(Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article belong to the writer)
When Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will morph into Meta in October 2021, and the company will focus on building the “metaverse”, I watched it with a sense of disbelief and amusement at the same time.
While the change is often compared to the transformation that Google went through, becoming only one of several brands under Alphabet umbrella, there’s one crucial difference between the two. Alphabet is merely a convenient vehicle for Google’s founders to explore other ideas while with Meta, Zuckerberg is betting the future of the business on something that doesn’t really exist.
Some may describe this move as bold or daring, but I see it as hubris — particularly as Facebook itself doesn’t have a history of success beyond its original social media platform.
To make matters worse for Zuckerberg, history of personal computing itself is littered with examples of spectacular failures, coming at the hands of otherwise very successful people and companies.
Need I remind you of the Windows Tablet that had its debut nearly a decade before the iPad? What about Windows Phones, Microsoft’s belated attempt at getting into the mobile space? What about Google Plus? Or the modular smartphone of Google’s Project Ara, that was supposed to change the world of mobile forever?
What about Facebook Phone or Facebook Home app, that was supposed to hijack your mobile home screen with a FB interface? What about Amazon’s ill-fated Fire Phone? The hilariously broken Apple Maps? Its overheating G4 Cube? Or entire history of axing useful ports to up-sell users on a universe of clunky dongles (that it has just withdrawn from with the launch of the new M1 MacBooks)?
What about the Groupon deal craze, that all of the big tech giants tried to have a stab at and failed spectacularly, burning millions before the entire business model went to hell?
And, closer to the VR/AR metaverse concept – what about Google Glass? Microsoft Hololens? Magic Leap, that wowed people with fake videos? All of them are still alive, but as niche enterprise products, instead of the mass market AR devices that once promised to change how we interact with the world around.
That said, whenever any of the major players — Google, Apple, Amazon or Microsoft — launched another ill-conceived product or service, they never bet their entire companies on it. Whatever it was, it was merely an addition, an extension of their offering, a venture into something new that may or may not work, but not a redefinition of what the business is fundamentally about.
With Meta, however, Zuckerberg decided to go through a convoluted rebranding exercise that doesn’t even have a viable product or service that anybody actually wants to use.
Sure, he pledged US$10 billion in annual investment into the metaverse over the next decade — which, for comparison, is about half of NASA’s annual budget (think what could be done with it!) — but throwing money at a problem doesn’t lead anywhere if you don’t even know what is the problem you’re trying to solve.
And it doesn’t seem that Zuckerberg himself has any idea.
A middleman that nobody needs
Meta’s promise broadly encompasses two areas: virtual reality and augmented/mixed reality.
The latter, however, has already been tackled by Google, Microsoft and smaller third-party companies. In other words, Meta/Facebook isn’t even a first-mover in the space and is up against billions of dollars that its competitors have already spent on products that are in actual use.
To revolutionise AR, it would have to produce devices that fulfil the criteria others have thus far failed at. Given that it is not a hardware company, nor one with a history of success at launching any particular devices on its own, a healthy dose of skepticism is obviously necessary.
In terms of VR, it has acquired the highly popular Oculus and is leading the global sales of VR headsets, even though the original founding team has already left the company.
However, the question now is: how big is the use case for VR headsets at all?
The dominant sector is of course gaming, which is the main, if not the sole driver of VR hardware purchases. And, indeed, Zuckerberg spoke of gaming extensively during his presentation, and how games will be a major part of Meta’s metaverse.
There’s just one problem, VR games existed before “metaverse” entered common vocabulary.
You don’t need some grand platform to enjoy them. In a way, every computer game is a small metaverse in itself (whether it’s VR or not), where you transform into a soldier, gangster, general, racing driver or a business tycoon — and then you log out back into the real world when you’re done living your parallel, digital adventures.
VR has been around, with mixed success, for years. There are many popular titles (like Beat Saber), though few that we could label as AAA (with exception of Half-Life: Alyx, perhaps, where game developer Valve leveraged the legendary brand of its first-person shooter).
So despite Zuckerberg touting metaverse as a fun place where you can play games with friends, the reality is that… you can already do it.
VR gaming is already here, growing and likely to become a significant segment of entertainment in the future. But that’s no news. Do we need a fancy new name for that? Do we need an intermediary platform to get access to something someone has already done?
Meta clearly wants to position itself as a gatekeeper to the virtual world, piggybacking on the popularity of its largely subsidised headsets to become a middleman, taking a cut from everything happening in it.
Zuckerberg thinks that beyond gaming, metaverse is going to become a world for virtual social gatherings, where we will be meeting with our friends, colleagues, bosses and have more immersive, personal interactions with them than through a flat screen of a phone or laptop.
And he wants a piece of it.
Not discouraged by the failure of Facebook Home, that was supposed to hijack our smartphone screens, Zuckerberg raises the stakes and wants to hijack our eyeballs and senses. But does anybody actually want that?
Sitting at home with a plastic strap beaming virtual worlds into our eyeballs for hours, duping us into thinking we’re somewhere else instead of actually going there?
Heck, it’s even worse. With facial tracking built into the headsets, the device will transmit your expressions over the internet to your co-participants, removing the only advantage of Zoom or Skype calls, which was the ability to occasionally go dark on your camera and not be seen, while the meeting goes on. So you can have a cup of coffee or a bagel, without anybody watching disapprovingly (or seeing your eyeballs roll).
Can you imagine sitting through a business meeting with a plastic helmet over your head and eyes for an hour more, even if it’s in your own house?
And, save for the pandemic that kept many of us locked in homes, who would choose a virtual meetup with fake avatars of your buddies over a beer, popcorn and cinema night out in the city?
A child of Covid-19
I’ve been thinking about where Zuckerberg got his inspiration for Meta and it struck me: the pandemic.
Facebook’s founder took the most hated experiences of the past two years — lockdowns, staying at home, lack of social gatherings — and decided to make a product out of them.
Millions of people are sick and tired of pandemic restrictions to social activity, and many have angrily taken it to the streets. But Zuckerberg looked at people locked in their houses, forced to interact with others through the internet and thought, ‘Hey, this is great, let’s make our company all about it!’.
If the pandemic should have taught us anything by now, it is that people yearn for the real world, for real life interactions, for going out, travel, sport or even a simple walk in the park. What people do not want is being chained to a digital device at home for days on end.
Sure, it may be fun, it may even be useful for certain things, but all of it is secondary. Interacting with our smartphones is often quick — you take a glance at notifications or messages, respond or not, and get back to whatever else you were doing.
Messenger apps are useful and stress-free because everybody responds at their own pace, in their own time. This is not so with VR. Actually putting a device on to access anything is the antithesis of a good UX unless the user wants a particularly immersive experience in that time and place.
It’s a limited, and not an all-use case hardware.
Reinventing the reality
The problem with Meta’s vision of the metaverse is that it’s not so much augmenting our reality, but competing with it.
The few cases that VR may be attractive for — like gaming, making fitness more fun or virtual visits to places around the world — are already available.
What exactly is Meta’s role beyond developing new hardware, built on the back of its Oculus acquisition? Zuckerberg never explained, although we can sense that he wants to be, as I said, a middleman controlling everybody in the virtual world.
Watching technical demos and visions for the future presented by Meta, you can’t escape the impression that the company is about to burn about US$100 billion dollars in the next decade trying to achieve what we already have: a reality.
Yes, if they manage to create for instance, a photorealistic simulation of fabrics in a virtual clothing store, it’s going to be a nice feat of engineering. However, we can already get the best possible experience by visiting a physical store.
One could make a case that this sort of technology could help people who live far or perhaps have disabilities, but the former is changing with rapid worldwide urbanisation and the latter, while useful, is just a niche.
In Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse, people can really just live in bunkers, hooked up to virtual reality 24/7, going out on fake meetings, decorating their fake houses, enjoying fake holidays – living fake lives.
He is talking about building relationships and connecting people, but what he is actually trying to do is disconnect us from each other and supersede real life experiences with fake ones, for which you will, however, be charged very real money.
Your life will resume right after this commercial
Zuckerberg keeps emphasising how everything Facebook ever did is “free” and how the company is keeping its fees and VR product prices to the minimum to reduce barriers of entry to both users and creators, but the company has to make money somehow.
We know how it’s been doing it so far, with ads relying on information collected about us and our behaviour.
And by the looks of things, it intends to use a similar model with its VR experiences. So your entry ticket to Facebook’s metaverse may be “free” (save for the hardware costs), but then your idyllic virtual home or fake movie nights with friends are bound to be interrupted by one ad after another, to pay for it all.
Financial Times reported on it in January:
“For us, the business model in the metaverse is commerce-led. Clearly ads play a part in that.”– Nick Clegg, Meta’s head of global affairs told the Financial Times during a recent interview.
More from the article:
“A Meta patent, granted on January 4, lays out a system for tracking a user’s facial expressions through a headset that will then “adapt media content” based on those responses.Source: Financial Times
Another explores how to present users with personalised advertising in augmented reality, based on age, gender, interest and “how the users interact with a social media platform”, including their likes and comments. Yet another one seeks to allow third parties to “sponsor the appearance of an object” in a virtual store that mirrors the layout of a retail store, through a bidding process similar to the company’s existing advertising auction process.
The patents indicate how Meta could offer ads in its immersive world that are even more personalised than what is possible within its existing web-based products.”
Online advertising is really annoying, but you can always look away. Will you be able to do that in your VR headset? Can you imagine being interrupted in your virtual life with a jingle for a box of tampons or car insurance?
The law of diminishing returns
The more you invest in something, the smaller your marginal return is going to be with time. You can observe this quite easily without being an economist.
In technology, it’s the initial breakthrough that yields the greatest return. Think of cars or planes — the first ones available changed everything. Suddenly, you were able to travel much greater distances at much higher speeds. Any future development was merely an improvement of the concept.
Similarly, in personal computing, the advent of the internet changed everything — it enabled communication that was thus far not possible.
As it sped up, the gradual functional returns on it were smaller. There’s a greater difference between having no internet and running a 1mbps connection than between 1mbps and 10mbps, or 10mbps and 100mbps. At some point, improvements become barely noticeable.
For interpersonal communication on the go, smartphone was the breakthrough. All of a sudden, we gained access to the internet everywhere and were able to connect with others, watch videos, photos, search for information.
But is a VR headset a significant improvement over it, or a good laptop?
Sure, it may be more immersive and better suited for specific use cases, but is it going to change the way we communicate or interact with each other?
Progress is about employing technology where it genuinely improves things, not everywhere. And it seems that Zuckerberg wants to overload us with tech, spending tens of billions of dollars for increasingly smaller improvements to the overall experience (and in certain cases, perhaps even detrimental to us).
Just because something may be technologically possible, doesn’t mean we should do it. Real cinemas, real parties, real bars, real gyms, real parks and beaches are better than virtual ones.
Yes, there are certainly many situations where VR can add a new dimension to our experiences — like attending a sold out concert, a football match, a Formula 1 race. But these are specific use cases in which the technology yields greater benefits, and does not apply to everything that we do.
Can Facebook even be trusted?
Last, but certainly not least, there’s the company’s very questionable reputation. Facebook is known for invasion of privacy, abuse of personal data and worst of all, general inability to refine even its own social media platform.
Zuckerberg is painting great visions of life-changing technologies, while he can’t sort his main business out.
There are approximately three billion users on Facebook, but how many of them are fake accounts, either peddling scams, leaving fake reactions and comments, or people trying to escape its overbearing censorship by using multiple names?
So far, the company is struggling to weed out criminal activity and spam from the platform, and yet it wants to build a parallel virtual universe for billions?
And how exactly is it going to police that space? In one recent case, a woman is alleged to have been “virtually gang raped” while beta-testing Horizon apps. As such, Meta is now introducing a safe space around its avatars, preventing them from coming close together (so much for realistic social interactions). You can imagine how many things may happen if it achieves broader adoption.
There’s nothing that would reassure users that Meta can ensure the environment is not going to become a garbage dump of spam, abuse or downright criminal activity, since it struggles to address these even on its largely text-based predecessor.
Equally, there’s nothing to convince them that it is any more concerned about their privacy than it has been thus far, and its current janky state may kill its prospects long before it can produce something of value.
Finally, there’s nothing that would suggest it can actually deliver anything that it promises.
Facebook is Zuckerberg’s only success. Every other endeavour has, thus far, been a failure. Instead of competing, he simply bought Instagram or WhatsApp. He’s struggling with video or attracting younger audiences from TikTok. His ventures into e-commerce on Facebook or Instagram failed to yield significant results.
In other words, beyond the original concept of connecting people and giving them a timeline gathering whatever they may be interested in, Zuckerberg hasn’t made any significant breakthroughs.
And now, not only has he decided to venture into virtual reality, but he has bet his entire company on it. If he fails — and it seems quite likely — and has to walk it all back a few years down the road, it will be the biggest failure in the history of the internet.
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Featured Image Credit: AFP via Getty Images