As you’ve likely heard, Facebook advanced its already-formidable spatial computing ambitions last week by launching a division to bring it closer to the metaverse. Operating under Facebook Reality Labs (FRL), it will federate several products under a common goal.
That common goal was further reinforced through Mark Zuckerberg’s public comments that Facebook will transition over the next decade into a metaverse company. That’s right, he’s the latest to get caught up in the buzzword that’s become a fixture in XR marketing-speak.
To expand on that, ‘metaverse’ isn’t a new concept, defining digital worlds that host synchronous human interaction. But it’s been amplified over the past six months — with some concrete discussion and some ambigious marketing hype (as it often goes with buzzwords).
Zuckerberg is in the former camp, with well-formulated visions for Facebook’s metaverse. Following Part I of this series on his Vergecast appearance, we now examine his recent dialogue with Andrew Bosworth around Facebook’s Metaverse moves (video and takeaways below).
What’s Behind Facebook’s Metaverse Play?
Picking up where we left off last week, Zuckerberg describes the metaverse as an “embodied internet.” It will ideally offer the connectivity, utility, and entertainment of the web, but fleshed out in 3D. This will enhance existing use cases and create new ones (think: events).
“Think about the metaverse as an embodied internet,” Zuckerburg said, “where instead of just viewing content, you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage.“
But beyond the conceptual backdrop and potential use cases we covered last week, what are the technological underpinnings that need to be established? The thing about the metaverse — despite the term’s runaway popularity today — is that it’s years away from materializing.
Until then, some of the eventual metaverse’s benefits can be seen today in Facebook efforts like Portal and other video conferencing. Though these have become routine and even “fatigued” in a pandemic, they’re fundamentally tied to the ambitions for a fleshed-out 3D version.
That eventual vision will involve AR and VR — which Facebook is clearly keen to develop. But for metaverse interactions to be scalable and inclusive, they have to be compatible with a range of devices including today’s standards like smartphones, tablets and PCs (think: Fortnite).
Breaking Down Facebook’s XR Road Map
Focusing on those more advanced hardware endpoints, Facebook Reality Labs (FRL) continues to invest in deep research for the user experience. There, Zuckerberg asserts that it’s all about the inputs. We often think of computing systems as outputs but they’re more defined by inputs.
For example, PCs are defined by the ways we control them, such as keyboard and mice. The same goes for mobile (touch and voice) and gaming (controllers). So a key design element for AR and VR is agency, which is why FRL spends so much time on human-computer interaction.
And given spatial computing’s depth of sensory immersion, these interfaces need to be much more multi-dimensional than your keyboard. We’re talking voice, hand tracking and eye tracking, all of which exist today in various forms. But the next step is neural interfaces.
Though Facebook shelved its mind-control ambitions, it still works on wrist-controlled inputs — where people are comfortable wearing hardware. Born from its CTRL Labs acquisition, its wrist device will control immersive experiences with positional tracking and biometric sensors.
But to do all of this requires tightly integrated systems, which translates to owning the full tech stack. So unlike building Facebook (web-based software), FRL needs to build the hardware (AR & VR), software, operating system, CPU and GPU — most of which it’s already working on.
Can Advertising Scale in VR? (Yes and No)
Lastly, how will the metaverse make money? Naturally for Facebook, the path to monetization involves advertising, as we — and the always-insightful Avi Bar-Zeev — examined recently. As Zuckerberg said during a congressional privacy-reform grilling, “Senator, we sell ads.”
Ads not only align with Facebook’s core business, but with historical evidence. Media has always relied on distribution and ad support. Though consumers pay for premium content (think: iTunes movie collections, console games, etc.), mass-market scale is in ad-supported media.
This not only goes for distribution channels like broadcasters (traditionally) and online networks (today), but content creators. The majority of mobile game developers today wouldn’t exist if not for the ability to monetize through ad support, usually through in-game ad networks like Unity.
Facebook invokes this developer support to score some altruism points (perhaps rightly so) in an area where it’s otherwise gotten lots of flack. It also points to the fact that ad support is ultimately what will keep the cost of VR hardware and content down – something it’s erstwhile subsidized.
While investing billions in AR & VR to establish market share and pole position, the byproduct is accelerating an ecosystem that will propel legions of developers. And it’s selling VR hardware at a loss to reach network effect faster (classic Facebook)…which directly benefits VR consumers.
“Five years ago, we launched Rift, and the total cost was a $700-$800 device,” said FRL lead Andrew Bosworth. “And then you’ve also got a machine on top of that. So that was a total cost of ownership of almost two thousand dollars. Now you’re talking about all in at $300.”
We’ll pause there and cue the full video below…