Unequal presence: What If the metaverse is better without virtual reality?

[This Wired analysis of Meta’s latest virtual reality headset and the company’s plans to incorporate less immersive means of accessing shared virtual spaces considers two problems: The still-limited quality of nascent VR technologies and the metaverse (however it’s defined) means that only a minority of consumers and even workers want to use them, and when the minority of people who do use VR meet and collaborate in virtual spaces with the majority who don’t, it produces an undemocratic and potentially dysfunctional distribution of immersion and presence. Theoretically the first problem will be solved when the technology is (finally) ready for a mass market, but the second problem is likely to persist. –Matthew]

What If the Metaverse Is Better Without Virtual Reality?

By Steven Levy
October 14, 2022

The most expensive three letters in technology are p-r-o. Whenever a company releases a product with that trio attached to its name, your wallet is going to take a beating. Case in point is Meta’s newly announced Quest Pro VR headset. It costs $1,500, a jump of more than a grand over the previous model, the Quest 2. While the Pro device uses recent breakthroughs from Meta’s research lab to considerably improve on its previous model, the stunning price differential defies the conventional approach to winning over an audience for cutting-edge but unproven technology—making it more affordable over time. Eight years after buying the VR startup Oculus and proclaiming digital reality the next step in computing, Mark Zuckerberg is still talking about selling devices to early adopters, with the idea that its features will eventually trickle down to more affordable gear. For, uh, amateurs.

Perhaps to compensate for that, Meta also announced a significant shift in who gets to access its metaverse. Zuckerberg doggedly insists that VR’s destiny is to become the default means by which we socialize. But he knows as well as anyone that network effects are critical in social apps. What’s the use in buying a VR rig to hang out with your buddies, if they don’t have rigs of their own? Yes, it helps that the new headsets can track your facial expressions, have brighter screens, and don’t feel like you’re wearing an anvil on your face. But if the cost of that comfort is prohibitive, the platform will never get to critical mass. So in an effort to broaden the use of the technology in social settings, Meta announced two new features that will arrive in 2023. People will be able to access the company’s version of the metaverse, Horizon Worlds, via web browser. And groups of VR explorers at companies that use Meta’s productivity app Workrooms will be able to pop in via Zoom.

This could be awkward. During the keynote of Meta Connect, the company’s annual event for VR developers, Zuckerberg gave people a glimpse of what Meta calls “the future of meetings.” It’s a shared space called a “Magic Room,” which Meta says is intended to “make collaborators feel equally present in a shared space, no matter where they are or what tech they’re using.” The company says you can even achieve this presence in virtual reality via your phone.

But in the clip Zuckerberg showed to illustrate this vision, the playing field seems far from level. A team of four people worked at a virtual table to assemble a prototype of a skateboard. Wait, check that—only three of them were at the table. Two people were in the actual room wearing headsets to view the imaginary objects via augmented reality. One, apparently working remotely, was present as a cartoon avatar that could manipulate the artificial objects. But the fourth participant was a second-class citizen of the metaverse, visible only as a face on a virtual monitor, numbly grinning while he watched others creating what looked like a fairly lame toy skateboard out of thin air. The three people hacking away at this project became giddy with their achievement, fist-bumping, dancing, and generally having a hoot. You almost expect them to break out in an ensemble performance of “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid. Meanwhile pathetic Zoom guy … looks on.

As much as we gripe about Zoom, one good thing about it is that it equalizes the power dynamic of meetings. Imagine being trapped in those little boxes while everybody else is virtually cavorting.

Another part of the keynote was a scripted conversation between Meta’s vice president of metaverse, Vishal Shah, and his boss, chief technology officer Andrew Bosworth. After touting the variety of virtual environments people have created in Horizon Worlds, Shah rhapsodized about how great it will be when people can wander in via the web. The experience, he says, “takes their ability to connect people to another level.” But since your web browser and phone don’t provide an immersive VR display, it’s the same level—only you’re experiencing it in steerage, while Quest-equipped users travel in first class. Boz hinted at why Meta would want to invite people to that second-class experience: ”We can’t give everyone an immersive experience,” he said, “But it’ll be a while before there are enough headsets out there.”

Whether or not that’s the right approach, it’s one that some VR startups have come around to. As hard as it is to give up a fully immersive VR experience, the audiences aren’t there yet. One company, Mesmerise, has invested deeply in avoiding the compromises of a hybrid experience. “The perfect scenario is everyone in VR,” says CEO Andrew Hawken. “Everyone giving their undivided attention—you’re all in it together.” But even Hawken admits that too many people think that donning headsets isn’t worth it, and Mesmerise is working on a 2-D interface. “The experience is compromised, but we don’t want to exclude people,” he says.

Another VR startup, Spatial, made that decision a while ago. “We thought the computer of the future would be a pair of glasses,” says CEO Anand Agarawala. His company first built for Microsoft’s HoloLens, and then for Quest headsets, but Spatial never saw its worlds populated with crowds of users. “People were reluctant to put on a headset,” Agarawala says. Even when people owned the hardware, when it was time for a meeting, some wouldn’t have it handy, and others were frustrated by setting it up. It was so much easier to just do a meeting in Zoom or Teams. So Agarawala created a non-VR means to access his virtual worlds and workspaces. It’s not immersive, but people can log on in five seconds. Now, he says, 80 percent of his customers use the web or mobile. Those people don’t feel bad that they’re not getting an immersive experience—because they’re in the majority.

Could it be that the metaverse doesn’t require VR after all? For now, even with headsets, the current technology leaves some people cold—apparently including people paid to work on VR at Meta itself. Recent internal memos written by Shah and leaked to the Verge admit that Horizon Worlds is plagued with “quality gaps and performance issues.” And Meta is having difficulty getting its own engineers to meet in VR, despite orders from above that they must do so. “The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?,” Shah wrote. Maybe they’ll love the web version more.

Still, during his Meta Connect keynote, Zuckerberg brimmed with optimism. And his talk had its share of impressive moments. One of the most interesting involved a surprise guest: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who announced that sometime next year his company’s Teams platform will somehow work with Meta’s Workrooms. Also, Microsoft’s productivity tools will be able to work on Quest. That makes sense for Microsoft, which always wants its flagship products on as many platforms as possible.

Joining Mark Zuckerberg’s risky bet isn’t risky at all for Nadella. So what if it takes years for the collaboration to justify the effort, if it ever does—Microsoft can afford to wait. After all, it already has over 100 million customers in the metaverse, through Minecraft, which Microsoft bought in 2014 for $2.5 billion. While VR versions of Minecraft are available, the vast majority of users access it sans headsets. And they seem pretty happy.

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