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September 28, 2023

Meta shifts focus to mixed reality as plan for Metaverse future falters

Meta says its Quest 3 headset bring the digital into the real world and forms part of the metaverse.

By Ryan Morrison

Meta is shifting its focus from a pure virtual reality to a mixed reality play after unveiling its new Meta Quest 3. During its tenth-anniversary Connect developer conference, CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated the benefits of the virtual metaverse – something that has become the company’s mission over recent years – but chose to focus on the value of overlaying virtual systems on real-world environments.

Meta’s Quest 3 headset: Useful for gaming, but will it find an audience among businesses? (Photo courtesy of Meta)

Zuckerberg has long championed the concept of a fully immersive all-encompassing metaverse – a virtual world where business and social interactions can take place – pouring millions of dollars of the company’s money into virtual reality projects. But interest in the idea, once hailed as the future of the internet, has waned among consumers, with metaverse applications currently confined mainly to industrial settings.

During his Connect keynote, Zuckerberg declared that the metaverse is about combining the digital apps and services we use every day with the physical world we inhabit. “Increasingly in this modern time the real world is a combination of the physical world we are inhabiting and the digital world that we are building,” he said.

“At Meta, we are focused on building the future of human connection,” he added. ”What that means is we build products to help people feel closer.” Explaining that this could be through video calls, messaging or other services, Zuckerberg extolled the benefits of the physical world. “One of life’s great joys is getting to go out and be active and explore,” he said. “At the same time over the past few decades, our industry has been building this increasingly vibrant digital world alongside it.” 

He pitched the concept of a future where digital objects are present in reality in the form of holograms that can be fully interactive. “An interesting question for industry over the coming decades is how we unify these things to create something more coherent and better than we are today,” he said. Pictures appeared behind him on stage of a ghost-like avatar playing chess in a park with a real person, or walking through an office or museum. “A lot of the technologies that enable this are available today,” Zuckerberg said. These include mixed-reality headsets, advanced AI models and smart glasses to make the process more convenient. 

Meta is mixing the physical and the digital

At the heart of Meta’s shift is the Meta Quest 3, a $500 mixed-reality headset incorporating AI for object positioning and a tenfold increase in image resolution compared with previous generations. Built on top of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2 chip, reports suggest it is significantly faster than previous generations with better spatial awareness. 

It comes off the back of Apple unveiling the Vision Pro earlier this year during its World Wide Developer Conference. This was a mixed-reality headset priced at $3,500. Featuring multiple cameras and sensors, Apple’s device was likely more a pitch at the enterprise sector and in competition with Microsoft’s HoloLens than anything from Meta.

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Meta also unveiled a refreshed partnership with Ray-Ban to create a series of smart glasses with some limited digital capabilities, including photographing, recording and live streaming the real world from an eye-level perspective. Zuckerberg pitched this concept as the first step in simplifying access to the digital from the physical world.

On top of the mixed-reality and metaverse efforts the company also re-iterated its position on AI and revealed a series of personality-driven AI chatbots starting with Meta AI. These are built on its massively popular open-source Llama large language model and will be incorporated into products like WhatsApp and Instagram in the future.

Anisha Bhatia, senior analyst at GlobalData said the mixed reality market could hit revenues of $58bn by 2030 and that it is ripe for innovation. “Meta continues to provide multiple subsidies on its headsets, keeping them affordable, although that is impossible to sustain long as a business strategy,” she says. One of the examples Zuckerberg demonstrated for the new headset was gaming including the addition of Xbox Cloud but “headsets are limited in their ability to go mainstream, and Meta’s market lead is about to be challenged with the release of Apple’s Vision Pro,” Bhatia argues.

She adds: “The Quest 3 is not a direct competitor to Apple’s Vision Pro, which brands itself as an augmented reality headset, costs seven times more, and plays in the uber-premium category.

“But Apple’s entry in this market has brought all eyes on this segment, and the small number of headsets available overall means that everyone is pitted against each other, whether they directly compete or not.”

Read more: Meta tackles technical debt problem during data migration

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