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Saturday, December 4, 2021

How Facebook’s new ‘metaverse’ could change your life forever


Facebook has announced plans to transform from a mere social media platform to an entire digital, virtual world.

Facebook is set to rebrand its company as a “metaverse” as early as next week, according to a source familiar with the matter.

This will include changing the company’ name, and in a recent interview, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said “we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company”.

While some in the tech industry are excited by the endeavour, others are sceptical. But the majority of us were left thinking, “what on earth is a metaverse?”

What’s a metaverse?

If you’ve watched or read Ready Player One, or the more recent release Free Guy, then you’ve got an idea of what a metaverse is. Essentially, it’s a virtual universe that can potentially replace many aspects of our current day-to-day life. Tech companies see it as the next stage of digital interactions that can replace the internet as we know it. If fully implemented, it is predicted to change life as we know it.

A virtual reality headset will be the gateway to the metaverse [Pexels]
To interact with the metaverse, users will need to wear a virtual reality (VR) headset, which simulates an immersive experience that isn’t achieved by a smartphone or laptop. 

VR headsets have been around for years, and companies have created games that allow people to interact with each other within a virtual experience. What makes the metaverse unique is that it won’t be owned by one specific company. It’s expected to work similarly to the internet, where no single company owns it.

Read more: The future of ‘reality’ may soon be virtual

The goal with the metaverse is to be our go-to place to interact with each other, the same way the internet is now. Tech companies want people to shop, hang out, host meetings, and attend concerts all in the metaverse. If that sounds unrealistic, think of how the internet has already taken over most of our lives. We buy clothes online, talk to friends on messaging apps, join meetings on Zoom and watch live music events on YouTube.

The next step, is to ‘live’ in this virtual world.

In an interview with The Verge, Zuckerber, shared the potential benefits of the metaverse. He explained that it’s the closest we can get to teleportation, as someone can hop into your universe in a matter of seconds. Zuckerberg expects that people will buy houses and live different realities within the virtual world.

An essay published by Matthew Ball, an influential investor, explained that one of the key criteria of a metaverse is that it must be a fully functioning economy. He added that “individuals and businesses will be able to create, own, invest, sell, and be rewarded”.

Are we far off from a metaverse?

Again, if any of this sounds unrealistic, think of how people already live a different life online with virtual clothes and how an NFT economy exists today.

We’re even closer to such a reality than you may realise. 

Games such as Fortnite or Call of Duty: Warzone offer a virtual alternative to reality. Players can buy outfits to customise their avatars and spend hours “hanging out” online. The actual game is merely an excuse that keeps people connected over a virtual space. As players hop from one game to another, the only constant is that they often like to play with friends in online “parties”.

This indicates our willingness to socialise as opposed to a pure addiction to the game itself. Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney has repeatedly expressed interest in contributing to the development of a metaverse.

Tech journalist Owen Williams wrote an article in 2018 where he explained that Fortnite is “the new hangout spot, replacing the mall”. In 2019, Epic Games acquired the popular video call app HouseParty, further implying how the company views the game as a virtual hanging out space.

What differentiates a metaverse from games such as Fortnite are two of the rules outlined by investor Matthew Ball. He wrote that a metaverse must “be an experience that spans both the digital and physical worlds” and “offer unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content, and so on across each of these experiences”.

This means that an outfit purchased for your avatar in one game must also carry over into other games and experiences. It also means that the experiences cannot be limited to the virtual world but must integrate with the real world using augmented reality.

Fortnite is more a virtual world than it is a game [Fortnite]
Such a vision requires tech companies to work together on an unprecedentedly large scale to build something they won’t directly own. Historically, this has not been the case.

Regardless, Facebook announced that it will hire ten thousand employees in Europe over the next five years to help it build the metaverse. Using this as an estimate, we likely won’t see the metaverse in action for almost another decade.

Are there any issues with a metaverse?

Facebook’s announcement comes when trust in the company is unusually low. A whistleblower recently leaked documents highlighting various incidents that exposed how the company put people at risk to sustain its profits.

Read more: ‘Toxic’ Instagram buried study that highlighted harmful impact on teens

The company has historically admitted to making many mistakes, only to move on and make more. 

In 2014, Facebook changed its mantra from “Move Fast and Break Things” to “Move Fast With Stable Infra”, though it seems like the former one still stuck around.

Zuckerberg recently compared regulating Facebook to fighting crime, adding that “no one expects that you’re ever going to fully solve crime in a city”.

For this reason, many believe it isn’t seem wise to trust Facebook with even more aspects of our lives, let alone live in a virtual world on a platform it’s building.

Another issue with the metaverse is the dystopian feature it may create. Even enthusiasts cannot deny that building a virtual world that immerses and addicts us will inevitably come with downsides. 

We gain physical and mental health benefits when we leave our homes and interact with others in person. The internet has already eaten a large chunk of that away, and we haven’t figured out a way to achieve a healthy balance of screen usage yet. 

Throwing in an entire metaverse is likely to accelerate this problem to an even faster rate, making it even harder to solve.

Read more: Dystopian tech is already here and this is why you should worry

That’s not to say a metaverse is necessarily a doom and gloom situation. Instead of replacing reality, the metaverse might work as an additional layer that enhances our experience when interacting with each other in real life.

As families and friends are geographically separated and located across the world, wouldn’t it be nice to spend some time together in the metaverse? Sure, it won’t be the real thing, but then again, neither is FaceTime.

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