Metaverse… The Future?

After plenty of speculation, on the 28th of October Mark Zuckerberg announced a rebrand of Facebook and a rename to “Meta”. The change was complemented with a new corporate logo consisting of an infinity shaped symbol. Mr Zuckerberg explained that a name change was needed to reflect how much Facebook had evolved. The word “meta” derives from the Greek word meaning “beyond”, while the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word as “Showing or suggesting an explicit awareness of itself or oneself as a member of its category”. Zuckerberg”s future vision also rests on virtual reality, so part of the rebrand was credited to the company”s desire for a new logo that felt more dynamic and immersive. “Right now, our brand is so tightly linked to one product that it can’t possibly represent everything we’re doing today, let alone in the future,” Zuckerberg said in an interview. Meta’s rebrand is tied to a sci-fi eeriness, described by some as a “dystopian dictatorship”, but what does this new orientation mean for the current Facebook platform?

Several Facebook users showed concerns over what would happen to their current Facebook accounts, for example. It’s worth noting that the name change from Facebook Inc. to Meta Platforms happened at the corporate level rather than on the social network of the same name. Facebook cleared this up in a blog post, saying: “Our corporate structure is not changing, however, how we report on our financials will.” Therefore, Facebook profiles will remain in the same place and will not move to another platform or undergo changes in the name. The same is happening for other subsidiaries, including Instagram and WhatsApp.

Zuckerberg’s bold plans to dive into what he believes to be the next digital frontier is shown further by his innovative “Metaverse”. The 37-year-old billionaire described this as a “virtual environment” that one can enter with virtual reality headsets. The term Metaverse was coined in 1992 by Neil Stephenson in his novel “Snow Crash”, which envisions a virtual reality-based successor to the internet. In Stephenson’s novel, a “Metaverse” lives alongside our physical existence, where people use digital avatars of themselves to explore the online world, often as a way of escaping a dystopian reality — there are several observable similarities between Zuckerberg’s model and Stephenson’s narrative. Public rooms, spaces for games and dedicated workspaces are all domains that would be contained inside the Metaverse. In fact, Zuckerberg went as far as saying full “worlds” would be featured in the 3-D environment.

The disruption caused by the pandemic has led to online education hastily emerging as an important new platform, and Meta is certainly following this path, planning to create immersive educational experiences. Mark Rabkin, VP of Oculus, the leading global producer of virtual reality headsets, said in a statement: “VR isn’t all fun and games” and “can be a powerful tool for education as well.” Facebook’s $150 million investment towards the creation of educational VR content shows their appreciation of this prospect. Meta’s chief business officer, Marne Levine, spoke further of the Metaverse’s educational values, revealing that people would, for example, be able to watch the Forum being built in ancient Rome.

However, apprehension surrounds Meta’s potential to splinter reality by allowing advertisers and third parties to provide people with the customised worlds they want, thus exacerbating political divisiveness. Through personalised news feeds and targeted advertising based on the huge data that companies have acquired about us, social media is already allowing third parties to mediate our lives. Louis Rosenberg, CEO of Unanimous AI stated: “Instead of us just kind of being in our own information bubbles, we’re going to be segmented into our own custom realities.” Experts also agreed that detecting misinformation and divisiveness will be more challenging. According to Shawn Frayne, CEO of holographic tech start-up Looking Glass Factory, “Folks should be worried… If you think Facebook on your phone has been bad for democracy, think about your entire field of view controlled by a company like that.” Ethan Zuckerman, who created one of the first metaverses in the 1990s, warned in a cautionary piece about Meta: “How will a company that can block only 6% of Arabic-language hate content deal with dangerous speech when it’s worn on an avatar’s T-shirt or revealed at the end of a virtual fireworks display?” Furthermore, concerns lie around a model where advertisers can pay for filters in a user’s virtual environment to insert specialised messaging into their reality. For example, it could be as subtle as the man sitting next to you in the bar (who isn’t even real) holding a can of a specific brand of soft drink, or a simulation of a human discreetly selling whatever an advertiser paid them to attempt to sell you while you’re in line for a coffee.

As innovative and original as the vision is, Zuckerberg has worries about potential competitors for the metaverse. The metaverse is an untrodden space with no market existing for it yet. However, several notable tech giants including Microsoft, Google, Apple, Sony and Roblox plan to heat up the competition. The company is well-aware of this but plans to continue buying up the metaverse in the meantime: less than 24 hours after the rebrand, Meta finalised a deal to buy Within (the company co-founded by VR pioneer Chris Milk). Though the final fee remained undisclosed, people familiar with the transaction say Facebook paid more than $500 million for the company. Other investments subtracted from Facebook’s initial $10 billion investment included deals with Unit 2 Games, a collaborative game creation studio platform based in Warwickshire as well as Downpour Interactive, another VR game-maker based in San Francisco. Needless to say, Meta is eyeing the biggest players in tech and video games given its goal of creating a virtual shared space and a vision of the future that resembles modern online gaming. As such, it’s unsurprising that Zuckerberg sees the likes of Sony (which makes PlayStation) and Microsoft (which makes Xbox) as posing “fierce competition” in the still non-existent metaverse marketplace, while rumours have been floating around that Apple is also working on some form of virtual or augmented reality headset.

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