Whatever happened to the Metaverse? It's still coming, insists Meta's Nicola Mendelsohn, but we need to be patient...

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 23, 2024
Summary:
Remember when everything was all about the Metaverse? It still will be, argues Meta.

Virtual Reality

The tech sector can be a fickle place in terms of what’s hot and what’s not. The present obsession is, of course, generative AI as can be seen by every earnings call, product launch and industry gathering. But it’s only a short time since it was all about the Metaverse.

So what did happen to that? As far as its Evangelist-in-Chief Mark Zuckerberg, the guy who changed the name of his company to Meta and has run up losses fast approaching $50 billion so far on his vision, it’s alive and kicking. Just last week he told The Verge:  

I don’t know how to more unequivocally state that we’re continuing to focus on Reality Labs and the Metaverse. 

It’s a party line that’s inevitably reiterated by Nicole Mendelsohn, Head of Meta’s Global Business Group, who declares: 

We love the Metaverse...The Metaverse is very much the next iteration of the internet, the next computing platform. I think the real difference here is it's almost something that you feel as a physical presence. You feel that you're much more immersed in it. But it's also what it's not as well. It's not that this is going to be a world where everybody's putting glasses on and goggles on and that's it and forget the rest of the world. That's not what we see. 

We very much see a whole continuation of different products, some that we're already seeing in use today...how Augmented Reality comes about as well and how that is a part of the immersion as well. So it's a whole continuum of different things and processes, but it's that sense of being together and physical proximity and also doing things that perhaps would not be possible in the real world. Start to imagine different things. A continuum.

But why? 

That said, from an investor perspective, it’s also about pouring a lot of money into the concept and as yet, not seeing much return. Mendelsohn insists that there are use cases emerging: 

There's a number of different areas that we're already seeing businesses getting very energized and very excited about and seeing some significant, interesting savings, efficiencies, productivity gains as well. One, I would say, is around the area of training. We're really seeing companies leaning in on training. A good example is Pfizer [which during] COVID actually created whole training simulations for their production lines on moving out on vaccines and different things. They saw that there was actually a 40% saving and time spent on how long it took to train their people. So that was very exciting and very encouraging seeing a number of different companies taking that on, Lufthansa being another one. 

The Metaverse enables you to create very bespoke personalized training which is more motivating for people, Mendelsohn argues, and more “much more fun”. 

Let's not forget there's a whole fun element that comes with immersion, comes with Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. We're seeing that people are actually enjoying their training, enjoying their education, a lot more as well. And then we're also seeing collaboration, people coming together...You can bring different people from different places in the world. We see this through healthcare. We see surgeons training in different parts of the world, coming together where they can actually train together in different places, or engineers coming together and solving business problems together in 3D in the round, working together, doing things that actually wouldn't be possible in the real world and being much more productive, efficient and dreaming things in a different way without some of the cost implications as well.

It’s also an enabling and levelling tech vision, she suggests: 

I think about things that in the past have only been the preserve of a few, now being able to be there for so many. A football game or a concert... that was the preserve of 10,000, 30,000. Now it literally can be unlimited. You can call your family around the world and you can feel like you're sitting next to each other and enjoying that game. 

At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos last week, Meta was demoing an interactive experience that involved David Attenborough showing users around the Galapagos Islands and making them feel they are physically present in a place that 99.9% of people will never visit. This can be applied to education, she says, citing the example of teaching kids history: 

To bring for children the ability to bring history alive, to walk down ancient streets, to see and feel and experience how the Romans were living - it totally changes the way that you think about history or geography or maps or computing in so many different ways. 

And there is another important angle, she pitches: 

Over the last few years we've seen a massive rise in creators of all different types. In the past kids were told that you're either creative or you're scientific, you can't be both - all that lost potential that we saw in people. Now through the different worlds, with different immersions, people will be able to realize their creativity….All these things that were not possible before for people to think about actually are possible, and it will allow creators to create new and different ways to take communities and audiences with them, and for people to be able to build and iterate. Really, the only thing that's going to limit us is truly our own imaginations.

But when? 

OK, so far, so good in terms of the vision thing. But when does this become actual reality? Well, Rome, even a virtual one, wasn’t built in a day. Mendelsohn admits: 

The vision that Mark set out of this fully-realized Metaverse is still some time away. 

She’s talking here about a decade+ in real terms. That’s a lifetime in tech sector years - and given the notorious short termism of the investor community, it's also a big ask in terms of patience. That might explain what’s perceived as a very public pivot towards AI rather than the Metaverse in recent months? Mendelsohn’s response is one of co-existence: 

AI is an absolutely crucial building block. I mean, our [Metaverse] hardware has AI components built in to it, and our wish is that people will be able to go and build things.The way that they'll build things is actually through AI. We see these two things as very happy bedfellows. You can't have a Metaverse without AI and you need AI in order to have the Metaverse, so these two things come together. It allows people to be able to build the worlds of their dreams, but that's still a little time off. But from our side this is an area that we're that we've invested billions in, both the AI side of it and also on the on the VR, AR side.

We're continuing to invest significantly in both sides. We've been on a journey. I mean, actually, we've been on a journey of over a decade, both with the work that we're doing in our Reality Labs and also in the work and the investments that we're making in AI. There was a lot of hype a couple of years ago, and we were cautious here, telling people we still see that this is going to take a good decade to get to that fully-realized vision. We still see that we're on that journey, [but] more excited about the advancements and the milestones that are happening along the way.

My take

The future pitched by Mendelsohn is a compelling one, but as noted above, it’s one that’s got a huge price tag on it. Meta has managed to re-balance the corporate boat to some extent over the past year, but that too has come at great cost to the company. While the prize does look exciting, my comparison of Zuckerberg to Captain Ahab last year remains front of mind. 

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