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Meta is spending billions on the metaverse. Here's what it's like on the inside

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Facebook's parent company, Meta, is making a big bet on the Metaverse, but building that immersive virtual universe is really expensive - think billions of dollars. So what has that money built so far? Well, we sent NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond to check it out. And just a note - Meta pays NPR to license NPR content.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: To visit the Metaverse, I strap on a clunky virtual reality headset and pick up two handheld controllers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGITAL CHIME)

BOND: The headset looks like oversized ski goggles. It's heavy on my face, but as soon as the screen lights up inches from my eyes, I'm transported to another universe. I'm on a roller coaster surrounded by a jungle. With a jolt, I lurch forward on the track.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

BOND: Oh, God. Here we go. All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

BOND: As we gain speed, palm trees loom overhead, birds chirp, and is that a dinosaur in the distance? This isn't your typical roller coaster. It's also a game where I'm supposed to be shooting at targets, kind of like roller coaster biathlon.

This is bizarre.

We bank around a curve, the world spins, my stomach drops. This might not have been the smartest choice for one of my first ventures into virtual reality.

I literally almost just fell over. I, like, got all, like, disoriented.

For the last month, I've been playing with this headset, lent to me by Facebook's parent company, Meta. And as Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees it, the Metaverse isn't just about giving yourself motion sickness. It's about...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ZUCKERBERG: The feeling of presence - this is the defining quality of the metaverse. You're going to really feel like you're there with other people.

BOND: And that's why his company spent $10 billion last year building the headset I'm wearing right now and the software that lets people do a lot more than play games. You can hang out, attend meetings, even go to a concert after the Super Bowl - that is, if you could get past some technical difficulties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVE GROHL: Hey, everybody. We're the Foo Fighters. Welcome to the afterparty.

BOND: So since the Metaverse is supposed to be all about connecting with other people, I head to Meta's Horizon Worlds. It's a brightly colored space where people take the form of cartoon avatars that only exist from the waist up. Without legs, everyone here floats around in mid-air. I give my avatar a ponytail and a colorful hoodie and awkwardly float over to a group of strangers hanging out in the plaza, which looks like a big park with grass, trees and games.

Are you playing catch with the boomerangs?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

BOND: I join in, stretching my arm up to catch the boomerang and flinging it into the distance. Much like in real life, my aim needs work. Horizon Worlds only became widely available late last year, and I didn't see a lot of people. Some of those I did meet sounded really young. Now, Meta's headset is designed for people over 13, and some apps like this one are supposed to be for people over 18. But I'm not surprised Horizon Worlds is appealing to kids, given the cartoony look and lots of games, like this larger-than-life candy land.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Welcome to Candy Kingdom. Let me explain the rules. You're going to grab a little colored gingerbread man and place it on the start square.

BOND: When I asked Meta about potential safety concerns for kids in an app meant for adults, the company says it encourages parents to monitor what their kids are doing. One adult I did meet was Kevin Lange. In real life, he was at home in Florida, almost 3,000 miles away from me in California. But inside our headsets, we, or our avatars, tossed around a virtual football while we chatted.

KEVIN LANGE: Woo (ph). I notice that sometimes the ball disappears.

BOND: Like me, Lang has been hanging out in VR for work. He's exploring how these virtual worlds could be used for education. But he says that's still a ways off.

LANGE: I think this needs to spend a lot more time in the Easy-Bake Oven before we start using this.

BOND: The question is, how many years and how much more money will Meta have to spend before its ambitions are fully baked? Shannon Bond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AFROSOUND'S "PA TI MAMI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.