Home Featured The Next Stage of Zuck’s Metaverse Begins – WWD

The Next Stage of Zuck’s Metaverse Begins – WWD

The Next Stage of Zuck’s Metaverse Begins – WWD

Meta’s most sophisticated virtual reality headset to date is not for the dabbler or the VR-curious. Revealed at the Meta Connect developer conference on Tuesday, the $1,500 Meta Quest Pro is clearly an investment for prosumers or companies that are serious about the virtual experience.

Having already leaked prior to the event, the slimmer, curvier device won’t surprise VR fans but those with the deep pockets to afford it will welcome the redesigned controllers, more balanced weight distribution and dock for easier charging. What matters more, however, lies within, as new depth sensors, cameras and a major processor upgrade pave the way for more capabilities for power users, developers and businesses. Or so Meta hopes.

In other words, this premium gizmo wasn’t built to inspire blockbuster sales, but showcase what chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse can do.

The company clearly heard the criticisms over lackluster avatars, experiences and use cases, so it built a gadget capable of running improvements on all of those fronts. But calling the Quest Pro a VR device is something of a misnomer. While it immerses users in 360-degree digital environments, the tech is also plotting a course to mixed reality (XR), a souped up version of augmented reality that not only blends real and virtual elements but allows them to interact.

That opens up new experiences for the type of social metaverse of Zuckerberg’s dreams, and how the business world is the key to unlocking it.

“Millions of people use it to play games, workout, collaborate or just have fun, but for virtual reality to really reach its full potential, we need to get to the point where the 200 million people who buy new PCs each year for work can do some or all of their work even better in the metaverse,” he said.

Companies already use VR and XR in myriad ways, according to Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, chief technology officer and head of Meta’s Reality Labs. He ran through scenarios like molecular drug discovery, large-scale event planning, training and even footwear design.

“It’s a whole new kind of creative tool,” he explained. “Puma and New Balance have been designing shoes in VR using Gravity Sketch, one of my favorite 3D design apps on Quest 2.”

Andrew Bosworth explains that sneaker brands Puma and New Balance use VR to design shoes.

Creatives are a particularly high priority, whether they’re from large companies or small developers, down to indie creators on social media.

According to Vishal Shah, Meta’s vice president of the metaverse, the company is testing ways to allow creators to share video from Horizon Worlds — the VR app that houses Meta’s social metaverse — to Instagram Reels. It’s also connecting them to builders in Horizon Worlds “to see what kinds of things they can make together.”

What that will amount to remains to be seen, but the experimentation makes sense, given that Meta’s bread and butter is social media. Also unclear is how observers should square Shah’s apparent onscreen enthusiasm with recent revelations. Just days before, a leaked memo penned by Shah blasted Horizon Worlds as buggy, while pressuring seemingly unwilling staffers to use it. Awkward.

Corporate drama aside, Meta was eager to showcase its tech advancements, particularly for avatars and especially after Zuckerberg drew flack over a metaverse selfie in August.

The new full-body digital personas are much more refined. Inward-facing cameras and sensors in the Quest Pro allow for more nuanced facial expressions and thanks to better body tracking and artificial intelligence, the characters are equipped with legs for the first time.

Meta is betting that users will love these new digital twins enough to take them beyond VR. So for “continuity,” people can use them in Facebook Messenger and Instagram, with WhatsApp following in the future. In Horizon Worlds, they can also maintain multiple VR personas for, say, a professional look for work and a fantasy character for fun.

The real Mark Zuckerberg and his digital twin.

Meta’s avatars will be able to strut their stuff, thanks to the addition of legs.

This is just the latest push to tie the company’s apps together under the metaverse umbrella.

In recent months, the company began allowing users to post NFTs minted on Ethereum, Polygon and Flow on Instagram and Facebook, as connected via digital wallets like Coinbase Wallet, Dapper Wallet, MetaMask, Rainbow and Trust Wallet. It’s not the only Big Tech firm stepping out with crypto. On Tuesday, Google unveiled a deal with Coinbase to accept crypto payments for cloud services, starting early next year.

For Meta, the crypto push remains solidly on the consumer front. On that score, the trajectories of its NFT efforts and its work on avatars appear destined to overlap.

Obviously NFT avatar wearables are already available on platforms like Decentraland and others. Zuckerberg isn’t rushing into that yet but his company has been testing metaverse commerce for Horizon Worlds creators and launched NFT support for Instagram profiles. Meanwhile, his fashion-forward Avatar Store, which is just a few months old, is already growing up. According to the company, the store will go from 2D screens to VR later this year, potentially allowing Quest users to clothe their 3D characters in designers like Prada, Balenciaga and Thom Browne.

Even if consumers won’t jump into Zuck’s metaverse, they’ll surely see its emissaries out and about on social media and, soon, video calls. People will be able to show up as their avatars on Messenger and Zoom video conferences but other apps will likely follow, thanks to the release of the Meta Avatars software development kit. The developer tools, which let third-party apps make use of the VR characters for gaming and social applications, could have implications for social commerce, fashion, styling game apps and more.

The update shows significant improvement over the previous visuals. But it’s nothing compared to what Meta has in mind, longer term.

Last year, Zuckerberg offered a preview of what his company was working on for next-generation avatars. This time, one attention-getting section showed off Meta’s progress since then, with near photo-realistic visuals featuring multidimensional skin-tone shading and lighting. That’s not all: “What sets these Codec Avatars apart from other high-quality avatars that you might have seen is that they’re fully drivable…not limited to preset movements or expressions,” said the CEO, as his digital doppelgänger mirrored him wrinkling his nose and widening his eyes.

Humans (inset) and digital Codec Avatars (foreground).

Codec Avatars, like that of CEO Mark Zuckerberg (far right) take a long time to process and render. But the results looks lifelike.

He envisions realistic avatars for professional scenarios one day, although not today. Right now, processing and rendering still takes hours, which is why it’s still in the hands of researchers and not product development. But as they work to speed it up, others focus on something else: making it easier to create digital twins via 3D scanning with smartphones. That’s not a new premise — other tech companies and start-ups boast similar approaches — but few yield great results. Here, avatars produced from phone captures aren’t as richly detailed as Codec Avatars involving better equipment but they still looked impressive.

There are obviously major privacy and security concerns with realistic digital copies of real people. Zuckerberg noted that the team is weighing encryption and authentication, but in an era when deep-fake videos are already a thing, the matter is worthy of deep scrutiny by cybersecurity experts, if not ethics panels and even regulators. Either way, it’s clear that life-like avatars are on Meta’s roadmap. Should they clear the hurdles, releasing characters that skew more human than cartoon some day, it’s reasonable to expect that equally realistic avatar fashion won’t be far behind.

Until then the company has plenty of other things to keep VR fans and developers busy. It unveiled a new Made for Meta program to spur more accessories, a slew of fitness-related software and product updates — including a new active pack of accessories for workouts; an expanded creative toolkit that uses sophisticated 3D design software, and scripting languages to produce better visuals, and more.

Meta’s goal is to improve the look and experience of its metaverse.

All that work is moot without an audience, of course, and VR goggles aren’t for everyone. So if Meta can’t bring everyone to the metaverse, the plan is to bring it to them across other devices. It’s building Horizon Worlds for the web, opening up access to phones, tablets, laptops and consoles. It’s not the full experience, but more like “metaverse lite,” a taste or first step for the uninitiated.

Another access point, at least in principle, is augmented reality glasses. Meta and EssilorLuxottica’s partnership began with last year’s Ray-Ban Stories smart glasses, a precursor to their future AR spectacles. This tech is still evolving, but Rocco Basilico, the eyewear conglomerate’s chief wearables officer, teased that the partners “are working together on a new set of glasses to build a portal to the metaverse.”

According to Zuckerberg, this is separate from Project Nazare, the much-publicized AR glasses expected to debut for developers in the next few years. Basilico didn’t elaborate, saying only, “We view our partnership with Meta as a deep, long-term partnership. Together we will bring augmented reality to life with beautiful design.”

He did disclose updates for Ray-Ban Stories: The techie eyeglasses, which house embedded microphones and speakers, will get the ability to call or text over a paired smartphone, plus new tap-to-play functionality for Spotify. Such interface changes position the device as more of a personal communication and entertainment gadget, rather than just a face camera.

More entertainment is coming to VR as well. A multiyear deal with NBCUniversal will bring shows like “The Office,” “Universal Monsters” and more to the metaverse, and Universal Studios theme parks will offer Meta avatar customization onsite. Also, a VR version of the Peacock app is in the works, and Quest users will be able to watch YouTube VR with friends.

Consumer-facing experiences can make or break an emerging platform, but for Zuckerberg, businesses are still the key to unlocking his. There’s precedent for that: Even before the iPhone, Blackberries, often doled out by employers, paved the way for the smartphone’s dominance.

The Meta CEO explained his version of rolling out the red carpet for companies: “We built Horizon Workrooms as a first step toward a virtual office in the metaverse,” he said. “It feels more like being there than any video call. You see more people’s body language and the spatial audio gives you a sense of each person’s place in the room. You can have side conversations with the people sitting next to you or gesture without physically being there together.”

Collaboration is key, especially for fashion brands, whether that’s in XR — with far-flung designers working on a three-dimensional rendering of a couture dress — hashing out details with merchants or manufacturers on a video call or holding high priority meetings to plan holiday campaigns or fashion week activations.

Whether companies would turn to Meta for all that and more is a fair question. It’s one that the tech company itself apparently pondered, because it joined forces with the biggest name in workplace computing: Microsoft.

A new integration will connect Horizon Workrooms with Teams, so Quest users can connect to Microsoft’s videoconferencing platform and even use their VR avatars there. “And with Windows 365 coming to Quest, you will have a new way to securely stream the entire Windows experience, including all the personalized apps, content, settings to the VR device with the full power of Windows and Windows applications,” said Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO. With Azure Active Directory and Microsoft Intune, he added, employers can also secure Quests as they would work phones and computers.

The deal might look like all work and no play, but it’s worth remembering that Microsoft also owns Minecraft and runs one of the world’s top gaming platforms. So the arrangement includes access for Quest users to the Xbox Cloud Gaming platform so they can stream games inside VR on gigantic virtual screens, if they’d like.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

Though beneficial for Meta, the partnership still has tech pundits scratching their heads. The pair make for strange bedfellows and Nadella has been talking up his own plans for the virtual work world, which is rooted in XR platform Microsoft Mesh. But perhaps it’s not that surprising after all. This summer both companies joined the Metaverse Standards Forum, a group formed to focus on issues like interoperability and collaboration, and the Meta CEO has repeatedly emphasized the need for open, interoperable ecosystems.

Translation: The metaverse, according to Zuckerberg, is “where you feel like you’re in it, where you should be able to teleport anywhere with the people you want to engage with and bring all your stuff with you.” That can’t happen if every platform seals itself off in its own walled garden.

Now Meta is apparently mining the MSF rolls for partners. It struck a separate arrangement with another member, Accenture, in a deal that could be meaningful for brands and retailers. The global consulting firm is practically a metaverse evangelist and its work with VR and retail traverses training, store layouts, merchandising, distribution and more.

According to CEO Julie Sweet, Accenture doesn’t just talk the talk. An employer with more than 700,000 people worldwide, the company has racked up 60,000 Quest 2 headset deployments so far, and its Nth Floor virtual campus — “which we believe is the largest enterprise use of the metaverse,” she noted — serves more than 150,000 people.

“After what we’ve learned, we know there’s a huge opportunity for our clients,” Sweet said. “Now we’ll be partnering with Meta and Microsoft to help businesses create new experiences in the metaverse at scale.”

Old Facebook and Oculus developer conferences hardly showcased so many updates, partnerships and previews at research projects — like realistic avatars or electromyeography tech capable of reading thumb gestures, which may replace controllers someday.

With that, Meta may have looked like it had a lot to prove. But that’s only because it does.

Zuckerberg and Boz take a walk.

In one way, the jam-packed showcase may amount to much ado about hardly anything. Diehard Quest fans are already balking at the Quest Pro’s prohibitive expense, a price tag that could even give some businesses reason to pause. Others won’t blink at $1,500 — plenty didn’t when Google Glass came out in 2013 for the same amount — but memories of how that other hot face-worn tech flamed out are enough to set off nerves. (Technically, Google Glass is still around for enterprise clients, but the device hasn’t been updated in three years.)

For Meta, none of that matters. It doesn’t expect huge sales revenue from the Quest Pro. What it cares about is showing momentum, progress and a lineup of major partners that believe in its vision, thereby proving that its $10 billion a year bet on the metaverse is worth risking the entire $340 billion tech empire. The message to investors, agape at disappointing earnings quarters, as well as brands, developers, enterprises, employers and consumers is unmistakable: “Keep the faith.”

Zuckerberg knows that’s a tall order, even admitting publicly this week that VR has hit “the trough of disillusionment.” The tech lingo describes something fashion knows all too well: the fast crash of an “It” fad. So far, Wall Street doesn’t seem convinced that avatars with legs are enough to reverse that.

But the CEO still has cards left to play. Somewhere between the last-generation Quest 2 headset and the premium Quest Pro, there’s room for another device — the rumored, and probably more affordable, Quest 3. There’s also EssilorLuxxotica’s new “portal to the metaverse,” whatever that is. If that’s not enough, well, there are still plenty of other potential partners in the Metaverse Standards Forum.

Meta should also focus on other, arguably bigger, priorities, such as squashing bugs in Horizon Worlds and figuring out how to draw its “MetaMates” there. Because if the company’s own employees won’t spend time in its metaverse, why would anyone else?