The term “metaverse” is the latest buzzword that has captured the imagination of the tech industry, to the point where one of the most well-known internet platforms will change its name to show its acceptance of the futuristic idea.
The news from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that he is changing his company name to Meta Platforms Inc., or Meta for short, might be the biggest thing to happen to the metaverse since the science writer fiction Neal Stephenson coined the term for his 1992 novel Snow Crash.
But Zuckerberg and his team aren’t the only tech visionaries with ideas about how the metaverse, which will employ a mix of virtual reality and other technologies, should take shape.
And some of those who have been thinking about it for some time are concerned about a new world tied to a social media giant that could have access to even more personal data and is accused of failing to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation and other harm. online that compound real-world problems.
1) WHAT IS THE METAVERSE?
Think of it as the internet coming to life, or at least seen in three dimensions. Zuckerberg has described it as a “virtual environment” that you can enter, instead of looking at a screen. It’s basically an endless world of interconnected virtual communities where people can meet, work, and play with virtual reality headsets, augmented reality goggles, smartphone apps, and other devices.
It will also include other aspects of digital life, such as shopping and social networking, according to Victoria Petrock, an analyst who follows emerging technologies.
“It’s the next evolution of connectivity, where all those things start to come together in an integrated universe that mimics our own, so you live your virtual life the same way you live your physical life,” he said.
2) WHAT WILL I BE ABLE TO DO IN THE METAVERSE?
Things like attending a virtual concert, taking a trip through the internet, and buying and trying on digital clothes.
The metaverse could also change telecommuting amid the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of seeing colleagues in the grid of a video call, employees could see them virtually.
Facebook has released business meeting software called Horizon Workrooms that can be used with its Oculus VR headsets, though early reviews haven’t been great. Devices cost $300 or more, putting the most advanced metaverse experiences out of reach for many.
Those who can afford it could use their avatars to move around virtual worlds created by different companies.
“A lot of the metaverse experience is going to revolve around being able to teleport from one experience to another,” Zuckerberg said.
Tech companies have yet to figure out how to connect their platforms to each other. Making it work will require rival tech platforms to agree on a set of standards so there aren’t “people in the Facebook metaverse and other people in the Microsoft metaverse,” Petrock said.
3) DOES FACEBOOK BET EVERYTHING ON THE METAVERSE?
Zuckerberg has bet big on what he sees as the next generation of the internet because he believes it will be a big part of the digital economy.
Critics question whether the possible change could be an attempt to distract attention from the company’s crises, such as antitrust investigations, complaints from former employees and concerns about its handling of disinformation.
Former employee Frances Haugen has accused Facebook platforms of harming children and inciting political violence, after copying internal investigative documents and turning them over to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
They were also provided to a group of media outlets, including The Associated Press, which reported numerous stories about how Facebook prioritized profits over security and hid its own investigations from investors and the public.
4) IS THE METAVERSE A FACEBOOK ONLY PROJECT?
No. Other companies talking about the metaverse include Microsoft and chipmaker Nvidia.
“We think there will be a lot of companies building virtual worlds and environments in the metaverse, just as there have been a lot of companies doing things on the World Wide Web,” said Richard Kerris, vice president of Nvidia’s Omniverse platform. “It’s important that it be open and extensible, so you can teleport to different worlds, be it from one company or another, in the same way that I go from one web page to another.”
Video game companies are also at the forefront. Epic Games, the company behind the popular game Fortnite, has raised $1 billion from investors to help its long-term plans to build the metaverse. Video game platform Roblox is another player to watch, which has described his vision of the metaverse as a place where “people can come together within millions of three-dimensional experiences to learn, work, play, create and socialize.”
Consumer brands also want to enter. Italian fashion firm Gucci collaborated with Roblox in June to sell a digital-only accessories collection. Coca-Cola and Clinique have sold digital products promoted as a basis for the metaverse.
5) WILL THIS BE ANOTHER WAY TO GET MORE MY DATA?
Zuckerberg’s embrace of the metaverse contradicts to some extent a central tenet of digital universe enthusiasts. They see the metaverse as liberating online culture from tech platforms like Facebook, which have taken ownership of people’s accounts, photos, posts and playlists and marketed what they gleaned from that data.
“We want to be able to move around the internet with ease, but we also want to do it in a way that we won’t be tracked or monitored,” says entrepreneur Steve Jang, managing partner of Kindred Ventures, which is into cryptocurrency technology.
It seems clear that Facebook wants to take its business model, based on using personal data to sell targeted advertising, into the metaverse.
“Advertising will continue to be a significant part of strategy in the social media part of what we do, and will likely continue to be a significant part of the metaverse as well,” Zuckerberg said in the firm’s latest earnings call.
Petrock said she was concerned that Facebook would try to pave the way for a virtual world that would require even more personal data and offer more potential for abuse and disinformation, given that it has not yet resolved those problems on its current platforms.