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Version 4: Sooner Than I Thought
Rogan hosts Zuckerberg, VC's fund virtual bots and bodies, Pew studies crypto plateau, Meta accounts launch, and a PSVR2 date
Welcome back to Threshold! Your weekly guide to understanding "metaverse" ambitions from Big Tech and the path to commercial viability of AR/VR hardware for mainstream consumers.
Plenty happened in cyberspace last week, let’s jump in:
Always Five Years Away
The internet was abuzz last week about Joe Rogan hosting Mark Zuckerberg on his podcast. It was a calculated move from Meta, perhaps to circumnavigate traditional media and give an October launch date to their upcoming Project Cambria headset. The conversation gave Rogan's audience a primer to all things VR, and Zuckerberg felt most comfortable when he was explaining hardware specifics.
When Zuckerberg talks publicly, you can tell he sticks to a PR-approved script. But his unwavering world beliefs are harder to hide. In the conversation, he often put down technologies like mobile phones and television. This is pure narrative strategy, given that Facebook has failed to innovate in those areas and he needs to justify Meta investing big sums in AR/VR.
One of the big troubles with VR is that it is always "five years away," or as Polygon puts it, “The VR revolution has been 5 minutes away for 8 years.” This futurism is convenient for many, including Meta, because if AR/VR innovation occurs earlier than that, it can be celebrated. Zuckerberg often used the phrase "sooner than I thought" when talking about Meta's hardware progress.
But what if it all takes longer than that? Like Marxism, it's easy to blame societal conditions and say that the perfect technology is right around the corner. During the Rogan podcast, Zuckerberg said its AR glasses are just another "three to five years away." The danger is this narrative can exhaust consumers, who learn to distrust the hype and prefer to hold their dollars for the future, instead of spending them today.
Check That Reality Privilege
The most compelling part of the Rogan podcast was when Zuckerberg asked what parts of the world need to be physical, and what parts can be virtual. The question is a bit concerning, and reflects a type of "Reality Privilege," which VC Marc Andreessen once explained as: "Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege–their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world." Zuckerberg mentioned his own Kauai "ranch" three or four times during the course of the conversation with Rogan. That’s a privileged reality many wish they had!
Micaela Mantegna, in a fantastic TED talk, said "Without humanity, the metaverse will be just a 3D ghost town. But not everyone will be there because we are not born equal into the metaverse. We are promised boundless worlds, but in fact, we will be as free as we can afford to pay."
Quartz echoed the sentiment with their article last week about how Meta is struggling to bring metaverse value to Africans, a population of people that could very much benefit from physical infrastructure improvements. Faustine Ngila writes, "At the end, many Africans believe, it’s all about the physical life they’re living and not the virtual one."
Over the years, I've worked with at-risk populations like Native tribes and last chance schools to discover what value AR/VR can bring to their own realities. It very much can, and very few doubt the potential of these technologies, but the struggle is the growing digital divide. How do we ensure that when the threshold of metaverse life is crossed, we don't leave an entire population of people without AR glasses behind?
Coming Soon Today
Bessemer Venture Partners put out a memo last week called "Virtual reality—coming soon?" and it claims we are finally crossing a threshold when it comes to VR (disclaimer: my own new venture, Throwback Studios, is included in it). The memo writes, "companies are signaling a new application layer may be materializing, which in turn is attracting attention from venture investors and strategic buyers alike."
I agree with the timing, which is why for the last five years I’ve worked mostly in a creative agency and research capacity for Meta’s AR/VR ecosystem. But in 2022, we are close enough to a threshold of mainstream adoption for consumer VR for it to be profitable as a venture-backed startup (RIP to the many that didn’t survive the 2015 hype cycle, although my former one Strivr did).
As someone that has been using VR headsets since 2006, I also think they're good enough! The challenge now is how to make virtual worlds cooler to attract more casual users. It doesn't bode well for Meta that their VP Vivek Sharma and head of Horizon is departing the company. I’d watch Rec Room next for how they continue to grow and monetize via their budding creator community.
Bots Need Thoughts and Bodies
In other venture news, last week Inworld.ai, a Disney Accelerator 2022 participant, raised $50M to build better AI-driven characters, also known as non-player characters (NPC's) or what my tween calls a "bot" (slur). Inworld's new Chief Creative Officer, VFX legend John Gaeta, said “I always thought that what we were working on in film would be technological building blocks for what we could do in virtual reality simulations. I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues from 20 years ago migrate into triple-A games because it was frustrating that the world would end when the movie ended.”
In addition to functionality, bots are going to need virtual bodies. Character rigging and skinning is an absolute nightmare. I detest anytime I have to open the software Maya. Which is why I'm excited about Ready Player Me's recent funding round of $56M led by A16z. Their avatar system, while still slightly basic, makes it easier to bring a personal avatar across worlds. It makes apps like Oko, a new world-building tool I’ve been beta testing, way faster to use via the RPM avatar integration.
In my own experiments with GPT-3 app AI Dungeon, I'm often frustrated over the lack of character control and consistency of NPC's. Characters that I interact with will often forget prior interactions, or change their motivations entirely. A solution like Inworld is needed for developers like me that don't want to be in the programmatic weeds of AI development, but instead want to focus on the creative character building. When combined with Ready Player Me's visuals, developers could easily populate any empty virtual space with a suite of complex NPC's. I see this creating an entirely new market of creators (just imagine a personality template asset store).
The Crypto Confused
The Washington Post reported last week on new research from Pew that shows despite all the marketing dollars, the share of Americans investing in crypto has stalled at about 16 percent. There was of course the expected response from the crypto community, claiming the research wasn't all that sound (it was) or didn't reflect activity in other markets.
Casey Newton’s Platformer interview with reddit CEO Steve Huffman hinted at potential causes of this plateau. Huffman said, “We try really hard not to use any crypto words — it just confuses people. The ecosystem is so confusing. I can’t figure out half this stuff.” For average consumers, crypto is currently still too complex or risky. If marketing dollars aren’t working, executives needs to think hard about why Americans aren’t yet crossing the threshold of use.
Casey Newton writes further, "At the moment it can feel as if the tech world is investing most of its energy into a set of Legos that no one has figured out how to put together — using building blocks like identity, ownership, and decentralization to make … something, and hope that the end product is worth all the effort."
When it comes to crypto assets and the metaverse, I tend to agree with him. I love my digital goods, and count my Steam achievements and Fortnite locker as my most valued virtual collections. But do I trust a blockchain more than I trust Valve or Epic Games? Not yet.
New Account, Who Dis?
Meta launched their new account system last week, and early reviews are mixed. PC World called them a "blatant bait-and-switch" and The Verge wrote, "So if you have some concerns about giving that personal info to Meta just to use your Quest headset, these new Meta accounts don’t exactly solve that problem."
As someone with an Oculus account that dates back to the DK1, I've been through a bumpy ride with it. When I previously consulted for Oculus and Facebook Reality Labs, I was forced to merge my Oculus account with my wife's personal Facebook account in order to beta test Horizon Venues. That also changed my display name to hers, and when I recently tried to roll it over into a Meta account it wasn't able to once again separate her identity from mine. I ended up having to create a new Meta account from scratch, losing purchased Oculus store apps, which I hope to migrate back.
Meta accounts are a step in the right direction for new users, but legacy Oculus users like me gain little from their OG status. Why not reward long time community members with an extra badge or status? A 3D blue checkmark to put in my Horizon Home, perhaps?
Sony Saves the Date
In the least buzzy news story of last week, Sony announced its next PlayStation headset VR2 to launch in early 2023, missing the 2022 holiday window. It probably doesn't matter when they launch it, given most people can't buy a PS5 anyways. Although that timeline does buy a little time to ensure there can deliver on their promise of having "20+ major first-party and third-party titles."
I loved the first PSVR headset! I'll never forget being able to only play Residential Evil 7: Biohazard when I had my brother alongside me in the room for emotional support.
I do wish Sony implemented better asymmetric experiences for console headsets, given that it should be possible to output different content to both the headset and the television. This could unlock a new type of co-op experience that Meta and Nintendo would have a hard time replicating, and could further demonstrate the value of VR in in the game console ecosystem.
Quote of Week
"If zuck “oversees the Metaverse” it is dead and people who care about art and culture are building something else. also this is bad art" - Grimes (Page Six)
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