Over the past two years, Meta has sold 15 million Quest 2 headsets. While it doesn’t have the best visuals or the kind of processor needed to produce “indistinguishable from the real world” simulations, it does. is a decent example of making good compromises to produce a product that consumers want and can afford. Possible experiences on this headset may involve things that are possible but expensive or difficult in this reality, such as visiting cities around the world. It can also include opportunities to play being a heart surgeon, or a super spy, or a scientist operating a space station in the rings of Saturn.
Not all of them are great, but a few are truly breathtaking. There certainly aren’t enough “A-list” titles, but there are enough good times to go “is this available in VR?” the first thing on my list of considerations when I see a review of a new game. Once you’ve climbed hand-in-hand up a windy peak, reaching an altitude where eagles circle below you, then carefully walked along a narrow ledge to access a secret place and you really felt like you had climbed the rocks every inch of the way, it’s much harder to get excited about a game that involves pressing the good button.
For the past few weeks, Meta has introduced the Quest Pro. On paper, it’s a much improved device with a thinner face mask, better display, more powerful graphics engine, better controllers… all the things a Quest 2 owner could wish for after bumping into the limits of his system. But in practice the Quest Pro is a disaster. It’s priced at $1,500, making it far more expensive than most consumers are willing to pay for a system that’s still only incrementally better than its three times cheaper sibling. The Quest Pro is also, while better than Meta’s other current offering, not as good as some of the high-end headsets used in the pro markets by designers who want to test drive a new building or get a glimpse. advanced of how the components fit together in a new car.
It’s too expensive to be a consumer device, not good enough to be a professional device. The Quest Pro falls into a gap where the biggest answer seems to be, “Why did they build this?”
But the answer to that question is based on Zuckerberg’s fundamental misunderstanding of what people want from virtual reality. First off, a lot of the Quest Pro’s cost comes from the fact that it’s equipped with a slew of cameras that look at your face, all with the aim of mimicking your expressions on your VR avatar. This is deeply tied to one of the most expensive and intensive efforts going on at Meta: creating avatars that are more like you.
Zuckerberg’s stated goal is for everyone to create a unique, ultimately photorealistic avatar that follows you through the various “metaverse” experiences. This in turn seems to be because he sees anonymity and alternate identities as the source of most problems in social media, and a big threat to virtual reality.
And that’s why Meta is in big trouble. Because nobody wants that. Granted, there might be a few people who think it’s a great idea to carry around an exact physical copy of who they are in this world and in this life, with every experience they have from climbing pyramids to the search for distant worlds. But it’s very little.
Because the greatest thing virtual reality can do is not take you somewhere else. It gets you out of you. The first time you look down and see the steel manipulators of a robot limb where you expected to find your hand, it can be extremely disconcerting. But then it’s strangely and viscerally liberating. Nothing makes it easier to get into character than getting in to a character.
In one of the experiences currently available on Quest, you find that both of your arms are replaced by the flexible tentacles of a huge kaiju threatening the city. Learning how your movements can direct these suction cup-lined tools of destruction through screaming crowds of puny humans is initially disorienting on many levels. Within minutes, it seems like you’ve always been a hulking, snake-armed monstrosity. Bring in the National Guard.
Of all the experiences available on VR, perhaps the most popular is the VR Chat social space. In VR Chat, users can wear any skin they want to dance with, play games, and just chat with others. If you’ve ever wanted to let your monster flag fly, there’s no place in the multiverse where it flies higher or more freely than in VR chat. Enter one of the many rooms and you might find yourself swapping stories with a talking cat wearing a monocle, a purple gorilla, a hopping Christmas tree, and an animated pink-haired girl with fairy wings. VR Chat users present as they wish, within the limits of their ability to design or purchase an avatar.
Trying to pin avatars down to reality and eradicate anonymity is only part of a fundamental misunderstanding about what people expect from social media… from a guy who really should know better. It is not anonymity that breeds hate speech and ugliness in online spaces. People are perfectly willing to demonstrate their racism, misogyny, and general abhorrence even when forced to carry their own name. Five minutes on Facebook or Twitter will confirm it. Five minutes on Daily Kos is also enough to show that anonymity does not automatically diminish the quality or increase the warmth of online conversations.
Somehow, Zuckerberg, like Elon Musk, doesn’t understand how to generate a viable online community. And unlike Musk, he has no excuses.
But that’s only half of what’s wrong with Meta’s vision for virtual reality. The other part is that it seems heavily focused on using VR as a replacement for email, text messaging, and Zoom. Why host a Zoom meeting when you can sit around a virtual table and watch the virtual faces of your colleagues?
Why? Because it’s ridiculous.
The whole story of how business meetings have been done over the decades is a story of less. Face-to-face meetings can be replaced in many cases with a quick phone call. Phone calls can be made more efficient mostly in the form of emails. Emails are useless when a quick text message will suffice.
Bringing five, 10 or 20 people together in a room to force them to sit for an hour while the boss buzzed was always the worst and least efficient thing about the job. Zoom meetings work as a rare complement to text-based functions that actually allow people to relay information more efficiently. A big part of that extra is letting you actually see and hear your colleagues, a feature that’s not easily replaced by virtual avatars, no matter how realistic they are, or how many cameras are placed on the headset to capture that raised eyebrow. or upturned lip.
Zoom meetings are a generally bad way to manage people that should only be used very rarely, because meetings are a bad way of dealing with people that should be used very rarely. The idea of telling people they can snag a VR headset and spend their time pretending to be sitting across from a desk next to a colleague doing the same thing doesn’t appeal to anyone. (Except maybe those bosses who miss strolling the office aisles and seeing all those little heads barely visible above the cubicle walls.)
There’s not much difference between Zuckerberg’s belief that people should work in a VR space and Musk’s demand that everyone return to the office. Both are idiots. one is stupid and this includes wearing a helmet.
Virtual reality is so capable of doing so many things, but it does them better when it’s not trying to replicate the environment of everyday life. Frankly, we already have this environment. Why do we need two? Right now, Meta has what is sadly almost monopolistic control over how VR is used in America, and he’s wasting billions trying to turn VR into something no one wants while ignoring 99, 99% of what is possible.
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