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An image of Mark Zuckerberg’s blocky, dead-eyed visage taken from his Metaverse avatar has become something of a reality check for anyone betting on the future of virtual reality.
Here’s the deal: Zuck is betting the future of his half-a-trillion-dollar company, Meta, on a vision of the future in which all of us spend more time in a virtual space known as the metaverse, repped by digital alter egos created in our own image.
The trouble is, everything we’ve seen of that future so far looks lame as hell.
“It’s genuinely puzzling that Meta spent more than $10 billion on VR last year and the graphics in its flagship app still look worse than a 2008 Wii game,” tweeted New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose.
Days later, Zuck himself admitted the image was “pretty basic” and posted a screenshot of a more detailed version of his avatar, saying that “major updates” to Horizon and avatar graphics were coming soon, my colleague Rachel Metz reports.
The whole episode illustrates the difficulty Meta, which has positioned itself as a leader in the virtual-reality industry, will have in selling its futuristic vision.
The biggest problem: It just doesn’t look cool. And Zuck doesn’t seem cool. And Facebook hasn’t been cool since 2009. And that’s a really big problem.
My simplistic but unshakeable theory is that people won’t buy something if it doesn’t make them look good. But if you can make them believe it looks cool, people will do anything. Just ask the tobacco industry. Smoking is objectively terrible, but put some hot people in magazine ads for cigarettes and you’ve got yourself a profit machine.
The cool factor is decidedly lacking in VR right now. And it’s not just the avatars that suck.
To get into the metaverse in the first place, you first have to strap on a bulky headset like Meta’s $400 Quest device. Which itself is pretty sleek, but at the end of the day it’s still a big computer on your dome that your IRL friends and loved ones will rightly tease you about.
Meta is not alone. As Rachel explains, Rec Room and Microsoft’s AltSpaceVR, among others, have been working for years to improve the appearance of their avatars and make them customizable.
Technical limitations are also hurting the metaverse’s whole vibe.
VR avatars also need to respond in real time to the ways we move our faces and bodies, which requires powerful computing and graphics processing. What we’d really need to make it look convincing are extra sensors tacked on all over our bodies — which, again, is incredibly uncool.
(This is also why avatars on some social apps, such as Meta’s Horizon Worlds and Rec Room, don’t have legs, only toros and heads.)
The headsets currently on the market can only render so many of the triangles that are used to make up 3-D images in VR, says Timmu Tõke, CEO of avatar creation platform Ready Player Me.
Researchers have found that in a VR setting, most people want/expect to build an avatar that looks like themselves. And that’s a monumentally complicated task.
Even if the technology were there to make that work, then you’ve got the uncanny valley to worry about.
The more realistic-looking the avatar’s face, the more creeped out we get looking at them. (Remember the 2004 movie Polar Express? Or did you also not see it because the characters’ faces were rendered too realistically while simultaneously failing to depict genuine facial expressions, yielding Tom Hanks’ most terrifying role to date?)
Meta is spending billions of dollars on a vision that at best is incomplete and at worst, no one wants. And the person it’s tapped with hyping that vision is, um, Mark Zuckerberg.
The relentless mockery of Zuck’s ill-advised avatar posting underscores the real problem of getting consumers on board. That should be a red flag for investors, too.
NUMBER OF THE DAY: $40,290
Americans are responding to surging prices for new cars and trucks by going deeper into debt, pushing the average new vehicle loan to a record-high $40,290 during the second quarter, according to credit monitoring company Experian. The average monthly payment for a new vehicle loan rose to $667 in the second quarter, up nearly 15% from a year earlier.
When you get a delivery from FedEx Ground, you may not realize that those drivers, clad in FedEx uniforms, actually work for one of thousands of independent contractors the company relies on to make deliveries.
But right now, many of those contractors say they’re losing money, and they’re threatening to halt deliveries just before Black Friday, my colleague Chris Isidore reports.
Here’s the deal: FedEx Ground depends on a network of more than 6,000 independent businesses to make deliveries, and each of those has dozens of drivers. But higher costs for fuel, trucks and growing wages for drivers have as many as 30% of those contractors losing money, according to an estimate from Deutsche Bank. Many of the contractors are now pressuring FedEx to improve the terms of the compensation packages they receive.
“My business is losing money every day,” said Spencer Patton, one of the largest contractors and the most vocal critic of FedEx Ground’s relationship with its partner network. “And my business will not be able to continue operation past November 25.”
Patton says the wages he needs to pay to keep drivers are up 37% in the last year. Truck prices are up 30%. And diesel is up 52% compared with a year ago.
His suburban Nashville-based company, Patton Logistics, delivered about 6.5 million FedEx packages last year.
FedEx, meanwhile, reported that revenue at its FedEx Ground unit increased $2.7 billion, or 9%, to $33.2 billion in the fiscal year ending in May compared to the previous year.
Still, FedEx Ground is refusing to offer the kind of across-the-board financial relief to its contractors that Patton and others are seeking.
“We recognize that current economic conditions are posing new challenges,” FedEx Ground said in a statement. “We remain committed to working with service provider businesses individually to address the challenges specific to their situation. Our goal is to enable success for both FedEx Ground and service providers.”
FedEx Ground also would not comment directly about the threat of some contractors shutting down just before the holiday shopping season.
This holiday season, you’ve got some complicating factors to weigh: Rates for USPS packages are going up temporarily, FedEx may lack drivers, and, of course, supply chains are still all mucked up from pandemic-era lockdowns and the war in Ukraine.
In other words, it might be a good year for us all to shop local and hand-deliver gifts. Or do as I do every time I forget about someone’s birthday and embrace the always-useful e-gift card.
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