Meta Accounting department.

Xanadu Zuckerberg is a cartoon wasteland. Everywhere you look, billboards promise great fun; There are concerts, game rooms, open mics, ballrooms, bowling alleys, escape rooms and much more. But almost all of it is a tease. Most of these places were left to die; You will be lucky to find many places filled with more than one other avatar. Every corner of the Meta metaverse is scary abandonment, like the post-apocalyptic US for Fallout games. As you walk around the deserted place, you can’t imagine all those billions burning: Zuckerberg killed all that dough… on this? How? why? What is he thinking? Is he being blackmailed?

The amounts are staggering. In an earnings statement last month, the company said Reality Labs, its metaverse business, spent nearly $4 billion in the most recent fiscal quarter. The division has spent more than $10 billion so far this year, in pace to surpass the $12 billion it spent on the metaverse last year. In just a few years, Meta VR investment has exceeded what the United States spent on the Manhattan Project (adjusted for inflation).

To be sure, plenty of tech companies are pumping boatloads into new initiatives. Netflix has invested tens of billions of dollars in movies and TV shows. Tesla is spending heavily to build its car and battery manufacturing operations. And every year, Amazon spends billions and billions on data centers and fulfillment warehouses.

But what sets Meta spending apart is how little it has to show for the money. At least we got billions from Netflix on ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘Squid Game’. Tesla money is revolutionizing the auto industry. Amazon’s endless investment allows me to ship toothpaste and toilet paper the same day. On the other hand, spending Meta on virtual reality seems more fruitful than shoveling money in the oven. Reality Labs’ $12 billion costs resulted in just $2.3 billion in revenue last year; So far this year, revenue has been a bit higher, while costs have been up by more than a quarter.

Meta’s big spending might make sense if it used the money to subsidize the cost of VR headsets — cutting their prices enough to make the hardware a major hit. But like I said, the company’s latest VR device sells for $1,500.

Meta Quest Pro is very nice. It’s more comfortable to wear than older and cheaper versions, and the display and motion tracking system works more smoothly, eliminating the slight sense of motion sickness and eye strain you’ve felt with previous VR devices.

However, it is beyond the price range of most consumers. Meta says the device is aimed at professionals who want to make virtual reality a large part of their remote offices, but even that seems stretched. A huge, huge thing is still sitting on your head; I struggled to stay in any VR session for longer than an hour or so before my head started to ache. I doubt there will be many office workers who turn to this headset as their primary work device.

And the cheapest Meta headset isn’t cheap. At $399, the Meta Quest 2 is just as expensive as many high-end video game consoles — and much less useful. Where the Xbox Series S or PlayStation 5 is teeming with games and a huge community of users to play against, much of the Meta Quest ecosystem feels like a work in progress. There are many apps and games available in the Meta VR Store, and some of them are quite interesting; However, most of them seem like beta products, asking you $10 or $20 for games that hardly provide an hour of fun.

Then there’s Horizon Worlds, the social corner of the meta metaverse. Horizon Worlds is meant to be the Facebook virtual reality counterpart: a place to hang out, chat with friends and strangers, play games, and explore the digital future of human relationships. It seems to be Zuckerberg’s favorite part of virtual reality; He frequently posts pictures of his adventures across Horizon Worlds, often describing it as the future of digital socialization. But in a call with investors last month, he acknowledged that Horizon Worlds “clearly has a long way to go before it is what we aspire to.”

I will say. Citing internal company documents, the Wall Street Journal reported last month that Meta had been forced to lower its growth forecast for Horizon Worlds. The company previously aimed to reach 500,000 monthly active users by the end of the year, but it’s currently less than 200,000.

The company document cited by the magazine noted that “an empty world is a sad world.” It rang true to me. My time in Horizon Worlds has often felt more bleak than fun. This is the main social app on the most important new device made by the Internet’s most successful social networking company – a buggy, empty, low-resolution mess where avatars have no legs (yet), where most of the “worlds” The ones I visited were deserted and the most populous places I found had only a dozen people in them, and where the conversations are often a little deeper than ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’

I’m not ruling out socialization in virtual reality; It is possible that one day someone will crack the code to have fun in virtual worlds. But the big Meta spending doesn’t get us there. This is a company with a lot of money and little original or innovative thinking. She burns off billions at a party no one wants to attend.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times.

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