Meta is desperately trying to make the metaverse happen

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The star of Tuesday’s Meta Connect was Meta Quest Pro, the so-called “statement of the union” for the company that was formerly known as Facebook. Meta’s newest virtual-reality headset clocks in at a whopping $1,499.99. That’s a significant price jump from its previous iteration, Meta Quest 2, which could be yours for $399. 99–not exactly cheap, but still in triple-digit territory.

This price hike and Meta’s insistence that the metaverse was a “next generation social platform” for everyone makes it seem like a contradiction. Would you really want to spend a grand and half on a virtual-reality headset?

That’s the question Meta seems to be grappling with. Although the headset’s price rose, almost all of the company’s major moves are focused on a single goal: making the metaverse something people want to use.

Meta’s metaverse hasn’t exactly had a smooth year. In an attempt to show that Facebook was moving to the future of digital life, Mark Zuckerberg rebranded the company less than a year ago. Since then, Meta has been saddled with hiccups and gaffes, including a much-ballyhooed avatar of Zuckerberg that got memed to oblivion, a report suggesting that the company’s employees were less than enthused about the metaverse, and allegations of virtual sexual assault.

So its current strategy seems to be to release a string of updates to see what might get people interested–a “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” approach, if you will.

The company also announced that Horizon Worlds, the social media platform within Meta, would be open to desktop and mobile users. This will allow people without headsets to access the virtual world.

This is a significant step. It’s a tacit admission by the company that VR headsets aren’t taking off as fast as they would like. Meta cannot hope to get its products adopted without a critical mass of people who can understand the metaverse. Opening its virtual worlds to the formats consumers are comfortable with (their text messages, their browsers, the company’s beleaguered Instagram platform) gives people who aren’t open to shelling out $399. 99–much less $1,499. 99–a way to experience the new world.

The metaverse has been difficult to sell because of the disorienting experience being a floating, legless body ,. Meta announced that it will no longer be that way. In an Instagram AMA, Andrew Bosworth, Meta’s CTO, stated that full-body avatars are difficult to implement. This is because VR tracking usually comes directly from the eyes and hands of a real person. In February, he stated that “Tracking your legs accurately is extremely difficult and basically not possible just from a physical standpoint with existing headsets.”

But Zuckerberg (or, rather, his leggy avatar) announced at the event that the company was going to use artificial intelligence to map out legs in the metaverse, allowing avatars the ability not only to walk and run but also to wear digital clothing for their legs (a marketplace that Zuckerberg has said he is eager to participate in; Roblox, a gaming platform I’ve written about before, currently has a comfortable share of the market). This would be a significant step in improving the way users think about movement in metaverse and how they represent themselves there.

Screenshot of avatar buying full length outfits for the metaverse

META

But even with legs, and even with the ability to roam the metaverse without a headset strapped to your face, the key question remains: Is Meta’s metaverse something people will actually buy into? It’s worth noting that even employees at Meta are skeptical about the company’s vision, with one going so far as to say the amount spent on these projects to date made him “sick to [his] stomach.”

A free, shareable version of the metaverse accessible via weblink will open the previously closed world up to people who may not have hundreds of dollars to burn, and it’s a huge move toward democratizing the space. It might lead people to buy Meta’s claim that talking to a cartoon version of your boss is totally cool–and, more broadly, that the metaverse really is the next digital plane on which we’ll conduct our lives.

But it could also do the reverse: people might be able to hop on the link to discover that the metaverse doesn’t have legs even though it is fully-bodied.

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