Returning after a year’s hiatus because of the pandemic, VivaTech 2021, the French gathering for techies and startups, is back with a bang.

The guest roster, some of whom appeared virtually, includes French President Emmanuel Macron, who met with scale-ups yesterday onstage, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt as well as high-level execs from MicroSoft, YouTube and Mozilla. They’re attending the event alongside their European contemporaries and venture capitalists as well as a plethora of startups there to pitch their businesses.

Among those business leaders making a pitch today, the second day of the conference, was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, appearing virtually for a “fireside chat” with Maurice Lévy, chairman of the advertising giant Publicis. (Publicis cofounded the event with the French business publication Les Echos.)

‘A strange year’

After some technical glitches, Lévy introduced Zuckerberg as “the rock star of the internet world,” then posed questions ranging from Zuckerberg’s personal experience of the pandemic (“It’s been a strange year”) to possible U.S. regulation of big tech companies (the CEO largely deferred to his head of communications, former U.K. deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who had spoken earlier in the day at the conference).

Of most interest to leaders of companies with remote or partially remote teams, Zuckerberg spoke at length about current or upcoming Facebook products that will allow business owners to pursue their activities virtually.

For example, he cited Facebook Shops, which already has more than a million active “shops” — or virtual storefronts that can simultaneously be live on Facebook and Instagram, and eventually on WhatsApp and Messenger. The CEO said these shops already have more than 100 million shoppers.

Zuckerberg pointed out that because of the lockdowns over the past year, e-commerce has played a large role in helping businesses to stay open.

When Lévy facetiously asked him about competing with Amazon, Zuckerberg admitted, “I don’t think we’re making a dent in Amazon yet.”

VR and AR: The future, according to Zuckerberg

Zuckerberg made it clear that one of Facebook’s main centers of interest is the augmented-reality/virtual-reality (AR/VR) world, which he said he was “very excited about for the future.”

Noting that Facebook’s aim is “helping people connect,” he said that “AR and VR deliver this sense of presence in another place with another person.” A sense of presence that is not delivered by looking at a videoconferencing screen, for example, or FaceTiming someone on a phone, the CEO indicated.

Current usage of the technology often is in gaming as well as fitness apps. Still, he sees business applications as well, such as for holding meetings in a virtual space and where participants would be represented by high-resolution 3D images of themselves. Wearing a VR headset, participants would be completely immersed in a lifelike virtual space, also known as the metaverse, he said.

One thing people would be able to do in the metaverse is work, Zuckerberg said.

“You’re going to want to have a virtual office, where you can come into and have staff meetings,” he said.

This experience would be superior to current videoconferences, where “there’s a grid of faces and everything kind of feels the same,” he added.

“People are very spatially oriented. … I find myself having a hard time remembering what happened in certain meetings because there’s not really a sense of place,” Zuckerberg said.

The “metaverse” software that Facebook and others are developing offers the feeling of being “in a place with people, and that’s really powerful,” he noted, adding that he predicts that meetings and other applications “will be able to happen in VR quite well in the near term.”

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