Mark Zuckerberg says he has long imagined a virtual world where people work, play and interact. Now he’s preparing to spend billions of dollars and years of effort at making that a reality so Facebook Inc. FB -4.97% can prosper.
Facebook on Monday said its spending on Facebook Reality Labs, where the company works on augmented and virtual reality, would dent total operating profit by around $10 billion this year. "I expect this investment to grow even further for each of the next several years," Mr. Zuckerberg said.
Facebook’s chief executive has become one of the most vocal proponents of online worlds where people exist in immersive, virtual and shared spaces—increasingly referred to as the metaverse. Rooted in science-fiction novels like "Ready Player One" and "Snow Crash," the metaverse represents a digital reality where people playing through avatars would be able to attend concerts with friends or try on clothes in stores, just as they would offline, out in the real world. In some visions, they cut across technology platforms.
"Over the next decade, these new platforms are going to start to unlock the kinds of experiences that I’ve wanted to build since before I even started Facebook," Mr. Zuckerberg said Monday on an earnings call.
The move is emerging as central to Mr. Zuckerberg’s push to serve younger adults. The experiences the company will introduce as it creates the metaverse should lure and excite such audiences, he said.
But realizing that vision will be neither fast, nor cheap. Analysts say some of the fundamental building blocks for the metaverse don’t exist, yet, and will take time to build. "We see the full vision of the metaverse as decades away," Jefferies analysts said, even as they expressed a bullish outlook for the concept.
Facebook’s total company expenses could jump as much as $27 billion next year, reaching $97 billion, the company said, as it spends on people and infrastructure. Capital expenditure on items such as network infrastructure and data centers is expected to jump almost 80% next year, the company said.
The eventual payoff, Mr. Zuckerberg indicated, could be far reaching, including boosting the company’s role as an online marketplace. Facebook’s revenue today is dominated by ad sales.
"If you’re in the metaverse every day, then you’ll need digital clothes and digital tools and different experiences. Our goal is to help the members reach a billion people and hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce," he said.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s vision of users interacting more closely with its services takes shape as Facebook faces an onslaught of criticism from lawmakers, academics and users over revelations in The Wall Street Journal’s "Facebook Files" series, which showed that the company knows that its platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm. On Monday, he defended the company, saying, "I am proud of our record navigating the complex trade-offs involved in operating services at global scale and I am proud of the research and transparency we bring to our work."
Videogame companies and other tech giants also are racing to develop their metaverse platforms and establish early dominance in what could become a big moneymaker and permanently change the way people interact with each other.
Some early versions of what could be considered the metaverse already exist at certain companies. Epic Games Inc. hosted a Travis Scott concert within its massively popular Fortnite videogame a few months into the pandemic. More than 12 million people attended. Game company Roblox Corp. in May hosted an immersive experience to celebrate the designer brand Gucci’s 100th anniversary where users could buy limited-edition items for their avatars. It also hosted a Twenty One Pilots concert last month.
Calculating the money to be made in the metaverse is difficult, said Jefferies analyst Andrew Uerkwitz, but the videogame business provides an indication of the market potential. "People are willing to spend $80 billion-plus annually on virtual goods," he said, signaling that the revenue generated in the metaverse "could be very very large."
But implementing the metaverse concepts will still require companies to overcome a mix of obstacles, analysts say. Latency, for instance, the time it takes for data to travel from one point to another and back, is currently too slow to support the concept, Jefferies said in its report. Additionally, virtual currencies need to evolve further, according to the report, to properly develop metaverses as marketplaces.
Tech companies that want to become major players in the field will require strong videogames operations, says Michael Wolf, co-founder and chief executive of consulting firm Activate Inc. Some tech companies could end up paying big dollars to expand their gaming arms to boost their metaverse aspirations, he said at The Wall Street Journal’s Tech Live conference last week.
Facebook in 2019 agreed to acquire PlayGiga, a company based in Madrid that specializes in cloud-based gaming. And Microsoft Corp. —which owns Xbox and offers its own virtual-reality headset—earlier this year closed a $7.5 billion purchase of videogame company ZeniMax Media Inc.
In August, Facebook launched public testing of Horizon Workrooms, an app that lets people who are wearing its Oculus Quest 2 virtual-reality headsets enter virtual offices as avatars and participate in meetings while seeing their computer screen and board. The company recently said it planned to hire 10,000 workers in Europe over the next five years to help build the metaverse.
Mr. Zuckerberg, on the earnings call, said the financial payoff won’t come soon. "Later in this decade is when we would sort of expect this to be more of a real business story."
Not all tech companies are in sync with the metaverse vision. Evan Spiegel, chief executive of Facebook-rival Snap Inc. that also is investing in augmented reality, says the concept was born in fiction to describe a world that was crumbling. "We’re really interested in augmented reality because it is grounded in the world that we share," he said at the WSJ Tech Live conference.