Three Fundamental Problems Still Plaguing Meta’s Enterprise XR Ambitions

October 19, 2022 / Olivier Blanchard

Meta’s goal to build a scalable on-ramp for XR and the metaverse in the enterprise would be hard to pull off without Microsoft’s help, which is why neither last week’s announcement that both companies had renewed their Metaverse-focused partnership, nor the announcement’s timing, should have come as a surprise. On the one hand, Microsoft’s interest in Meta’s hardware suggests a possible shift in the trajectory of Microsoft’s XR strategy  — one more agile and perhaps less tethered to HoloLens than it has been. On the other hand, Microsoft’s credibility and solid install base in the enterprise opens doors for Meta that it would be hard pressed to open on its own. The partnership feels so natural that the headlines practically write themselves: “Best-in-class XR vendor joins forces with business software giant to bring the metaverse to the enterprise.” Why, then, am I not all that enthusiastic about it? Perhaps more to the point, why does almost no one else seem enthusiastic about it either?

Broadly, the whole thing feels forced, or at least premature. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm for his vision of the metaverse, Meta’s pitch has thus far failed to convey a clear and measurable value to its intended market. The question I keep hearing over and over from virtually everyone I talk to about this is still “why?” Outside of niche use cases, why do we need this? More specifically, when business leaders are doing the asking, the question branches off into a broader tree of questions ranging from “what problem does this solve” and “how will this make employees more productive, more creative, more collaborative, more engaged, more motivated, happier, and less stressed,” to “can any of this be measured,” and “what is the ROI?” Meta can expect resistance in the market until it comes up with credible answers to every single one of these questions.

I have no doubt that XR as an experience platform can, beyond the narrow range of existing use cases like gaming, design, engineering, healthcare, training, and law enforcement/military, help make work feel more fun, fluid, and rewarding, potentially reducing stress, apathy, burnout and even quiet quitting. How exactly Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse aims to deliver on that potential, however, remains nebulous at best. Zuckerberg’s somewhat tone-deaf metaverse demos so far feel oddly pointless and unfocused, and don’t exactly inspire confidence in Meta’s direction. As for the retro Wii aesthetic of Meta’s avatars and environments, they seem friendly enough, especially if children are an intended market for Meta’s virtual spaces (education could present a lucrative  opportunity for Zuckerberg’s metaverse ambitions), but they do little to convey how they will deliver useful, let alone rewarding Windows, Office, and Teams experiences for adult professional users in enterprise and SMB environments. I hope that Meta’s partnership with Microsoft will provide an opportunity for both companies to figure this all out sooner rather than later.  

The most glaring problem I currently see with Meta’s vision for an enterprise-friendly metaverse, particularly as it relates to immersive remote collaboration and productivity UX, is that it doesn’t seem to solve any discernible problems for organizations or their staff. I realize that it is still very early in the game but Meta should at least have some idea of the problems that it is attempting to solve and of how XR might tackle them. The challenge at this juncture should be in the execution — the how, not the what and the why. To make matters worse, instead of looking to XR and the metaverse to eliminate common pain points for organizations, Meta seems to have gone out of its way to inexplicably design entirely new ones: 

The first point of friction in Meta’s enterprise metaverse play is the cost of entry of its hardware: Even under the best economic tailwinds, adding $1,500 per head to budget allocations that already include phones, tablets and PCs would be hard to justify, especially when the reason behind the extra spending is an XR headset whose purpose and value for the average employee remain difficult to quantify. Granted, $1,500 per unit isn’t a lot of cash for large orgs so long as the value is there, and we have seen the math work well in niche use cases. But if Meta and Microsoft are setting their sights on mass adoption and scale, either the ROI of that investment will have to be made clear and indisputable, or the pricing will have to come down. Way down.

The second point of friction is the form factor of the hardware itself. As impressive as the Quest 2 Pro’s specs and capabilities are, it still looks and feels more like a deconstructed fighter jet helmet than a pair of AR glasses: Bulbous, wide, on the wrong side of light and comfortable, and not particularly portable. The question almost asks itself: Does anyone really want to wear a cumbersome XR headset at work all day? Probably not, at least not unless you absolutely have to.

Even for a few hours per day, consider the likely increase in vertigo among new users. Consider the eye strain, the headaches, the overheating, the rashes where the headset rests and presses against the skin, the possible hair loss, even. Consider the neck and back pain that might result from having to wear an XR headset for hours on end at work, day after day after day. Even for remote workers, large XR headset form factors like the Quest 2 Pro are likely to continue to face persistent adoption headwinds: Anyone can already get into a Teams call using a mobile phone, tablet, or laptop, all of which can easily fit into a pocket or in a low-profile backpack. Why complicate things by adding an unnecessary and inconvenient extra device to their bag? None of this sparks joy, and all of these issues may impact the pace and scale of adoption at least as much as cost is likely to. The friction math is simple: if the benefits of the solution don’t clearly outweigh its pain points, it won’t be successful at scale.

The assumption, of course, is that XR headset form factors will become smaller, slimmer, lighter and more portable over time. Today’s XR headsets aren’t 2025 XR headsets or 2030 XR headsets, let alone 2035 XR headsets (at least I hope not). Most if not all of the pain points outlined above will be solved over time, but until they are, they will continue to make XR adoption at scale, at least across the enterprise. My fear in the interval is that premature market tests at scale could result in organizations and technology users at large forming a poor opinion of the technology and of its usefulness to the enterprise before it can have time to evolve into a smaller and more task-appropriate form factors. Regardless of the invaluable experiences XR might deliver to the enterprise once the technology becomes a bit more mature, allowing too many pain points to persist as the market “tests” the viability of XR in the enterprise over the course of the next few years could backfire. 

Even if Teams, Windows, and Office experiences can be enhanced and transformed by XR (and I believe the opportunity is there for Microsoft to take its software stack to entirely new UX heights with the help of XR), it will have to be at a much lower cost and by way of more user-friendly, near-frictionless form factors. To that end, Meta may soon have to come to terms with the reality, disappointing as it may be, that for the vast majority of enterprise users, Windows 365 and Office 365 experiences don’t really need to be fully immersive in order to play well with XR, and headsets like the Quest 2 Pro, including future iterations of it, may simply be overkill for most non-niche use cases involving everyday productivity and collaboration.

It may behoove Meta to explore the possibility of delivering a broader range of Microsoft-compatible enterprise XR hardware in the next coupe of years. A triple Pro/Ultra/Light tiered framework could make sense for future iterations of the Quest product family, with a Pro line delivering best-in-class XR capabilities for designers and creators, the Ultra line trading some top-end performance and features for a more streamlined design, lighter weight and all-day comfort for an agile range of enterprise-friendly use cases, and the Light line essentially serving as a low-cost, highly portable, and unobtrusive enterprise-ready pair of AR glasses designed for the average enterprise Office 365 user.   

The third point of friction is Meta’s unfortunate dehumanization of collaboration in the metaverse. As cute as it may initially seem to transform coworkers into Wii-themed digital avatars (with or without digital legs) I worry that replacing human faces with digital ones will have a negative emotional and psychological impact on remote workers over time, and we would do well not to overlook or underestimate this potential problem in the making.

The entire point of remote collaboration solutions is to connect people in spite of the distance and the layers of technology standing between them. One of the metaverse’s fundamental promises is that it will create increasingly convincing immersive experiences that drive towards eliminating the screens that separate us, both physically and metaphorically. In gaming, those immersive experiences don’t necessarily have to be realistic. Gameplay has its own set of rules and expectations after all, complete with a broad range of creative role play. Business, however, is a very different animal. Relationships and meaningful human connection are essential, and can prove more difficult to achieve and maintain in enterprise settings. If immersive metaverse experiences are intended to convincingly merge the digital world and the real world in a way that makes enterprise users feel as present and connected to each other as possible, Meta’s avatars deliver the precise opposite experience: They add unnecessary filters between users, erasing their humanity, their faces, their traits and mannerisms and micro expressions by turning them into stripped-down digital cartoons.

If Meta were working on delivering lifelike 4K or 8K quality 3D captures of users’ faces to build truly immersive, next-gen collaboration experiences, that would be one thing. But the company’s inexplicable effort to dehumanize collaboration and disconnect remote workers from one another through cartoon-like avatars makes me seriously wonder if Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta should be driving the design of these immersive enterprise collaborative spaces at all.

This isn’t to say that Meta isn’t onto something with its friendly, cartoon-like, somewhat anonymized metaverse aesthetic. It seems well suited for immersive childhood learning use cases, and could be easily adapted to a broad range of other categories of immersive experiences like gaming, social spaces, skill-building workshops, shopping, and banking. For the enterprise user though, it may make more sense for Microsoft to handle the design of its own XR-specific UX and spaces, including its ecosystem of Teams experiences. Between its growing partnership with Meta and its own in-house Xbox talent, the task wouldn’t exactly fall outside of its wheelhouse, and the company’s decades of insight into the global spectrum of enterprise cultures and collaboration would find itself put to good use.

In closing, as cool and exciting as the intersection of XR, the metaverse and the enterprise sounds in theory, most of it still feels like a solution in search of a problem, or rather, a product in search of a market: Instead of asking how XR and the metaverse can help advance the enterprise beyond extremely niche use cases, Meta’s question seems to instead ask how the enterprise might help accelerate, scale, and even justify XR and metaverse adoption, pitching the entire value proposition of an enterprise-focused metaverse upside down. That doesn’t seem like the strongest of foundations upon which to build the kind of widespread enterprise demand for XR and metaverse experiences that Meta and Microsoft are likely banking on. Hopefully, working more closely with Microsoft will help Meta better calibrate its efforts to address the needs of the enterprise.  

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