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Inside Mark Zuckerberg's Metaverse Struggle

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When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in October last year that the company would be changing its name to Meta, becoming a “Metaverse company,” he sketched out a vision of a utopian future decades ahead. Did. We spend hours digitally working, socializing, and playing games in virtual and augmented worlds.

Since then, Meta has spent billions of dollars and deployed thousands of employees to make Mr. Zuckerberg’s dream come true. But Meta’s metaverse efforts got off to a rocky start.

The company’s flagship virtual reality game, Horizon Worlds, remains buggy and unpopular, prompting Meta to implement a “quality lockdown” for the rest of the year while it revamps its app. .

Some Meta employees have complained about frequent changes in strategy that seem to be related to Mr. Zuckerberg’s whims rather than a cohesive plan.

Meta executives are also racking their brains over the company’s Metaverse strategy, with one senior leader complaining that he was “furious” about the large sums the company spent on unproven projects. .

The company’s struggle to restructure its operations was described in interviews and internal communications with more than a dozen current and former Meta employees obtained by The New York Times. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal matters.

On Tuesday, Meta will unveil its new VR headset along with other new Metaverse features at its developer conference. The stakes are high for the company, which is rushing to transform itself to make up for the slump in other parts of its business. TikTok is siphoning young users off of Meta’s two biggest moneymakers, Facebook and Instagram, and Meta is losing billions of dollars in advertising revenue as Apple makes privacy-related changes to his mobile operating system. increase.

The company’s stock has fallen nearly 60% over the past year. This reflects not only widespread market turmoil, but also some investor skepticism that the metaverse will soon become very lucrative. In late September, the company announced it was freezing most hiring, and Mr. Zuckerberg warned employees that layoffs could be coming.

“The pressures facing businesses in Metaverse in 2022 are serious and significant and are not related to the Metaverse,” said Matthew, an investor and Metaverse expert to whom Zuckerberg sought advice. Ball said. “And there is a risk that almost everything Mark has outlined for the Metaverse is correct, except that the timing is far behind his imagination.”

In a statement, Meta spokesman Andy Stone said he believed the company was still on the right track.

“It’s easy to be ironic about new and innovative technology,” Stone said. “It’s much harder to actually build it, but we’re doing it because we believe the metaverse is the future of computing.”

Zuckerberg successfully reinvented the company 10 years ago, focusing more on how products work on smartphones rather than desktops. He hinted at a similar shift last year, saying that investing in the Metaverse would allow Meta to leap from one technological era to the next.

There are some indications that Meta’s bet has outperformed its competitors. The company’s consumer VR headset, the Quest 2, is the most popular VR headset on the market, with over 15 million units sold according to outside estimates. The company’s Oculus VR app (later rebranded to Meta Quest) has had him installed over 21 million times on iOS and Android devices, according to app analytics firm Sensor Tower’s estimates.

But Meta’s future success depends on bringing virtual and augmented reality tools to more people.

Meta said in February that its Horizon Worlds game had grown to around 300,000 monthly active users. That’s an increase from a few months ago, but small compared to his over 2.9 billion monthly active users on Facebook. The company declined to provide the latest figures for Horizon Worlds.

Adding to Meta’s predicament, U.S. regulators appear determined to stop the company from following the path to success it did with its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. The Federal Trade Commission has sued Meta to block its acquisition of Within, the maker of popular VR fitness apps. Meta is fighting an agency lawsuit that it claims is “contrary to fact and law.”

Zuckerberg decided to refresh his public image after being spotlighted for his unpopular decision to make political statements on Facebook, becoming the innovative face of the company’s push for the Metaverse. and surprised some employees. Demonstrations and mockups of Meta’s latest Metaverse technology feature footage of Mr. Zuckerberg performing his VR versions of his hobbies, including fencing and his sport on the water like surfing called hydrofoils. I’m doing it. The CEO recently appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast and said that building an immersive metaverse for popular comedians is his “holy grail.”

Things to consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the information? What motivates them to tell us? Have they proven trustworthy in the past? Can the information be corroborated? Even if these questions are resolved, The Times will use anonymous sources as a last resort. The reporter and at least one of her editors know the identity of the source.

His involvement sometimes backfired. In August, Zuckerberg posted a screenshot of his Horizon Worlds avatar on his Facebook page announcing that the app would expand to France and Spain. However, the avatar’s flat, cartoonish appearance was openly derided. (1 commenter compared Call it the “2002 Nintendo GameCube release.” )

After the response, Zuckerberg and other executives instructed employees to prioritize improving the avatar’s appearance, according to two employees. Facebook spokesman Stone described Zuckerberg’s reaction to the Avatar backlash as “frustrating,” but didn’t provide further details.

According to two employees, the new version of Zuckerberg’s digital version has been rushed forward, along with updates to other Horizon Worlds avatars that were in the works.

Four days after Zuckerberg’s original post, Zuckerberg shared an upgraded digital version of himself, saying that while his initial avatar was “pretty basic,” “Horizon’s graphics are more I can do a lot,” he admitted. One Metagraphic Artist Claims Posts on LinkedInIn the four weeks before the final version was approved, Zuckerberg and his team designed about 40 versions of Zuckerberg’s face.

Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm for the Metaverse has been met with skepticism by some Meta employees. This year, he encouraged the team to host meetings within Meta’s Horizon Workrooms app, where users can gather in virtual meeting rooms. But many employees don’t own and haven’t set up his VR headset yet, according to people familiar with the event, and rush to buy and register the device before management can figure it out. I had a need.

In a poll of 1,000 Meta employees conducted in May by anonymous professional social network Blind, only 58% said they understood the company’s metaverse strategy. Employees also complained of high turnover and frequent staff turnover as Mr. Zuckerberg’s priorities changed. According to two employees, inside Meta, some employees now jokingly refer to major Metaverse projects as he MMH (an acronym for “Make Mark Happy”).

In September, Vishal Shah, Meta’s vice president of metaverse division, said he was disappointed that so few Meta employees were using Horizon Worlds, according to a post obtained by The Times. I wrote on the company bulletin board that there was.

In a post first reported by The Verge, Shah said administrators would begin tracking employee usage of Horizon Worlds and test their own technology. was essential.

“Isn’t it because you love the products we make all the time?” Mr. Shah asked. “The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?”

Shah, who declined to comment to The Times, said in his post that Horizon would undergo a “quality lockdown” for the rest of the year to “enhance the overall craft and enjoyment of our products.” rice field.

As Meta struggled to grow the metaverse, some people at the company came up with unconventional ideas for getting new users. According to an internal post seen by The Times, this summer, three of his employees at Meta proposed selling VR headsets to Americans who were forgiven of student debt by the Biden administration.

“This is a growth opportunity for MetaQuest as there is evidence that past federal stimulus has spurred growth,” the analysis read.

One prominent insider who has challenged Zuckerberg’s approach to the Metaverse is a prominent game developer and former CTO of VR company Oculus, which Facebook acquired in 2014 for around $2 billion. I am John Carmack. He continues to work part-time. with Meta as Advisor.

In an August podcast interview, Carmack said of the size of Meta’s bet on the Metaverse (which reported a $10 billion loss last year in the division that houses the AR and VR units), “That’s how much money is being paid. My stomach hurts just thinking about it.” consumption. He added that Meta’s development of the Metaverse has been hampered by large corporate bureaucracy and concerns over issues such as diversity and privacy.

Carmack also provides feedback on Meta’s internal message board, Workplace. In a post obtained by The Times, Carmack, who is speaking at Tuesday’s developer conference, criticized the company’s features on his VR headset, requiring a software update to be performed before it can be used. He called it “extremely bad for user enjoyment.”

Mr. Carmack did not respond to a request for comment.

Carmack’s criticism pits him against management like Andrew Bosworth, Meta’s chief technology officer. He has overseen the company’s VR efforts for years and is a close associate of Zuckerberg. According to four of his employees who worked with Carmack, Carmack urged the company to think of the Metaverse primarily in terms of his direct user experience, while Bosworth focused on business over the long term. I approached the metaverse from a point of view. chance.

Amid the mounting pressure, Mr. Zuckerberg sent a clear message to Meta employees. At a meeting in June, first reported by Reuters, the 38-year-old billionaire said, “There are a lot of people in the company who probably shouldn’t be here,” adding that he “raised the heat.” According to a copy of his comment shared with The Times, the goal. Since then, the company has frozen most hiring and cut budgets, and Zuckerberg has called on managers to start identifying underperforming employees.

Faced with potential headcount cuts, some Meta employees began to communicate their enthusiasm for the Metaverse. In recent months, multiple employees say more teams are meeting within Horizon Workrooms.

However, the transition was difficult. Earlier this year, Mr. Bosworth tried to hold a staff meeting inside the Horizon Workroom, according to employees who attended.

The meeting was hampered by a technical glitch and the team ended up using Zoom, employees said.