In a few weeks’ time, 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 purported device has been doing the rounds online after someone found one in a hotel room.
Yet none of that should matter because whizzy VR headsets are becoming too much of a distraction, and aren’t that integral 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 flat screens are doing the job just fine.
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 right now, via apps like Roblox and Epic Games Inc.’s Fortnite. The trend is likely to continue for several years yet as VR headsets take 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 the Quest, because that gives him greater control over whatever metaverse marketplace he builds down the line. And the reason is clear: For years he’s been beholden to the rules of app gatekeepers Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple Inc., paying their fees and following edicts such as the App Tracking Transparency prompt that will knock about $14 billion off Facebook’s ad sales this year.
It would be a painful, almost unthinkable step for Facebook to make its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds available on app stores. But perhaps there is another way. Facebook could allow people to visit the platform via a simple browser.
Google’s Stadia uses a service called cloud-streaming that lets people play large video games via Chrome. It’s an expensive process, requiring powerful servers, but it could help Facebook circumvent Apple and Google while drumming up a flood of curious new users. Meta’s technology chief Andrew Bosworth hinted on Twitter earlier this year that a web-based version was in the cards, but a company spokeswoman declined to provide further details.
“It’d be a 3D version of Facebook that looks like a game, but you’d browse it from your desktop,” said Sam Huber, CEO of metaverse property startup LandVault. “It could become the most popular game in the world.”
Even modest popularity would reassure investors who are likely to balk at how slowly the company’s headset customers are growing: A mere 300,000 people have visited Horizon Worlds since it launched last October. You can only access the platform via a Quest 2 headset.
“Facebook seems to be operating from a sunk cost fallacy,” said Wagner James Au, an author and blogger who has covered the metaverse for more than a decade. “There’s no data to support VR headsets as being the mass market device.”