ITEM: There’s increasing evidence that Meta Platforms chief Mark Zuckerberg has given up on the metaverse – at least for now. And really, no one should be surprised.
Reports have popped up over the last month or so indicating that Zuckerberg – who was so convinced that the metaverse was the Next Big Thing that he changed his company’s name to reflect it – has come to realize that the Next Big Thing is in fact generative AI and large language models (LLMs).
At the end of February, Zuckerberg announced that Meta created a new product group to accelerate its work in generative AI. Given that this news came after Reality Labs (Meta’s metaverse division) lost $24 billion in two years, The Street took this to mean that Zuckerberg was quietly burying his metaverse plan in favor of focusing on generative AI.
Earlier this month, Futurism drew a similar conclusion after Meta CTO Andrew Bosworth told Nikkei Asia that the generative AI group was “very busy” and “probably the area that I’m spending the most time [in], as well as Mark Zuckerberg and [Chief Product Officer] Chris Cox.”
No longer putting the ‘Meta’ in ‘metaverse’
In neither case has Zuckerberg officially announced the end of his metaverse quest. And it’s certainly possible for Meta to work on both the metaverse and generative AI. Indeed, Meta has been working on AI for quite some time now alongside its metaverse ambitions. (For the record, its LLM “LLaMa” – which leaked onto 4chan last month – is said to be pretty good.)
Also, Bosworth did mention to Nikkei Asia that Meta’s AI development will inevitably be implemented in its metaverse efforts by, say, using LLMs to generate 3D worlds more easily. So it may not be the case that Meta has dropped the metaverse completely. It certainly isn’t giving up on virtual reality.
But according to an article from The Information last week, Meta has stopped mentioning the metaverse to its advertisers completely. The company is now pitching AI tools instead (and also Reels, its version of TikTok).
So it would seem that Zuckerberg has finally realized that the metaverse is much further away than it looks – or at least far enough away that investors and advertisers aren’t going to throw lots of money at it right now. Which is why big names like Microsoft and Disney have already given up on the metaverse. Chinese players like Tencent and Bytedance are reportedly doing likewise.
What this means for 5G telcos
So what does this mean for telcos that were banking on the metaverse as a big driver for 5G demand?
Not a lot, probably – as long as it wasn’t all they were banking on. The metaverse may have stalled, but AR and VR (which were key metaverse ingredients) are alive and (mostly) well in areas like games and enterprise training apps. It’s debatable how much revenue telcos can realistically make from such services – I’m just saying the metaverse bubble bust probably won’t make much difference in that regard.
I mean, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, the metaverse was always something of a pipe dream. Silicon Valley people have been talking up virtual-reality futures for decades. Howard Rheingold’s seminal book Virtual Reality was published in 1991, and despite the leaps in VR tech since then (as well as necessary components like compute power, storage and broadband connectivity), we’re still nowhere close to living in our computers as digital avatars.
We can still have a metaverse
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, of course. But the metaverse has always been a lofty vision of what the internet could be at some unspecified point that is so far in the future that no one – not even Zuckerberg – really knows what it’s going to look like when it arrives in any recognizable form. To be fair, Zuckerberg has said as much – he always saw the metaverse as a long-term vision for which the groundwork needed to be laid now.
Only it turns out laying the groundwork isn’t profitable in the short term, and at a time when tech companies are laying people off, I suppose the short term matters. And the rapid evolution of generative AI ticks a lot more investor boxes in that regard.
Whether there’s real short-term money in generative AI is another question. I think it’s overhyped too, but it’s undoubtedly a game-changing technology that will shape whatever the internet evolves into next – possibly the metaverse, possibly something else.
And yes, I do still think a metaverse of some kind could happen in some form or other. It never truly depended on a Meta Platforms to happen. I think it will happen more organically as the various elements evolve, including Web 3, blockchains, crypto or whatever. And the end result is likely to bear little resemblance to what we think it will be. Maybe there’ll be money in it then. Maybe not.
Anyway, I agree with those who say the metaverse isn’t dead … if only because it was never really alive to begin with.