Image: Lex Fridman
For me, the Meta Connect 2023 keynote was a huge disappointment. And then there was this Lex Fridman podcast with Mark Zuckerberg.
Watching Meta communicate is a crazy roller coaster ride for me, both from a journalist’s viewpoint and from a communications perspective. You know the wild Metaverse ride of the last two years: rebranding to Meta, crazy Metaverse videos, avatar fails, fake legs, better hardware, great hand tracking, and more.
In terms of communication for VR enthusiasts, Connect has always been the most important event of the year. This goes back to when the event was called Oculus Connect and really focused on virtual reality.
Now it is called Meta Connect, and at Connect 2023, all VR enthusiasts were shown the door during the keynote.
Mark Zuckerberg, who enthusiastically sold the Meta move two years ago, spent only ten minutes talking about the new Quest 3 and previously announced VR games. He touched on the ingenious Augments in just two sentences and then spent the rest of his time talking about AI, or more specifically, Meta AI.
Of course, AI is an essential part of immersive technologies and a future metaverse. But the VR nerd in me felt betrayed on Wednesday. That’s because Mark Zuckerberg and Meta CTO Bosworth had absolutely nothing to say, besides the familiar platitudes and repetition of what’s been known already for a long time.
But what really frustrated me was the complete lack of vision. The lack of ideas. The lack of presentation of any research projects. Like the room scanning demo a few years ago. Or reading neural signals on the wrist to control a VR or AR headset. Or the photorealistic codec avatars.
As messy as previous Connect events have been, they have always had a bit of a futuristic vibe, always felt a bit like a mad scientist’s workshop. That was completely absent this year, replaced by stickers and chatbots.
Now, Meta Connect is also the corporate showcase for one of the world’s biggest tech companies. Zuckerberg does care about the stock price, and AI clearly gets better press than virtual reality right now. So from a business perspective, it’s completely understandable how the Connect keynote went.
Still, I found it shockingly anemic. It was cringe-worthy in parts, but that’s true of most American tech events. And it came without any real surprise. For me, it was the worst Meta Connect ever, and I was already preparing to be even grumpier than usual in the following days, constantly ranting about Meta’s idiosyncratic strategy.
With its quarterly communication, Meta had once again hit rock bottom with me.
And then came Lex Friedman Podcast 398. Lex is a researcher at MIT and always has long, interesting conversations with public figures in his famous podcast. Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg was on for the third time.
What’s remarkable about it: Lex and Mark conducted their conversation as avatars, while physically separated by many hundreds of miles. Even more remarkable, these were not the usual cartoon avatars in a colorful Horizon Worlds environment.
Instead, they were photorealistic codec avatars with perfect facial expressions. Even the 2D podcast video is stunning to me. From Fridman’s reaction to Zuckerberg’s avatar, you can tell what a great experience it must have been. “This is the future,” the MIT researcher says more than once in this conversation.
Fridman usually doesn’t do remote podcasts because the intimacy of the conversation is lost. With this cast, it’s different, he says: “It’s super interesting that this intimacy of conversation can be achieved remotely. […] It just feels like an incredible transition to something else, a different kind of communication. It breaks down all the barriers, like geographic physical barriers.”
For this conversation, both participants were scanned, and the casting itself was done with the Quest Pro, which has eye and face tracking. It’s amazingly satisfying to see these avatars speak and watch their facial expressions.
But the technology is still a long way off, Zuckerberg says. The complex scanning process has to be made much more accessible; not everyone can be scanned in a research lab.
But that was precisely what I had hoped Meta Connect would do: showcase new or advanced technology. There were surprises. Visions and their possible realization were discussed.
Meta has returned to the top of my list with its long-term communication.
The Lex Friedman Podcast 398 was the real Meta Connect 2023. Be sure to listen to it completely – it’s worth it.
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