Understanding Facebook's Metaverse
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced at his Virtual and Augmented Reality Conference that he will be changing the company name to “Meta,” with a focus on developing something called the “Metaverse.”
The concept is actually almost thirty years old. The term “metaverse” was first used by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in his novel “Snow Crash,” where he also coined the phrase “virtual reality.” In Stephenson’s book, the metaverse represents a 3D virtual space where individuals interact with one another via personalized avatars.
In essence, this is the same ideology behind Zuckerberg’s Metaverse. It will be a platform that utilizes virtual and augmented reality to connect people across the globe. People will be able to perform online tasks using VR headsets or specialized glasses to interact with other individuals in the virtual space.
But VR tech, like the concept of the metaverse, is not exactly new. Companies like Oculus and HTC have been developing the virtual reality experience for years, and VR headsets are widely available to the public.
So what sets Meta’s version of the ‘verse apart from current virtual and augmented reality tech? How is it different from what we already experience when we put on a VR headset or use AR in a smartphone app?
The Successor to the Mobile Internet
In his introduction, Zuckerberg stated he believes the Metaverse will be the “successor to the mobile internet. We’ll be able to feel present, like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are.”
In essence, it seems, the main difference between the Metaverse and current VR technology is the sheer scope of it. Current VR headsets are predominantly dedicated to the extracurricular realms of gaming and exercise. Zuckerberg aims to extend the technology to a variety of settings, making virtual connections a part of everyday life.
He uses the example of video chatting with loved ones. Currently, when you want to share an experience with someone, you might connect through FaceTime or another app. You are limited to what you can see through your phone screen and by what the other person chooses to show you.
In the Metaverse, families will supposedly feel more involved and connected by being immersed in a shared surrounding. This applies to other situations as well, such as work meetings, classrooms, or gaming.
Zuckerberg refers to this kind of immersion as the “embodied” internet. Screens are completely replaced by immersive experiences where people communicate through their avatars. This, says Zuckerberg, will enhance interpersonal relations. The ability to be in the same virtual room and make virtual eye contact, for example, allows for a deeper level of communication than “staring at a grid of faces.”
How Will Meta Bring the Metaverse to the Masses?
In addition to expanding on current VR and AR technology, Meta is reportedly working on several hardware products to “bring the metaverse to life.” One of these, codenamed Project Cambria, is set to release next year.
Project Cambria incorporates several advances in VR tech, including:
- Avatars that make natural eye contact and reflect your own facial expressions in real time
- High resolution color mixed-reality pass-through
- Sophisticated sensors create a highly detailed representation of your real, physical surroundings so you do not need to remove the headset to, say, grab a pen or move a coffee cup.
- Pancake Optics
- These work by folding light several times over to allow for a slimmer lens profile
Cambria will reportedly be at a higher price point to allow it to be released as soon as possible. The goal will eventually be to get it to price points comparable to the Quest headset.
To facilitate the Metaverse’s augmented reality, Meta plans on expanding the technology it used to launch Ray-Ban Stories. While these are not full AR glasses yet, you are able to do tasks like take pictures, listen to music, and answer phone calls. The full augmented reality glasses, called Project Nazare, are in progress and expected to be released in 2-3 years.
Predictions for the Metaverse
In our opinion, the Metaverse is a long way away from being the truly accessible platform intended by Zuckerberg. The first iteration is likely to be the same as the first iPhones-too expensive for most and a lot of kinks to work out. However, releasing the technology as soon as possible will have its merits, namely feedback from users. By the time the Cambria is affordable for us mere mortals, it should be a pretty sophisticated bit of technology. (It will also give digital marketing companies a chance to adapt current strategies to the new technology.)
In the end, the Metaverse is about re-establishing connections that have been lost through the use of screens as communication. In the wake of a global pandemic, we have relied heavily on our digital platforms to facilitate some level of normalcy. Zoom and Teams have become household names. Important family events have been celebrated on FaceTime. We are already at a stage where we blend technology with our physical surroundings. Perhaps the Metaverse is simply a natural stage in our ongoing social evolution.
Facebook has had its fair share of bad press in recent years. The name-change and the unveiling of this new platform are not coincidental, and might be viewed as an attempt at a fresh start. Ultimately, it will be up to Zuckerberg and Meta to win back disillusioned followers with a product that lives up to the hype.