Facebook’s rebranding as Meta may have garnered mixed reactions, with some suggesting that the name change is just a veiled attempt to distance itself from the controversies surrounding Facebook; the name change, however, runs much deeper than a mere smoke screen.
Connect 2021: Meta (Facebook) Looks to the Metaverse for the Future of Work and Consumer Experience
Facebook’s rebranding as Meta may have garnered mixed reactions, with some suggesting that the name change is just a veiled attempt to distance itself from the controversies surrounding Facebook; the name change, however, runs much deeper than a mere smoke screen. Mark Zuckerberg’s updated Founder’s Letter 2021 paints a compelling foundation and framework for Meta to begin building toward the metaverse—not to build and own it but to accelerate its development. Meta has also announced consumer-friendly (and metaverse-supportive, in this case) changes, such as removing the requirement for Oculus Quest Virtual Reality (VR) users to have a linked Facebook account. This decision, on paper at least, demonstrates that Meta is willing to follow Mark Zuckerberg’s take against restrictive ecosystems and platforms that seek to exert more control over users and creators rather than foster innovation.
Beyond the grand vision, Meta’s announcement has outlined a rather aggressive plan to usher in its new role as a catalyst of the metaverse. Meta will continue to build on and interconnect its in-house platforms and, more importantly, expand on and develop Horizon (its immersive platform) to support consumers (Horizon Home), creators (Horizon World), work (Horizon Workrooms), live events (Horizon Venues), and in the future other areas like education and marketplaces. Meta’s stronger push into the enterprise space with Horizon Workrooms (announced August 2021), its expanded productivity apps for Oculus Quest, and its revamped Quest for Business (announced at Connect 2021) currently position the company as the most comprehensive player within the metaverse market. Meta’s decision to remove the Facebook account requirement for Oculus Quest will also make Quest for Business more compelling because it will allow companies to use Quest 2 headsets (versus the previous Quest for Business hardware, priced at US$800, that included no access to the Oculus Store) without having to link a private Facebook account. Business users will have separate Work Accounts for the Oculus Quest 2, allowing for users to have different personal and work profiles. The price decrease alone is significant, but it also speaks to the need to bring together personal and work life elements in the metaverse—the updated Quest for Business goes into closed beta this year, will be released to select businesses in 2022, and have a broader launch in 2023. For deeper analysis on Meta’s hardware announcements, please refer to this insight IN-6333.
A true metaverse is still years away, but Meta’s vision today is a solid start.
The Metaverse and 5G/6G
For believers, the metaverse is the next big era in tech—Meta referred to the metaverse as “the next chapter for the internet” and as “the successor to the mobile internet.” The mobile Internet is especially key; it speaks not only to the massive changes and opportunities the metaverse represents in a future with far fewer boundaries but also to the tremendous value of users’ devices and platforms that are always connected and contextually aware. The mainstream use of smart glasses, for example, will bring a myriad of applications, services, and marketing opportunities to any location with connectivity as well as more advanced experiences when cloud and edge computing become available. Content and service workflows are already pushing closer to the edge (i.e., content delivery networks that move content packaging to the edge to minimize traffic from servers) to better serve viewers and reduce costs. The metaverse (along with smart glasses) will amplify the value the edge and connections have in supporting use cases that require ultralow latencies.
The merging of the physical and real worlds along with personal and work environments to form a cohesive and connected Internet-like experience will dramatically change the value proposition for 5G and, later, 6G. Not only will the vast amounts of data and latency-dependent applications (i.e., social communications, computer vision, addressable advertising) require 5G/6G, but also the smart glasses will operate with hybrid computing to satisfy the high demands for computing while allowing device designers and manufacturers to produce more user-friendly devices (i.e., thinner, lighter, less battery drainage) with reduced prices.
The metaverse will touch virtually every market in some way—not unlike the Internet and smartphones before it. This vast opportunity also brings to light the complexities and hurdles along the way.
Fixate on Value, Not on Spectacle
Even withing Meta there are some questions about the company’s newfound direction. For example, Meta’s consulting chief technology officer John Carmack was quoted as saying:
"I really do care about [the metaverse], and I buy into the vision. I have been pretty actively arguing against every single metaverse effort that we have tried to spin up internally in the company from even pre-acquisition times. I have pretty good reasons to believe that setting out to build the metaverse is not actually the best way to wind up with the metaverse.
The most obvious path to the metaverse is that you have one single universal app, something like Roblox. I doubt a single application will get to that level of taking over everything. That's because a single bad decision by the creators of that walled-garden metaverse can cut off too many possibilities for users and makers. I just don't believe that one player—one company—winds up making all the right decisions for this."
Based on Facebook’s previous activity (and overall historical precedence with large tech companies), Carmack’s trepidations certainly have merit, and this is one reason why others are dubious that Meta has the best intentions for the metaverse in mind. However, there are at minimum positive signs that change is afoot, and so Meta should have some time to prove that it will live up to its new messaging.
In some ways, the early talks about 5G—which has positioned this generation as much more than just faster data rates and a consumer play—has paralleled aspects of the metaverse as it pertains to connectivity. Many of these next-generation use cases speak directly to the building blocks of the metaverse where communications, content, and services will span across devices, platforms, and in time, a significant push from Augmented Reality (AR) and smart glasses. In particular, AR will bring tremendous value and attention to the location/edge, connectivity, and ultralow latencies. As aptly described in ABI Research’s “5G Fails to Generate New Revenues and Interest in Enterprises” by Dimitris Mavrakis (IN-6236), 5G has thus far failed to live up to this billing. 5G isn’t a failure by any means; it’s just taking longer for some of the more advanced applications and use cases to arrive and develop than some had expected. This isn’t unlike other technologies—such as VR or connected TVs—that also had significant hype cycles with lofty, early expectations but that took longer to deliver on these promises. Further, Mavrakis homes in on a critically important requirement to push 5G toward success: the industry needs to move past the “build it and they will come” mentality, also reflecting the sentiment expressed by Carmack that setting out to build the metaverse is not the best way to arrive to it.
When a new technology arrives and has the power to create moments of awe, we (the tech-minded) often fall victim to that “field of dreams” magical thinking. We envision a future so revolutionary that we fail to see the hurdles that stand in the way of attracting people to this technology and ultimately of realizing this vision of the future. VR is a prime example where the spectacle of donning a VR HMD for the first time could radically alter one’s perception of VR as well as the possibilities of the technology (myself included). Extrapolating this sentiment to the wider market, however, poses several problems. It overstates the value and impact the technology has in its current form—especially if content and services are still in limited supply. Extending this excitement to the wider population also fails to consider the diversity of the buying public—not everyone will share the same excitement or vision around new technology. Plus, as the adage goes, old habits die hard.
Buildup to the metaverse needs to be approached in a similar way to fully realize its potential. It needs to generate value in the interim until a true metaverse is realized—it’s not enough to simply show an amazing demo or spectacular vision of the future. Good examples of early metaverse demos may include the use of AR in stadiums to showcase what is possible with 5G and Mobile Edge Computing (MEC). However, these use cases currently have little extensibility beyond the in-venue experience—fans may find it cool to see a dragon flying around the stadium on their phones, but that isn’t going to make them more broadly seek out metaverse-type experiences or services. The same is true of seeing a fanciful vision of the future that includes a fully realized metaverse—it will certainly create positive press and attention, but unless it is physically here today, it creates little impact on market demand in the near term. Movies like Ready Player One are a perfect example. Here, media have asked questions like: “How much has the use of VR increased because of the movie Ready Player One?” The answer is: not much.
Right now, the focus needs to be on applications that deliver wider-reaching value through use cases that are already in demand. While this sounds like a tall order—and it is certainly harder to fulfill as opposed to flashy demos—approaching the market in this way will spur demand among the user base. Location-based multiplayer gaming is one example that could serve this role for both the metaverse and 5G. Multiplayer location-based gaming requires the fatter data pipes of 5G to accommodate large gatherings of users, and these applications are also expected to leverage MEC to ensure that players experience the lowest possible latencies and the best gaming experiences. It is also an opportunity to market interoperable (i.e., across platforms) digital goods like avatar customization that would bring additional attention to what a metaverse would look like—but in a real-world scenario.
In time, an AR experience in stadiums could similarly take advantage of this new digital economy of virtual goods. Fans who participate in an in-venue AR experience, for example, could receive unique digital goods such as a virtual hat with the team logo and sponsor logo along with the date of the game to commemorate that day. It’s critical to focus on creating value beyond just the limited experience. Only then will users seek out applications and use cases that fully leverage what these new technologies can offer.