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Explained: What Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms tell us about Mark Zuckerberg’s grand plan to create a VR ‘metaverse’

Facebook wants to move beyond smartphones: The iPhone came back in 2007, and while Apple still sells it in the millions and will continue to do so, it is clear that the tech companies are now looking beyond smartphones for growth.

The term is “metaverse”. Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg mentioned this new trending technology buzzword during his company’s most recent earnings call. By metaverse Zuckerberg meant the next phase of the internet where our physical world combines with the virtual, creating a whole new environment in the process. This, he thinks, is how we will work, play and live in the future. In fact, Zuckerberg is so convinced of the concept that he has a full plan to pivot his trillion dollar social media firm into a metaverse company in the coming years.

So how does Facebook achieve Zuckerberg’s vision of a VR “metaverse”? Or is this is just a bold dream right now? We explain.

Facebook wants to move beyond smartphones: The iPhone came back in 2007, and while Apple still sells it in the millions and will continue to do so, it is clear that the tech companies are now looking beyond smartphones for growth. Zuckerberg’s alternate reality blends the real world with digital imaginations and the smartphone really has no place in this mix. It needs a new type of device, probably a Virtual Reality (VR) headset of the time produced by Zuckerberg’s Oculus.

Horizon Workrooms is a first step toward a VR “metaverse”: With Oculus, Zuckerberg’s plan is to jump straight from smartphones and laptops to VR headsets as the way to engage billions of its users with Facebook in a more immersive manner. Although Facebook has had limited success in bringing VR to the mainstream consumers despite pumping in billions of dollars, the company last week took the first major step in expanding the potential of this tech to work by launching Horizon Workrooms, a VR version of Zoom and Slack.

The basic idea here is to abandon the old style of doing video conferencing using a webcam and instead use a VR headset (say, Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2) to meet up in a VR space. Facebook is pitching its Horizon Workrooms as a new way to interact with colleagues – but, of course, in virtual reality. Workers can create avatars (those cartoon-like characters in 3D-animated work spaces) and communicate with coworkers in virtual meetings. While Horizon Workrooms continue to be in beta testing, Facebook is already letting its Oculus Quest 2 users try the app.

Although it’s not quite Metaverse yet, Horizon seems like a natural expansion of Zuckerberg’s strategy to pitch VR as the next computing platform. Zuckerberg himself acknowledged that it will take several years to build out the metaverse experience, but the launch of Workrooms in the midst of the pandemic when everyone is connected remotely shows that our workplace is changing. People will continue to work remotely, with some restrictions, after things go formal. But there is a need to rethink the office and for that you need to shift towards immersive technology. Workrooms, in a way, bring everyone in the same virtual room, regardless of the physical distance. Unlike a Zoom meeting, where you have the option to turn off the camera/or microphone and go under the radar while the meeting is still on, with Horizon you can actually watch and engage with your colleagues’ virtual avatars. You can watch them standing up, giving a presentation, who raised their hands in the meeting, and instantly know who is not present, even though their avatar is.

…but Facebook is an advertising company: Facebook is spending billions on the metravere and there is a reason behind it. While Facebook will sell the hardware through Oculus’ VR headsets, the real money will be in advertising.

Zuckerberg has already said that advertising in the metaverse is core to the strategy, but how will Facebook introduce commerce in this digital world.?

If you ever heard about Minecreaft, Robolox and Fortnite, you know how these platforms and games sell digital goods to users. For instance, the Gucci Dionysus bag was recently sold for 350,000 Robux — roughly $4,115 — and was only available on the online gaming platform Roblox. Gucci’s presence on Roblox shows that there is a lot of money to be made on the gaming platform initially popular among children that is fast becoming a prominent metaverse platform for all.

Zuckerberg’s ‘metaverse’ dream will take years to give results: The concept of a metaverse sounds intriguing at first. In fact, its origins come from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, where the metaverse was a virtual world. Zuckerberg is talking about moving into a new direction, a shift from mobile computing to creating a VR ecosystem.

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But it would also mean the end of the social network we all know. The meaning of social network is going to change in a metraverse world and how you are going to experience it. Instagram and Facebook feel natural on smartphones, but who knows how they transform in a virtual space.

Then there are also limitations to the hardware. They are not only bulky but Oculus headsets aren’t ready for the metaverse yet. The biggest issue with the whole metaverse concept is that it looks like a polished marketing campaign to increase the adoption of VR and AR headsets.

Facebook might have single handedly created the social media economy, but this time around, there are other big players who too want us to live in the metaverse future. Zuckerberg not only has to develop the hardware, software and experience on its own, it also requires a lot of investment to create the core infrastructure and billions of dollars of investment to make the metaverse a reality. Going by Facebook’s track record with privacy and misinformation, consumers might not choose to live in a virtual reality ‘metaverse.’

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