At Facebook’s Connect 2021 conference, Mark Zuckerberg made some ostensibly major proclamations.
First, a corporate restructuring: Facebook will join Instagram and WhatsApp under a new parent company called ‘Meta Platforms’, just as Google did when it became Alphabet back in 2015. Second, Zuckerberg spent most of his arguably cringey keynote outlining his vision of the next generation of the web, the ‘metaverse’.
What is the metaverse?
The term metaverse is a portmanteau of ‘meta’ (beyond) and ‘universe’. Today, the concept represents an embodied internet comprising a network of shared computer-generated environments, where avatars interact in a 3D virtual space. But the term was originally coined in the popular 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and has since expanded to include XR.
Zuckerberg sees the metaverse as the natural successor to the mobile web, where you’re immersed in the digital experience, instead of merely viewing it on a video screen. Since 2D screens can’t fully convey body language and facial expressions, the idea is to accurately recreate the feeling of being physically present, to make virtual interactions with others seem more natural.
While romping through cyberspace à la Ready Player One may sound intriguing, how exactly will it become part of our lives? Here are just five use cases which could become daily activities in the metaverse.
Video games have a tendency to drive advances in computing tech, so it’s no surprise that gaming is how most of us will first enter the metaverse. There are now hundreds of VR games using headsets (e.g. Valve Index, HTC Vive Pro 2 and PlayStation VR), as well as countless AR games using smartphone camera systems. While gaming may drive most of the fundamental technology advances, it can’t provide anything near a working metaverse. VR experiences almost always take place in closed environments, rather than connected spaces, and AR games are bound to small 2D screens, instead of immersing the player’s senses. For his part, Zuckerberg predicts that gaming in the metaverse will require continual evolution, with live service games offering regular updates and downloadable content.
With some element of remote working here to stay, the focus now is on hybrid working. However, this makes the workplace more complex. In-person meetings – which have evolved to include some or all of the team joining via videoconferencing – could evolve further. For instance, holographic avatars could provide a virtual presence in the workplace without the commute, while enabling you to “share” physical space and interact with others.
Employees can use their own individual space for minimising distractions, and can also join shared spaces with other team members for activities such as presentations. Facebook’s own Oculus Quest 2 launched Horizon Workrooms in August 2021, and is set to introduce room customisations and new developer frameworks, which will enable this virtual space to integrate with existing internet services and 2D websites.
Many retail brands have already seen success using AR tools. As far back as 2017, IKEA launched their Place app, allowing customers to render furniture inside their home and assess how it looks on their smartphone. Trying on clothes virtually is also on the horizon, with future shopping potentially involving putting on smartglasses rather than driving to a store. Zuckerberg predicts that digital purchases (items which only exist in virtual space) will become more valuable as the metaverse takes off, with transferability and authentication technologies, such as NFTs, becoming more important.
While learning certainly involves the study of information, many fields naturally require extensive practical (in-person) training. However, the metaverse has the potential to assimilate some of this physical activity. For example, trainee mechanics could use a combined AR schematic and service manual to repair a vehicle. Zuckerberg points to Osso VR which simulates surgery, and the Alchemy Immersive course which allows marine biologist students to virtually swim through the Great Barrier Reef (whilst listening to the dulcet tones of David Attenborough). Meta is also assigning $150 million to train educational content developers and establish a professional curriculum with a certification process for those building it using Spark AR (Facebook’s AR toolkit).
With most of us already sold on the idea of exercising at home, a round of convincing virtual boxing, sword fighting, or dancing could be a welcome enhancement. Facebook is releasing a fitness accessory pack for Quest 2, including controller grips and a wipe-clean facial interface.
Facebook’s sleight of (haptic) hand?
Facebook currently faces criticism amid leaked documents (dubbed the “Facebook Papers”) and exposure by former product manager, Francs Haugen, who claimed the company prioritises its profits over the wellbeing of its users. And these are just two events in a string of governmental and privacy investigations. Sceptics might say the timing of Zuckerberg’s Meta announcements is a way of distracting the public from PR issues (and perhaps redirecting those pesky federal fines), rather than heralding an imminent technological shift.
Of course, XR environments have failed before – think Second Life and Google Glass. But were they simply too early? Zuckerberg himself admits the metaverse is a way off. But as building-block technologies improve, and are adopted by younger generations, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the metaverse is upon us.
In part two, we’ll look at the technologies which need to be built before the metaverse can materialise.