Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been making a lot of noise in the past few months about the “metaverse”, and now has changed his company’s name from Facebook to “Meta Platforms” (MVRS on the NASDAQ). What, you may ask, is the metaverse?
The term itself has been around for a while. Wikipedia defines it as, ”The metaverse is an iteration of the Internet part of shared virtual reality, often as a form of social media. The metaverse in a broader sense may not only refer to virtual worlds operated by social media companies but the entire spectrum of augmented reality.” In the near term, it will to be embodied by people wearing headsets with Augmented Reality (AR) goggles (with little projector screens in front of your eyes) connected over the internet to other people wearing AR googles. Instead of seeing people on flat screens (think Zoom calls), both you and they will seem to be in the same room, interacting with each other in 3-D. You and they will each be represented by digitally constructed avatars. Eventually your body would have various sensors attached to it to convey your position and motions, and your sense of touch for objects you are handling. For instance, this just in:
Together with scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, artificial intelligence researchers at Meta created a deformable plastic “skin” less than 3 millimeters thick….When the skin comes into contact with another surface, the magnetic field from the embedded particles changes. The sensor records the change in magnetic flux, before feeding the data to some AI software, which attempts to understand the force or touch that has been applied.
Zuckerberg gave a presentation on October 28 touting his company’s pivot. In his words:
The next platform and medium will be even more immersive, an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it, and we call this the metaverse….When you play a game with your friends, you’ll feel like you’re right there together in a different world, not just on your computer by yourself. And when you’re in a meeting in the metaverse, it’ll feel like you’re right in the room together, making eye contact, having a shared sense of space and not just looking at a grid of faces on a screen. That’s what we mean by an embodied internet. Instead of looking at a screen, you’re going to be in these experiences. You’re going to really feel like you’re there with other people. You’ll see their face expressions. You’ll see their body language. Maybe figure out if they’re actually holding a winning hand…
Next, there are avatars, and that’s how we’re going to represent ourselves in the metaverse. Avatars will be as common as profile pictures today, but instead of a static image, they’re going to be living 3D representations of you, your expressions, your gestures that are going to make interactions much richer than anything that’s possible online today. You’ll probably have a photo realistic avatar for work, a stylized one for hanging out and maybe even a fantasy one for gaming. You’re going to have a wardrobe of virtual clothes for different occasions designed by different creators and from different apps and experiences.
Beyond avatars, there is your home space. You’re going to be able to design it to look the way you want, maybe put up your own pictures and videos and store your digital goods. You’re going to be able to invite people over, play games and hang out. You’ll also even have a home office where you can work…
We believe that neural interfaces are going to be an important part of how we interact with AR glasses, and more specifically EMG input from the muscles on your wrist combined with contextualized AI. It turns out that we all have unused neuromotor pathways, and with simple and perhaps even imperceptible gestures, sensors will one day be able to translate those neuromotor signals into digital commands that enable you to control your devices. It’s pretty wild.
The reactions to all this I have seen on the internet have not been particularly positive. Some suggest that this is largely a publicity stunt to deflect attention from recent revelations of hypocritical and harmful decisions by Facebook management. The Guardian scoffs:
First came the Facebook papers, a series of blockbuster reports in the Wall Street Journal based on a cache of internal documents leaked by Frances Haugen, a former employee turned whistleblower.
The dam broke wider last week after Haugen shared the documents with a wider consortium of news publications, which have published a slew of stories outlining how Facebook knew its products were stoking real-world violence and aggravating mental health problems, but refused to change them.
Now the regulatory sharks are circling. Haugen recently testified before US and UK lawmakers, heightening calls to hold the company to account.
Facebook, meanwhile, appeared to be living in another universe. Its rebrand to Meta this week has prompted ridicule and incredulity that a company charged with eroding the bedrock of global democracy would venture into a new dimension without apologizing for the havoc it wreaked on this one.
Ouch. Privacy advocates are concerned about the implications of identity theft taken into the 3D domain: imagine some malicious actor sending a realistic avatar of you around cyberspace doing things you would not do. Also, it is widely recognized that too much time on today’s (flat) screens is unhealthy; how would 3D glasses make that better?
Scott Rosenburg at Axios notes some more prosaic shortcomings of Zuck’s beatific vision:
The real you is just sitting in a chair wearing goggles…The video mock-ups of the metaverse Zuckerberg unveiled showed us what remote-presence wizardry might look like from within the 3D dimension. But they omitted the prosaic reality of most current VR… Right now, the metaverse isn’t “embodied” at all. It’s an out-of-body experience where your senses take you somewhere else and leave your body behind on a chair or couch or standing like a blindfolded prisoner…
Today’s headsets mostly block out the “real world” — and sometimes induce wooziness, headaches and even nausea. Why it matters: If you fear screen time atrophies your flesh and cramps your soul or find Zoom drains your energy, wait till you experience metaverse overload….
Virtual-world makers will feel the same incentives to boost engagement and hold onto users’ eyeballs in the metaverse that they have on today’s social platforms.
That could leave us all nostalgic for our current era of screen-blurred vision, misinformation-filled newsfeeds and privacy compromises.