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Explainer | What does Facebook's metaverse look like?

Metaverse is a confluence of physical and virtual worlds, where you interact with your friends and colleagues in respective digital avatars through a headset or other similar devices. This world does not exist yet, and will take years before one can actually live on one.

October 29, 2021 / 06:33 PM IST
Facebook has now officially changed its identity to Meta. [Image: Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg]

Facebook has now officially changed its identity to Meta. [Image: Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg]

Facebook, or Meta, as it is rebranded to as of October 28, will sure take some getting used to. Meta, as its CEO Mark Zuckerberg pointed out, is the future the company hopes to build by investing millions of dollars in creating its own metaverse.

Metaverse is a confluence of physical and virtual worlds, where you interact with your friends and colleagues in respective digital avatars through a headset or other similar devices. This world does not exist yet, and will take years before one can actually live on one.

So what is the fuss about and what does it mean for the consumers, Facebook’s (or rather Meta) family of apps.

What is metaverse?

For a long time, metaverse was just a term in the 1992 dystopian novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Inside Snow Crash’s metaverse, individuals appear in digital avatars in a virtual world complete with companies, houses and anything that resembles the real world.

Another book -- later a movie directed by Steven Spielberg -- that popularised this concept was Ready Player One. The 2011 book by Ernest Cline was set in 2045, where people escape to a virtual reality game as the real world is plunged into crisis. In the game, you interact with fellow players and team up with them.

Facebook goes Meta

Facebook's Zuckerberg at the company’s Connect conference on October 28, said, “As we embark on this next chapter, I’ve thought a lot about what this means for our company and our identity… Today, we’re seen as a social media company. Facebook is one of the most used technology products in the history of the world. It’s an iconic social media brand.”

However this does not represent everything the company does, which not only includes social networking platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram,  but also Facebook Reality Labs, which works on virtual and augmented reality and is building Facebook’s metaverse.

“To reflect who we are and the future we hope to build, I’m proud to share that our company is now Meta,” Zuckerberg announced.

This means that the family of apps like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, and also its Reality Labs that is building the metaverse, will now be owned by Meta. For instance, the apps might now be referred as Meta-owned WhatsApp instead of Facebook-owned, or Meta-owned Facebook, instead just Facebook.

During the earnings call earlier this week, Zuckerberg said that it will break out Facebook Reality Labs as a separate reporting segment in its earnings reports from Q4 2021 to reflect the metaverse focus.

This comes at a time when the company has come under scrutiny for the negative impact it has on teens, based on the Wall Street Journal expose. A trove of internal documents leaked by a Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen detailed the social giant's various missteps and struggle in moderating content, especially in multilingual countries like India, its biggest market with over 340 million users.

According to Zuckerberg, while many would question the timing of the metaverse amid the recent controversy, he said that he believes in “what we are building and technology can make life better”.

What is Facebook building?

During the earnings call this week, the company said that it will invest $10 billion this year in Facebook Reality Labs to build the metaverse, which he admits will take years to materialize. “It is not here yet, but some of the building blocks are here,” Zuckerberg said.

First step in this direction is Horizon, a virtual reality platform that can be accessed by its virtual reality headset, Oculus. The company had earlier launched Horizon Worlds and Horizon Workrooms, where colleagues can collaborate in a virtual office setting. On Thursday, the company launched Horizon Homes, where users can invite their friends or their social circle over in their virtual home space.

In all this you can create your own digital avatar, clothes you want to wear and create your own world, a sort of precursor to metaverse. If Zuckerberg’s promises are anything to go by, the metaverse will be much more than this.

Zuckerberg’s vision for the metaverse looks like this.

You can meet and feel people right at the moment, be it playing games with your friends in the same place, instead of through the mobile or computer screen. “Instead of looking at the screen, you will be experiencing it,” Zuckerberg said.

One can create multiple digital avatars for different spaces like office, home and gaming with digital goods, which are owned by own just like your real life. Similar to how you navigate on the internet, you should be able to move or in technical terms ‘teleport’ from one place to another, say from home to an arcade, just by clicking a link in the virtual world.

This is possible through virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, computers, and in course of time even your mobile phone. While metaverse is non-existent currently, for it is expected to go mainstream, as Zuckerberg believes, hardware will play an equally important role as it serves as a gateway.

Sophisticated hardware capabilities enable the metaverse to be as close to reality as possible, be it expressions or movements that mimic reality. This is what the company is attempting with Project Cambria, a new VR headset it is working on, where the focus is eye-tracking and face tracking to create a richer sense of presence.

In his interview with Ben Thompson, who runs newsletter Stratechery, Zuckerberg said, “I think it (having a richer virtual presence) is going to be important…where you’re hanging out with someone.” This could be making eye-contact in VR and AR and making your digital avatar smile, frown, or wince just like you do physically, which creates a much richer sense of presence.

More sophisticated and real you want your digital avatar to be, more sensors it would involve to capture user information for feeding, a concern some of them had pointed out.

How will it help the company make money?

Ads. Zuckerberg said in the interview with Thompson, “I think at the end of the day, there’s going to be commerce, and I think commerce and ads are kind of closely related, because if there’s not any commerce, then there’s not much for people to advertise for.”

“Our next goal from a business perspective is increasing the GDP of the metaverse as much as possible, because that way you can have, and hopefully by the end of the decade, hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce and digital goods and digital clothing and experiences and all of that. And I think the best way to increase the GDP of the metaverse is to have the fees be as low as possible and as favorable as possible to creators,” he added.

Apart from the $10 billion the company will be spending on building the metaverse, it will invest $150 million to train creators for the metaverse.

Privacy and security safeguards

During the conference, Zuckerberg said that privacy and safety of consumers would be built into the metaverse from day one given that there is a lag between regulations and rate at which technology evolves. “This will require not just novel technical work — like supporting crypto and NFT projects in the community — but also new forms of governance,” he said.

This is a concern given that there is not much documentation available on the impact this could have on human lives.

Take Facebook and Instagram. Far from connecting with friends, the platforms have come under scrutiny for hate speech and resulting violence, negative impact on teens, anti-trust lawsuits for abuse of dominance, and privacy and security breaches.

The metaverse, too, will have similar issues related to data security. Matthew Ball, Managing Partner of EpyllionCo, an early-stage venture fund, in a blogpost said, “The metaverse will need altogether new rules for censorship, control of communications, regulatory enforcement, tax reporting, the prevention of online radicalization, and many more challenges that we’re still struggling with today.”

Nick Clegg, Vice President of Global Affairs, said during the conference that there would be need for transparency about what kind of user data is being collected and how they are being used. Again a grey area, which is what the company has been under the scanner for.

Zuckerberg said that the company is doing external research on the impact of AR/VR and are also working with human and civil rights on the impact of these platforms on the communities.
Swathi Moorthy
first published: Oct 29, 2021 06:33 pm