Skepticism, confusion, frustration: A look at the struggles of Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse

Last October, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would change its name to Meta and become a “metaverse company,” he outlined a vision of a utopian future many years from now in which thousands of millions of people would immersively inhabit digital environments for hours on end, working, socializing and playing within virtual and augmented worlds.

In the year since then, Meta has spent billions of dollars and assigned thousands of employees to make Zuckerberg’s dream possible. But Meta’s metaverse efforts are off to a rocky start.

The company’s flagship VR game, Horizon Worlds, continues to be buggy and unpopular, prompting Meta to implement a “quality lock” for the rest of the year while it updates the app.

Some Meta employees have complained about frequent strategy changes that seem tied to Zuckerberg’s whims rather than a cohesive plan.

And Meta executives have taken issue with the company’s metaverse strategy, with one senior leader complaining that the amount of money the company had spent on untested projects is “nauseating.”

The company’s struggle to reshape the business was outlined in interviews with more than a dozen current and former Meta employees and internal communications obtained by The New York Times. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about internal matters.

Meta is expected to unveil a new VR headset at a developer conference on Tuesday, along with other new features from the metaverse. The stakes are high for the company, which is racing to transform to offset downturns in other parts of its business. TikTok is siphoning off younger users from Facebook and Instagram, Meta’s two big moneymakers, and Apple made privacy changes to its mobile operating system that have cost Meta billions of dollars in ad revenue.

The company’s share price has plunged nearly 60% in the past year, a reflection not only of the broader market turmoil but also of skepticism from some investors that the metaverse will be very lucrative anytime soon. In late September, the company announced it would freeze most hiring, and Zuckerberg warned employees that layoffs could follow.

“The pressures facing the Meta business in 2022 are acute, significant and unrelated to the metaverse,” said Matthew Ball, an investor and metaverse expert whose advice Zuckerberg sought. “And there is a risk that almost everything Mark has described about the metaverse is correct, except that the time is farther away than he imagined.”

In a statement, Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta, said the company believed it was still on the right track.

“Being cynical about new and innovative technology is easy,” Stone said. “Actually, building it is much more difficult, but that’s what we’re doing because we believe the metaverse is the future of computing.”

Zuckerberg successfully overhauled his company a decade ago, getting it to focus on how its products worked on smartphones rather than desktops. He signaled a similar shift last year, saying that investing in the metaverse would allow Meta to leap from one technological age to the next.

There are some signs that the Meta bet has put him ahead of the competition. The company’s consumer VR headset, the Quest 2, is the most popular VR headset on the market with more than 15 million sold, according to outside estimates. Its Oculus VR app, which has since been renamed Meta Quest, has been installed more than 21 million times on iOS and Android devices, according to an estimate by Sensor Tower, an app analytics company.

But Meta’s future success depends on the company’s ability to bring virtual and augmented reality tools to many more people.

Meta said in February that its Horizon Worlds game had grown to about 300,000 monthly active users, an increase from a few months earlier but minuscule compared to Facebook’s more than 2.9 billion monthly active users. The company declined to provide more up-to-date figures for Horizon Worlds.

Adding to Meta’s problems is that US regulators seem determined to prevent the company from buying its way to success, as it did by buying Instagram and WhatsApp. In July, the Federal Trade Commission sued Meta to stop it from acquiring Within, the maker of a popular VR fitness app. Meta is fighting the agency’s lawsuit, calling it “incorrect in fact and law.”

Zuckerberg, determined to reshape his public image after years in the spotlight for unpopular decisions about political speech at Facebook, has surprised some employees by becoming the innovative face of the metaverse momentum. Demonstrations and mockups of Meta’s latest metaverse technologies feature footage of Zuckerberg performing VR versions of his hobbies, including fencing and a surf-like water sport called airboating. The CEO recently took part in the Joe Rogan podcast, where he told the popular comedian that building an immersive metaverse was his “holy grail.”

Their participation has failed at times. In August, Zuckerberg posted a screenshot of his Horizon Worlds avatar on his Facebook page, along with an announcement that the app was expanding to France and Spain. But the flat, cartoonish look of the avatar was roundly mocked. (One commenter compared it to “a Nintendo GameCube release from 2002″.)

After that response, Zuckerberg and other executives directed employees to prioritize improving the appearance of avatars, according to two employees. Stone, the Facebook spokesman, characterized Zuckerberg’s reaction to the avatar backlash as “frustrated,” but did not provide additional details.

A new version of Zuckerberg’s digital appearance was fast-tracked, the two employees said, along with updates to other Horizon Worlds avatars that had been in the works.

Four days after Zuckerberg’s original post, he shared that digitally enhanced version of himself, admitting that his first avatar was “pretty basic” while “the graphics in Horizon are capable of so much more.” A graphic artist for Meta claimed in a since-deleted LinkedIn post that he and his team had designed approximately 40 versions of Zuckerberg’s face over a four-week period before a final version was approved.

Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm for the metaverse has been met with skepticism from some Meta employees. This year, he encouraged teams to hold meetings within Meta’s Horizon Workrooms app, which allows users to meet in virtual conference rooms. But many employees didn’t have VR headsets or hadn’t yet set them up, and had to scramble to purchase and register devices before managers knew it, according to a person with knowledge of the events.

In a May survey of 1,000 Meta employees conducted by Blind, an anonymous professional social network, only 58% said they understood the company’s metaverse strategy. Employees have also complained about high turnover and frequent employee turnover as Zuckerberg’s priorities change. Within Meta, two employees said, some workers now jokingly refer to key metaverse projects as MMH, for “making Mark happy.”

In September, Vishal Shah, the vice president in charge of Meta’s metaverse division, wrote on an internal message board that he was disappointed in the number of Meta employees using Horizon Worlds, according to a post obtained by The Times.

In his post, which was first reported by The Verge, Shah said managers would start tracking workers’ use of Horizon Worlds, and said testing his own technology was essential.

“Why don’t we love the product we’ve built so much that we use it all the time?” Shah asked. “The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?”

Shah, who declined to comment to The Times, also said in his post that Horizon would undergo a “quality lock” for the rest of the year to “elevate the overall craftsmanship and delight of our product.”

As Meta struggled to grow its metaverse, some in the company suggested offbeat ideas to attract new users. This summer, three Meta employees proposed marketing VR headsets to Americans who received student debt relief from the Biden administration, believing it could boost headset sales by 20%, according to an insider post seen by The Times.

“This is an opportunity for growth for Meta Quest, as there is evidence that the previous federal stimulus stimulated growth,” the analysis reads. It does not appear that the company followed the advice.

One prominent member who has opposed Zuckerberg’s approach to the metaverse is John Carmack, a well-known game developer and former CTO of Oculus, the virtual reality company that Facebook acquired for roughly $2 billion in 2014. He continues to work at part time in Meta as an advisor.

In a podcast interview in August, Carmack said the scale of Meta’s metaverse gamble (last year it reported a $10 billion loss at the division that houses its AR and VR units) made him “nauseous thinking about so much spent money”. He added that the development of the Meta metaverse has been hampered by the bureaucracy of large companies and concerns about issues such as diversity and privacy.

Carmack has also spoken out on Workplace, Meta’s internal message board. In posts obtained by The Times, Carmack, who will speak at the developers’ conference on Tuesday, criticized the features of the company’s VR headsets and called the need to run software updates before use “extremely bad for user enjoyment.” ”.

Carmack did not respond to a request for comment.

Criticism of Carmack has pitted him against executives like Andrew Bosworth, Meta’s chief technology officer, who oversaw virtual reality efforts for years and is a close ally of Zuckerberg. Carmack, according to four employees who have worked with him, has urged the company to think about the metaverse primarily from the immediate user experience, while Bosworth has approached it from a longer-term point of view with a focus on opportunities. commercial.

As the pressure mounts, Zuckerberg has sent a clear message to Meta employees: Get on board or get out. In a June meeting first reported by Reuters, the 38-year-old billionaire said “there are probably a lot of people in the company who shouldn’t be here” and that he would be “increasing the pressure” on expectations and goals, according to copies of his comments shared with The Times.

Faced with possible layoffs, some Meta employees have begun to convey more enthusiasm for the metaverse. More teams have been holding meetings inside Horizon Workrooms in recent months, several employees said.

But the transition has been difficult. Earlier this year, Bosworth attempted to lead a staff meeting inside Horizon Workrooms, according to an employee who was present.

The meeting was marred by technical glitches and the team ended up using Zoom, the employee said.

  • This text was translated by Octavio López/TCA

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Skepticism, confusion, frustration: A look at the struggles of Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse