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Facebook, breaching the shores of the metaverse

Last Thursday, the then Facebook, Inc. held its annual Facebook Connect event. Amidst rumors of a restructuring akin to Google’s 2015 transformation into Alphabet and years of bad publicity for the company, many were expecting the tech giant to announce a new bold direction for itself. And at 11:30 AM, Menlo Park time, the rumors came true: Facebook, Inc. was now to be known as Meta Platforms, Inc. Over the course of the hour-and-a-half presentation, CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained the company’s plans for the future, namely a commitment to building the metaverse, a combination of virtual, mixed and augmented reality which would allow for a complete enmeshing of our on- and offline lives. But despite the new veneer and exciting prospects outlined by Zuckerberg, the company remains the same at its core. The question must be asked: if we even want to bring about the metaverse, and if so, do we want Facebook to be responsible for its architecture?

What is the metaverse, anyway?

The idea of a “metaverse” is nothing new. Indeed, the past few decades have seen a multitude of sci-fi works describe futuristic worlds where 3D holograms interact with the real world and people can transport themselves virtually across space and time to experience anything they can think of. Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist, describes the metaverse as “an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.” In short, this means a complete breakdown of the barrier of the computer screen: the digital world is brought into superposition with our physical world, and we are similarly capable of diving deep into fully immersive digital environments. In many ways, this seems like the logical next step for the Internet. As it takes more prevalence in our day-to-day lives, it is only natural that we would both seek to bring it closer to our physical realm while leveraging its unlimited capacity for creation and escapism to immerse ourselves fully in it.

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The most recent and salient examples of augmented reality can be found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where characters seamlessly interact with technology which reacts to their movements and the environment around them. Iron Man can move holograms around his workshop with a flick of his wrists and his AI systems are capable of scanning his field of vision and provide contextual information. Though the mobile holograms are not yet real, digital overlays have existed in many forms: Google first attempted AR glasses with Google Glass and is now working on image recognition with Google Lens while Microsoft’s HoloLens are the company’s attempt at making augmented reality a tool for productivity. Similarly, the idea of virtual worlds has permeated sci-fi and pop culture for decades – think of Sword Art Online, Ready Player One or Tron. Though we are unable to experience them with the fidelity described in fiction, tech companies such as Facebook’s Oculus, Valve, or HTC offer immersive experiences through virtual reality headsets and handheld controllers. Meta’s new mission statement is to bring all these technologies together, along with our physical world, and tie them together with a shared continuity. In this metaverse, we would exist simultaneously as real people and as avatars with our data and belongings existing in and affecting all worlds.

This idea of ‘continuity’ forms one of the pillars of the metaverse: if our digital actions can be associated to our physical selves, then we can seamlessly transition from one world to another and fully leverage the possibilities of the metaverse. The other pillar, as Meta describes it, is “presence”. For the metaverse to be appealing, it must enhance the most fundamental part of the Internet, communicating over long distances, to a whole new level. In the metaverse, meeting someone has to feel like meeting someone in real life. Notably, Meta’s presentation includes a short video wherein an architect at his desk calls a meeting with his colleague, who is out and about, to discuss building plans. As soon as she accepts the meeting, they are both pulled into a virtual room where a 3D model of the building floats above a desk. They select a floor, scale the hologram such that it  surrounds them at real-world scale and decide to approve the design.

The whole interaction takes less than two minutes, produces the same result as a real meeting would and feels natural. This video exemplifies the necessity of “presence”: interactions in the metaverse need to feel tangible, a feeling which occurs when people can not only see each other, but also perceive their relative physical positions and shared space. Couple this with the infinite creative possibility of the digital realm and you could be working on a collaborative 3D sculpture with your overseas family, showing your boss your exact business plan with immersive visual guides, or following your faraway friend’s instructions on how to bake a cake with them at your side.

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So why is it bad that Meta/Facebook is working on this?

It’s not necessarily bad! In fact, should Meta execute this correctly, it could provide key building blocks to bringing about a metaverse free from the constraints and influences of corporate entities. However, given the history of Facebook’s prioritization of corporate interests, perhaps you can see why the chances of an “open” metaverse happening under Meta’s supervision are low.

The web started out as a universe of pages where entities existed separately from one another but could interact simply by linking to each other. It has now devolved into the universe of platforms where several big entities control large swathes of the web and attempt to make their corner of it as self-sufficient as possible by building monopolies and restricting their services to their own ecosystems. If we want to keep the Internet as a democratic and accessible forum, its next iteration needs to exist separately from the corporate intentions of its architects.

During the presentation, Zuckerberg insists on the need to design the metaverse for privacy, corporate transparency and inclusion: as the Internet does nowadays, it has to serve as a tool for empowerment and inclusion. In this regard, he claims that Meta will do everything in its power to encourage sustainable growth, including providing online courses and setting aside funds for education for developers and creators. Along with these measures, they want to introduce advertising platforms within the metaverse in the interest of offering low-cost services to creators to help them build their vision. However, we as Internet users cannot rely solely on Meta to provide the tools to build the metaverse; they will most certainly be proprietary and linked to Meta’s terms of use. If the metaverse is to enmesh our lives fully within the Internet, it should not be through the medium of a corporate entity capable of revoking our access and our rights at any time, or collecting data about more minute aspects of our life for any reason. Any ecosystem developed within the multiverse should exist independently of all companies to ensure that its services are offered with the user’s best interests in mind. As exciting as the prospect of the metaverse is, we must ensure that our vision for it remains untainted by any company’s interests and that the great tool that we have at our disposal remains accessible and democratic.

Kepler Warrington-Arroyo
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All images are taken from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKPNJ8sOU_M, so they are technically licensed by Facebook but okay to use under Fair Use