SAN FRANCISCO — One of Mark Zuckerberg’s first steps toward building the metaverse may be physical instead of virtual.
Meta, the social media company formerly known as Facebook, has discussed opening retail stores that will eventually span the world, said people with knowledge of the project and company documents viewed by The New York Times. The stores would be used to introduce people to devices made by the company’s Reality Labs division, such as virtual reality headsets and, eventually, augmented reality glasses, they said.
These devices are gateways to the metaverse, a futuristic digital world where people move from virtual to augmented versions of reality almost seamlessly. Mr. Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, last week renamed his company Meta and laid out a vision for pursuing the metaverse as the next social platform. The stores would help show people that virtual reality and augmented reality can be fun and exciting, exactly the way Mr. Zuckerberg sees it.
The aim of the stores is to make the world “more open and connected,” according to the company documents viewed by The Times. They are also intended to spark emotions like “curiosity, closeness,” as well as a sense of feeling “welcomed” while experimenting with headsets in a “judgment free journey,” according to the documents.
Discussions about physical stores predated Facebook’s rebranding by many months, with serious work on the initiative having started last year, the people said. And the project, which is still in development, may not proceed, they said. But if Meta moves forward with stores, it would be a first for a tech giant that has existed largely digitally, with more than 3.5 billion people using its apps such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.
A Meta spokeswoman said the company couldn’t confirm plans for stores but said its latest virtual reality headset was “in high demand” and that its hardware was available at partner retailers.
Mr. Zuckerberg has talked up the metaverse as his company grapples with regulatory and societal challenges. Frances Haugen, a former employee turned whistle-blower, amassed thousands of pages of internal documents and recently shared them with lawmakers and the news media. She has said that Facebook was not doing enough to protect society from the harms it causes. Her disclosures have drawn scrutiny from legislators and regulators, though it is unclear how strong her case is.
Skepticism about the metaverse also abounds. While Meta’s Reality Labs division has had modest past success with the Oculus Quest 2, a low-priced headset that was popular last year, virtual reality remains a niche market for hobbyists and enthusiasts. The hardware is often costly and can be difficult to use. Some people have reported that the headsets nauseate them.