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Facebook, beware: the metaverse is flat

Most people visit virtual worlds through plain old screens. Mark Zuckerberg has to plan accordingly.

In a few weeks, Mark Zuckerberg will be introducing a new virtual reality headset from Meta Platforms Inc. to announce. Embarrassingly, we already know what it will look like. A video of the alleged device is doing the rounds online after someone found one in a hotel room. But none of that should matter, as flashy VR headsets become too much of a distraction and aren’t as integral to the early growth of the so-called metaverse, a 3D version of the internet that many see as the next chapter. It turns out that flat screens do the job just fine.

While Facebook has sold about 14 million VR headsets to date, millions more have visited the metaverse through regular 2D screens like the one you’re looking at right now, through apps like Roblox and Epic Games Inc.’s Fortnite. The trend is likely to continue for several more years as VR headsets take time to slim down in size and price.

That puts Zuckerberg in a difficult position. He wants you to buy Meta’s headset, known as the Quest, because that gives him more control over whatever metaverse marketplace he builds. And the reason is clear: He’s been bound by the rules of app gatekeepers Google and Apple Inc for years. from Google and Apple Inc., by paying their fees and following edicts like the app tracking transparency prompt that will knock about $14 million off Facebook’s ad. sell this year.

It would be a painful, almost unthinkable step for Facebook to make its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds available in app stores. But maybe there is another way. Facebook could allow people to visit the platform through a simple browser.

Google’s Stadia uses a service called cloud streaming that allows people to play large video games through Chrome. It’s an expensive process, requiring powerful servers, but it could help Facebook bypass Apple and Google while also drumming up a stream of curious new users. Meta’s tech chief Andrew Bosworth hinted on Twitter earlier this year that a web version was in the works, but a company spokeswoman declined to provide further details.

“It would be a 3D version of Facebook that looks like a game, but you would browse it from your desktop,” said Sam Huber, CEO of metaverse property startup LandVault. “It could become the most popular game in the world.”

Even modest popularity would reassure investors, who are likely to hesitate at how slowly the company’s headset customers are growing: Just 300,000 people have visited Horizon Worlds since its launch last October. You can only access the platform through a Quest 2 headset.

“Facebook appears to be operating from a sunken cost fallacy,” said Wagner James Au, an author and blogger who has covered the metaverse for more than a decade. “There is no data to support VR headsets as the mass-market device.”

In fact, flat versions of the metaverse are much more popular than 3D versions. About three quarters of Roblox’s 52 million daily visitors are on a phone, while the vast majority of people using Minecraft or Fortnite from Microsoft Corp. use on a desktop computer or mobile.

Several metaverse companies have also gone flat. Decentraland, for example, a virtual world for trading crypto assets, was marketed as a “virtual reality platform” when it launched its first coin offering in 2017. But all of its users have since visited via desktop or browser, the company says.

VRChat, a platform for socializing with other avatars, was first released as an Oculus headset app in 2014. Three years later, it produced a desktop version and was able to attract millions more users.

“The problem is the price,” said Artur Sychov, the founder of the metaverse startup Somnium Space, whose users usually visit in a browser. Meta’s Quest 2 costs about $400, while other competing headsets can cost upwards of $800.

Entering a virtual world on a screen is actually a good proxy for “real” VR and certainly more engaging than a regular video call, as I found out when Sychov took me on a tour of the Somnium universe during our Zoom meeting. Since I wasn’t technically with him as an avatar, Sychov held up a virtual tablet for him with a “camera” that allowed me to track his movements through space.

It was enough to see him pointing at art in a virtual gallery and moving through colorful forests, even on my laptop screen, to imagine I was there.

Until now, Meta’s marketing has focused on the immersive benefits of VR headsets, creating the feeling of actually being with colleagues at work or in a fitness class. But that’s missing the metaverse’s real selling point — incentives to create new experiences — and you don’t need a VR headset for that.

To attract more people to its virtual platforms, Meta should focus less on building advanced headsets and more on emulating metaverse pioneers like Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft. Nearly a quarter of Roblox’s own users have created millions of games for the platform, creating a marketplace for both commerce and fun. Almost all of its content is user-generated, just like TikTok or YouTube, and that’s a big part of its appeal.

Zuckerberg similarly needs to turn his metaverse into a place where creators can thrive. The current push from Facebook to test tools for creators feels late, given how far ahead the other pioneers are.

Concentrating too much on immersive technology is putting the cart before the horse. Meta must make its metaverse both accessible and attractive to creators. Going “flat” would be a good start.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on technology. She is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of “We Are Anonymous.”

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