Meta seems to have some ideas about the future of cycling

A new ad for tech giant Meta is all about internet-enabled cycling.

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It’s no secret that Meta – the company formerly known as Facebook – is trying to position itself as a key player in future versions of the internet. Meta has the hardware, it has the software, and the company is investing heavily in what it hopes the internet will become: the metaverse.

Could cycling be part of that metaverse future? That’s a topic we’ve covered in depth before, but now, a new ad from Meta (produced by the Droga5 ad agency) paints an intriguing picture for cyclists because it talks directly to what cycling might look like in the metaverse.

The nearly three-minute Meta ad, a shorter version of which is currently airing on major TV networks and streaming services, tells the story of Team Amani, an East African racing team made possible by the internet. The video shows how Amani has used platforms like Zwift and WhatsApp (owned by Meta) to access racing opportunities it otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Team Amani rose to prominence during the pandemic for its innovative approach to overcoming the structural obstacles for African cyclists in finding a pathway into the sport. Rather than African riders travelling to the other side of the world for a turbulent apprenticeship, they were able to ride the wave of e-racing.

Today, the team comprises male and female riders from Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, who ride both online and in the real world. [Tragically, the team’s captain – Suleiman Kangangi, who stars in the Meta ad – died in a cycling accident in late August, just as the campaign was launched. There is a tribute to him at the end of the ad’s extended cut.]

While the Meta ad paints a picture of the journey Team Amani’s been on to this point, it also hints at the racing possibilities that may exist in the future – and, perhaps, a little bit more besides that.

Meta and Zwift

Normally in an advertisement like this you might expect to see riders racing in some sort of mocked-up virtual environment, designed specifically for the ad to illustrate the brand’s vision. It’s interesting that, in this case, the ad unmistakably shows riders using Zwift.

We wrote previously that Zwift is a great example of a proto-metaverse with real potential in a Web 3.0 future, and it seems Meta agrees. Meta could easily have opted not to show Zwift so clearly, but the fact it did could be telling.

Could it be that Meta is interested in acquiring Zwift? It’s impossible to know for sure. Meta did not provide a response to that specific question, and when we reached out to Zwift a representative responded that “we respectfully decline to comment”. But here’s some food for thought.

According to Crunchbase, Zwift – a privately-held company – has received US$619.5 million in venture capital funding since its inception in 2014. The goal of any such funding is to make a return on investment, and there are only a few ways that can happen. 

As has been discussed by Zwift’s own CEO Eric Min in years past, Zwift could become a publicly traded company, but recent times haven’t been kind to comparable businesses who sought to cash in on a big initial public offering (IPO). Peloton – perhaps Zwift’s biggest rival – is the most obvious example. The hardware-based indoor fitness business isn’t looking so hot now that gyms are open again and people are free to travel. 

The other option, and perhaps the dream situation for Zwift, is through acquisition.

There are only so many corporations that could serve to benefit from buying what’s likely a billion-dollar fitness tech company, and this ad only reinforces our theory that Meta could be one of them.

It would make sense. What better way to establish a foothold in the virtual cycling world than buying one of the biggest players in the space; a brand with considerable potential for metaverse growth, and one that has already dabbled with VR?

For what it’s worth, Meta’s response to a request for comment for this article – while sidestepping any questions about its relationship with Zwift – did outline how the company saw Team Amani as representative of its future vision.

“While the ad features Team Amani, the creative is about the future possibilities of the metaverse,” a Meta spokesperson said. “Team Amani and their efforts embody the very best of technology and our vision for the future of the metaverse. We believe Team Amani’s story is a true reflection of what will be possible in the future and how the benefits of the metaverse can be applied to togetherness, connection and opportunity.”

So, what is Meta’s “vision for the future of metaverse” and cycling?

The headset

If the Meta ad is anything to go by, the answer seems to involve riders on Zwift using VR headsets – a future we speculated about back in February. Notably, the ad shows riders using a new and unfamiliar VR headset.

No, this isn’t likely to be the new Meta VR headset CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently teased – it’s more likely to just be an illustrative prop – but it’s noteworthy that the headset in the ad is smaller and far less bulky than Meta’s latest and greatest VR headset: the Meta Quest II.

The reality is, if cycling with VR headsets is to become widespread, those headsets will need to change. The size and heft of the current devices means riders sweat profusely while using them, and that’s to say nothing of the dizziness some people get while cycling with a VR headset on.

Meta will need to find a way around these issues if VR online racing is going to take off. And it seems Meta can envision such a future: at the heart of its ad are three riders on indoor trainers, all wearing the new headset, all seemingly taking part in the same race. Is this a vision of the future Meta wants to help shepherd in? It seems plausible.

The Meta ad points to another interesting vision for the future, too.

Holographic races

In the ad we see some people milling about in a bar, gathered around a 3D hologram-like projection of the virtual race mentioned earlier. We see the riders and the world around them, all in 3D, all seemingly within arms reach.

You can already watch riders and races on Zwift today. Fan View allows you to follow a particular rider, and the biggest Zwift races are often broadcast online. But the vision in this ad is something quite different.

Watching “real”, outdoor bike racing currently has a sense of legitimacy that virtual racing doesn’t yet command, but this ad shows the entertainment potential of online racing. In a race that’s happening and being broadcast virtually, the viewing options are myriad. You can watch the race from any angle, zoom in to specific riders at your leisure, you can see the race landscape in 3D, and you can scout ahead to see what’s coming up on the course. You aren’t beholden to the images being fed to you by a TV director working for the host broadcaster. You can customise your own viewing experience.

The building blocks of this exist already in Zwift’s broadcasts of big races, but the fact Meta is even thinking about projecting bike races in 3D, into a shared space, is interesting indeed.

Another headset

It’s not just a new VR headset that features in the Meta ad – there’s a second headset the riders are seen using while riding on the road. 

This appears to be some kind of mixed- or augmented-reality headset which delivers power data and course information direct to the rider via a heads-up display. 

Meta has been working hard on AR headsets for years now and it’s certainly not alone. Apple is developing AR glasses as well, and Google is working hard to bounce back from earlier, unsuccessful attempts in the AR space. 

As we reported earlier this year heads-up displays for cycling already exist, and have done for some time. But with the biggest tech players working hard in this space, and with Meta teasing that technology in this ad, it’s perhaps further evidence that Meta is thinking about what cycling looks like in a metaverse future.

Is there a future where many of us are riding around while wearing AR glasses, our ride data displayed in front of us rather than on a GPS unit? It’s certainly possible.

So what does all this mean?

For starters, Meta is clearly thinking about cycling, which is interesting. We know Zuckerberg is partial to the occasional spin (even if it’s on Peloton) so perhaps that’s not too surprising. But this ad makes it clear that Meta can see a future where its technology can augment the cycling experience. 

There’s still a ways to go before VR headsets become viable for Zwift racing (let alone appealing), and even longer before we’re gathered around in bars watching hologram projections of the latest Zwift race. But if this ad foreshadows Meta buying Zwift, that will be a fascinating development. Many will see that as a troubling development – they won’t want Meta anywhere near their cycling – but there’s something sort of intriguing knowing that Meta is at least thinking about the cycling applications of its tech. 

Alternatively, maybe all of this comes to nothing. Maybe this is just an ad that Meta is using to talk about its technology and the potential of the metaverse more generally. It’s entirely possible there’s no big cycling play coming up. Who really knows.

Either way, this will certainly be one to keep an eye on going forward. And at the very least, it’s just cool to see cycling feature so prominently in an ad that’s been shown to millions of people, especially when it’s highlighting a groundbreaking project like Team Amani.

Dave Rome, Iain Treloar and Caley Fretz contributed reporting to this article.

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