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Meet the Meta executive tasked with bringing Mark Zuckerberg’s high-stakes metaverse vision to life

June 13, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC
Vishal Shah, head of metaverse at Meta Platforms, speaks during the Facebook Connect event on Oct. 28, 2021, at which Facebook rebranded itself as Meta. “I think there’s a natural bridge to where ads can fit into [the metaverse] experience,” Shah tells Fortune.
Michael Nagle—Bloomberg/Getty Images

This article is the third in a trio of Fortune features about Meta’s challenging transition. The first installment described the impact of personnel and business changes inside the company. The second installment looked at how Meta is responding to the hurdles facing its traditional advertising business.

It looks like any typical weekday in someone’s work-from-home office—except for the giant holograms and translucent video screens floating in the air. An architect takes to his desk chair, puts on what looks like an ordinary pair of eyeglasses, and is soon surrounded by translucent, cartoonish avatars representing his coworkers. A digital chat box manifests beside him, displaying a message from his colleague telling him their latest designs are ready for inspection. By making a small gesture with his fingers, the architect causes a set of building blueprints to appear and expand in front of his eyes in full three-dimensional form.

“Looking good,” he says, as he scans the first floor of the building. “Let’s get together really quick for a debrief.”

Soon after, his colleague—also wearing normal-looking glasses—beams into his office, appearing as a translucent hologram with a blueish hue. The whole scene is akin to a higher-fidelity version of Princess Leia’s first virtual meeting with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars, except with much lower stakes for the galaxy—and very high stakes for the company formerly known as Facebook.

Welcome to the future of work in the metaverse, as presented last October by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when he officially announced his social networking company’s rebranding as Meta Platforms. 

At the center of Zuckerberg’s vision is Horizon Worlds, a social networking app that lets people interact with others in virtual reality, with each represented by a unique digital avatar. It also lets people build their own VR worlds, in what represent baby steps into the building of the metaverse.

If the office example that Zuckerberg unveiled in October was modest—basically a Zoom call with more bells and whistles and better graphics—the overall vision is far more ambitious. The company has publicly staked its future on the metaverse, framing it as a constellation of virtual worlds where people can play games, hang out with one another, and explore new experiences—and where companies can do business and advertise their wares, presumably in ways that Meta Platforms can monetize. It’s unclear just when this grand vision will come to fruition, but the pressure is on for it to happen sooner rather than later, not least because Meta’s traditional and long-dominant advertising business is under unprecedented pressure, as Fortune wrote earlier this week.

In December 2021, Meta officially released Horizon Worlds as a free VR app for anyone in the U.S. and Canada who is over 18 years old and owns one of the company’s Quest VR headsets. Meta has said that there are currently 300,000 monthly users in Horizon Worlds. Right now, the experiences available to those users are relatively rudimentary, mostly involving games like virtual laser tag or events like digital dance parties. Still, there are early signs of engagement: Users have created about 10,000 “worlds” in Horizon, representing their own unique VR spaces that they can decorate and invite others to hang out in. (Users of Roblox, a virtual-reality gaming platform with a head start of several years over Meta, have created about 30 million worlds so far.)

Vishal Shah, Meta’s vice president of the metaverse, is the executive most directly responsible for bringing Zuckerberg’s version to fuller, more vivid life—and for stitching the pieces of the metaverse together into a viable business. Shah is a former Instagram vice president of product, and he’s trying to port some of the business and product strategies he oversaw at the photo- and video-sharing app into the metaverse. 

A virtual meeting on Meta’s Horizon Workrooms app. “We are trying to build an entirely new ecosystem that is rooted in social behavior—people carrying on with other people in a more synchronous way,” says Vishal Shah.
Courtesy of Facebook

More broadly, Shah acknowledges the inherent challenges of building the metaverse, a still amorphous concept to the many people unfamiliar with immersive technology like VR and its sibling, augmented reality. But he believes that people will cross that unfamiliarity gap quickly, in part because users want to communicate in real time—and that the metaverse will make such communication vivid in a way that Instagram and the core Facebook app don’t. Instead of leaving a comment on your friend’s Instagram page, or swapping Facebook DMs, you could be chatting with your pal in real time, virtual face to virtual face, as you would if you were both playing an online video game. “We are trying to build an entirely new ecosystem here that is rooted in social behavior—people carrying on with other people in a more synchronous way than we’ve seen in social media,” Shah says.

That’s why Shah sees Horizon Worlds’ relatively unflashy, avatars-in-the-office demo as a useful example of what interacting in the metaverse could look like. He points to his own weekly staff meetings as a template for what’s to come. They take place, he explains, in a beta version of Meta’s Horizon Workrooms VR business meeting app, which works with the Quest VR headsets built by Meta’s Reality Labs division. Compared with the now ubiquitous work meetings held in environments like Zoom, in which all people see are literal talking heads, Shah says his team’s VR meetings enable colleagues to read one another’s body language, creating a sense of physical immersion. Gathered around a virtual table, colleagues can look at one another as if they were together in real life, which helps to signal when someone is finished talking and another one should follow up. “I’m telling this story now, and I can close my eyes, and I can picture being in that room, because it felt different,” Shah says. “We had a shared sense of space.”

Of course, not everyone owns a VR headset—they currently retail for around $300—which will make it difficult at first for Meta to spread its vision of the metaverse to the masses. Part of Shah’s responsibilities, he says, involves building the “bridges” to get to the holy grail of a massive metaverse—which, among other things, means building an immersive metaverse platform that works without VR headsets. 

It’s the near-term version of the metaverse, not the 10-years-from-now version showed off as part of the company’s rebranding, that Shah (like other Meta executives) has found to be a difficult concept to convey. Shah likens the current phase of development of the metaverse to the early years of smartphones and their operating systems. Prior to the mobile computing revolution, the idea of a ride-hailing app like Uber, powered by a smartphone’s GPS technology, was something nobody could easily imagine. Smartphones first came to prominence with the iPhone’s debut in 2007; Uber didn’t launch till 2011. “That use case only made sense when all these pieces were there,” Shah says of Uber. “We’re still early in these immersive environments.” 

Early is almost an understatement: Meta has yet to set a timetable of when it expects the metaverse to generate revenue. So for now, the company is taking an “if you build it” approach, trying to build a broadly accessible platform and hoping that compelling apps and uses will follow. Shah and his colleagues will also face a challenge that’s familiar from the many controversies around Meta’s Facebook and Instagram platforms: They’ll have to figure out what kind of rules should govern people’s conduct in virtual reality, if and when they arrive.

An existential need for Meta

Companies like Microsoft, the maker of the HoloLens AR headset, and Disney have also identified the metaverse as a cornerstone technology for their futures, but none has gone as far as Meta. The reasons are existential, explains a former high-ranking Meta ad executive. Right now, Meta’s future as a company is strongly influenced by the decisions of Apple and Google parent Alphabet, whose mobile operating systems are the gateways for people to access Meta’s mobile apps. If Meta can create the most popular metaverse earlier than others, it stands a chance of becoming a future metaverse gatekeeper as opposed to merely offering apps on another company’s metaverse. “Facebook is an app on Apple or Google’s platform,” the former executive said. “That’s why Mark wants to build the metaverse and Oculus—to control the next platform.”

The onus is also on Meta to build its portals to the metaverse on its own, since it no longer has the luxury of buying red-hot consumer tech companies, given all the scrutiny it faces from regulators. In theory, Meta could sweep in and buy Roblox, the metaverse pioneer, the way Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion just as that app was catching fire. One former Meta product executive told Fortune that other potential acquisition targets that the company would once have considered include the crypto-focused virtual-world platforms Decentraland and Sandbox. “That’s what they would have done four years ago, but now it’s impossible,” the former executive said. With Congress and the White House openly hostile to Big Tech, and the Federal Trade Commission pursuing an antitrust lawsuit around its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, “Facebook can’t touch anything.”

An active homegrown metaverse could also help Meta restoke the recently sputtering engine of its advertising business. It could enable the company to obtain a massive trove of user data that would be stored within the company’s ecosystem—as opposed to being scattered across third-party apps, as most of Facebook’s user data is currently. Until recently, Facebook was able to freely stitch that third-party data together to help it show advertisers that its platforms were converting users to buyers. But new ecosystem rules enforced by Apple (and en route from Alphabet) have made that conversion-tracking process more complex and, at least for now, less accurate.

club night on the Horizon Worlds platform.
An artist’s rendering of a club night on the Horizon Worlds platform.
Courtesy of Facebook
Fitness class on Horizon Worlds
An artist’s rendering of a fitness class on Horizon Worlds. Shah envisions virtual clothing and “skins” for avatars as a testing ground for e-commerce and advertising in the metaverse.
Courtesy of Facebook

Clearly advertisers would be hungry for the data Meta would accumulate, which could reveal what users are interested in within the company’s metaverse. Shah hints as much, saying that “there’s an opportunity here for digital commerce,” referring to a market that could include digital clothing people buy for their metaverse avatars or digital goods that they may use to decorate their own metaverse homes. “From our perspective, that’s quite powerful, because it creates an economy not only for the people buying those things, but for those creators and businesses who [are] building them and making things available for sale,” Shah says. If the metaverse economy starts taking off with more and different kinds of digital goods being available for sale, Shah notes that’s when people will need help sifting through a fast-expanding virtual-reality marketplace to find what “might be most relevant to them.” Enter Meta’s core online advertising business, based in part on A.I.-driven recommendations, and now retrofitted for the metaverse.

“That’s when an advertising ecosystem becomes quite powerful, too, because now you have so many things to look across,” Shah says. “How do you find one that’s most relevant? I think there’s a natural bridge to where ads can fit into that experience.” 

That’s where some of the initiatives Shah led at Instagram could be models for the metaverse. For instance, Shah was involved in creating ways for retailers to more easily sell and market apparel to consumers within the app’s Snapchat-like Stories feature. One feature his team debuted involved the addition of a button that retailers could embed into their stories; by clicking on the button, users could access more details about the products and even buy them directly from the retailers themselves without having to exit Instagram.

Meta is currently courting businesses to start thinking about their metaverse strategies, Shah says. “Over time I think the ads business can also be interesting…but that’s not what we’re starting with,” he adds. That’s not exactly music to the ears of anxious Wall Street investors, who hope that Meta can create a gigantic metaverse-specific online ads business sooner rather than later.

Safety and freedom in tension

If Meta does eventually create an online advertising powerhouse in the metaverse, however, it could lead the company into some familiar dilemmas. As Shah mentioned, such a business would display relevant ads to people participating in the metaverse. That means A.I. is going to likely play a major role fueling the ad platform’s recommendation engine. That notion raises the hackles of the company’s critics, including former employees, who argue that A.I.-driven recommendations are at the heart of many of the company’s past and present content problems—including the elevation of misinformation, hate speech, and politically divisive content to “viral” status, based on the way that content stokes user engagement. 

Meta’s critics on this front include former members of the company’s Integrity team, who are tasked with spotting and preventing abuses and fraudulent behavior on the social network. Several told Fortune that the same problems that have plagued the company for years could emerge on the company’s virtual frontier. “Facebook hasn’t been held accountable for anything they’ve ever done, so why on earth are we trusting that they give a shit for how any of this plays out in the metaverse?” asks one former Meta Integrity officer.

More broadly, watchdogs are also concerned that sexual harassment and various kinds of bullying, already problematic on social media, could be just as virulent in virtual reality. Harassment and bullying are phenomena that some users have already experienced and voiced concerns about. A report released in May by the advocacy group SumOfUs detailed a disturbing account of one of the nonprofit’s researchers being the target of a digital rape, in which her avatar was assaulted by other avatars after being led to a “private room at a party” held in Horizon Worlds. The report said that the “sexual act was non-consensual” and that the researcher found the ordeal “disorienting.”

Meta said in a statement that it “doesn’t allow this behavior in Horizon Worlds.” And to help prevent it from happening it has a feature, called the Personal Boundary tool, that prevents the avatars of non-friends from approaching within a virtual four-foot radius of a user’s avatar. It says this feature is turned on by default, although a user can disable it. Users can also activate a “Safe Zone” to block people around them or escape instantly from a given VR environment. They can also block, mute, and report other users as they do on other platforms, and they can get help from “safety specialists” who can drop into a virtual environment to monitor the situation if there’s evidence of harmful conduct. And repeated offenses can get a harassing user kicked off.

On the A.I. recommendation front, Meta is quick to stress that vitality and engagement don’t trump or outweigh other considerations. The company says that while algorithmic modifications will surface more relevant content that users might be interested in from outside their immediate social network, those changes don’t affect the recommendation system’s post-2018 emphasis on content that’s shared by a user’s own social connections. Nor, Meta says, does the change remove or erode guardrails the company has put in place in recent years to prevent harmful, low-quality, or false and misleading content from being promoted to users, by algorithms or otherwise.

Shah maintains that Meta indeed cares about ensuring that the metaverse doesn’t become a cesspool, home to people behaving at their worst, consuming only the most inflammatory content to get them to stick around a bit longer than they otherwise would.

Horizon world concert
An artist’s rendering of a concert on the Horizon Worlds platform.
Courtesy of Facebook
Card game on Horizon Worlds
An artist’s rendering of a poker night on Horizon Worlds. Safety settings on the VR app are designed to keep avatars from getting too close to a given user without that user’s permission.
Courtesy of Facebook

That said, Shah also sends the message that Meta Platforms intends to treat much of what happens in the metaverse as private interaction among individuals—that is, outside of the scope of the company’s responsibility to moderate. In this, he’s hewing to a philosophical line about which the company has been increasingly firm. In May, Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs and a veteran of U.K. parliamentary politics, penned a long blog post on the metaverse in which he made clear that Meta thinks it should not have sole responsibility for policing conduct in the parts of the metaverse that fall under its umbrella. Governance of metaverse behavior “mustn’t be shaped by tech companies like Meta on their own,” Clegg wrote. “It needs to be developed openly with a spirit of cooperation between the private sector, lawmakers, civil society, academia, and the people who will use these technologies.” 

A Meta spokesperson adds that as standards evolve, approaches to content moderation and safety should reflect the distinction between real-time conversations among friends, on one hand, and more public or enduring forms of communication, such as published posts or videos.

But sometimes, the line between private and public can blur. A Fortune reporter posed a thought experiment to Shah: What if an anti-vaccine group forms in the metaverse, creating a virtual space where people can meet and share conspiracy theories about the dangers of inoculations, and goes on to become popular? Would the group’s popularity make it more likely to be algorithmically “recommended” to other metaverse users? Surely Meta doesn’t want people to be funneled to these anti-vaccine group meetings, thus re-creating the problems of Facebook’s past.

Shah didn’t specifically respond to the anti-vaccine example, but he did say that the company “has an entire team dedicated to thinking about integrity, not just in our existing parts, but the new stuff that we’re building…Back to what I was saying earlier about taking our history with us into his new endeavor, we have a lot of experience that we can pull in from the beginning.” 

But what Meta doesn’t want to do, he explains, is constantly surveil people in the metaverse, listening in for outrageous, offensive, or misleading comments. “In the same way that we could probably make the world safer if we put an authority figure into everyone’s home to listen to everyone’s conversation, no one wants that,” Shah says. In his telling, Meta appears to be aiming for a relatively laissez-faire approach to content moderation in the metaverse. “People are people,” Shah says. “People are going to do some shitty things, unfortunately. What we can do is to ensure that we won’t make it easy for you to find those things unless you’re out there looking for them.”

This kind of content moderation approach could differ somewhat from Facebook’s algorithmic-feed model of years past, in which people could frequently stumble across stuff that’s inflammatory. (They still can, but Meta is confident it’s much less frequent.) At least from what Shah is suggesting, in the metaverse, people will have to be specifically invited to an anti-vax party, or at least be actively looking for it, to wind up in that virtual room. He adds that Meta is also “not trying to define all these rules” and is working with other companies, lawmakers, regulators, academics, and public advocacy groups for help. The goal, he says, is to “get a chance to write some of these rules together before the ecosystem fully develops, as opposed to trying to retrofit them later.” 

For now, it’s unclear what will come first for Meta: the creation of a metaverse Magna Carta or a metaverse business model that its investors will cheer. Whether the two can coexist without one impacting the effectiveness of the other is one of the many billion-dollar metaverse questions waiting for an answer.

This article is the third in a trio of Fortune features about Meta’s challenging transition. Read the first installment here and the second installment here.