One mild sunny day last week, I made my first visit to Meta’s campus in Burlingame, CA, to experience the company’s latest big swing in its efforts to build a metaverse. The centerpiece of the day, as well as Tuesday morning’s keynote address at the Connect conference, is the Meta Quest Pro: a $1,499 standalone mixed reality headset, shipping October 25th, that the company hopes will spur a new wave of adoption by professionals and businesses.
Yesterday I wrote about what Meta had to prove at Connect: that the metaverse is not only happening, but happening now, and that Meta is better positioned to capture the upside of the coming platform shift than anyone else. Indeed, that was the core theme of Tuesday’s keynote, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg, CTO Andrew “Boz” Bosworth and other executives talked about the progress they have made and announced partnerships intended to signal that the Quest has arrived as a serious business device.
The executives talked up the $1.5 billion that has been spent so far on games and apps inside the Quest store; the 400 titles with $1 million or more in sales; the 33 titles that have generated more than $10 million. A series of stilted, Sorkin-esque walk-and-talks around company headquarters found Zuckerberg and co. marveling at the various ways in which virtual reality was making people more productive.
The improvements Meta has made with the Pro were immediately obvious
Some observers found the presentation sweaty and overbearing; at the very least, it lacked the polish we’ve now come to expect from virtual briefings from Apple and even Snap. But the company legitimately has momentum on its side: the estimated 15 million-plus units of the Quest 2 sold to date make it the most popular VR console and arguably (as Zuckerberg likes to put it) the first mainstream device in the space. And while Apple’s likely arrival into the space next year will undoubtedly challenge Meta’s leadership, in the meantime the company has a solid claim on innovation.
In Burlingame, I spent two hours with the Quest Pro, putting the device through its paces in a series of demos aided by developers. In an app called Tribe XR, a musician coached me remotely on how to operate a professional DJ console. In another, called Wooorld, I explored virtual maps of the world that allowed me to teleport into photographic recreations of those spaces: a kind of embodied Google Street View, complete with a where-are-you-now quiz game built into it.
As a lapsed user of the Quest 2, which I found fussy and ill-fitting, the improvements Meta has made with the Pro were immediately obvious. Placing the device’s battery in the back means that it balances much better on the head; adjusting the fit with various dials made for much better viewing. So, too, did the radically improved display, which delivered much brighter colors and sharper edges than you will find on the Quest 2.
I was also impressed by the new controllers, which offer remarkable haptic feedback that turn the devices into excellent virtual paintbrushes, pencils, and magic markers. During a demonstration of its Workrooms meeting software, a Meta employee had me stand at a virtual whiteboard and draw. I was doodling in midair, and yet the combined visuals and haptic system made me feel like I was very much making contact with something, and the surreality of that lingered with me long after I left the campus.
My favorite demonstration was the absolute silliest one — a simple sandbox that let you toss objects around a room, throw darts, shoot targets, and play other simple games. It was designed to show off the fine-grained movements that the Pro can capture — I (badly) played a Jenga-like game that had me removing blocks from a stack by very carefully moving my fingers. But I remember it for the way it made me feel, briefly and wonderfully, like a toddler, crashing around a virtual space leaving a trail of digital debris in my wake until it was time to move on to the next demo.
The highest-stakes demo, and the first one I tried last week, was the productivity app: Workrooms, which lets coworkers meet in VR. (Those without headsets can join via Zoom.) Sitting at a real, physical desk, I pulled up a virtual desktop: one with three monitors much bigger than what I have here in real life. I used the Quest’s app switcher to launch Workrooms, and had a brief meeting with a pair of Meta employees.
The Quest Pro can track your facial movements if you let it, and the result is a much more expressive virtual meeting. The Meta employee smiled at me and nodded his head; once, just to prove that he could, he winked at me. Zuckerberg has been saying for a couple years now that VR’s killer app is the sense of presence it can create, but until now that has felt rather limited to me. The added expressiveness felt like a step forward.
I was less impressed with the virtual desktop. On one hand, there’s something impressive about using a web browser in VR, if only because of the massive real estate afforded by those giant virtual monitors. But while the visual clarity of the device is much improved, the Pro would not be among my top five ways to read a website. It worked, but not well enough to supplant my laptop or even my phone.
Reflecting on her own experience, my Verge colleague Adi Robertson called the Pro “a very sophisticated development kit, more geared toward testing next-gen technology than filling specific needs,” and I more or less landed in the same place. I enjoyed the aspects of the device that I tested, and I very much want to spend more time with it.
That’ll be particularly true after developers have had a year or two to build for it: to take advantage of the color video passthrough on the device that allows mixed-reality experiences, for example, or just to play that Iron Man VR game the company showed off Tuesday. I don’t imagine the company will sell all that many of these things at $1,499, but I do think it has moved the industry forward, and the benefits it sees from being first may compound over time.
One thing about VR is that I generally don’t feel great after I use it: not nauseous, exactly, but similar to how I might feel if I had read a book in the back of a bumpy car. I shook the feeling off within a couple hours, but whenever I try to imagine life in the metaverse, the memory of that sensation gives me pause.
After my demos, I walked a couple buildings over to meet with Meta CTO Andrew Bosworth in his giant conference room. I wanted to know who the Pro was for, if Meta had the timing right, and also how this moment felt at the company: it’s facing perhaps the biggest challenge to its business since a famously rocky IPO, and realizing its ambitions in mixed reality could determine the future of the company.
Highlights of our conversation follow; this interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Casey Newton: I used my Quest 2 pretty actively for a month or two but set it aside. I hear that this experience isn’t totally uncommon. Do you feel like VR has found its killer app yet? Or is that still ahead on the roadmap?
Andrew “Boz” Bosworth: I think for people who are used to covering laptops or phones, this is a different device today than those are. It probably has a usage characteristic that’s much more similar to game consoles, which tend to be content-driven. If you’re a gamer, then your use of the device really indexes on content: the device itself isn’t the draw, it’s the content on the device.
And so what you’ve seen us doing over the last several years, and Quest Pro is another step in that direction, is adding more reasons for which this device could be helpful for you. That increases the value that it drives to the consumer, and over time advances us toward being a more generalized platform for computing. And that doesn’t just happen overnight. Especially not for something that’s so tremendously novel as virtual reality, relative to these 2D screens where they kind of bleed into each other.
We’re very happy with the engagement and retention that we have in our user base. We have an engaged retentive product on our hands. But we want to unlock more value for them.
Let’s talk about this moment at the company. This is your biggest, most expensive bet. You’re having to invent a bunch of new things. You’ve found an early market, but you need to make it much bigger.
And you’ve been here through basically every fight this company has ever had. So does this feel like the hardest time?
It certainly stands among the pantheon of times. You know, 2008 was a hard year for everyone — that was the last major recession. And we were still a private company that needed to fundraise at the time. So 2008 was a tough year in a lot of ways. And we had, at that time, really serious competition coming down the pipe. Then 2012, the shift to mobile plus the IPO, was a super tough year. This is in the pantheon of those things.
“It doesn’t feel uniquely tough in the world, it doesn’t feel uniquely tough relative to my career.”
I always try to resist the urge to feel like the times that we live in are particularly special. I think that’s a very egocentric indulgence that a lot of us get away with. Like, recessions happen, they happen kind of on a roughly once-a-decade cadence. We’ve had 14 years since the last one, so it’s maybe a little bit longer than that. But still, they happen, you know they’re gonna happen, they’re going to be annoying when they happen. They affect everybody. They affect really everyone in every industry in every sector. So you’re not uniquely special in that from a macroeconomic standpoint.
And then within our own industry, no one really knew how to manage the pandemic, and the economics that came with it, as those recede. So we’re kind of all in the same boat there. We have a few unique challenges — obviously super-talented competitors, ATT [Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature], so we’ve got this headwind that is relatively unique to us, or to least our sector of the tech industry. But even then, you’re gonna have competition and you’re gonna have changes to policy. So it’s certainly a tough time. It doesn’t feel uniquely tough in the world, it doesn’t feel uniquely tough relative to my career. But it’s a challenge and that’s, you know, that’s the job.
I think I basically agree with you all that augmented reality and virtual reality, if they can be perfected, can reach a massive audience. But there’s a lot left to invent. And in tech, timing is everything. Do you think you have the timing right?
For virtual reality, as I’ve said, we know it’s going to be a real thing. It’s gonna be a thing that is big. And that it’s not going to be monotonic. It’s not going to be all linear.
But we are past the elbow of the curve. And so how steep is it? We don’t know. How many years does it take? We don’t know. But it’s there.
We know [VR] is good enough. We know it can solve real problems that people have, and the roadmap that we have is just so exciting. The future there is very, very great.
Augmented reality is the one where the question is, when is it good enough? When is the thing that you’re looking at the Palm Pilot or the Trio, and when is it the iPhone? So that’s the rigor that we all have to put in. It’s a very competitive space, a lot of people investing in it.
And it is still far away, but it is continuing to appear every year that we are one year closer. That is an attractive concept. Sometimes technology feels like “hey, no matter how much time has passed, it’s always the same distance away.” That isn’t what’s happening to us in AR. Every year we feel a year closer.