With backing from Microsoft and a $1,500 price tag, the question remains: What will it take to make enterprises care?
At this week’s Meta Connect event, Mark Zuckerberg and company offered a State of the Union on the metaverse. He updated the public on Meta’s early successes, how the technology is developing, and offered a look at their newest VR headset, the Quest Pro.
The Quest Pro, available starting later this month, carries a significantly higher price than the Quest 2 headset. But Quest Pro sports better optical clarity and a lighter design. Meta also touted support from Microsoft, which promises to bring business and productivity apps to the platform like Teams and 365. Whether enterprises or even the SMB market will care about Meta’s metaverse is an entirely separate issue.
The metaverse is, even by Meta and Zuck’s own admission even during and after Connect, still very much a work in progress — well, Meta’s implementation of the metaverse, anyway. In an interview with tech blog The Verge on Tuesday, Zuck said VR is entering “the trough of disillusionment,” the second phase of the Gartner-coined technology hype cycle. That trough is wedged between the peak of inflated expectations and the slope of enlightenment, followed, ultimately, by the plateau of productivity. Zuckerberg added that he didn’t think the metaverse would catch on “until later this decade,” once tech like the Quest Pro has a chance to “fully mature.”
That certainly tracks with metaverse talk in telco circles: It is very much a future play — a technical target to reach, which will depend on the development and widespread deployment of faster, more capable wireless infrastructure than exists today. The metaverse is tied up with multi-access edge computing (MEC), network slicing and other 5.5G and 6G-adjacent technology that will help telcos reach latency and bandwidth goals at scale an order of magnitude better than today.
That means something, at least when it comes to widespread, ubiquitous metaverse use on par with how mobile devices access the Internet today. But that doesn’t mean the metaverse isn’t a “thing” right now, even if it means that today, you’re still doing it from a bulky and awkward headset.
Industry wonks largely credit the term “metaverse” to the science fiction author Neal Stephenson, who coined the word in his seminal cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash,” first published in 1992. Other SF authors like William Gibson began to popularize the concept a decade before, playing around with the idea of people mucking about in futuristic visions of the internet. Stephenson solidified and expanded the concept and actually coined the word. In Stephenson’s concept, getting hurt in the metaverse can cause you real-life injury as well. Let’s hope that conceit stays in the pages of fanciful fiction. For right now, metaverse users mainly have to worry about getting hurt by tripping and falling over furniture or a sleeping pooch.
Broadly speaking, however, “Metaverse” as a concept has been widely co-opted throughout consumer and enterprise spaces to mean different things, depending on who’s doing the talking. It’s picked up speed as an easy catch-all phrase for tech marketing executives to gin up otherwise boring, staid, and frankly Byzantine concepts to their customers.
It seems like every week or two, we’re hearing about how the metaverse is going to revolutionize industrial manufacturing, retail commerce, and even 5G deployment. But much of that metaverse talk is actually conflation with the concept of “digital twins” – simulated versions of real-life environments, fed data in real-time using widespread sensors. Digital twins, as an idea, have been around longer than the metaverse, but calling digital twins “metaverse” seems to make it easier and more palatable to corporate execs who sign the checks.
A Luckey break
The Quest Pro is the newest iteration of a VR headset design that originated outside of Meta (née Facebook). Palmer Luckey, a homeschooled kid from Long Beach, California, started developing VR headsets when he was a teenager, eventually working through more than four dozen designs before he and the other founders of Oculus came up with the Oculus Rift, the paterfamilias of Meta’s current product line. In 2012, at the ripe old age of 20, Luckey and company caught the attention of legendary video game developer John Carmack, one of the creators of Doom and co-founder of Id Software, who showed off a version of Doom 3 running on the headset at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. It blew people away.
Luckey and his cohorts ended up crowdfunding the Oculus Rift’s development, asking for $250,000 on Kickstarter and raising $2.4 million. The earliest Oculus Rift devices were strictly proofs of concept, aimed at garnering early support from app and game developers like Carmack. But Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook soon caught wind of the device. By 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus for $2.3 billion is cash and stock. Oculus released the first consumer version of the Rift headset in 2016, following it up with the Oculus Go a year later.
And by 2017, Luckey was on to the next big thing, leaving Facebook behind as a newly minted billionaire. Luckey started Anduril, a defense startup that specializes in making loitering munitions, the defense term of art for specialized unmanned aerial drones equipped with warheads. Last year, the company raised a Series D round of $450 million, pegging its value at $4.6 billion.
By 2018, Facebook absorbed Oculus, became Meta in 2021, to fully embrace its metaverse play. Reality Labs is the division of Meta which is tasked with creating the technology and working with third-party developers to garner industry support.
Facebook unveiled the Oculus Quest 2 in September 2020 and shipped it a month later. The Quest 2 runs an Android-based operating system, connecting (optionally) to a computer using USB-C and supporting Bluetooth and Wi-Fi 6 for wireless connectivity. As Facebook was to become Meta, the decision was also made to phase out the Oculus brand in favor of the current Meta Quest branding.
The Quest 2 debuted for $299, but in August of this year, Meta increased the price by $100, citing increased production costs and the desire to “continue investing” in the technology’s development. To attract buyers, Meta’s throwing in (through the end of the year, anyway) the popular Beat Saber game, a rhythm game that has you slashing virtual objects with a virtual light sword a la Star Wars, a $30 value.
What’s new with the Quest Pro?
The Quest Pro — known internally at Reality Labs as “Project Cambria” — doesn’t reinvent the metaverse wheel, but it does offer many feature improvements over its predecessor, the Quest 2, which remains available alongside the new kit. Meta says that the Quest Pro is its first high-end headset, with the Quest 2 the entry-level option for folks who just want to dip their toes in the metaverse’s virtual waters.
With the new gear priced at $1,500, the Quest 2’s $400 price tag seems like a bargain by comparison, even though it’s $100 more out of pocket than it was at the start of the year. The company is accepting pre-orders now and will begin shipping them on October 25, 2022. Despite the much higher price tag for the Quest Pro, Zuckerberg told The Verge that Meta will be losing money on each sale. In this respect, Meta is following the same model that’s been used by widely in the video game market. Console makers rarely, if ever, make money on the hardware during much of the product life cycle, making up for it with much higher-margin software and accessory sales.
Quest Pro improvements include pancake lenses and new curved battery that Meta says makes it feel more balanced to the wearer, so it doesn’t feel like you have a toaster oven strapped to your face; that helped Meta get rid of the overhead strap on the Quest 2, a source of user criticism.
While it isn’t any higher-resolution than the Quest 2, Meta touts the Quest Pro’s 75% sharper contrast, 37% better pixel density, larger color gamut and overall 25% improvement in full-field visual sharpness, to make crisper, more realistic images than ever. Outward-facing cameras grab higher-resolution full-color imagery, making the Quest Pro suitable for the burgeoning Mixed Reality (MR) market as much as VR. And new sensors keep an eye on the wearer’s face, tracking both eye movement and facial expressions to make your avatar, the metaverse representation of you, look and act more natural around other users.
More features and capabilities means the Quest Pro gets a bump-up in RAM, doubling from 6GB to 12 GB. Meta also noted that the Quest Pro is the first device around to use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2+ System on a Chip (SoC), especially designed for VR. Previous Quest headsets used older generations of Snapdragon SoCs designed for VR, so the progression makes sense.
But all that additional processing horsepower comes at a price in terms of battery duration. Meta says the Quest Pro will last one to two hours per charge, and it takes at least that long to charge from zero, using the docking station included with the rig. The Quest 2 lasts for two to three hours, depending on whether you’re using it to play games or watch movies.
Meta doesn’t skip leg day
The Quest Pro wasn’t Meta’s only Connect announcement, of course. Beyond some sales figures and other tidbits, Mark Zuckerberg showed off his new metaverse legs — literally. Up to now, users of Meta’s Horizon virtual world simulator have been disembodied floating torsos without legs.
“Legs are hard, which is why other virtual reality systems don’t have them either,” said Zuckerberg, earning many laughs and no small amount of derision from social media wags in the process.
It turns out that legs are tricky to do in VR because most VR systems rely on positioning systems in head-mounted gear. What’s going on below your waist is largely a matter of interpolation.
One of the centerpieces of Meta Connect’s announcements is the news that Microsoft is on board with content and apps for Quest devices. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said his company will bring its Teams software and 365 apps to the platform, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and SharePoint. What’s more, Microsoft said it will bring Xbox Cloud Gaming to the Meta Quest store, enabling Quest gamers to stream Xbox games to their headsets too.
“We’re bringing the Microsoft Teams’ immersive meeting experience to Meta Quest in order to give people new ways to connect with each other. Now, you can connect, share and collaborate as though you are together in person,” said Nadella. Microsoft’s metaverse apps will work with both the Quest 2 and Quest Pro headsets.
Nadella said that the world is going through “a once-in-a-lifetime change” in how we work, adding that as hybrid work sees broader adoption, companies are “looking for new ways to reconnect, re-energize their workforce at home, in the office, and everywhere in between.”
Microsoft isn’t the only company bringing content to Meta’s Quest platform. NBC Universal is also on board with content based around some of its popular properties. Recognizing the popularity of fitness-based games and apps, Meta plans to release the Quest 2 Active Pack later this month, which will include straps and other accessories for easier and cleaner metaverse workouts. Meta’s also going to release a fitness-specific Application Programming Interface (API) for the Quest platform, to help third-party developers tap into the market.
Who needs the metaverse, anyway?
At $1,100 more than the Quest 2, the Quest Pro isn’t likely to garner a huge additional market of metaverse-hungry consumers. Already, the Quest 2 is priced similarly to what Microsoft and Sony charge for video game consoles, so this isn’t a big play for the entertainment market. Premium smartphones are in the same ballpark as the Quest Pro, but objectively provide lots more bang for the buck as productivity devices.
Even when it comes to enterprise applications, Meta is skittish. The company’s CTO Andrew Bosworth recently told Protocol that Quest Pro is “still a prosumer device,” especially when compared to Microsoft’s HoloLens or VR startup Magic Leap.
“There’s this whole spectrum. On one hand, you have consumer devices. Consumers want things lighter and cheaper, with a more attractive industrial design. Adjacent to that, you get to enterprise, where people are willing to tolerate a little more cost, a little more heft, a little less design in exchange for more functionality. As you move further out, you get to industrial use, and military, where you’ve seen HoloLens and Magic Leap target their energy,” said Bosworth.
Acknowledging the high price tag of the new headset, Bosworth said, “There’s a lot of factors driving that, but the biggest one is that we are working hard on completely novel technologies that don’t have a deep supply chain around them yet.”
In the interim, Meta will keep taking chances, at least as long as its investors will allow the company to keep bleeding metaverse money. Meta revealed at Meta Connect that its Quest Store has cumulatively generated $1.5 billion in sales revenue. Sounds impressive, until you consider that Meta spent almost twice that on VR development for its most recently reported fiscal quarter ($2.8 billion), laying out $5.7 billion so far just in 2022. Despite such limited results, Zuckerberg still insisted to analysts on a July call that the metaverse represents a “massive opportunity” for the company, even while acknowledging that Meta will likely continue to lose money on this bet for years to come.