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Version 6: What Grown-Ups Don't Understand
Meta Quest Pro "leak", Metaversities, Roblox ads, VR festivals at home, and Disney's Dreamlite Valley early access
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 last week in cyberspace, here's what mattered the most:
The Good Old Days?
In a move of authentic or artificial buzz, an engineering sample of Meta's new headset the Quest Pro "leaked" from someone that came across it in a hotel room. The device was to be formally be announced at the upcoming (ninth annual!) Meta Connect conference on October 11th. Regardless of the possible PR stunt, I think the bigger question is how this upgraded device will attract a new market of users. Zuckerberg appearing on the Joe Rogan podcast was definitely an attempt to showcase VR as a potential elite performance device, and I'm curious if Meta is going to position the device that way at Connect.
As someone that has attended Connect for many years, dating back to Oculus Connect 2 at the Hollywood Bowl, I’ve seen its ups and downs. One of my favorite talks was when Michael Abrash, Meta Reality Labs Chief Scientist, claimed "these are the good old days" for VR during his keynote. I initially wasn't so sure, perhaps in the same way he wasn't so sure when he was at Microsoft in 1992. But looking back at my time working internally at Facebook in 2017 on 3D engines (stuff that eventually became Horizon Worlds), Abrash might have been right. It was a fun time, and the technology plays a bigger role today than it did in 2015, but at some point we need to stop saying it’s “early days” and use the conference format to grow the the reach of VR’s still niche audience.
I'm still not sure if Zuckerberg and Meta is the right corporation to be building society's communication future, especially given they dissolved their Responsible Innovation Team last week, but it's happening. I hope they take time at the upcoming Connect conference to talk less about how they're improving the headset hardware, and more time talking about how the metaverse they are building is going to improve society.
As The Atlantic put it last week after Apple's iPhone 14 announcement, "Big Tech is looking to the stars for its new ideas. Maybe there’s nowhere else to go."
What Grown-Ups Don't Understand
School started for my tween-aged kiddos last week, and it feels good to put the years of "Zoom school" behind us. The pandemic continues to prove that online learning still has many hurdles to clear before it becomes a viable option for many. Which is why I'm curious to see how the $150M Meta Immersive Learning is spent, which Forbes covered last week. It makes sense that online-only universities would get a virtual campus to interact within, but I see less value for those building a "digital twin" of their IRL campus. Forbes wrote, "It’s unnervingly empty—there’s no passersby, students playing Spikeball or professors on their lunch break. Moving around the space is jarring; while pressing forward on the joystick, it almost feels like the ground is coming out from beneath you."
What purpose do these vast campus replicas serve, if users aren't socializing in them? Maybe similar to the existential crises physical offices are facing today, universities must figure out how to utilize VR in useful and desirable ways for undergraduate students. Higher education enrollment continues to decline, and if we’re to reverse that trend, we need to figure out what younger generations want out of the changing university experience.
My favorite article of last week was a guest essay written by students at Oakland's Fremont High titled "What Grown-Ups Don't Understand About School." Their answer? School is for hanging out, and growing up. To students, learning takes a back seat to the community and social structure schools provide. To adults, learning is the point. They're both right, and when building immersive learning spaces, I hope companies like VictoryXR remember to accommodate both points of view.
It's easy to replicate a campus 1:1 in Minecraft, but it will only feel like campus if students choose to socialize there, too.
3D Ads, Oof!
In a huge step, Roblox announced last week that they are going to start verifying ages more thoroughly and implement formal advertising. The Verge wrote, "the new ad system will allow creators to drop 3D ads into their own experiences — like a billboard in a sports stadium or on top of a cab in a game — and to get a cut of the ad revenue."
This is likely good news for creators in Roblox, who typically only get a 30% cut of in-game earnings from their “experiences.” Advertising would hopefully diversify the types of people creating content on the platform, making it a more profitable gig.
Roblox can be overwhelming visually, and I wonder if adding more flashing signs or billboards will make its spaces feel better or worse. Younger audiences probably won't care either way, but brands measuring efficacy of their campaign spend might. As I wrote about last week though, audience numbers matter. Roblox currently sure has those DAU’s.
The Venice International Film Festival happened last week, as did its AR/VR counterpart "Venice Immersive." Film festivals have long claimed that more immersive technologies give a glimpse into the future of cinema, but when will that future arrive? It's frustrating that some of the coolest VR projects I've experienced were at festivals, but didn't go beyond them to find an audience anywhere else. I love that filmmakers and artists are experimenting with the genre, but they also need a home afterwards for others to experience.
The Portland Art Museum is fixing this by bringing the festival to the people! PDX locals can rent headsets to take home, along with 10 curated experiences pre-loaded. I'm not sure how many will take advantage of the option, but I think it's a creative way to solve the distribution problem, and something local libraries have also been doing with VR headsets to reduce barriers and increase access to them.
Once Upon a Dreamlite
In the world of content, Disney launched early access for their Animal Crossing x Stardew Valley game hybrid, Dreamlite Valley. I'm about 6 hours into it and am already obsessed. It's low cognitive fun that will delight both younger and adult Disney fans. Those that played the series Kingdom Hearts might recall it as the company's first experiment with a Disney IP metaverse, but I think Dreamlite Valley does a much better job at being approachable for everyone, not just role-playing game (RPG) fans.
Some might scoff at its developer Gameloft (of mobile game fame) and current lack of polish, but with its live services and progression design, it could attract a huge audience of users over time. It extends the Disney brand, makes characters interactive, and gives players a sense of ownership.
I loved playing "Disneyland Adventures" on Xbox, as it took a 1:1 scale replica of the park and made it more interactive. While playing that game, there were many times I queued my own IRL experiences in the park when I was younger. But that title didn’t let players create, it just let them experience the park in a new way. Playing Dreamlite makes me feel like I’m creating my own, personal Disneyland.
As Disney pursues its own metaverse ambitions, I think Dreamlite Valley's success is going to inform many of its future strategies. Although, I really wish my avatar had a different vibe than “Hipster Riverdale Fisherman.”
Quote of the Week
“Disney is absolutely a lifestyle. The question is, how is our next-gen storytelling leveraging what we know about a guest uniquely in this Disney lifestyle, then serving up unique experiences.” - Bob Chapek, CEO of Disney (Reuters)
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