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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Look Over Here, Kids, It’s the Metaverse

Facebook may be mired in scandals at present, but today it attempted to shift the public’s attention toward the future—specifically, a future built around an even more omnipresent Facebook.

At Facebook Connect, the company’s annual developer’s conference, today, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Andrew Bosworth, head of the company’s Reality Labs unit, laid out a broader vision for the “metaverse.” To fuel its next chapter, Facebook announced a series of updates to its Oculus VR and Spark AR platforms, part of an effort to entice developers to build more applications and features for Facebook’s metaverse. Zuckerberg also revealed that the company would be renamed Meta, emphasizing his virtual-reality vision for the future.

“The next [internet] platform and medium will be even more immersive, an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it,” Zuckerberg said during the keynote presentation. He went on to say that in the metaverse, people will get together with friends and family to work, learn, shop, and play. These are things that people can obviously do right now using 2D, flat screens like laptops and smartphones, but Facebook’s (Meta’s) vision of the metaverse goes beyond the way we’re accessing the internet today. 

For Facebook, building out the metaverse is just the next move in a years-long land grab for our online attention. For critics of the company, though, there might not be anything more alarming than the idea of Facebook becoming synonymous with the next big phase of the internet, particularly as it grapples with both privacy and content moderation problems around the globe.

And Facebook staking its claim in the metaverse also raises questions about how open this next iteration of the internet may be. Even as Facebook calls out other tech companies like Apple for their closed ecosystems, the social media company continues to show off experiences that are exclusive to its own Oculus virtual reality devices.

The Meta Deets

Zuckerberg, Bosworth, and a virtual parade of Facebook Reality Labs executives constructed a loose vision of the metaverse today, highlighting different elements—from app platforms to hand-gesture technology to prototypes of VR headsets and AR glasses—that will, they say, all eventually come together to create a new form of digital presence. This included an expansion of the Horizon Workrooms app, a kind of VR version of Zoom that Facebook demoed in August; a more social version of Quest Home in the Oculus Quest VR headset, for interactions with friends in VR; some enhanced fitness features for the Oculus Quest; and support for some non-3D apps in Facebook’s virtual environments. The 2D app support is noteworthy, though it’s hard to say how useful these apps will be until they’re widely available. The idea is that even if you’re wearing a VR headset to collaborate with remote coworkers, you won’t have to take it off to check Slack (or Instagram, if you’re slacking off). These apps will run as flat panels within the virtual environment.

Facebook also shared a bit more about Project Aria, the augmented reality glasses it’s been building (in addition to its unnerving video-capturing RayBan sunglasses). The AR glasses briefly appeared on a Facebook employee during the event today. But overall the presentation was scant on hardware details. Instead, the company talked about how it’s making updates to its AR software platform, called Spark, in an attempt to lure in more app developers next year.

One of those AR updates sounds like it will enable Pokémon Go-like games, or “geo-locked experiences for public spaces,” like theme park scavenger hunts or guided monument tours. Developers will also be able to build virtual objects into apps that can be placed in the real world, with advanced depth-mapping and occlusion. Hype aside, these are technological developments that are supposed to make virtual items feel realistic when people interact with them in a physical environment.

Facebook said it will dedicate $150 million to developers building immersive apps—not a small amount, but still a fraction of the $10 billion it plans to spend in its Reality Labs division this year.

Never Meta Verse

The metaverse, a term born of science fiction that has made its way into real-life computing, is a hot topic these days. Some of the world’s largest tech companies, biggest game makers, and loudest tech prognosticators have been crowing about this “successor to the mobile internet.” (Smaller players are hopping aboard the meta-train too, if my inbox, which fills up daily with metaverse pitches, is any indication.) 

The metaverse is supposed to be a layer of digital experiences that will create a seamless and endless virtual existence. Zuckerberg has said that a key element of the metaverse is “presence,” that you might feel as though you’re present with friends in a virtual environment in a way you wouldn’t necessarily experience on a Zoom call. He has also described it as an “embodied internet.”

The concepts of augmented reality (digital layers over the real world) and virtual reality (a fully immersive computing environment) have existed for years. And in recent years this area of computing has been codified as “XR”, which can mean either mixed reality, extended reality, or cross reality. But Zuckerberg and other technologists insist the metaverse goes beyond just AR and VR. XR is a part of the metaverse; but the point of the “meta” is that it’s meant to transcend the limits of the current internet. Some have described it as “ubiquitous computing,” ever present but blending into the background.

Everyone has a slightly different idea for what the metaverse should be. Some, like Facebook, have emphasized greater human connection—yes, even while wearing a computer on your face. Others are focused on gaming. Niantic CEO John Hanke has warned that using technology to escape from real life, rather than relying on digital layers to augment it, would be a terrible dystopia.

And with so many companies—Facebook (Meta), Microsoft, Google, Apple, Epic, Unity, Roblox, among them—building apps and experiences for this not-yet-fully-realized internet, it remains to be seen just how open and interoperable this “successor to the mobile internet” will be. The current mobile internet consists primarily of two operating systems, and for the past decade, billions of consumers have experienced the internet through containerized applications.

Facebook is pitching the metaverse as an open experience, even though the keynote event today highlighted features and games that are exclusive to the Oculus Quest 2. For example, the medieval combat game Blade & Sorcery will be exclusive to the headset. So will some of the Horizon Workrooms and Horizon Home experiences. In a briefing with journalists earlier this week, Zuckerberg and Bosworth were asked repeatedly whether Facebook Horizon will be available on VR headsets that are not made by Facebook. Bosworth said that interoperability is a top priority in the metaverse, because it’s “one of the fundamental premises of it,” but he later conceded that, no, Facebook Horizon does not currently run on other VR headsets.

As IDC research manager Jitesh Ubrani points out, “For XR to do well, it has to be accessible on existing devices like phones and tablets, and also on multiple software platforms.”

“Interoperability is something I’ve lamented over the last several years,” Zuckerberg said in response to a question about the topic from WIRED. “Today’s computing platforms are designed around apps, not people. It’s not like you as a person can easily teleport between experiences and bring your stuff. I do think there’s an opportunity to do that differently going forward.” He described a system that exists as a kind of “shell,” which people can seamlessly move in and out of, taking their digital assets with them as they go. But it’s easier to visualize than to talk about, Zuckerberg said.

That visual element was on display—to a point—during today’s Facebook Connect event. Zuckerberg and his hench-people moved in and out of real homes, into virtual homes, into spaceships and forest scenes. Zuckerberg hydrofoiled alongside a world-class surfer in VR. People teleported into concerts with friends, stood at virtual vending machines at cartoonish after-parties and purchased NFTs and wearable merch. They morphed into photorealistic avatars with natural expressions, a step up from the legless avatars Facebook has shown off in the past. The world was limitless, full of endless digital potential. 

But it was still no doubt Facebook’s world. Or, you know, Meta’s.

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