Oct 12, 2022 - Technology

Meta's new VR headset doesn't solve old problems

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg holding a Quest Pro VR headset.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg holding a Quest Pro VR headset. Photo: Courtesy of Meta

A year after rebranding itself as Meta, Facebook's parent company on Tuesday released a new VR headset that it hopes will show concrete results from its already-massive investments.

Why it matters: The company admits that its effort to build an immersive, 3-D virtual network for work and play will take years to unfold. But it has to begin selling people on the value and the excitement of that long road today if it's ever going to reach its destination or persuade the rest of us to follow.

Driving the news: Meta's new product is the $1,500 Quest Pro headset, which offers a slimmer design along with better optics and new sensors that allow the device to capture facial gestures as well as mix virtual and real-world objects. (See below for more on the Quest Pro.)

  • Ahead of the unveiling, Meta also invited Axios and several other publications to Redmond, Washington for a peek inside its research labs, a talk with CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and demos pointing to next stages for the technology's development.

The big picture: The Quest Pro announcement comes as Meta faces significant financial and regulatory pressures.

  • Indeed, the day after meeting with reporters in Redmond, Zuckerberg confirmed a hiring freeze to employees and suggested more cost cuts are likely.
  • Meanwhile, Meta continues to face criticism for everything from enabling authoritarian governments to pushing teenagers toward harmful content. Misinformation remains a huge problem, affecting elections and public health, while Facebook and Instagram remain unsafe for marginalized groups, including LGBTQ people.
  • The company's deal to acquire a small VR studio that focuses on fitness apps faces a legal challenge by the Federal Trade Commission. Tuesday's event featured plugs for that studio's top title.

Between the lines: During the briefing with reporters, Zuckerberg spent as much time talking about a prototype neural-input device on his wrist as he did talking up the new VR headset.

  • The wrist device, which can use brain signals traveling to the muscles as a means of input, was one of several demos that also included a variety of spatial audio techniques and other means of bringing people and physical objects into the virtual world.

Zuckerberg kept pushing the conversation toward the bulky device on his arm, which people might ultimately use to control a cursor or even type.

  • Such inputs, he said, could be especially useful with augmented reality glasses, where normal typing is impractical and speaking to the device could be socially awkward. But they could also be useful on devices we already use, such as smartphones and computers.
  • "It's not that far off," Zuckerberg said. "It's not this year, but it's not that far off."

I had to change the subject to even ask a question about a broader topic: What, I asked, are you doing to ensure that the problems of today's internet don't carry over into — or, worse, get amplified by — the metaverse?

  • "I assume you are not talking about neural input," Zuckerberg said, before addressing some of the safety and privacy issues raised by the use of VR headsets that are capable of tracking people's every eye motion.
  • "We have some time to try to work some of the stuff out up front," Zuckerberg said.

My thought bubble: The more time and money Meta spends now working on its metaverse future, the less time it's likely to be able to devote to fixing the real-world problems of its existing social networks. That will be extra true as Meta and other tech companies get more cost-conscious.

  • Every successful tech company has to see around corners and lead customers onto new ground. But Facebook has a huge footprint on the ground we all occupy now.
  • VR could well be the future of computing, but the human beings affected by the harms of today's social media are the future of humanity.

The company's metaverse pivot, some observers argue, resembles the moment a decade ago when Facebook shifted all its energy to the mobile market. But the move also resembles Facebook's still-unfulfilled promise to provide users of all its services with encrypted private messaging.

  • The metaverse vision, like the encryption promise, is a long-term technical transformation that has genuine appeal on its own.
  • But both cases involve Facebook/Meta using the prospect of future change to divert attention from persistent problems the company faces right now.

Go deeper: Facebook's long, bumpy road to the metaverse

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