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When Jason Rubin joined Oculus VR in 2014, he was handed a copy of Ready Player One, one of the books that helped define the metaverse. As he was hired, Facebook acquired Oculus and he started to have some deep conversations about the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One.
For years, the metaverse strategy meant that the company was focused on virtual reality games. It has also been developing technology for augmented reality glasses, and when Rubin spoke to us a year ago, he was head of 2D games and cloud game streaming.
But after Facebook renamed itself Meta in October and CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined the company’s ambitions to build the metaverse with investments of more than $10 billion a year, Rubin emerged as the vice president of Meta content.
“My role has changed now and I am really focused on the VR side of things and the metaverse side of things,” he said in a fireside chat today with me at GamesBeat and Facebook Gaming Summit. “The content organization that I ran for the first five and a half years that I was at Meta has transitioned now to be part of the metaverse organization and the work we’re doing ladders up into the greater metaverse work we’re doing.”
While the organization is new, Rubin said that the original inspirations for the metaverse have been driving the company for a while, as the metaverse and VR have long been expected to become the future of social media and 3D interaction.
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“This is quite a long road, I think probably you’d want to ask Mark himself where he started getting seriously interested in AI, but I can tell you for the entire career I’ve had at Meta, it has been ingrained in our future,” Rubin said.
The metaverse used to be on the back burner. In the past, immediate goals like getting content ready for the Samsung Gear VR mobile virtual reality device could easily take precedence. Then Rubin had to commission 30 different games and apps for the launch of the Oculus Rift. By and large, that succeeded, and the Meta Quest 2 is now the top selling VR headset for virtual reality.
In the meantime, the company also spread out from games and was working on social VR, with applications like socializing and working in mind.
“They started thinking longer term on how we would ladder up into the metaverse and I think what’s changed recently is that all of the things needed to make the metaverse happen, not only at Facebook, but I think why in the wider community around the world have suddenly started to happen,” Rubin said. “We didn’t know cryptocurrency would become what it was, but there are interesting things going on there. We didn’t know VR would be as successful as it has been. We had a fantastic holiday season this year. But that has happened.”
He added, “We didn’t certainly know that something like Roblox would be where it was or Fortnite for that matter when Oculus was acquired, would be where it is, but the world has slowly but surely over this period of time been spending more time together in 3D social spaces. Then, you have orthogonally everybody kind of going crazy over NFTs as the on-ramp to the metaverse.”
But Rubin said that the onset of the pandemic, which forced people to work from home, is bringing the metaverse to the front burner. He said it would be much better to do virtual events inside the metaverse, rather than just on video calls, while we can’t do them safely in person.
“I think all of these things have come together to say now’s the time,” Rubin said. “The world is headed towards the metaverse and Facebook wants to be part of that. So with the rebranding and everything else, we’re very serious about this. This is what we think the future is.”
He pointed out that collaboration will be necessary because the metaverse is not going to be built by one company.
“The metaverse is going to be this thing that you do, moving back and forth between identities and back and forth between various interesting 3D social spaces. Having the power of Facebook behind it is like having the power of Facebook making VR happen. It took Facebook a lot of time and energy to get it to happen. And it’s now happening. This, again, has been a fantastic holiday. I think that’s necessary to help the industry move forward. At the same time. I think the metaverse industry is being moved forward by other companies and by individuals at home who are going to end up creating a lot of the content that we end up using and loving, monetizing it and ending up being large businesses.”
He said that Facebook would work with other large companies as well as individuals who are going to be contributing to the metaverse.
The metaverse timetable
As for the implementation, Rubin said it’s going to be a long timetable.
“This is going to take a long time for certainly the sci-fi versions of this to happen, but even for some of the more practical possible things,” he said. “Earning the name metaverse is going to take a few years to be certain. Right now what we need to do is we need to make our platform for building Horizon is the best that could possibly be.”
That was a reference to the Horizon Workrooms workspace and social meeting platform that Meta is building, as well as is Horizon social entertainment platform.
“We’d like to as much as we can make it possible for people to move back and forth between these platforms,” he said. “We needed to take a lot of the content that we have on the platform and make it ladder up into the metaverse. So you could, for example, jump from a Horizon into a Beat Saber and jump from a Beat Saber back out to Horizon. And things start to feel a lot more attached to each other and a lot less like a bunch of apps and a store.”
The metaverse should be able to transport you anywhere so you can do anything, rather than take you back out to a menu every time you change. Going back to a menu wouldn’t feel very metaverse-like.
“We have to build that. As we’ve mentioned, for a company to get to mass adoption, we probably need to be where everybody is,” he said. “And that is right now on 2D flat screens on mobile, in particular. So I think you need to see us expand what we’re doing there. We need to build an identity system that’s used by billions of people. Billions is the number that Facebook counts in and we’d like to see avatars be used by that number of people. So that’s high on our list of things to get done. There’s just an endless list of work that we need to do.”
Developers and other builders will fill out that platform actually build the experiences that drive people’s excitement, he said. Beyond the company’s own first-party studios, most of the work is going to be done by third parties, by builders or by developers, he said.
I asked what was his definition of the metaverse, both the one we will start with and the one we will wind up with in terms of science fiction dreams. He said that if you ask different people, you’re going to get different answers. He said it’s a 3D shared social space where you can do a large number of things together and spend a significant amount of time when you desire to be in a digital world. Not all of those things are games, but they could include education, workplace, and other things.
“And you should be able to move in and out of them very freely without kind of breaking up your group of friends and having to rejoin into your group of friends as you do when you switch between games right now,” he said. “If that’s happening on a 2D screen, on a mobile phone in your hands, that counts. It’s a hell of a lot more immersive if it’s happening on a larger screen. And it’s even more immersive if it’s in VR. And then hopefully, in the long run, it will include AR and other ways of experiencing it. The bigger it gets, the more experiences you’ll have, the more of your friends will be in it, the easier it’ll be to transition back and forth between the elements of it, the more and more immersive and powerful the whole system will become. When exactly you go from being a game to a group of games strapped together into a metaverse or whatever, I don’t know.”
He said it’s not a web page or a group of web pages.
Games lead the way
Will gaming lead the way?
“Gaming is definitely a core part of it. I mean, pulling games out of it for a second, I don’t think any of this could exist without the game engine. And gaming created the game engine, right?” he said. “So for a long time, the game engine was the only major tool for real-time 3D graphics. Obviously, there was simulation and other things universities were doing, but for consumers for the most part, it was gaming.”
He noted that game engines are being used to make movies as well, and so the game engine is fundamental to what everyone is building for the metaverse. He noted that much of mobile phone revenue is generated by gaming, and it is generating a lot of revenue for VR headsets.
“People like to play. We were born as children and we love to play. We never give it up,” Rubin said. “And honestly, I think more gaming would make a happier world. I think play is a good thing. And so gaming becomes a great way to get people to spend a significant amount of time together. And it gives people a way to build an identity system and do other things and invest in things together. And then I think adjacencies start forming because the people are there and the possibilities are there.”
Meta is branching into VR fitness through apps like Beat Saber and others, which combine gaming and exercise. But the metaverse will extend to education, shopping, travel, and other things.
“But gaming will be kind of the thing that gets you in there. And you spend a lot of time [in games] because every new computer system is proven that gaming is the core use case,” he said.
Asked if people think Facebook/Meta would favor a walled garden, he said that’s not correct.
“We really do want to have a much more open metaverse,” Rubin said. “We’ve created a couple of funds, including an XR Research Fund for $50 million, that works with academics and others to kind of figure out what the metaverse should be. We have an education fund to help people learn how to create for the metaverse and we are already reaching out to have discussions about how to open the metaverse. We think the perfect situation is that you can jump into any space with any identity system. And then, as you decide to move between identity systems, you don’t have to lose the friends you’re with or the group of people you’re with and reorganize that you can move freely between those systems.”
Things to work on
He noted there are challenges to make Meta’s shader system for graphics work with somebody else’s system. And whether nonfungible tokens are going to play a role or not.
“Decentralization can solve the ownership issue,” he said. “I do wonder how we’re going to solve the technical issue of actually rendering it and making it happen. Facebook wants this to be a place where everybody can contribute and everybody can move from one metaverse to another.”
He thinks blockchain and other standards will be important, but exactly how they play themselves out in the metaverse is still to be seen.
“I think cloud streaming is going to be vitally important because I don’t think we’re going to want to write an instantiation in the metaverse for every hardware,” he said.
Mobile technology and cloud streaming will have to advance considerably to handle the load. And there are many different technical languages and standards for building products that have to interoperate.
I asked if we’ll have a singular experience across all the platforms.
“We’ve been playing around with AR and VR and where the boundaries are and which one does what better, and which does things more poorly,” he said. “I don’t know that we’re going to know that for a long time. “Mobile phones aren’t changing that radically every generation. I think you will see a lot of new technology and new ideas come out of VR for a while. AR has not even begun that curve of showing us what it can do. And it’s not really clear where the border between the two is going to be and whether or not eventually devices can do both.”
All of these things are good questions without answers at the moment. The answers are going to be discovered by developers and creators and thousands of people “banging at things for a long time, he said. He noted that Beat Saber is a good example right now of the pinnacle of what you can do in VR when it comes to entertainment, though it will be supplanted at some point.
I said we’re eager to see what Rubin is working on and he should get back to his job so he can get it to us faster.
“We’re trying,” he said.
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