At its Connect virtual conference on Thursday, Facebook made a special presentation to show the world its vision of the metaverse, and announce that she had co-opted half of the term as a new company name: Meta.
The company says it’s betting big on what it thinks is the next big thing in personal computing, a virtual space where people can work, play or socialize, all through the lenses of virtual reality headsets (VR) or augmented reality (AR) glasses. It plans to spend more than $ 10 billion on Facebook Reality Labs (now known as Reality Labs), the division that leads the development of its mixed reality hardware and software. It is said that more than 10,000 people are already working on the initiative.
Thursday’s opening speech didn’t feature much news on specific products, but rather served as an overview of all of the mixed reality R&D going on at the company right now. Some experiences have taken place within the confines of an Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset – although the Oculus branding will fade – while others have taken place in real-world settings, seen through the lenses of a future pair of Meta augmented reality glasses.
In the Faceverse (I mean Metaverse)
After a brief speech, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg walked through a series of virtual settings, some of which were fantastic. The first stop was a space called “home“. “Your home is your personal space from which you can teleport anywhere you want,” Zuckerberg said. His house featured sparse decor, a fireplace, and a view of the wilderness through the windows.
Zuckerberg’s avatar, who looked like a cartoon version of himself, then teleported to a spaceship where some of his friends, including head of Reality Labs and future Meta CTO Andrew Bosworth, who has been flayed like a big red robot, waited for him to participate in a card game. Facebook believes that people will choose different types of avatars according to their tastes and whether or not they want to remain anonymous. In the spaceship, a person looked like a video image of himself. Another looked like a photorealistic avatar (and she could fly).
“There will be all kinds of spaces that people will create – bedrooms. . . but also games and whole worlds you can teleport to whenever you want, Zuckerberg said.
Most people think of the Metaverse as a place where you can go anywhere and be anything, an idea recognized by Zuckerberg: “Teleporting into the Metaverse will be like clicking a link on the Internet – that’s an open standard ”.
Meta could create such an open standard to allow any user or developer to connect their virtual space to others. But as of now, there is no industry standard that could allow the company and one like Roblox to federate, so that they mutually honor their cryptocurrency and users can easily teleport between the two digital spaces. Meta’s presentation on Thursday would have been more in the spirit of the Metaverse had he announced such partnerships.
Connection through technology
The most interesting use cases and experiences in the presentation happened in mixed reality. They seemed a lot more believable and human (and less claustrophobic) than VR spaces. And because of that, they could ultimately be much more effective at giving distant friends or family a sense of oneness through technology.
In the presentation we saw a man sitting at a chess board in the street, and in front of him was his friend and opponent from all over the world, depicted as some sort of ghost image (this is probably how friends are were watching via AR glasses). They played chess using a virtual chess board placed between them.
Other people have played ping-pong and basketball the same way in other real-world settings. The presentation did not explain how these ghostly 3D digital images of people were created. One of the great R&D challenges of augmented reality is to create photorealistic avatars to visually represent users in virtual space.
Unfortunately, it is these mixed reality experiences that can be the most difficult to achieve. The necessary AR glasses require very powerful processors and lots of sensors, all packed into a full-size pair of glasses. Michael Abrash, who heads the development of AR glasses at Meta, says the company needs to make research breakthroughs in a dozen different areas before they can make their AR glasses design a reality.
Most of the experience that Zuckerberg and others showed in the speech does not yet exist. Some of them are closer to being market ready than others. Mixed reality is years away. Is it just a coincidence that Facebook started talking so much about the Metaverse – and even changed its name to Meta – for a year, the company has been struggling more and more in the press and in Washington DC? Some think not.
“The name change from Facebook to Meta [is] a blatant attempt to alienate Mark Zuckerberg’s company from growing outrage over the damage it is doing to democracy in the United States and around the world, ”said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “Zuckerberg and his lieutenants can’t get rid of the Facebook albatross with a smart brand adjustment. It is high time for meaningful self-regulation combined with carefully designed government oversight.
If the more aggressive scenarios involving government intervention to rule over Facebook – I mean Meta – really take hold, much more than his name may have changed by the time his metaverse vision has a chance to come true.