Almost two years ago, Mark Zuckerberg rebranded his company Facebook to Meta — and since then, he has been focused on building the “metaverse,” a three-dimensional virtual reality. But the metaverse has lost some of its luster since 2021. Companies like Disney have closed down their metaverse divisions and deemphasized using the word, while crypto-based startup metaverses have quietly languished or imploded. In 2022, Meta’s Reality Labs division reported an operational loss of $13.7 billion. 

But at Meta Connect 2023, Zuckerberg still hasn’t given up on the metaverse — he’s just shifted how he talks about it. He once focused on the metaverse as a completely digital new world. Now, he aims to convince the public that the future is a blend of the digital and the physical.

At Connect this year, Zuckerberg emphasized that the modern “real world” combines the physical world and the digital world still being built — and that it all builds up to “this concept we call the metaverse.”

Zuckerberg offered a vision of this future

“Pretty soon, I think we’re going to be at a point where you’re going to be there physically with some of your friends, and others will be there digitally as avatars or holograms, and they’ll feel just as present as everyone else. Or you’ll walk into a meeting and sit down at a table. There will be people who are there physically and people who are there digitally as holograms, but also sitting around the table with you are going to be a bunch of AI guys who are embodied as holograms and are helping you get different stuff done too,” he said. 

These aren’t new ideas for Zuckerberg — Meta has been working on blending virtual and physical space for years. But the speech was markedly different from his presentation in 2021. Amidst the covid-19 pandemic, he promised that in the next decade, most people would spend time in a fully immersive, 3D version of the internet — particularly Meta’s Horizon Wolds platform. The keynote saw him donning a VR headset to meet his friends in space to play poker as a cartoon avatar. It played up the wonder of meeting up in an unreal world, showing cards and players floating in zero gravity. 

This year’s keynote, by contrast, was centered far more on your living room. “You see the physical room around you,” Zuckerberg promised. “You can solve Lego puzzles or build your creations on any flat surface in your room. You can play games with your friends sitting around a table.”

The fully virtual Horizon Worlds platform made an appearance this year, but it got a lot less attention than another topic: AI.

“This has been an amazing year for AI,” Zuckerberg said

He announced a number of new features powered by Meta AI tech, including AI chatbots that can help the user brainstorm a birthday party or an AI assistant users can bring into any chat on Instagram, Messenger, or WhatsApp. And he said Meta would use this technology to advance the metaverse. 

Most people still have limited experience with these AI advances. According to Zuckerberg, Meta has done a lot of testing and red-teaming to make sure its AI bots aren’t problematic, but he also said the company is rolling its new products out more slowly than usual.

It’s not clear, though, how many people would immediately associate chatbots with “the metaverse.” There are places where 3D worlds and AI intersect; Meta has mentioned, for instance, bots becoming characters in these worlds. But a lot of AI usage right now consists of typing prompts into a text box — it’s a distinctly non-embodied interaction. And right now, it’s where much of Meta’s enthusiasm seems to lie.

Meta can’t abandon the metaverse the way many companies have done. After all, it’s right there in the name. But fortunately for it, the metaverse has always been a slippery term. Is it VR? Is it AI? Is it video games? The best answer might be that whatever Meta does is the metaverse, by definition — at least for Mark Zuckerberg.