Will it look like the movie Avatar or something much more simple? Adrian Weckler takes us through what Facebook’s metaverse is promising.
This week, Facebook said that will create 10,000 new jobs in Ireland and the rest of Europe in building a new online ‘metaverse’. But what is a metaverse? Will ordinary people take to it in the same numbers as social media platforms today? And what are its potential dangers? Here’s a quick explainer.
What exactly is this ‘metaverse’?
The idea is that it’s an online virtual reality experience that’s way more realistic and useful than current virtual reality platforms, which are mostly about video games.
How would it be more useful?
Facebook’s idea is that you’ll work, socialise, shop and browse there as much you would today on websites or on its current social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. Eventually, you might end up with something approaching what we’ve seen in films like Ready Player One or Avatar.
How does it work?
At the moment, Facebook is basing early versions of it on its Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset, which typically costs around €400 to buy. Once on your head, you’d log in to a virtual world or social platform. But instead of basic avatars or shoot-em-up games, you’d ‘see’ lifelike versions of other people who are also using the headset. You could also ‘do’ things virtually with them, like share content or ‘go’ places. You might also cross over into other online worlds, such as Epic’s Fortnite.
Is that it?
No. Facebook thinks that developments in cryptocurrency, as well as so-called ‘non-fungible tokens’ or NFTs, will allow people to buy and sell things or just transfer money. Early examples might be within video games, where you could resell a gaming ‘skin’, or outfit, to someone else within the online world.
Aside from fancy talk, does Facebook have anything to show for this yet?
It launched a free office meeting room platform called Horizon Workrooms two months ago. If you put on the Oculus headset, you can sit in the same virtual room as your colleagues and see them (their avatars) gesticulate and talk. You can also share laptop screens, while associates who don’t have a VR headset can dial into the virtual room using a normal videoconferencing service which will be displayed in the virtual room. The Workrooms virtual environment allows hand movements to be visible without a controller, as well as facial orientation. It means that participants can tell who is paying attention to them and who has drifted off to do something else. You can also scan in your own physical desk, which then becomes interactive for other users, who can share documents by virtually dropping them there.
And the use of ‘spatial audio’ means that users hear people around the ‘room’ based on where they’re seated. This, says Facebook, is meant to replicate what “they’d sound in a real room, making conversations flow smoothly”.
Meanwhile, collaboration tools such as whiteboards will also be included, whilce Facebook says that users will be able to choose from a wide range of ‘avatars’.
What about its recently-launched Facebook Glasses? do they have anything to do with this?
Not yet. Those glasses don’t have any screens on them to show the wearer anything — they only have built-in video cameras and speakers. The next version may well have some sort of display screen, though.
Is this metaverse a Facebook-only thing?
At the moment, Facebook is making all of the running on it. But it says that it doesn’t want to own the metaverse and that other companies must get involved in developing parts of it. It has also promised that the metaverse will be interactive and won’t depend on using one company’s infrastructure or currency.
Is all of this a distraction from Facebook’s current bad press?
It’s tempting to think that, but the idea seems unlikely. Facebook faces some sort of scandal almost every month. Although some of its problems do lead to changes in its plans — like hiring tens of thousands of moderators due to accusations that it’s too lax at letting terrible things happen on its platforms — this one doesn’t seem to be connected to anything in particular. Besides, Mark Zuckerberg has been going on about virtual reality being ‘the next big platform’ for almost five years.
So is this metaverse inevitable?
No. There are still some significant hurdles that Facebook — or anyone else trying to build it — need to overcome. For example, some people still experience discomfort or nausea when using virtual reality headsets. And unlike phones, you can’t access the metaverse when walking down the street if it depends on a virtual reality headset. (It’s possible that ‘augmented ‘ or ‘mixed’ reality glasses or headsets may allow this to happen, however.)
And that’s before we even get into some of the regulatory issues that could arise. How would Facebook use the data from metaverse activity? If the platform detects restricted movement, do you get bombarded by ads for medical equipment? Facebook doesn’t have a stellar reputation when it comes to privacy. How might European authorities, in particular, react to policing the metaverse? There is still a lot to iron out.