How does Meta affect the Metaverse?

The announcement that Facebook’s parent company had changed its name to Meta, at the end of last month, took many by surprise.

The timing, however, was not considered to be a coincidence. Meta (formerly Facebook) is currently facing serious challenges, with regulatory scrutiny and damaging leaked internal reports about its formerly eponymous social platform, as well as Instagram and WhatsApp.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to refocus attention on fresh horizons, with bold new technology which will change people’s online lived experiences. According to Zuckerberg, the metaverse will become part of our everyday lives, in terms of work, study, play and socialising. So Facebook is now called Meta, and describes itself as a “social technology company”.

With 2.8bn monthly active users, out of a total world population of 7.7bn, Meta’s influence can never be underestimated, even if Facebook’s own popularity among young people is crashing. Teenage users of the platform in the US are projected to drop by 45% in the next two years according to leaked documents, — hence the pivot to digital worlds that are more appealing to Gen Z, or zoomers.

As Facebook, the company had previously announced a new $50m fund for partnering with organisations to build the metaverse responsibly, followed by the news that it was investing $10bn this year on its Reality Labs division, which takes in AR and VR (augmented and virtual reality) hardware, software and content.

What is the metaverse?

This is the $6,000,000 question. The difficulty in answering it lies in the fact that it barely exists yet, so we are defining a loose idea, an abstract concept. We need to consider several aspects: the practical side (the experience or content, what you can do there); the technological (how you do it — software and hardware); and the intention (why you do it, and what you want to achieve).

The word metaverse is a combination of meta (meaning after or beyond) + universe. The word first appeared in the novel Snow Crash (1992) by American sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson, set in the anarchic-capitalist society of 21st-century LA. The metaverse is a place where people go to escape their challenging day-to-day existence.

You could describe the metaverse as a collective virtual shared space, offering different immersive experiences, or worlds, where you can interact with people as an avatar (digital version of yourself, with your own skin colour, hairstyle, clothes etc), often through virtual or augmented reality (using a headset).

Words often used to describe the metaverse, and concepts with which it is associated, are: innovative, creative, immersive, collaborative; connectivity, community, co-creation, empowerment, interoperability, and inter-connectedness.

Here’s a possible scenario:

Imagine that you get up in the morning, shower and have your breakfast, and then put on your VR headset. Inside a metaverse world, you go to a work meeting. Your avatar, a digital version of yourself, has your hairstyle and skin colour, and is dressed in clothes chosen by you from your favourite brands, appropriate to the occasion. So it doesn’t matter if you’re still wearing your PJs and your hair is a mess.

You talk to your colleagues, show them your presentation: you can see the reactions on their faces, which express their emotional responses, helping to make this a more convincingly real and connected space. You discuss various options for next steps, and then with all processes confirmed, you step out of the meeting. You’re still at home, without having moved.

Later that day, as a different, more casually-attired avatar, you go to a bar to meet a friend for a drink. It could be a beach bar next to the sea, listening to the waves gently lap the shore, or a lively joint in downtown. Then you teleport to a concert, and listen to your favourite band play live. The ticket was paid for with digital currency. You can buy merchandise and chat to friends, just as you would IRL. At the end of the night, you simply remove the headset, and go to bed. No environmentally damaging emissions from transport, no jostling with big crowds, and no long trek back home afterwards.

Most of this technology doesn’t exist yet, so much of the conversation is hypothetical, although Ariana Grande and Travis Scott have both played concerts in Fortnite, and Twenty One Pilots in Roblox, while platforms like High Fidelity (from the same makers as Second Life) offer a limited social virtual world experience.

But with the vast potential of the metaverse, drawing boundaries and stating intentions for this new Web 3.0 Wild West is incredibly important. One feature which is essential is the interoperability, whereby you can move your avatar, and other digital assets, across different games, platforms and ecosystems.

How does Zuckerberg define the metaverse?

According to Zuckerberg, as stated in his Founder’s Letter: “The next platform will be even more immersive — an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build.”

He continues: “The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence — like you are right there with another person or in another place. Feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology. That is why we are focused on building this.”

The parameters allow for a broad range of activity and experiences: “In the metaverse, you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine — get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create — as well as completely new experiences that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today.”

However when we’re thinking about the metaverse, it’s easy to conflate the general overarching concept of a new virtual ecosystem, with Zuckerberg’s own vision — Meta’s social interactions will be enabled through a new network called Horizon.

The metaverse in general is open and decentralised, with its safety regulations and procedures yet to be agreed upon and decided. Meta is hiring around 10,000 people in Europe to develop its metaverse project; one of the main concerns among those familiar with the topic is privacy, and how much we will be able to do outside Meta’s own metaverse.

If you put on a Cambria headset (the next model on from Oculus Quest 2, now to be renamed Meta Quest 2, which displays facial expressions), will Meta be able to see everything that you can see from your headset, in the same way that they know what you see on Facebook? Will they be able to hear what you’re saying? How will you deal with unwanted advances from other users/players/avatars? On the flip side, it could be that some people will prefer a more regulated experience. As mentioned earlier, this is still all hypothetical.

How will Meta and the metaverse affect the gaming ecosphere?

Hardware will bring these new virtual worlds to life for users. As well as headsets, other hardware being developed by Meta includes haptic gloves, which can “sense” digital objects using soft motors that control airflow; and a neural interface wristband, which employs sensors to translate electrical motor nerve signals that travel through the wrist to the hand, into digital commands that control a device.

Such high-tech gizmos are still at the research stage, but they give us an idea of what to expect in the future of gaming and virtual experiences.

In his Connect video, Zuckerberg discusses the massive potential of the metaverse for gaming (his words are taken from the video, from 16:26):

Gaming provides many of the most immersive experiences and it is the biggest entertainment industry by far. Gaming in the metaverse is going to span from immersive experiences in fantasy worlds to bringing simple games into our everyday lives through holograms. Maybe you’ll play old games in new ways.”

“Gaming is how a lot of people are going to step into the Metaverse for the first time. It already has some of the most fully built-out digital goods and the most active creative and developer communities, and major platforms like Epic are working to build out the metaverse, starting with gaming. For our part, we’re heavily investing in building a healthy VR and AR ecosystem, so the game studios can keep building and the gaming creators can keep creating.”

It is clear that the metaverse will change how we approach gaming, both in sensory terms (seeing, hearing, touching in an alternative reality, using the hardware mentioned above), and in how we interact with our fellow players and team members. And that’s without taking in futuristic concepts like holograms and teleporting. All this virtual gaming represents a complete paradigm shift which will start to become a reality over the next months and years.

Continuing our example metaverse scenario:

The next day it’s Saturday, and you want to do some serious grinding. You put on your headset, and using yet another suitably attired avatar, you enter an immersive world of fast-moving, exciting action. You rush the enemy in a Smart tournament, along with your awesome team (no smurfing!), thereby earning points.

The prizes you win will be in digital currency, safely and verifiably paid into your blockchain wallet. You can create your own digital assets, as NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which you can then either use, sell or trade for more NFTs, in either this, or another game or metaverse space.

The possibilities of the metaverse are endless in both creative and financial terms, with a predicted value of $2.5tr by 2030. Meta is one of the pioneers of this space, designing its own ecosystems and products so that we can experience these new immersive worlds. But we also need to know that plenty of alternative spaces will be offering a different type of experience, so that we can choose according to our own tastes and preferences.

Soon after the Meta announcement, Microsoft outlined plans for its own mixed-reality metaverse platform, Mesh, designed for its Teams app, which has 250m monthly active users. The users of this new platform, which can be accessed on smartphones, headsets and other devices, will be able to use 3D virtual avatars and immersive meetings.

A key point of a decentralised meta-universe is that is permissionless — no one entity has overall control, so while Facebook — and now Microsoft — will carve out its own territory in this new universe, reassurances are needed that plenty of scope will remain for other, smaller companies to offer their own, equally valuable, virtual experiences.

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