Facebook, Beware: The Metaverse Is Flat

In a few weeks, Mark Zuckerberg will announce a new virtual reality headset from Meta Platforms Inc. Embarrassingly, we already know what it will look like. A video of the alleged device made the rounds online after someone found one in a hotel room. But none of that should matter, as flashy VR headsets are becoming too much of a distraction and not as important to the early growth of the so-called Metaverse, a 3D version of the internet that many see as its next chapter. It turns out that flat screens do their job well.

While Facebook has sold about 14 million VR headsets to date, millions more have visited the metaverse through regular 2D screens like the one you’re looking at, through apps like Epic Games Inc.’s Roblox and Fortnite. The trend is likely to continue for a few more years as VR headsets take some time to slim down in size and price.

That puts Zuckerberg in an awkward position. He wants you to buy Meta’s headset, known as Quest because it gives him greater control over the Metaverse Marketplace, which he later builds. And the reason is clear: For years, it’s been bound by the rules of Alphabet Inc.’s app gatekeepers Google and Apple Inc., paying their fees and obeying edicts like the App Tracking Transparency Prompt, which stole about $14 million from Facebook’s ad will deduct sales this year.

It would be a painful, almost unthinkable move for Facebook to make its Horizon Worlds metaverse platform available in app stores. But maybe there is another way. Facebook could allow people to visit the platform through a simple browser.

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Google’s Stadia uses a service called cloud streaming that allows people to play large video games through Chrome. It’s an expensive process that requires powerful servers, but it could help Facebook bypass Apple and Google while attracting a flood of curious new users. Meta’s chief technology officer, Andrew Bosworth, hinted on Twitter earlier this year that a web-based version was on the horizon, but a company spokeswoman declined to give further details.

“It would be a 3D version of Facebook that looks like a game, but you would be browsing it from your desktop,” said Sam Huber, CEO of Metaverse real estate startup LandVault. “It could become the most popular game in the world.”

Even modest popularity would reassure investors, who are likely to fret at how slowly the company’s headset customers are growing: Just 300,000 people have visited Horizon Worlds since it launched last October. You can only access the platform through a Quest 2 headset.

“Facebook seems to be assuming a sunk-cost fallacy,” said Wagner James Au, an author and blogger who has covered the metaverse for more than a decade. “There is no data supporting VR headsets as a mass-market device.”

In fact, flat versions of the metaverse are far more popular than 3D versions. About three-quarters of Roblox’s 52 million daily visitors use a phone, while the vast majority of Minecraft or Fortnite users are from Microsoft Corp. using a desktop computer or a mobile phone.

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Several Metaverse companies have also switched to flat. For example, Decentraland, a virtual world for trading crypto assets, was marketed as a “virtual reality platform” when it launched its first coin offering in 2017. But all of its users have since visited it through a desktop or browser, the company says.

VRChat, a platform for sharing avatars, was first released as an app for Oculus headsets in 2014. Three years later, a desktop version was created, which managed to attract millions more users.

“The problem is the price,” said Artur Sychov, the founder of Metaversum startup Somnium Space, whose users primarily visit the site through a browser. Metas Quest 2 costs around $400, while other competing headsets can top $800.

Being immersed in a virtual world on a screen is actually a decent substitute for “real” VR and certainly more engaging than a regular video call, as I discovered when Sychov took me on a tour of the Somnium universe during our Zoom meeting. Since I wasn’t actually with him as an avatar, Sychov held up a virtual tablet with a “camera” in front of him, with which I could follow his movements in space.

Watching him pointing at art in a virtual gallery and moving through colorful forests, even on my laptop screen, was enough to make me imagine I was there.

To date, Meta’s marketing has focused on the immersive benefits of VR headsets, which provide a real sense of being with work colleagues or in a fitness class. But that misses the true selling point of the Metaverse – incentivising to create new experiences – and you don’t need a VR headset for that.

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To attract more people to its virtual platforms, Meta needs to focus less on building cutting-edge headsets and more on emulating Metaverse pioneers like Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft. Almost a quarter of Roblox’s own users have created millions of games for the platform, creating a marketplace for commerce and fun. Almost all of its content is user-generated, just like TikTok or YouTube, and that’s a big part of its appeal.

Zuckerberg, too, must transform his metaverse into a place for creators to thrive. Facebook’s current foray into testing tools for developers feels late given how far ahead the other pioneers are.

If you focus too much on immersive technology, you put the cart before the horse. Meta needs to make its metaverse both accessible and an attractive place for creators. Going flat would be a good place to start.

More from the Bloomberg Opinion:

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• Can Apple be a privacy hero and an advertising giant?: Parmy Olson

• Don’t expect drones to drop your packages from the air: Thomas Black

This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is the author of We Are Anonymous.

For more stories like this, visit bloomberg.com/opinion

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