Will Zuckerberg’s ‘metaverse’ change everything?

Facebook wants to build the VR universe we all live and work in. Here’s what’s actually coming.

AR/augmented reality - VR/virtual reality - mobile apps
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been making news lately by talking about the “metaverse.” Zuckerberg says it’s the future of Facebook — and the internet. He’s so committed to the idea that he intends to hire 10,000 Europeans to work on it, and even change the name of his company from Facebook to a metaverse-related brand. [Editor's note: Announced on October 28, the new company name is Meta.]

Are we all going to live and work in Facebook’s “metaverse”?

What is the metaverse?

Author Neal Stephenson coined the word “metaverse” for his 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. In his telling, the “metaverse” is a virtual reality version of the internet, where an alternative universe exists in a shared VR space using real-world concepts like roads, buildings, rooms, and everyday objects. People move around in this universe as avatars, which are 3D representations that can interact with other people through their avatars, and also interact with avatar-like entities that are really software agents.

The metaverse has been a staple of cyberpunk fiction since the 1980s, from William Gibson’s Burning Chrome and Neuromancer to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which was made into a feature film by Steven Spielberg. “The Matrix” is a metaverse.

The metaverse literary concept is universally dystopian, representing a kind of totalitarian capitalism in which people are compelled to live much of their lives in a fake world owned by a corporation. For example, in Cline’s book, everyone is so invested in a metaverse called the “OASIS” (where people not only play games, but also go to school, work, and pay their taxes) that the real world declines into squalor from neglect.

Fiction’s metaverse is bad. So why does Zuckerberg think his is good?

Why Zuckerberg wants his own metaverse

First, let’s start with the basics: If there’s a metaverse, it won’t be Zuckerberg’s. And if Zuckerberg builds a virtual universe, it won’t be the metaverse.

In other words, the only possible (but unlikely) way to end up with a single global and universal virtual space is if the internet or the web somehow evolves all the virtual parts that enable users to interact with all web services and each other in 3D virtual reality spaces. It’s unlikely — because proprietary and exclusive platforms, with their artificial scarcity, will attract more investment — but possible.

In reality, Facebook’s “metaverse” really should be called the “Zuckerverse” — it’s the vision and pet project of the company’s CEO, personally. It’s the dream of a brainy introvert on the spectrum who’s awkward with people and wants to wear goggles all day, take the “blue pill,” and live in the Matrix. But that’s not what real people will want. It’s not the future of the internet.

What’s certain is that we will have many virtual online spaces, worlds and platforms — probably thousands of them. These won’t be just for play, but for work, education, and yes, even and especially social networking.

As with Facebook itself, Zuckerberg’s “metaverse” will be a walled garden for a minority of people, not the one true metaverse for all people. Even today, just to use Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset requires a Facebook account. An open platform is not in Facebook’s DNA.

So why is Zuckerberg going so big on the metaverse idea? I think there are five reasons.

  1. The concept of a shared virtual world has been around and in the works for decades, from thousands of companies and universities. By publicly obsessing about it, Zuckerberg hopes to be associated with it as the leader.
  2. Zuckerberg understands that in order to evolve social networking and interaction into the virtual realm, he’s got to pivot the company. His big moves, big announcements, and big investments re-orient a world of employees, partners, investors, and users for the transition.
  3. Zuckerberg and Facebook know that social networks as they now exist will eventually be replaced. Just as Facebook replaced MySpace, which replaced AOL, which replaced CompuServ, which replaced BBS systems, no company dominating one social platform type has ever gone on to dominate the next. Facebook wants to be the first to dominate two generations of online social networks.
  4. FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). It makes sense to loudly go big on virtual spaces to scare away investment interest in startups looking to do the same thing.

If Zuckerberg’s public obsession serves any purpose at all, it’s to highlight for us all that a virtual reality/augmented reality future is coming, and it’s going to impact how business functions massively.

Why the Appleverse beats the Zuckerverse

It’s one thing that hundreds of startups are toiling away to build the virtual spaces of the future, developing headsets and glasses, advanced graphics, modeling tools, networking tools, and more. It’s quite another thing to know that Apple is committed to it as well.

The difference is that Facebook wants an alternative virtual universe; Apple wants to add the virtual to the real universe.

Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, has said publicly that AR is “the next big thing,” “superior to VR,” “a big idea, like the smartphone,” and he sees major applications for AR “in education, in consumers, in entertainment, in sports. I can see it in every business that I know anything about.”

Both companies are betting big on opposing visions: Will VR dominate, or will AR? The Zuckerverse or the Appleverse?

Apple has hundreds of patents and is investing billions of dollars in developing the hardware and software platforms for the virtual spaces of tomorrow. The company has designed and built multiple prototypes, some with astounding specs, like dual 8K displays, lidar, and a host of cameras and biometric sensors.

The interesting and unique fact about Apple is that it intends to initially use VR goggles for AR applications. The user will see a real-time video of the real world with virtual objects inserted into that video.

Apple is also reportedly working on AR glasses that look like ordinary glasses and can be worn all day, every day with prescription lenses.

In a previous column I detailed what we know about Apple‘s physical VR and AR glasses. The rough timeline for these products is two years for the VR goggles, five years or more for the AR glasses.

Apple keeps future plans close to the vest. But sometimes it’s possible to divine the company’s intentions through actions like patents and acquisitions.

The most world-changing initiative in Apple’s patents is a concept called the Bionic Virtual Meeting Room. In a nutshell, the concept integrates hardware and software to have meetings with other people in a virtual context. Specifically, people are represented as avatars, which convey the facial expressions, mouth movements, body language, head tilts, and other gestures in real time. Just like Apple’s Memojis, but in 3D with rational spacial interaction.

What that means is that avatars can see other avatars, with their attendant movements, interacting in real time. They can make eye contact, point, gesture, talk, and walk around.

That sounds like a first-person shooter video game. The difference is 3D, biometric ID (very important for business meetings), full upper-body real-time gesture mapping and real-time face mapping, and room and object mapping. Apple’s many patents also detail a host of biometric sensors for detecting emotion, which would be subtly reflected in facial expression.

In video games, you appear as a virtual character, a dumb puppet. In Apple’s meeting technology, you’ll appear as a version of you, optimized for verbal and non-verbal communication and also real-time collaboration. In other words, your avatar will be deeply connected to the real you — every movement and emotion will be expressed by your avatar.

Another major difference is that Apple envisions users of its AR glasses to see avatars not in a VR space, but as holograms that appear in your real physical space.

While Apple’s intentions barely register with the public, they no doubt haunt Zuckerberg’s nightmares.

Apple’s Bionic Meeting Room technology is social networking through avatars. Apple has better patents, better technology, better design chops, better development tools, and more trust among its user base.

Apple’s virtual meeting technology is poised to replace:

  • Social networking
  • Videoconferencing
  • Business travel
  • Professional conferences

Future meetings are likely to take place substantially via avatars. That goes for one-on-one meetings with suppliers, sales calls, HR meetings with employees, professional conferences, and other meeting types.

If history is a guide, the advantage for Apple is likely to be a relatively seamless, frictionless, secure, and high-quality experience.

Fast forward a decade, and both our lives and work will be massively transformed by both VR and AR. We will drop into VR spaces to do specific things from time to time. But we will live in AR all day — or at least have virtual objects, data, content, and avatar-based social interaction that can be conjured up instantly through the glasses we’re wearing anyway.

In other words, Zuckerberg’s vision of living in VR is (as the sci-fi writers warned us) a dystopian nightmare.

Still, VR will play a massive role. In fact, it’s already happening.

How the many virtual platforms will impact business

Virtual spaces will go far beyond meeting rooms. They will include showrooms, malls, stadiums, and virtual factories.

Nvidia Omniverse is one early effort, targeted at simulating real-world environments for collaboration and optimization. One customer, BMW, has used Omniverse to create exact replicas of all its factories, where it can test changes to all aspects of the operation in an interactive simulation. The videos of this project are unbelievable.

Nvida shows the way to the future of business VR. It’s a powerful but isolated application and development platform, not a “universe” or a “metaverse.”

Thousands of companies are building all the constituent parts for this kind of powerful business application for VR. VR will be used for advertising and the ultimate in experimental marketing. Stores will sell both real and virtual objects and clothing. NTF enthusiasts believe the metaverse or virtual space eventuality will drive NFT-based purchases by imposing scarcity.

The future of VR is amazing. But VR will always be available as thousands of applications that we choose on the fly and temporarily use. Despite Zuckerberg’s vision, nobody is going to stay in VR all day except a minority of addicted and obsessed gamers.

AR is the place we’ll live. AR will replace smartphones as the all-day, everyday platform.

After all, why create a metaverse when we already live in a perfectly good universe?

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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