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‘We stand on the shoulders of giants’: How Meta’s Vivek Sharma plans to transform Horizon into a cohesive metaverse platform

'We stand on the shoulders of giants': How Meta's Vivek Sharma plans to transform Horizon into a cohesive metaverse platform
Written by Publishing Team

This story is part of the Digiday Masters of Uncertainty series, a look at the people and companies at the center From the storylines that define the media. Find the rest here.

Vivek Sharma loves to play video games in company time.

Fortunately, this qualifies for research. Sharma leads the Meta Horizon team tasked with building The company’s place in the metaverse – the persistent and immersive virtual space that Mark Zuckerberg sees as the successor to the modern Internet.

Despite its new name, Meta isn’t trying to become the only metaverse in town. Sharma acknowledges that the real metaverse is likely to take shape as a proliferation of interconnected platforms, rather than one dominant virtual world. As Vice President of Horizon, the major sub-brand that includes all Meta VR products, the 43-year-old will have to tie the needle to establish Horizon’s position as the leading metaverse builder without making a huge claim to the metaverse itself.

The former Vice President of Product for both Facebook Marketplace and Facebook Gaming, Sharma has already succeeded in envisioning virtual economies, courting creators and reimagining user experiences. For Horizon to advance, Sharma will have to do all of the above all over again, while also playing catch-up.

It’s not just a place for games; It’s not just a place for people to build creative things.

Vivek Sharma

Under Sharma’s direction, Meta has created three different Horizon apps: Horizon Workrooms, the first app launched earlier this year, is a cross-platform; Horizon Venues runs virtual events; Horizon Worlds allows users to build and play in specially designed spaces. Ultimately, Sharma plans to link these apps together to create a cohesive virtual world, though he hasn’t provided details about the timeline for this union or what the overarching platform will be called.

“You can imagine that we are building an entire ecosystem where creators can earn a living, where communities can form and do fun things together,” Sharma said. “So it’s not just a place for games; it’s not just a place for people to build creative things; all of the above.”

But Meta isn’t the only company building the metaverse. A strong creator economy is already starting to take shape on Roblox, and studios like BeyondCreative have sprung up to work with brands in Fortnite’s Creative Mode. With developers already turning their hobbies into a living on these platforms, Horizon Worlds is already behind – and it doesn’t help to remember the colorful avatars and game-like controls of its competitors.

It will be years before the race to build metaverses has either a winner or a loser. But at Sharma, Meta has chosen someone who has experience unlocking all the things that a perfect virtual world could offer.

Sharma was born in Iran in 1978 to an ethnic Indian family. “My family was pleased to see the overthrow of the Shah from a personal perspective,” he said. Soon, the Sharmas fled Iran, living in Venezuela and India before settling in Virginia in 1988.

At the age of 18, Sharma attended Macalister College in St. Paul, Minnesota, intending to major in religious studies. After a chance encounter with a recruiter at Microsoft, he switched his major to computer science and mathematics, working for a technology company after graduating in 2000.

During his 16 years at Microsoft, Sharma has overseen important projects such as Microsoft Exchange’s transition from a box product to Exchange Online and the development of Office 365, the company’s flagship software suite. Sharma’s outspoken style of communication, his willingness to take big swings and his commitment to intellectual diversity distinguished him as a manager, according to Krish Vitaldevara, a current Director of Product at Google and former Director of Product at Microsoft who has reported to Sharma for nearly four years.

“He’s not very traditional; he’s not afraid to take big risks; he’s not happy, ‘OK, what’s the next incremental thing we can do,'” Vitaldevara said. “He’s always looking for the source of this huge growth step.”

Microsoft was also the first place Sharma got to play video games in the company’s time. This often extended into the evening. “During off hours, you can go play Halo, and you’ll see Vivek there playing with people after work,” said Amanda Jephson, director of product management at Meta who also worked alongside Sharma at Microsoft.

Halo will play an unlikely role in Sharma’s next step: to Facebook in 2016. “The person who recruited me here, we used to play Halo online,” he said. “We didn’t actually meet face to face, but we kept in touch via Facebook.”

Sharma’s first project at Facebook was to lead the expansion of the company’s Marketplace platform from a classifieds ad service to a virtual marketplace with global reach. The project made him reflect on Facebook’s role as an engine for digital friendships and a tool for establishing individuals’ identities, in both physical and virtual spaces. “Essentially, the metaverse is about personalizing and sharing people, and Marketplace is the best example of people doing that,” Sharma said. “Humans are basically all about sharing their experiences with others, and there are many forms of that, including trading or selling items.”

After two years at the company, Sharma moved to Facebook Gaming, bringing his work closer to his personal interests. Over the next three years, he worked to legitimize Facebook as a platform for the gaming community, hiring a team of long-standing experts in the industry and enticing prominent creators to move on from Twitch and YouTube.

Horizon identification

Sharma became Vice President of Horizon less than six months ago, but his vision for the metaverse has been inspired by his work on — and involvement in — online communities throughout his career in Silicon Valley. Sharma envisions Horizon and its initial kit as an evolution of Facebook, removing barriers between pre-existing tools like Facebook Marketplace and Facebook Gaming to enable users to experience these aspects of virtual life through a continuous, personalized avatar. As this world is built from scratch, Sharma sees a clear path to success.

For now, the biggest challenge between Horizon and this vision may be simply getting pre-existing creators to try the platform. While a community of thousands of creators already uses Horizon Worlds to build encrypted on-demand VR games and experiences, Roblox boasts millions, and critics point out that the two platforms have a lot in common.

Sharma isn’t shy about this comparison, praising Roblox and other early metaverse platforms for making their way into the virtual space. “We stand on the shoulders of giants, who have taken a huge risk to build Metaverse-like experiences through a lot of trial and error, and I think Roblox is definitely one of those companies,” Sharma said.

But Sharma also made it clear that Horizon Worlds is a far cry from a Roblox game, citing VR’s focus on the platform and its unique social creator mode. “We have very different basic parts,” Sharma said. “Our strength really comes from our understanding of how communities come together.”

Having a large user base to build communities with help. “The Meta name it was attached to was a big mover for me,” said Matthew “Matthew” Ode, developer of Horizon Worlds Pixel Plummet. “Knowing that it was going to be a social experience, all my Facebook friends had the opportunity to get in there too.”

Horizon also hopes ease of use helps, too. “What I love about Horizon, compared to something like Second Life, is that it is very easy to use, especially when it comes to building tools,” said Travis “Traveseo” Nunez, who also developed the Pixel Plummet. “Being able to jump right in within the first few days of Horizon and being able to start building things to my liking – I really liked it.”

Another distinguishing factor is that Horizon Worlds is currently restricted to users 18 or older — a departure from platforms like Roblox and Fortnite, which are populated by hordes of tweens and teens. “It’s not the adults who make adult content, specifically,” Nunez said. “I think the great thing about Horizon is that it can be made available to all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds.”

In time, Udy and Nunez hope to turn Horizon Worlds creations into full-time jobs. “If there is a way to make a profit from building worlds and making experiences – by all means sign up with me,” Nunez said.

Udy and Nunez in the Horizon Worlds space. (Photo courtesy of Matthew O’Day and Travis Nunez)

Creating a sustainable creative economy on the Horizon platform is a big component of Sharma’s roadmap. Just like Roblox, the ultimate Horizon game is to become a virtual landscape where brands can activate digitally, communicating directly with metaversal consumers. Such activations present a business opportunity to both platform creators, who can collaborate with brands to build experiences, and Meta itself, which can partner with brands to bring them to Horizon in an official capacity. “In the medium and long term, it will represent an opportunity for businesses, brands and developers to build on top of this thing,” Sharma said.

For now, the Horizon apps are available exclusively to users equipped with Oculus VR headsets. Sharma said the platform will eventually be available to users without headphones, though he declined to give a specific timeline or roadmap for this expansion. “The reason virtual reality is really important is because the promise of the metaverse is very much related to the idea of ​​simultaneous immersion in real time,” Sharma said.

However, he said, “In the spirit of being a platform, you kind of want to be everywhere for everyone, in a way.”

A vision for the future

Sharma’s effective management style is not just fun and games. “There is a little pressure, and the bar is high; he does a really good job of finding that balance and betting on people,” Jephson said. But it really pushes you to step up and find the best path to success.”

I basically want to make the team and the person stronger than they were the day before.

Vivek Sharma

“I love helping people see that they can do more than they think, and sometimes being honest and open about what works and what doesn’t is the best way to do that, out of respect for them,” Sharma said. “And the reason I got away with it – let’s put it that way, because it can be a terrible management or leadership style – is because I basically want to make the team and the person stronger than they were the day before.”

The virtual world will not be built in a day. Virtual reality technology, which is an integral part of the Horizon platform, is present in only 23 percent of American households, according to a recent report on VR Use and Consumer Trends by Thrive Analytics and ARtillery Intelligence. Currently the three existing Horizon apps must be downloaded and accessed separately, not as components of a cohesive platform.

Sharma is confident about Horizon’s future as well, but his current goal is in the shorter term: to beat Halo Infinite’s campaign mode. At night, he hones his skills through online multiplayer with old friends; During breaks in the workday, he turns on his Xbox to break up the bad guys. Sharma’s goal is to build a whole new world, so he takes the pressure off by exploring the virtual spaces that already exist today.

It will take me at least a month,” Sharma said. “It’s a tough match.”

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