Jin Haoyuan/Xinhua via Getty Images
The dazzling simulations of the virtual world will transform ever more aspects of human experience into profitable data sourcesJin Haoyuan/Xinhua via Getty Images
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Life in the Metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg’s $36 billion wager on virtual reality will affect billions of people’s lives whether or not it succeeds

by
Ross Anderson
November 23, 2022
Jin Haoyuan/Xinhua via Getty Images
The dazzling simulations of the virtual world will transform ever more aspects of human experience into profitable data sourcesJin Haoyuan/Xinhua via Getty Images

Charging in its little hub, the Meta Quest Pro is smaller than a stack of books and, for $1,500 bucks, promises to be the future of Meta—nay, of the world. “Metaverse isn’t a thing a company builds,” Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s founder and CEO said in March. “It’s the next chapter of the internet overall.” The Quest Pro is Zuckerberg’s effort to commodify that next chapter, and might be one of the most significant consumer technologies produced since the iPhone, promising to change the lives of nearly 3 billion current Facebook users—what they buy, how they work, whom they date, how they vote, and what kinds of information about their lives gets collected and sold in data markets or shared with governments.

Formerly known as Facebook, Meta is all in on a future lived virtually. “From now on, we will be Metaverse first,” Zuckerberg said last year as he announced his company’s rechristening. “Not Facebook first.” The Quest is a crucial first step in Zuckerberg’s wager to win the virtual reality space race, and Meta has already invested $36 billion in Reality Labs, a division focused on the Metaverse and wearable VR tech.

The scale of Zuckerberg’s wager has not prevented it from seeming utterly ridiculous to the many tech reporters and Twitter commenters who have mocked the Metaverse’s schlocky sci-fi branding and sloppy execution. “‘Mark Has Surrounded Himself with Sycophants’: Zuckerberg’s big bet on the Metaverse is backfiring,” read the headline of a Vanity Fair article published earlier this month. Yet despite a rocky start and months of bad media coverage, Meta might still succeed by providing consumers with a virtual reality experience that—whatever its pitfalls—delivers a much-needed upgrade to the current architecture of the internet.

On the other hand, given that Meta’s current business model is based on collecting as much user data as possible and then selling that data to third parties, it is possible that a successful Metaverse would plunge billions of users deeper into a dystopian hellscape where the dazzling simulations of the virtual world transform ever more aspects of human experience into profitable data sources.

Virtual Reality—be it Star Trek’s Holodeck or Ready Player One headsets—is an old staple of the imagined future. Pop on a headset and you can visit anywhere you like, real or fantastical. Want to walk around first-century Pompeii? See inside an atom? Bowl with friends who live a world away? The Metaverse taps into such collective fantasies: a three-dimensional version of the internet, with vast numbers of intersecting virtual worlds, ecosystems, and economies. In the Metaverse, you can go ahead and bowl atoms in Pompeii with all your far-flung friends.

To achieve such a world, VR headsets like Meta’s new Quest Pro would need to become household items. There are various theses for how VR will go mainstream, and Zuckerberg’s is that it will be the same as the PC—normal people will get used to a professional device and then want—or better yet, need—that convenience at home.

For such a strategy to succeed, VR devices can’t simply replicate something you already have. They must provide an experience that is so appreciably improved that you feel you are missing out by not using it; soon enough, you intuitively reach for a headset instead of a laptop. A similar dynamic applies to the workplace. If VR devices can add enough extra efficiency or convenience to become indispensable to employees, companies will make them standard tools.

Having tried the device, I cannot say the Quest Pro feels essential but it does feel a tad wonderful. There are few tech experiences I can compare to the thrill of turning on the headset and finding myself in a quality, detailed, 3D virtual space where I can lift a digital paper plane and toss it across the sky. Also awesome: working with huge display windows you can instantly resize, add, or move. It did feel like glimpsing the future, which is exactly what Zuckerberg is selling.

But aside from throwing paper airplanes across fantasy worlds, what will people actually do in the Metaverse? The most immediately compelling use case for VR is projecting infinitely adjustable monitors into the air. Theoretically, digital monitors have more flexibility, customization, and privacy than physical monitors, without requiring any more desk space and while providing adjustability and privacy.

VR may also be able to improve that most miserable institution of modern life: the office meeting. While in-person meetings are inefficient and increasingly unrealistic at companies where employees work remotely, Zoom meetings are somehow even worse. Here the Metaverse promises to offer some real, concrete improvements to people’s daily lives. Using VR allows participants to recreate the social presence of physical meetings, while retaining the digital world’s informational efficiency and customization. In a VR meeting, you can lean over and whisper to someone “beside” you, but you can also instantly share information.

Beyond business, another potentially transformative application for collaborative virtual meetings is in education. In The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, Matthew Ball argues that VR can fundamentally transform the experience of going to school. Rather than websites and whiteboards, children and adults might someday learn through 3D demonstrations or virtual trips to exotic locations—think, once more, about stepping into ancient Pompeii or swimming across an atom.

Everything once imagined in The Magic School Bus … will become virtually possible—and at a greater scale, too. Unlike a physical classroom experience, these lessons will be available on demand, from anywhere around the world, and fully accessible (and more easily customized) to those students with physical or social disabilities. Some classes will include presentations from professional instructors whose live performances were motion captured and audio recorded. And as these experiences have no marginal costs—that is, they do not require extra time from a teacher, nor do they deplete supplies no matter how many times they’re run—they can be priced at a fraction of the costs associated with learning that occurs in the classroom. Every student will be able to perform a dissection, no matter how wealthy their parents or the funding of their local school board. Indeed, these students will not even need to attend a school.

Such benefits, however, would come at other costs, and the dystopian aspects of a future in which children strap on headsets and further remove themselves from the physical world are hard to avoid. Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer who has long evangelized that VR would be a more humane and empowering alternative to the current social media-based internet has emerged as a harsh critic of Zuckerberg’s project. “What’s going on today with a company like Google or Meta is that they’re getting all this data for free from people who don’t understand the meaning or the value of the data and then turning it into these algorithms that are mostly used to manipulate the same people,” Lanier told Kara Swisher on “The Metaverse: Expectations vs. Reality,” a New York Times podcast. For Lanier, the ultimate point of the Quest Pro is not to provide users with a valuable experience but to popularize a tool that can collect their data at the source. Meta will “need to win the next device war so that [they’ll] be able to get the data,” Lanier argued. “It would be nice if [they] owned smart speakers and doorknobs or whatever, but Amazon got those. So let’s go for headsets.” (Lanier, it should be pointed out, works for Microsoft, one of Facebook’s chief competitors in the emerging VR space.)

This race to monopolize data undercuts one of the central myths about the “Web3” Metaverse, which is that it will operate as a decentralized internet where NFTs and micropayments made though cryptocurrencies will replace the corporate-dominated ad- and subscription-funded internet. Evidence suggests that the Metaverse, if it ever emerges, will be dominated by a few giant tech companies in much the same way that social media is.

By strapping on a VR headset and exploring astonishing virtual worlds, you are transforming the entirety of your life—the inside of your home, the surface of your body—into data.

This is not simply a function of Big Tech’s desire to control the market; it also reflects the underlying technology. Consider the challenges of video game streaming, where you play a game on your device but outsource the processing power to a server, inputs getting uploaded and footage downloaded. This massively increases latency, delaying the time between your input and the outcome being shown in the game, and requires visual data to be massively compressed. For competitive racing games and shooters, where timing and clarity is key, that makes it a dead end, at least currently.

Compression and latency are even greater technical issues for VR, so a Web3 Metaverse would be far more demanding than any video game while running on the least efficient server in the world: a blockchain. As the venture-capitalist-cum-essayist Rohit Krishnan told me, “making a metaverse work requires relentless customer focus, which I don’t see Web3 being very good at. It needs a centralized genius like Jobs.”

Complicating matters further, Meta doesn’t sell its own phones or run its own apps store, which leaves the company vulnerable to the policy changes of those who do—namely, its chief competitors, Google and Apple. In 2021, Apple rolled out “Ad Tracking Transparency” (ATT), which allows iPhone users to restrict third-party app access to their data. The move instantly obliterated Meta’s bottom line, costing the company an estimated $10 billion in ad revenue in 2022 alone, and causing their shares to fall more than 70% since, from $303.34 on April 26, 2021, the day ATT released, to roughly $109 today. On Nov. 9, Zuckerberg announced that Meta would be laying off over 11,000 employees, 13% of the company’s workforce.

Apple claims the ATT policies helped protect user privacy. During this period, however, Apple has rapidly and massively expanded its own ad network, which now has about $4 billion in annual advertising revenue, according to Bloomberg, with a target of over $10 billion per annum. On Oct. 24, Apple announced that social media companies would need to pay 30% of any “boosted” posts shown on their devices—a direct shot at Meta, the only major company that refused to use Apple’s in-app purchasing system for promoted posts.

In a counter move, many Meta products including Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp have introduced alternative revenue streams—notably, online shopping. Yet without its own hardware, operating system, and app store, Meta will not be able to keep up. In VR, however, and with its Quest products, Meta is hoping to achieve an aggressive first-mover advantage over competition like Apple, which industry insiders expect will announce its own VR headset within a year.

U.S.-based tech companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft are already competing with Meta in the VR market, but soon China will be getting in on the action as well. On Nov. 1, the Chinese government released a plan stating they aimed to ship more than 25 million VR devices by 2026. China is hoping to corner the VR market too—and the CCP shares Meta’s understanding of the value of user data. A few weeks before Meta unveiled its long-awaited Quest Pro on Sept. 22, ByteDance, the parent company that owns TikTok, introduced its own Pico 4—a flagrant rip-off of Meta’s popular Quest 2.

TikTok, which has more than a billion monthly users, has already emerged as the social media site of choice for the internet’s youngest users. ByteDance surely knows what Meta does: that by strapping on a VR headset and exploring astonishing virtual worlds, you are transforming the entirety of your life—the inside of your home, the surface of your body, the tendencies of your mind—into data. The Meta Quest Pro has three cameras to track your eyes, and two to track facial expressions; necessary for creating realistic avatars, but also handy for establishing exactly what mood you’re in, how long you look at certain items, and what products most interest you. Your face, your eyes, your unconscious movements—all rendered as data and sold to the highest bidder.

Ross Anderson is a freelance writer and 2020 Tablet Fellow. He tweets from @thatrosschap.

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