A reminder that, as I announced on Monday, I plan on taking next week off. Of course, given the pandemic, I’m not actually going anywhere, so I may end up popping into your inboxes anyways if anything particularly interesting happens. Thanks for your understanding, and your support.
On to the update:
I wrote at the end of Metaverses earlier this month:
This is why I don’t think it is absurd that Nadella was the first tech executive to endorse the metaverse as a strategic goal. There is likely to be good business in building private metaverses for private companies, in a not-dissimilar way to Stephenson’s Franchise-Organized Quasi-National Entities made it easy for small-scale entrepreneurs to set up their own franchise-states.
Facebook’s goal is more audacious: the company already serves 3.5 billion users, which means creating a shared reality for over half of the world is a plausible goal. That reality, though, will likely sit alongside other realities, just as Facebook the app sits alongside other social networks. This metaverse is universal, but not exclusive.
What I am skeptical of is the idea of there being one Metaverse to rule them all; we already have that, and in this case the future is, in William Gibson’s turn of phrase, here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. I speak from personal experience: for two decades I have lived and worked primarily on the Internet; it’s where I experience friendship and community and make my living. Over the last year-and-a-half hundreds of millions of people have joined me, as the default location for the work has switched from the office to online (that “online” is primarily experienced at home does not mean that home is intrinsic to the work — “work from home” is a misnomer). This too is an inverse of Snow Crash, where most jobs are in the real world, and recreation in the Metaverse; the future of work is online, and the life one wants to live in the reality of one’s choosing.
I’ve been looking for an opportunity to come back to this point; much of that article was focused on the fact that while Snow Crash had a dystopian real world defined by walled gardens, along with a universal Metaverse, it is the Internet that is in fact defined by walled gardens, while the real world is our shared universal reality. Snow Crash had it backwards. That wasn’t the only thing that was backwards though: in Snow Crash “most jobs are in the real world, and recreation in the Metaverse”, but, thanks in part to COVID, reality is turning out to be something different.
The reason this matters is that the adoption of new technologies requires some sort of forcing function. PCs, for example, were first adopted by enterprises because of the productivity gains they afforded, and then later on by consumers who had already experienced a PC at work (generally speaking of course; there are always exceptions). This is how Microsoft, which has no real idea of how to build a consumer product, briefly became a consumer computing powerhouse: the PC monopoly gifted to them by IBM meant that Windows PCs were the obvious choice for the home.
Smartphones went in the opposite direction: by 2007 almost everyone had a mobile phone of some sort (usually a dumb phone), then Apple came along and offered a compelling consumer product that, under subsidy, wasn’t that much more expensive, and much more useful and entertaining. Only then did consumers demand to use those phones at work.
To date most assumptions about VR — the most obvious manifestation of the metaverse concept — have focused on the consumer use case, primarily gaming. This is why I have long been relatively bearish on virtual reality, especially relative to augmented reality. I wrote about CES 2016 in a Daily Update:
I think it’s useful to make a distinction between virtual and augmented reality. Just look at the names: “virtual” reality is about an immersive experience completely disconnected from one’s current reality, while “augmented” reality is about, well, augmenting the reality in which one is already present. This is more than a semantic distinction about different types of headsets: you can divide nearly all of consumer technology along this axis. Movies and videogames are about different realities; productivity software and devices like smartphones are about augmenting the present.
I argued in The Problem with Facebook and Virtual Reality that this made VR less valuable:
That is the first challenge of virtual reality: it is a destination, both in terms of a place you go virtually, but also, critically, the end result of deliberative actions in the real world. One doesn’t experience virtual reality by accident: it is a choice…
That is not necessarily a problem: going to see a movie is a choice, as is playing a video game on a console or PC. Both are very legitimate ways to make money: global box office revenue in 2017 was $40.6 billion U.S., and billions more were made on all the other distribution channels in a movie’s typical release window; video games have long since been an even bigger deal, generating $109 billion globally last year.
Still, that is an order of magnitude less than the amount of revenue generated by something like smartphones. Apple, for example, sold $158 billion worth of iPhones over the last year; the entire industry was worth around $478.7 billion in 2017. The disparity should not come as a surprise: unlike movies or video games, smartphones are an accompaniment on your way to a destination, not a destination in and of themselves.
That may seem counterintuitive at first: isn’t it a good thing to be the center of one’s attention? That center, though, can only ever be occupied by one thing, and the addressable market is constrained by time. Assume eight hours for sleep, eight for work, a couple of hours for, you know, actually navigating life, and that leaves at best six hours to fight for. That is why devices intended to augment life, not replace it, have always been more compelling: every moment one is awake is worth addressing.
In other words, the virtual reality market is fundamentally constrained by its very nature: because it is about the temporary exit from real life, not the addition to it, there simply isn’t nearly as much room for virtual reality as there is for any number of other tech products.
The point of invoking the changes wrought by COVID, though, was to note that work is a destination, and its a destination that occupies a huge amount of our time. Of course when I wrote that skeptical article in 2018 a work destination was, for the vast majority of people, a physical space; suddenly, though, for millions of white collar workers in particular, it’s a virtual space. And, if work is already a virtual space, then suddenly virtual reality seems far more compelling. In other words, virtual reality may be much more important than previously thought because the vector by which it will become pervasive is not the consumer space (and gaming), but rather the enterprise space, particularly meetings.
From an Oculus blog post:
Today, we’re excited to launch the open beta of Horizon Workrooms, available for free to download on Oculus Quest 2 in countries where Quest 2 is supported. Workrooms is our flagship collaboration experience that lets people come together to work in the same virtual room, regardless of physical distance. It works across both virtual reality and the web and is designed to improve your team’s ability to collaborate, communicate, and connect remotely, through the power of VR — whether that’s getting together to brainstorm or whiteboard an idea, work on a document, hear updates from your team, hang out and socialize, or simply have better conversations that flow more naturally.
Workrooms brings some of our best new technologies together for the first time into one experience on Quest 2. Using features like mixed-reality desk and keyboard tracking, hand tracking, remote desktop streaming, video conferencing integration, spatial audio, and the new Oculus Avatars, we’ve created a different kind of productivity experience.
The reason I started this update by going back to my conclusion in Metaverses is not simply because I really did want to expound on the idea that work is the real VR market; it’s because I wanted to establish that I had changed my mind about the potential of VR before I had a chance to experience Horizon Workrooms. It’s useful, I think, to think through the concept and theory before you may be led astray by an experience, and I think that was particularly important in this case, because let me tell you, the experience is incredible.
One of the concepts that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has emphasized in his recent discussion of Facebook’s metaverse ambitions is “presence”; from his interview with Casey Newton:
You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.
My personal experience with Workrooms didn’t involve any dancing or fitness; it was simply a conversation with the folks that built Workrooms. The sense of presence, though, was tangible. Voices came from the right place, thanks to Workrooms’ spatial audio, and hand gestures and viewing directions really made it feel like the three of us were in the same room. What was particularly compelling was the way that Workrooms’ virtual reality space seamlessly interfaced with the real world:
- People joining a meeting without a headset appear on a TV as if they are video conferencing; it feels completely natural. Here is a photo from Facebook’s PR pack (which honestly, given the size of the group, seems less immersive; my demo had one person on video, and one person in the room with me):
Whiteboards can be written on either sitting at your desk — the surface becomes the place where you write — or as a virtual wall while standing. The latter doesn’t work very well for writing, but it absolutely makes you feel like you are standing in front of the room emphasizing something already on the board. Here’s a screenshot from my session (the screenshot is from the perspective of the person on the video call):
The most mind-blowing part — and the bit that transforms this feature from a tech demo to something actually useful — is the fact that you can bring your computer into virtual reality. Your screen sits in front of you, as if you have a laptop in a meeting, which means you can take notes (or surf the web or make a presentation); Workrooms even imports your keyboard if you have a Macbook, Magic Keyboard, or one specific Logitech model. It dramatically increases the sense of immersion, and makes a virtual space far more useful:
Moreover, the room, including the whiteboard and all of the content that was shared, stays in place — it’s in the room when you go back. It’s also available in a web app for easy access after the fact.
I don’t want to go too far given I’ve only tried Workrooms out once, but this feels like something real. And, just as importantly, there is, thanks to COVID, a real use case. Of course companies will need to be convinced, and hardware will need to be bought, but that’s another reason why the work angle is so compelling: companies are willing to pay for tools that increase productivity to a much greater extent than consumers are.
Workrooms’ Facebook Problem
There is, though, one rather significant problem with Workspaces; from the blog post:
When you choose to collaborate with your coworkers in Workrooms, you should feel in control of your experience, and we built Workrooms with privacy and safety in mind.
Workrooms will not use your work conversations and materials to inform ads on Facebook. Additionally, Passthrough processes images and videos of your physical environment from the device sensors locally. Facebook and third-party apps do not access, view or use these images or videos to target ads. Finally, other people are not able to see your computer screen in Workrooms unless you choose to share it, and the permissions you grant for the Oculus Remote Desktop app are only used for the purposes of allowing streaming from your computer to your headset…
Using Workrooms requires a Workrooms account, which is separate from your Oculus or Facebook accounts, although your Oculus username may be visible to other users in some cases—for example if someone reports you for violating our policies and your username appears in the tool. And to experience Workrooms in VR, you’ll need to access the app on Quest 2, which requires a Facebook login. Your use of Workrooms will not make any updates to your Facebook profile or timeline unless you choose to do so.
This is one of those awkward situations where the obvious necessity of insisting one is doing nothing wrong is a reminder that one has fundamental reputational obstacles to overcome. In this case, Workplaces is obviously an enterprise product, and one can, as I did, make the case that VR is far more compelling in the enterprise, which is a problem given the fact that Facebook is not only a consumer company, but one that is monetized via data-driven targeted advertising. Enterprises, to say the least, are not very keen on their data being used for anything other than their own purposes.
I do wonder if Facebook regrets their decision to require a Facebook login for Quest 2; many workers, at least for now, may not go to work physically, but would like a separation of their work lives and their personal lives on the Internet. Zuckerberg, at least in 2009, strongly disagreed; from David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect:
“You have one identity,” [Zuckerberg] says emphatically three times in a single minute during a 2009 interview. He recalls that in Facebook’s early days some argued the service ought to offer adult users both a work profile and a “fun social profile.” Zuckerberg was always opposed to that. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” he says.
He makes several arguments. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Zuckerberg says moralistically. But he also makes a case he sees as pragmatic—that “the level of transparency the world has now won’t support having two identities for a person.” In other words, even if you want to segregate your personal from your professional information you won’t be able to, as information about you proliferates on the Internet and elsewhere.
And yet, here we are, with Oculus trying to convince you via blog post that your Workrooms’ identity is separate from your Facebook identity; it’s going to be a hard sell, and that, by extension, will hurt the potential of what is a truly compelling product. The Internet is, in fact, the place where we are different people in different places, but Facebook, perhaps thanks to its initial value proposition of digitizing real world relationships, remains too tied to reality.
One more bit of Facebook news: the FTC has until today to file an amended antitrust complaint against Facebook. I expect the agency to do so, even as I doubt it will be particularly compelling. One does wonder, though, if the fact that Facebook announced Workrooms today was something other than a coincidence.
This Daily Update is also available as a podcast. To receive it in your podcast player, visit Stratechery.
The Daily Update is intended for a single recipient, but occasional forwarding is totally fine! If you would like to order multiple subscriptions for your team with a group discount (minimum 5), please contact me directly.
Thanks for being a supporter, and have a great day!