The term “metaverse" is the latest buzzword to capture the tech industry’s imagination — so much so that one of the best-known internet platforms is rebranding to signal its embrace of the futuristic idea. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently made an announcement that he’s changing his company’s name to Meta Platforms Inc., or Meta for short.
The 37-year-old founder of the social media giant had earlier spoken about how Facebook would “effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company". So, what is this new world that Facebook is batting for? Here’s all you need to know.
WHAT IS THE METAVERSE?
The prefix “meta" comes from Greek and means beyond, after or across. So, the portmanteau of “meta" and “universe", that is, metaverse, would connote a place that is beyond the world or the universe as we know it, one that exists in the virtual realm but feels just as real.
The concept is nothing new, though. If you have seen a film like Matrix, or Real Player One, you will easily know what it entails: a virtual reality space that people can enter and access through the use of a gadget or a device. Think of a video game, say Fifa, or Minecraft. The player controls a character or the events on the screen with the help of commands and buttons. Now, what if, instead of sitting at the console and watching the game unfold on the screen, the player could be inside the game, participating not from the outside but as a character embedded in it?
But while gaming companies have made the first moves in the metaverse direction, the virtual world envisaged by the tech giants will be more expansive and look to embrace everything from office to entertainment.
WHAT WILL I BE ABLE TO DO IN THE METAVERSE?
It’s a concept that involves an online world where people can interact with others, collaborate and communicate virtually, without needing to be in the same space. For example, you can be in New Delhi and your family may be in Kolkata, but you could enjoy a dinner together sitting around the same table. It’s like Zoom or Google Meet on steroids. Instead of staring at a screen, you’d be actually seeing your family members across the table.
The potential of virtual reality is immense, especially from a business point of view. How about being able to do a full try-out of the dress you’ve found online before placing an order. Or, actually hopping into the car you want to take for a test ride sitting in your drawing room?
The metaverse also could be a game-changer for the work-from-home shift amid the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of seeing co-workers on a video call grid, employees could join them in a virtual office.
The device of choice at the outset for the metaverse, at least where Facebook is concerned, appears to be the VR, or virtual reality, headset. And, Facebook already has its own in-house product — the Oculus VR headset after it acquired the company for USD 2 billion in 2014.
Facebook has launched meeting software for companies, called Horizon Workrooms, to use with its Oculus VR headsets, though early reviews have not been great. The headsets cost USD 300 or more, putting the metaverse’s most cutting-edge experiences out of reach for many. For those who can afford it, users would be able, through their avatars, to flit between virtual worlds created by different companies.
HOW WILL IT WORK?
Facebook made its first forays into creating a VR world with the launch in 2019 of Facebook Horizon, an invitation-only immersive environment that users can enter by putting on an Oculus headset. In August, it rolled out Horizon Workrooms, a feature where co-workers wearing VR headsets can hold meetings in a virtual room where they all appear as cartoonish 3D versions of themselves.
However, going forward, the outlook is for the metaverse to be a much more evolved space. As venture capitalist Matthew Ball wrote in a blog post, the metaverse will be “a fully functioning economy… where individuals and businesses will be able to create, own, invest, sell" products. There are already gaming tokens that are monetisable and a new class of assets called NFTs (non-fungible tokens) has also emerged that only exist digitally.
Further, Ball believes that the metaverse will “be an experience that spans both the digital and physical worlds" and offer “unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content".
In an interview with The Verge, Zuckerberg said that “the metaverse isn’t just virtual reality" and would be accessible across various computing platforms like virtual and augmented reality and also on the personal computer, mobile devices and gaming consoles.
The metaverse, the Facebook founder said, would be “a persistent, synchronous environment where we can be together, which I think is probably going to resemble some kind of a hybrid between the social platforms that we see today, but an environment where you’re embodied in it".
HOW IS IT BEING BUILT?
A blog post in September by Andrew Bosworth, the VP of Facebook Reality Labs, and Nick Clegg, the company’s VP of Global Affairs had said that “the metaverse isn’t a single product one company can build alone", mentioning how it would exist “whether Facebook is there or not". The post also noted that such a metaverse won’t be “built overnight" and would likely take another 10-15 years before becoming a reality.
In another blog post, which announced the proposed hire in Europe to drive its metaverse plans, the company further said that “no one company will own and operate the metaverse" and that “its key feature will be its openness and interoperability", which would mean “collaboration and cooperation across companies, developers, creators and policymakers".
Online games like Fortnite and gaming platforms like Roblox have begun experimenting with virtual immersive worlds with Fortnite having hosted a virtual reality concert featuring popstar Ariana Grande. The graphics company Nvidia is reportedly building its an “Omniverse", which is said to be a platform for connecting 3D virtual worlds.
As for the Facebook metaverse, the company said it’ll “require continued investment in product and tech talent, as well as growth across the business". It has already announced a USD 50 million investment to collaborate with industry partners, civil rights groups, governments, nonprofits and academic institutions “to determine how to build these technologies responsibly". And, now, it’s declared its intention to hire 10,000 high-skilled workers in Europe to further push the creation of the metaverse.
WHAT ABOUT DATA PRIVACY?
The timing of Facebook’s European jobs announcement has not been missed, coming as it does on the back of outages and whistleblower leaks that has generated negative publicity for the social media giant.
After former Facebook employee Frances Haugens shared internal documents that suggest the company knew that its products can have a negative impact on children and that it may have pulled back on its crackdown on hate speech, The Washington Post — a publication owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — last month said Facebook’s metaverse drive is “part of a broader push to rehabilitate the company’s reputation with policymakers and reposition Facebook to shape the regulation of next-wave Internet technologies".
While the company has not shared much details about data privacy and use in the metaverse, controversies generated by Facebook’s handling of user data in the past means concerns have been expressed over how it would approach the qualitatively different, and likely more personal, data that users will generate in the metaverse.
“You’ll be able to hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create and more. It’s not necessarily about spending more time online — it’s about making the time you do spend online more meaningful," the company’s September blog post had said, making the familiar pitch about time spent on its platforms.
Centring its development of the metaverse in Europe, where the European Union has put in place some of the world’s strictest data privacy and processing rules as part of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) could be a part of a strategy to stay in step with regulators while creating the new tech.
“The EU also has an important role to play in shaping the new rules of the internet. European policymakers are leading the way in helping to embed European values like free expression, privacy, transparency and the rights of individuals into the day-to-day workings of the internet," the company said in the context of the plans to expand its metaverse push in Europe.
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