Meta's Connect 2022 conference (known as Oculus Connect in ye olden days) kicked off today with presentations from company leaders like CEO Mark Zuckerberg, chief technology officer Andrew Bosworth, and more. The company showed off a new headset (the whoppingly-high priced Meta Quest Pro), unveiled a partnership with Microsoft, and continued its pitch that VR technology isn't just about headsets and immersion, it's about the future of human computing.
The conference landed at an unusual moment, right after The New York Times got its hands on a number of internally embarrassing memos that seem to indicate strife at the company that brought you Facebook. Some moments in the keynote presentation seemed to contradict what those memos revealed. Bosworth's claims of Meta employees taking meetings in virtual reality seems to run counter to reports of low employee usage of its VR apps.
With that in mind, viewers of today's Connect conference were probably looking for reasons to be confident in Meta's commitment to VR, AR, and MR development. The company shoveled billions into Reality Labs over the last couple of years, but rescinded job offers and recession-minded corporate spending clawbacks have raised questions about Meta's economic direction.
What should developers take away from today's event? There were definitely some high points—and some regrettably low ones as well.
The good: Cool technology and game dev acquisitions
Bosworth took point on a section of Connect dedicated to video games on the Quest platform, and that segment showed that Meta isn't done with dedicated game development yet. The company announced the purchase of developers Camouflaj, Twisted Pixel, Armatur Studio, all of whom appear to be continuing their primary work as game developers. While Meta wants the Quest headset to be a device that's used for more than video games, it still seems to value in-house game developers.
Said developers might get to take advantage of some of the legitimately interesting tech advancements that Meta showed off. First, there is the Meta Quest Pro, a virtual reality headset that seems to make some important strides in terms of usability and horsepower needed in the world of commercial products. It seems to be lighter, has better pass-through capabilities, sports new lenses, and turns the controllers into standalone computing devices.
Toward the end of the presentation, Meta also showed off some of the experimental technology that's been taking up so much money at Reality Labs. The tech displayed included high-resolution face and object scanning (codenamed "Codec"), neurological-based input controls, and 3D mapping that can capture real-world spaces.
It was during this last segment that I kept saying to myself "hey, that looks really cool." It was in these moments that Meta seemed to show it was actually considering everyday applications of this technology. Zuckerburg's brief pitch for using Metaverse avatars as a "halfway point" between turning your webcam on versus off in team meetings actually has some appeal too, particularly after looking at the realistic face scans showed off at the end of the presentation.
While I still want the power to turn my camera completely off in the meetings (voice-only isn't good enough Zuck? You can't handle a phone call?), I really like the idea of using it for social video calls in places like Games Industry Gathering.
Zuckerberg's intense focus on recreating the real world inside the metaverse however, still showed that there are choppy waters ahead for the company formerly known as Facebook.
The bad: A lack of imagination, little connection with everyday people
Meta's continued push for the metaverse has come with pitches about how the technology will have real-world applications. But the biggest use cases for Quest technology don't seem to benefit everyday consumers or game developers.
Zuckerberg's big pitch continues to be that coming together in meetings with avatars that can capture our facial expressions and body language will make for more productive meetings. Maybe that's true, but we're nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and we don't have any indication that Zoom, Slack, or Teams meetings are less productive. As Digital Trends' Giovanni Colantonio noted, Zuckerberg also pitched the avatar improvements as something that could be used to enhance meetings now that workers are coming back to the office.
But if workers are coming back to the office...why do they need to meet in virtual reality?
It's not exactly a "CHECKMATE ATHEISTS" slam dunk but it feels like Meta's pitch should have been better-tuned for such a high-profile presentation. It didn't set a good stage for what followed. Meta wanted us to believe in the power of digital whiteboarding, of making shoes in VR, of writing and creating in the metaverse.
"The Quest could be the only monitor you actually need" said Zuckerberg with excitement. Zuck, if I use my Quest to just replicate my desktop monitors, why couldn't I just use my existing desktop monitors? I'll have less neck strain from wearing the headset.
An over-fixation on the office world also made for uncomfortable enthusiasm when it came to Meta's Horizon Worlds avatars. Do they look better? A little—but not better than say, an Apex Legends skin, or the Saints Row character creator. If I'm going to look like a 3D character, why would I look like an unlit version of my real self, instead of a cool robot skin?
It was also uncanny to watch Zuckerberg explain why the human brain struggles with unnatural Avatar bodies as my coworker dropped in images of Connect viewers in VR watching with their controllers placed on the table. The improvements Meta is making to the Avatars it says will define the metaverse still only look good in controlled environments.
Even at the peak of usability (again, the Codec facial capture tech was really neat), the best Meta can come up with seems to be already possible in the world of VTubers.
The enthusiasm for these cartoon models gave off a certain "you're going to like this whether you like it or not" energy, which is frankly what much of Meta's pitch for the metaverse has felt like (along with other company's pitches. You're not getting away from this Tim Sweeney). The metaverse is still a sci-fi dystopian concept appropriated for commercial purposes by billionaires. Even as a sci-fi fanatic, I still don't know why I'd want to live there instead of the real world.
Zuckerberg may be a poor advocate for his own company
Mark Zuckerberg the person and Mark Zuckerberg the public persona are not winning over people outside the Meta bubble. He and other Silicon Valley techlords came of age in the wake of Steve Jobs, who was able to position himself not just as a corporate leader but public pitchman.
I don't know if Zuckerberg is deliberately walking in Jobs' footsteps, but his presence at these events seems to indicate he wants to be known as the face of the metaverse he dreams of every night.
Is that still a sound strategy for Meta? Zuckerberg is still tightly bound to Facebook, the aging social media juggernaut that's finally running into stiff competition it can't just buy its way out of. It's still the company that fostered misinformation in the 2016 presidential election, and it's still the company that's been blamed in part for genocide in Myanmar and violence in India. The full list of Facebook-led scandals is pretty cringeworthy to run back through.
The privacy-linked scandals have driven plenty of developers and VR users to openly question if Meta can be trusted with their data. That might make them pick other HMDs if they manage to gain market viability.
Where it matters with the metaverse is that Meta and Zuckerberg really really want you to trust them with the future of computing. There seems to be a thought that Zuckerberg's personal excitement at the thought of making science fiction science fact will help sell everyone on the power of new technology. But Zuckerberg himself has limited ideas, and his leadership hasn't quite turned Facebook into a weapon, but it sure has been one heck of a greased runway for bad actors.
Zuckerberg said in today's presentation that the company wants to put people at "the center" of everything it does. But is this still the company that, as one whistleblower testified, "put profits over people?"
If it is...as cool as the Codec facial capture technology is, I don't know if I personally could trust Facebook with a literal copy of my face.