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Navigating uncertainty while building for the future

As someone building products for a market that doesn’t exist yet, I have some sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg. Both of us had a glimpse of the future after trying the first version of the Oculus VR headset - the Oculus DK1, almost 10 years ago. We saw a future where 3D digital worlds and the technology to consume them is so good that they begin to occupy most of our time spent online.

After an insight like that, building towards the future is addictive. Correctly predicting how technology will be adopted and having the conviction to invest in that prediction can reap massive rewards. Facebook bought Oculus for $2bn back in 2014 and have since rebranded to Meta. Meta are now working to a 10 year time horizon and have invested over $10bn into their vision of the metaverse with plans to invest billions more over the coming years. They certainly have conviction.

At Condense, we also believe that the direction of travel points towards the internet of the future being more 3D oriented. Where we are different is in how we expect to get to a point where the “more 3D internet”, or the metaverse as it is otherwise called, is an integral part of the lives of consumers.

Meta’s approach is two sided. On one side, they are developing sci-fi tech demonstrations which they are using to articulate their vision of the future. Simultaneously they are shipping products which they believe will get us there. Meta Connect this year gave us the clearest insight into this strategy and their vision but it also highlighted some of the problems with the approach.

The event started off with the announcement of a new mixed reality headset, the Meta Quest Pro. Our headset arrived today and I can confirm it’s an impressive piece of kit. It’s aimed at enterprise use and includes passthrough AR (not optical) for mixed reality. Think of it like a VR headset that provides a window into your environment rather than true augmented reality like you get in optical systems like Magic Leap’s.

The headset is their best designed yet, I wouldn’t go as far to say as it doesn’t look nerdy, but we are getting there. There is an obvious focus on ergonomics, it's comfortable and the device includes a number market leading features that will push the industry forward. Instantly adding multiple monitors in mixed reality to my MacBook Pro felt pretty amazing and the face tracking for animating your avatar is incredible and provoked thought on the future of communication.

The price point and the focus on enterprise is a change of direction for Meta. The change has allowed them to put in more of the tech they wanted to. The Quest Pro does a great job of giving us yet another glimpse at what the future of head head mounted displays could become. Still, watching Meta’s promo video of it being used to collaboratively build a skateboard, I don’t think their vision is going to line up with reality quite yet.

Alongside the launch announcement Meta presented an elegant solution to bringing legs into VR. Predicting the position of legs without tracking them is actually a tough problem and the research that Meta is doing in this space is cutting edge. Unfortunately, they later admitted that the demos shown at the event were actually just motion capture data and were only presented for illustrative purposes. Perhaps the marketing team went a little too far.

Finally Meta showcased their codec avatars with CGI so good that the photorealistic avatar of Mark Zuckerberg smashed through the uncanny valley. In the same demo, a photorealistic avatar jumps in the air and their photorealistic clothes change instantly in mid air. “It’s now possible to change your virtual outfit whenever you want” claims the narrator. Unfortunately, again this is not true. Both of these demos, while incredibly impressive, were proof of concepts, not market ready.

How long it takes for Meta to get to their ultimate destination is a big unknown, and in large part it is out of their control. User behaviour and the rate of adoption of new technologies is notoriously hard to predict. In 2013 when the DK1 was released I would have been extremely surprised to hear that in 2022 AI which could produce human-level quality art would be freely available and more widely adopted than VR.

In tech, prototypes can help guide decisions and product direction but user adoption ultimately decides what the future looks like. The tech industry moves fast and building for a distant future is risky. What if user behaviour doesn’t change in the way you expect? Learnings from developing prototypes can quickly become obsolete and bit rot can render old projects very difficult to work with.

At Condense we are also building towards our vision of the metaverse but we don’t have anywhere near the R&D budgets of Meta to spend on prototypes. We see this as our strength.

Rather than iterating towards a distant vision, we follow a user first approach. With each release we take feedback from our community and try to build in an agile and responsive way. Of course we have to take risks, over the last three years we have been building a transformative technology that pushes the boundaries of human–computer interaction, but what the user experience looks like is defined by our community and our creative partners in Music, Broadcast and Gaming.

At every stage of our process we have the end user at the centre of our development and we have a vision based on co-creation with the user, not something that is imposed top down.

Predicting the future of tech is famously difficult. Even Bill Gates vastly underestimated how important and how quickly the internet would come to prominence. Like the rise of the internet, the metaverse is a vector. It is a direction of travel and not a predetermined destination. The way that humanity creatively adapts to various technologies will be decided by users. Academic research, tech demos and vision videos should always be taken with a pinch of salt because the future rarely looks like the one they imagine.


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