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Why Is Meta’s Metaverse Such a Misfire?

The virtual world’s most noteworthy spokesperson certainly isn’t helping the cause

3 min read
A selfie of Mark Zuckerberg's avatar in the metaverse platform Horizon Worlds.

Mark Zuckerberg's avatar doesn't look his best in Horizon Worlds.

Meta

Mark Zuckerberg isn’t a great ambassador for the metaverse.

Meta’s CEO kicked off another round of controversy with a screenshot celebrating the launch of Horizon Worlds, the company’s AR/VR metaverse platform, in France and Spain. Shot in the style of a selfie, it shows a poorly detailed rendition of Zuckerberg’s avatar staring past the camera. Crude 3D models of national landmarks sit behind him on a generic green landscape.

“It was a horrific PR move to put out those photos,” says Stu Richards (a.k.a. Meta Mike), partner success lead at GigLabs and cdofounder of Versed.


Meta’s metaverse hype leads to real-world backlash

Zuckerberg’s virtual selfie quickly went viral across numerous social media accounts. A tweet by user @ordinarytings, which claimed Horizon Worlds is “surely dying in the dark,” led the charge with more than 31,000 likes and over 4,500 quote tweets or retweets.

It’s not unusual for a tech CEO to receive a thrashing on Twitter, but the scale of the response–boosted by Mashable, The Daily Dot, and Kotaku–was suffocating. It’s hard to mount any defense of Meta’s ugly, simplistic screenshot. “I think the response is fair,” says Richards. “I’ve not been super impressed by what they’ve put out.”

Clearly, Zuckerberg’s post did not go as planned. But this raises the question: why?

“If they’re going to use game tech to build a VR game platform that’s supposed to be a cross between a Roblox-style UGC platform and a social MMO, maybe they should have people who have experience.”
—Rafael Brown, Symbol Zero

Rafael Brown, CEO of metaverse event company Symbol Zero and former game designer, thinks the company’s metaverse issues are rooted in difficulty keeping up with the level of fidelity common in the game industry.

“Facebook is out of touch with game-style software-development practices and expectations on art direction and character/avatar development,” says Brown. “Keep in mind their other internal projects like Quill, et cetera, that they’ve jettisoned and lost [staff over].”

Brown points out that Meta’s avatars have changed numerous times since the company’s purchase of VR hardware maker Oculus in 2014. These changes can be witnessed in other, past controversies, such as Zuckerberg’s ill-advised AR tour of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The avatars used then are different from today’s and radically different from the ghostlike avatars shown by Oculus in 2016.

This is how the Oculus avatars looked in 2016.www.youtube.com

There are other signs of instability. Meta’s VP of Horizon, Vivek Sharma, recently said he’s leaving the company for “a new opportunity.” Days later, the company announced it will shut down the Facebook Gaming app, a competitor to Amazon’s live-streaming platform Twitch, which eliminates an important avenue Meta could use to reach users.

“All I wonder is, if they’re going to use game tech to build a VR game platform that’s supposed to be a cross between a Roblox-style UGC platform and a social MMO, maybe they should have people who have experience,” says Brown. “They really need better art direction, technical art direction, game direction, and tools direction.”

Where does Meta go from here?

Zuckerberg tried to quell criticism with a follow-up post about a planned update to avatar graphics. It’s an improvement, to be sure. But the real glimmer of hope was shown at Siggraph, a computer graphics conference held in August of 2022.

A group of researchers from Reality Labs, Meta’s AR/VR research division, showed a paper titled “Authentic Volumetric Avatars from a Phone Scan,” which describes how smartphone photos with depth-of-field data can be paired with machine learning to achieve sharp, photorealistic results with accurate real-time facial animation. The detailed expressions shown by researchers at Reality Labs stands in stark contrast to the current state of Horizon Worlds’ avatars.

This video, demonstrating authentic volumetric avatars from a phone scan, was shown at Siggraph 2022.www.youtube.com

Richards notes that Meta’s current mainstream headset, the Meta Quest 2, may be partially responsible for the Horizon Worlds’ limitations. “[Meta is] building out tech that will have the mechanics in place to better focus on things like expression,” says Richards—but the affordable Quest 2 opted not to include sensors that can gauge users’ expression or track their eyes. “They’re trying to create adoption first. Once that happens is when they’ll focus more on integrating features.”

Meta might be ready to turn that corner with a headset to be announced at Oculus Connect 2022. While most details remain under wraps, Zuckerberg offered an early overview of its features during a recent interview on The Joe Rogan Experience.

Zuckerberg said the upcoming, yet unnamed headset will offer “the ability to now have eye contact in virtual reality, have your face be tracked so that your avatar is not just this still thing, if you smile, or you frown, or you pout, whatever your expression is, to have that actually in real time translate to your avatar.” His remarks sound a lot like what's already been shown at Siggraph and in other, earlier Meta research demos.

This could silence critiques of Horizon Worlds’ awkward, stilted graphical style—though only if it works as advertised.

The Conversation (3)
Payam Minoofar06 Sep, 2022
INDV

Meta's technical failures are important to cover, but the demise of the metaverse will likely stem from the fact that not enough people of means have sufficiently empty lives to jettison the real world for any form of a metaverse. IEEE's emphasis on the technical side of technology is understood, but it is high time that IEEE and other professional organizations weighed in on the social ramifications of technology. After all, we understand it best.

1 Reply
Keng-Yuan Chang04 Sep, 2022
INDV

I somehow think projecting real faces is still the way to go

The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
Vertical
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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