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Uh, oh - Facebook is actually building the Metaverse

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 29 July 2021, 2:38 pm

As it basked in the glow of a massive quarterly profit announcement, Facebook this week revealed it would develop a massive virtual world - a metaverse.

In a podcast interview with The Verge, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the Facebook Reality Lab, a unit of the social networking giant, would ramp up work on "presence" - allowing people to interact in a 3D virtual space instead of the increasingly staid practice of tapping out text messages and sitting through dull Zoom conferences.

"I think over the next five years or so, in this next chapter of our company, I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company," he said.

Facebook announced it was making key hires to work on its metaverse project, which has been flagged for a long time under various guises and was given critical mass through Facebook's US$2 billion acquisition of virtual reality (VR) headset maker Oculus.

The metaverse draws its name from the 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, a tech futurist who wrote about a virtual world that people tapped into with VR devices and interacted with each other as digital avatars. Snow Crash isn't exactly dystopian literature, but there are characters called gargoyles that spend their entire lives plugged into the metaverse and display some of the stalkery, obsessive tendencies we have come to associate with the dark side of social media.

"Gargoyles are no fun to talk to," writes Stephenson.

"They never finish a sentence. They are adrift in a laser-drawn world, scanning retinas in all directions, doing background checks on everyone within a thousand yards, seeing everything in visual light, infrared, millimeter-wave radar, and ultrasound all at once.

Zuck goes all in

"You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content - you are in it," Zuckerberg elaborated to The Verge. 

"And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn't necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness," he added.

He said the metaverse would make up many companies and span "the industry", but Facebook will play a leading role in developing it so that any type of technology - VR or AR (augmented reality) headsets, smartphones and computers will allow people to access it.

Virtual worlds have been around for some time but have failed to take off beyond the realm of gaming. Zuckerberg wants to change that by innovating around "presence" in the online world. He ultimately wants Facebook users doing their communicating, newsfeed scrolling, purchasing, gaming and everything else in a virtual 3D world.

Zuckerberg certainly has the resources to bring the metaverse to life. In the quarter to June 30, the company saw revenue jump 56% year on year to US$29 billion on the back of booming advertising sales. Profit also doubled to US$10.4 billion.

It warned of a potential slowdown in the second half of the year, partly down to the changes to Apple's iOS operating system, which allows people to easily opt out of being tracked via the Facebook app on iPhones and iPads. 

Bitten by Apple

But regulatory headwinds were also flagged, suggesting Facebook expects the antitrust action the US Government is taking against it to have some impact.

Zuckerberg told analysts that the metaverse would feature advertising and devices used ot access it wouldn't be expensive, so as to encourage people to plug into the virtual world of Facebook.

But will Facebook do any better a job of moderating content and preventing harm in the metaverse than it does with its existing platforms?

"What we generally expect is that the integrity systems, the police departments, if you will, will do a good job of helping to deter and catch the bad thing when it happens and keep it at a minimum, and keep driving the trend in a positive direction and be in front of other issues too. So we're going to do that here," he told The Verge. 

Whether regulators, businesses and Facebook's 2.9 billion users are ready for the metaverse is another issue entirely.


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