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Inside Zuckerberg’s $1,500 headset, the metaverse is still out of reach

The new Meta Quest Pro adds ‘mixed reality’ and face-tracking capabilities. But even with the upgrade, what makes the metaverse better than the internet we already have on phones and laptops?

Geoffrey A. Fowler tries on the Meta Quest Pro. (Bob Minkin/Meta)

If Mark Zuckerberg had his way, we’d all be doing Zoom calls as 3D avatars through computers on our faces.

I recently got to try out the newest and best experience of what the Facebook co-founder calls the metaverse. It felt more like a meh-taverse.

I got a sneak peek at the Quest Pro headset, unveiled Tuesday by Meta as the culmination of billions in hardware development. Most people will likely never own a Quest Pro headset, in part because they’re selling it for $1,499.99 — nearly four times the cost of its predecessor. But more than seven years after it unveiled its first Oculus virtual reality rig, its state-of-the-art headset lets us reflect on a big question for the future of everyone’s use of personal technology: When might the metaverse actually become part of how lots of people communicate, work and create? After spending two hours with the Quest Pro, that’s never felt further away.

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The metaverse is supposed to be a way to interact online in ways that let us feel closer and do away with boundaries between the physical and virtual worlds. The Quest Pro pushes beyond the VR goggles we’ve seen before, by layering digital images into what’s actually in front of you. And it tracks your eyeballs and facial muscles to help you express emotion through a virtual avatar.

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These are difficult technical challenges, but the Quest Pro didn’t seem to do either of them particularly well. It also introduced new kinds of peril: Should you trust the company behind Facebook’s privacy pirates with tracking every twitch of your face?

After trying the headset in six creative and workplace demonstrations chosen by Meta, I still couldn’t identify a killer example of how Meta’s big hardware step forward unlocks the missing promise of the metaverse.

Meta says the Quest Pro is just the next step to achieve its full-fledged metaverse vision and is intended for first adopters, artists and businesses. Yet Zuckerberg last year literally bet the farm on the idea it was the next big thing, changing the name of his company from Facebook to Meta. Even Apple wants a piece of that and is expected to unveil its own competing headset in the coming months.

Meta’s hardware last got updated in 2020 with the Quest 2 headset, which is still being sold for $399.99. During the pandemic, some found them useful for games, fitness and joining niche communities. The company has sold at least 10 million VR devices, but that is far shy of the billions Meta’s other products reach.

Meta’s Quest Pro costs as much as a new PS5, Xbox and Quest 2 combined

It’s easy to be critical of technology that’s trying to do something very new. So let me say: Meta’s improvements in the Quest Pro, which goes on sale Oct. 25, appear to focus on important user problems such as making interactions with other people feel more human. Still, I experienced a disconnect between the way Meta describes its new capabilities and what it was actually like to use right now.

Let’s review three of the biggest developments.

Comfort

The previous Quest put weight and heat on your face because all the hardware is in the front, with a strap along the back and top. The Quest Pro is a complete redesign, with the battery resting on the back of the head so the weight is more evenly distributed. It also uses its cameras to guide you to adjusting it for a better fit.

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The Quest Pro is much better balanced, but there’s just one problem: Meta also increased the overall weight of the thing by nearly half, going from 500 grams on the Quest 2 to 720 grams on the Quest Pro. After using it for two hours, I noticed subtle lines on my forehead — not to mention a headache.

Tracking faces

So far in the metaverse, avatars have felt stiff. To address that, the Quest Pro uses cameras inside and around the front of the device to capture subtle aspects of facial movement, from a wicked smile to an arched eyebrow. Then it can apply those to your avatar in real time.

At least that’s how it works in theory. During my demonstrations, the Quest 2 could hardly pick up on my eyebrows — one of my more distinguishing features. (Meta said my glasses, which I was wearing inside the headset, may have gotten in the way.) It also couldn’t detect when I stuck out my tongue.

The even bigger problem is it didn’t lead to a magical experience. Based on a video presentation from Meta, I was picturing I’d get my own Pixar character. Far from it: The avatars of people I interacted with were only lightly animated and looked at times a little bit drunk. (One avatar I was interacting with kept slightly grimacing — I don’t think it was intentional.) I couldn’t determine if that was a problem with an underpowered processor driving the Quest Pro, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2 Plus or internet bandwidth problems.

And then there’s the privacy implications of all that face data. Meta says face and eye tracking are optional and off by default, and the images captured by the cameras are processed on the device and then thrown away. Great, but that’s not the end of the story. Your face movements are converted into a constant stream of data points, which can leave the device. In fact, other apps can ask for access to them, too.

So does that mean that if you watch “Queer Eye” in the metaverse, Netflix could learn every time you start to tear up? Or Facebook could tell advertisers how long you actually looked at their ads and whether they made you smile? None of that appears to be expressly off limits, though Meta says apps that want to use face data have to ask permission first. Who trusts Facebook to manage this in our best interests?

Mixed reality

The biggest leap for the Quest Pro is that it no longer just does VR. With past Quest devices, you’ve been mostly blind to everything except the virtual world. The so-called “mixed reality” technology in the Quest Pro brings inside the headset a color view of your immediate surroundings so you can interact with it and augment it with virtual images. For example: The controllers that come with the Quest Pro double as virtual pens so you can scribble virtually on your real desk or whiteboard.

Again, this sounds great in theory. But the real world I saw inside the Quest Pro didn’t feel very real. It’s not like looking through regular glasses or even a color video camera. What I saw was more like the underwater scenes in the “Aquaman” movie, warped and washed out.

So what’s it good for?

The Quest Pro can run all the same largely game-focused apps as its predecessor, but Meta showed me demos designed to take advantage of its new tech. Two let me make 3D art in the room in front of me. Another let me view and move around a 3D version of something like Google Earth. A third put a virtual DJ turntable in front of me for lessons from the avatar of a real DJ instructor. I can’t imagine ever needing — or even wanting — to do these things again.

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The mixed reality experience Meta itself has put the most work into was a reimagination of the office called Horizon Workrooms. I saw three virtual screens projected from a real laptop in front of me with a cutout to the real-world at the bottom so I could type on the actual computer keyboard. This was not a good experience: The screens and mouse were painfully slow and a little disorienting.

Now Meta will open up the Quest Pro to more app developers, who might have better ideas that will make it easier to overlook the device’s technical limitations. The biggest question for the future of the metaverse is figuring out a really, really compelling reason using a face computer is better than a phone or laptop.

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