How’s The Metaverse Doing Two Years Later?

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In late 2021, I wrote a four-part article series about the vast potential and possible downsides of Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the Metaverse. At the time, Facebook and Oculus (which had previously been bought by Facebook) were both rolled into a new parent company: Meta. Facing falling use at Facebook (especially among younger people), the company had to do something, and this was the new plan.

People were absolutely right to be skeptical. 1990s VR was a bomb. (Remember the Nintendo Virtual Boy?) Early 2010s VR was again a failure. Google succeeded for a short time by making VR dirt cheap, using VR headsets made from literal cardboard with plastic lenses that used a phone’s screen. Oculus later offered a better version of that by partnering with Samsung to make the Gear VR.

Ultimately, it was the smartphone that would save VR, but not the way Google hoped. By 2020 and 2021, things had improved drastically. Things like small high-resolution displays, position and orientation sensors, and efficient chipsets were all invented for smartphones and became cheaper due to mass production. But, the quality of the VR experience couldn’t improve until Oculus started using the technology to build dedicated VR devices instead of trying to press smartphones into VR service.

I ended up buying an Oculus Quest 2 in 2021 (yes, an Oculus Quest, as I bought it before the big name change), and it was head and shoulders above the Gear VR experience. Visual quality was better. The controller tracking was great, and everything was nice. But, there weren’t that many useful apps outside of some fun Star Wars games. I could see that there was vast potential, but that it was being unused.

If fully utilized, VR has the potential to reduce the amount of travel people need to do, make job training safer, and even save some lives. So, seeing a big company like Facebook bet the farm on the technology hinted that some promising things could happen in the future.

Sadly, at least for Zuck, things weren’t going terribly well a year later, while other companies were starting to succeed.

Meta continued to struggle because its flagship metaverse experience, Horizon Worlds, just wasn’t retaining users. An improved VR headset aimed at business use (the Quest Pro) wasn’t useful enough to justify families or businesses spending $1,000 on it. Meta did announce plans to create more ways to interact with things like Horizon Worlds, including using smartphones to view VR worlds by using them like a “magic window” or through traditional PC mouse and WASD gaming.

However, Roblox and other metaverse players are still doing quite well with teens and young adults. The big challenge for 2023 seemed to be getting older people (like me) to join their kids in Roblox and maybe do work in VR.

How 2023 Went in the Metaverse

2023, especially toward the end, went a lot better for metaverse companies like Roblox and Meta.

One big thing that helped Meta was the Quest 3. Many of the advancements of the Quest Pro were repackaged in a cheaper headset. Higher resolution displays, clearer lenses, and a more customizable lens spacing system (pupillary distance) made for a much more realistic and pleasant user experience. I know because I ended up buying one recently. More apps and games have been trickling out that are starting to show the promise of VR, too.

Probably the most exciting app I’ve been writing about for other publications is AceXR, a virtual shooting range experience. By docking the Quest controller on top of a realistic-feeling plastic gun, a growing number of instructors and students are spending less time throwing lead around at real ranges and doing more of their practice at home.

What this shows us is that with custom controllers, many other realistic training opportunities are likely now possible. One thing I plan to experiment with soon is teaching some of my younger kids to drive using a force-feedback racing wheel. But things like farm and construction machinery and many other dangerous tasks can likely be simulated and gamified.

Another big development was when Roblox released an app for the Meta Quest, making for the combination of two of the biggest metaverse companies. This caused a lot of kids to ask their parents for VR headsets, some of whom are probably too young to be running around virtual worlds unsupervised, but it also means that the success of both companies is now tied together — they can grow together instead of competing with each other.

What this will probably mean is that the concept of the metaverse will grow along with the kids. Us older folks (I’m almost 40) might never feel comfortable conducting part of our social lives in VR or going to work in VR, but younger kids are “metaverse natives” who will feel comfortable with that.

Another big thing that happened since my last article on this was that Apple threw its hat into the ring. Instead of calling it VR or the metaverse, Apple says the goal is to focus on “spatial computing.”

But, the biggest problem the Vision Pro faces is that the experience comes with a hefty price tag: $3,500. That’s a full seven times the cost of the Meta Quest 3, which offers a pass-through experience that’s probably ⅔ as good, but with some recent updates the gap may be closing. Workspaces and other Meta apps also do a lot of what the Vision Pro can do for productivity (virtual screens).

It’s also worth noting that ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, has been offering VR headsets outside of the United States. For what are likely political reasons, the Pico headsets didn’t ever get released in the States, but they’ve been somewhat popular in China and Europe. The Pico 4 seemed somewhat comparable to the Quest 3 in some ways, but fell short of the Quest 2 in other ways. Sales weren’t good enough to continue development into a fifth generation, but ByteDance does plan on developing something more premium to compete with the Vision Pro.

Where From Here?

I’ve seen a number of people who have shared VR experiences with friends and family say that they think the future is in miniaturization. VR headsets have gotten a lot smaller and less cumbersome as they’ve gotten more realistic, and that trend is likely to continue. If it can get to the point where it’s not much more intrusive than a pair of glasses (even if a wire is needed to stash battery and computing power elsewhere), many more people are likely to want to give it a chance.

Shared experiences where people on 2D screens can interact with people using headsets are also a likely way forward. Roblox is already a great example of how this can not only work, but promote growth in the number of VR users.

But, one thing is for sure: it’s hard to share what it’s like to use a headset using things like YouTube. Without experiencing the depth and motion tracking for yourself, it’s just not the same.

Featured image provided by Meta.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1989 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba