The social media company has discussed opening physical stores to showcase its virtual reality and augmented reality devices.
SAN FRANCISCO — One of Mark Zuckerberg’s first steps toward building the metaverse may be physical rather than virtual.
Meta, the social media company formerly known as Facebook, has discussed opening retail stores that will eventually spread around the world, people with knowledge of the project and company documents seen by The New York Times said. 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 transition from virtual to augmented versions of reality almost seamlessly. Mr. Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, last week changed his company name to Meta and laid out a vision for seeking out 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 as Zuckerberg sees it.
The stores’ goal is to make the world “more open and connected,” according to company documents seen by The Times. They are also intended to arouse emotions such as “curiosity, closeness” as well as a sense of feeling “welcomed” while experimenting with headphones on a “judgment-free journey,” according to the documents.
Discussions about physical stores predate Facebook’s rebranding by many months, and serious work began on the initiative last year, the people said. And the project, which is still in development, may not go ahead, they said. But if Meta goes ahead 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 like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.
A Meta spokeswoman said the company could not confirm plans for stores, but said its latest virtual reality headset was in “great demand” and its hardware was available at partner retailers.
Mr. Zuckerberg has spoken about the metaverse as his company grapples with regulatory and societal challenges. Frances Haugen, a former employee turned whistleblower, amassed thousands of pages of internal documents and recently shared them with lawmakers and the media. He has said that Facebook was not doing enough to protect society from the harm it causes. His revelations have drawn scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators, though it’s unclear how strong his case is.
Skepticism about the metaverse also abounds. While Meta’s Reality Labs division has had modest success in the past with the Oculus Quest 2, a low-priced headset that was popular last year, VR remains a niche market for hobbyists and enthusiasts. The hardware is often expensive and can be difficult to use. Some people have reported that headphones make them nauseous.
“We are, at best, at least five to 10 years before a fully developed Meta product or service,” said Tim Derdenger, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. He said what Meta was working on was similar to the early 2000s computer game Second Life, calling it “a second chance at a Second Life-like service, but hopefully more immersive.”
Still, Zuckerberg has said he sees the time to build what he believes will be the next big change in computing platforms since the smartphone era. In that future, Zuckerberg’s apps would no longer be subject to rules dictated by Apple and Google, which own the app stores that distribute Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.
Tech companies opening their own stores are not new. Gateway, a maker of personal computers, had its own stores in the 1990s. Apple has retail stores so people can try out devices and get answers to their questions. Microsoft, Amazon and others have also followed with their own stores.
In recent years, Meta had experimented with some physical retail efforts. It opened temporary kiosks at airports and a temporary store in Manhattan’s SoHo district to display its Oculus hardware products. It also had a pop-up location with Macy’s in 2018, with the goal of attracting more small businesses to the platform.
If the new Meta stores go ahead, they would feature products such as Portal devices, teleconferencing devices that allow people to video chat via Facebook, as well as Oculus headsets, according to company documents. The stores could also include voice-activated sunglasses that Meta developed with Ray-Ban, which people can wear to take photos and videos.
Early Meta store designs appeared modern, with a flat, minimalist aesthetic on the building’s exteriors and subtle placement of Facebook branding, according to the documents. The company considered naming its stores Facebook Hub, Facebook Commons, Facebook Innovations, Facebook Reality Store, and From Facebook, before ultimately settling on Facebook Store as the lead candidate, according to the documents.
It was unclear how Meta’s rebranding would affect the stores’ name. Andrew Bosworth, a longtime Facebook executive who will become Meta’s chief technology officer, said last week that the Oculus brand would be discontinued and replaced by the Meta name. Oculus Quest will become Meta Quest, while Facebook Portal will be renamed Meta Portal, he said.
Facebook’s flagship store was planned for Burlingame, California, where Meta has an office for its Reality Labs employees. It was also unclear if those plans would continue.