Version 5: Good Enough
Apple trademarks, Horizon Worlds perspective, Roblox for adults, Hogwarts VR GTM, and Fortnite x TIME avatar ethics
This week's issue is a day late, in observance of Labor Day. 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 of happenings last week in cyberspace, here's what mattered the most:
Hardware, Good Enough?
Last week Bloomberg reported from trademark filings that Apple's AR/VR ecosystem might be called "Reality," with the first two devices named "One" and "Pro." This is consistent with Apple branding, and where there's a Reality One there most certainly will be a Reality Two, and so on and so on.
Consumers expect to replace their game console or phone every 5 years, but hardware cycles are accelerated in VR. An original Oculus Quest one might have purchased in 2019 is already deprecated. If hardware cycles are too fast, many consumers will delay purchasing until they settle. This narrative is too common in VR, where early adopters of the Quest were quickly burned by the Quest 2. Will Meta's upcoming Quest/Cambria Pro make this situation better or worse, and will Apple's headset series take a similar cadence to their phones?
I think current generation VR hardware is "good enough" for most, which I wrote about on Twitter last week along with some criticism. It's not that I think hardware never matters, it's more that it only matters if it translates to noticeable improvements of value for consumers.
Hardware companies like Samsung and Apple are stuck in the position of TV's and smartphones now being "good enough," and thus have to generate marketing hype around improvements like pixel density and camera quality. Can most people even tell the difference between a 4K and an 8k TV? I'm not sure I could.
Content, Convenience and Control
Yahoo Finance Tech reported last week on the issues AR/VR hardware faces for both consumer and enterprise industries. They quoted the research firm Gartner on the important benchmarks of: content, convenience, and control. Future device improvements should prioritize these three issues. This means focusing less on the quality of VR displays, and instead focusing on the long game of how to make these devices more broadly approachable by consumers.
The best perspective to these three issues came from Josh Gondelman's piece in Slate last week called "Getting Away From It All in Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse." As a gaming and VR novice, the author gave Horizon a shot to see for himself how it all works today.
Firstly, the author couldn't use his existing Meta Quest at all (the first one) to try Horizon Worlds, since it requires a Meta Quest 2. Strike 1 = convenience.
Next, the author had trouble typing out words using the controllers. I appreciated his language here, as he wrote "You have to zap each individual letter, like a game of Duck Hunt with slightly better graphics...I was already wearing a whole big thing on my face and holding two controllers in my hands. But sure, why not throw in a pretend fourth [watch] interface." These zap and wrist watch controls I very much hate in VR, but have become accustomed to using over the years. Newer users, however, might not tolerate them. Strike 2 = control.
Lastly, the author pointed out how Horizon Worlds pushes creation, instead of giving users fun things to do. He writes in summary, “The app gave me the option to play games, hang out, and build new worlds myself. Build new worlds? Sorry, Mark Zuckerberg, but you’re not going to trick me into doing construction projects for free while I’m on vacation...isn’t the whole appeal of something like Horizon Worlds that it’s easy? Doesn’t it promise a frictionless version of our existing universe, providing us immediate access to exotic experiences?”
Imagine if Disneyland asked you to build all your rides before experiencing the joy of riding one? Sure, some people want to build rides and games. But most people, they just want to visit and have fun in a polished experience. Strike 3 = content.
Bloomberg put Meta's cumulative hardware and content work into actual dollars, writing last week that, "In other words, despite years of promotion, billions of dollars of investment, and a wildly expensive Super Bowl ad, all the company has been able to muster is a monthly audience that’s 0.01% of what it attracts on a Tuesday. If Horizon Worlds were made by some other company, Zuckerberg probably wouldn’t even bother copying it."
Roblox for Adults
Meta's real customers are brands that spend advertising dollars, and according to The Wall Street Journal last week, apps like Horizon Worlds visually might be "good enough." WSJ interviewed Alfred Chang, the co-CEO of PacSun, who said “Roblox, visually, is pretty basic. But what’s drawing us is the tens of millions of active users, and the opportunity there, based on who our customers are.”
Roblox is the critical proxy for metaverse ambitions, given it has more DAU's than even Fortnite and a much younger audience that is quickly growing up, along with the ability to earn and spend their own money. Sean Ryan, Meta’s former vice president of business platform partnerships, wrote a LinkedIn comment covered by Fortune, saying “We know that lots of teens will play games in Roblox, but I think there is a real question as to what adults will do in a metaverse in the next five years that doesn’t involve playing games?"
The question of what a "Roblox for adults" looks like requires us to look at the deeper motivations of what aging generations want out of their digital lives. Immersive social platforms, while critical for many that choose to live their life online in 3D (see recent doc: We Met in Virtual Reality), doesn't appeal to most adults. It's partly why Second Life plateaued in users, as it reached the total market of people willing to live online that way. Megan Farokhmanesh from WIRED covered a group of dedicated users last week recreating Kmart in VR Chat, and I think it's incredibly awesome. I watch my kiddos roleplay similarly in Greenville on Roblox, where they voluntarily set their own hours for working in virtual fast food restraunts.
I'm willing to bet that a "Roblox for adults" will be closer to Pokémon Go than either Second Life or VR Chat. It cues nostalgia, creates a focused objective, and is incredibly convenient to play (especially those that have young kids and find themselves wandering around neighborhood parks already). Pokémon Go also has an instant, older fan base of millennials with purchasing power, but still managed to bridge the experience to younger generations. Roblox does this too, with parents like me that are willing to play alongside their kids.
Go to Hogwarts (GTH)
A new Harry Potter game, Hogwarts Legacy, caught my eye last week on Tik Tok, where fans were salivating over the detail around the Common Rooms for each house. Lucasarts pioneered this strategy, where they expanded the universe and gave players tools to pursue their place in it with each game (I played a lot of Star Wars Galaxies growing up).
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As a go-to-market (GTM) strategy, a Harry Potter licensed metaverse could do for VR what Pokémon did for AR. The latter is all about collectible taxonomy, whereas Harry Potter is about a magical mirror world that fans want to live within.
I visited the Harry Potter Universal Studios park this summer with my kiddos, and it nowhere close to delivered the magic I wanted out of an immersive Harry Potter experience. Hot LA sun, lots of humans, and rushed rides. VR could enable what physical parks cannot: the ability to live your own story within the brand's universe.
Epic Games has a head start here, and is going to continue to make headway with their exploding asset library of licensed content. As Mashable wrote last week, "the real metaverse already exists and it's called Fortnite."
VentureBeat reported on indie studio Meta4 Interactive working on a new Transformers VR game, and they had useful learnings in transforming existing cinematic properties. The developers said, "One of the most important lessons seems counter-intuitive: we learned that ‘being’ a Transformer, although very cool, didn’t actually convey the sense of scale of being a gigantic robot. It was way more impressive in VR to be human-scale and stand next to a towering Autobot. That realization became the seed at the core of this game – playing as a human ally to the Autobots.”
VR content can be counter-intuitive, that’s what makes it so challenging to make! Consumers don’t yet know what they want out of their immersive experiences, so why not start with a better version of what they seek at physical amusement parks like Universal Studios? Hogwarts could be the Halo launch title of VR, and a true Roblox for adults that bridges generations.
One downside to Fortnite's approach to a metaverse is one that isn't discussed very often: how interoperability can be inappropriate in some sociocultural settings. TIME recently relaunched their Martin Luther King island, which is a weird thing to even write. PC Gamer reported last week, “I'm sorry, Sasuke Uchiha [Naruto] really has no place at a commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement. At that point, this project might be able to be appreciated on its own merits as an educational interactive experience rather than as a bad joke, but it also wouldn't go as viral, so who's to say what's right here.”
I donned my finest Fortnite suit avatar (see: John Wick) and tried the island for myself, although nobody else queued up with me when I did. It asks you to complete ten mini games to reach a final prize. Some of them are anchored in history, like trivia, but many of them are obstacle courses that felt out of place. Making history interactive, edutainment as it used to be called in the 90's, has never been easy. I could see a hip history teacher maybe wanting to incorporate this into a lesson plan, but many of them are careful to "simulate" history, especially when teaching about slavery and civil rights.
I've worked with TIME in the past (they published my first VR piece), and they are certainly the authority to experiment with new mediums. But I agree with PC Gamer here. In IRL, you probably wouldn't wear a hot dog costume to a museum on civil rights. To solve this temporarily, I would give visitors a limited selection of skins to choose from when entering certain sensitive or historical spaces. Fortnite doesn’t support that architecture for creative modes, yet.
Quote of the Week
"Now I learned that story, so often satisfying, is merely compensation for reality, which is so often unsatisfying. Right? Certainly I liked my Game 7 better than the real one." - Author Lee Child, on alternate baseball realities (The New York Times)
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