Calling Meta’s metaverse push ambitious is a massive understatement: The company is spending billions of dollars a year on the development of next-generation augmented and virtual reality devices and the software that will run on them, as well as all-new social VR platforms like Horizon to rival gaming giants and Web3 startups.
If you ask Mark Zuckerberg, it’s all worth it. “I want to live in a world where big companies use their resources to take big shots,” the Meta chief executive told Protocol this week.
Zuckerberg sat down with Protocol for an exclusive conversation about the company’s investments in the metaverse, how it compares to Facebook’s transition to mobile a decade and a half ago, why Meta’s social VR world Horizon is a walled garden for the time being and how he eventually wants to open the doors to those platforms over time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
It’s been about seven months since Facebook changed its name to Meta. How often do you still have to explain that move, and what the metaverse even is all about?
You know, I'd actually say that this is going a lot better than I thought it would. There is definitely [the fact that] we are describing this future experience that's hard to really wrap your head around until you've used some of these devices. But there's been a lot more interest and excitement about the idea than expected when we put our flag in the ground and [said]: This is what we are going to work on for the next 20 years.
When I talk to friends who are running other companies in the industry, it spurred a lot of them to think about how their companies are going to want to exist in the metaverse, and contribute to building it. This isn't a thing that any one company is going to build. I view our role in accelerating some of the fundamental technology, building out the social platforms around it and working out some of the creator pieces. But there's clearly all these other things that have to happen; we can't build the whole thing.
Some critics have said that the Meta branding itself signals a desire to monopolize the metaverse. It’s as if Facebook had called itself The Internet.
Oh, but it’s not! By doing this, and choosing that name, we were pretty clear about what we wanted the focus of the company to be. But it's not like we're the only company working on this today. You have Nvidia building the chips, Unity and Unreal building a lot of the software infrastructure, as well as companies like Roblox building early versions of some of these experiences that could be open platforms over time. Satya at Microsoft talks about building an enterprise version of the metaverse.
The question is: How do we get these things to be as interoperable as possible? We want as much of the software as possible to run on our systems. We want avatars and commerce to build to [be interoperable].
I want to make sure that we use the other things that we're building to help develop some of these ecosystems. You saw the NFT announcement that we made on Instagram. At the end of the day, I don't think the most exciting thing to do with NFTs is to display a few things in your Instagram profile. But I view that as a starting point. It's not that far-fetched to imagine how being able to display some digital collectibles in your Instagram profile is a precursor to being able to have a shirt from your favorite brand that you can take from Horizon to then wear in Fortnite.
Right now, Horizon, Roblox and Fortnite are still essentially walled gardens. How do you build bridges between these different universes?
There is often a trade-off in the early days between making something that is a tightly optimized product experience and building an open protocol. For Horizon, it's early, and we need to right now focus on making sure that we get all the foundations of the product in place, and get some of the technical challenges sorted out.
That’s partially why I want us to do this NFT work with Instagram. With Horizon today, the team needs to be fully focused on just getting the product dialed before we work on open platforms. But that doesn't mean that somewhere else in the company we shouldn't be working on the open platform side of it. If you don't do that work, then you just wake up one day, and you built this closed thing, and it's like super hard to back out of that.
Does your investment in VR give you an advantage over platforms like Roblox and Fortnite, or do you need to play catch-up to their mobile experiences?
They've been doing some of this for longer, so they have some advantages there. But we also have a lot of people using our social platforms, and a good base to build on. And we are a company that can afford a big R&D effort, so we can work on a lot of different things at once. There are areas that look like we are pretty early, in terms of graphics or the quality of different things, where over the next 12 to 24 months, we're going to just make very dramatic progress.
For Horizon, making it so that you can create a world and share it on Facebook or Instagram, and people can just jump into it from there — that's going to be pretty valuable. For the foreseeable future, there are going to be a lot more people with phones than with VR. However, the experience that you can deliver with these new platforms is so much better. We need to be careful about not making it primarily a mobile experience. Balancing that is going to be pretty important.
It’s similar to when we transitioned to mobile. Our desktop use case was a lot bigger, and [we optimized] mobile for the same desktop technologies. We did this whole Faceweb thing [a mobile version of the Facebook website], and it didn't end up building the best experience we needed.
That’s an interesting analogy. At the time, the number of mobile users grew pretty quickly, but monetization lagged, and you had to convince people that this was where you needed to invest most of your energy, most of your money. Right now, you're spending pretty significant amounts of money on the metaverse, but the users are not quite there yet, and the monetization definitely isn’t there yet. How hard is it to make that case, and is it getting harder with the stock market being as rocky as it is right now?
I think there were few things as dramatic in our history as the shift to mobile. At the time, we had one app that was the whole business, and we were not wildly profitable. So it felt more like an existential question for the company.
With Reality Labs, [we are] making a bet of spending $10 billion or $15 billion a year trying to help invent the next set of platforms. Some people might think it's a good bet, some people might think it's a bad bet. But at the end of the day, I don't think that many people think we're at risk of going out of business because of it.
I want to live in a world where big companies use their resources to take big shots. Obviously, if people invest in our company, we want to be profitable for them. If employees join our company, I want to make sure that ends up being a good financial decision for them, too. But I also feel a responsibility to go for it. Use the position that we're in to make some bets, and try to push forward in a way that other people might not.
We're also not a typical company. It's a controlled company, so I can make more of these decisions than most companies would. That gives us even more responsibility to push for it and do things that other people might not be able to do.
We've gone through a bunch of content transitions at this point. When I started, it was primarily text. Then we got phones with cameras and photos, and mobile networks got better. Now, the Facebook app is half video. The time that people spend on Reels is more than 20% of the time that people are spending on Instagram.
But that's just not the end of the line. You're going to keep on getting more immersive. Whether it looks like a big bet today or not, I just think it's inevitable that something like this needs to get invented. And I want to just make sure that we can help make that possible.