As you’ve likely heard, Facebook advanced its already formidable spatial computing ambitions this week by launching a division to bring it closer to the metaverse. Operating under Facebook Reality Labs (FRL), it will federate several products under a common goal.
That common goal was further reinforced through Mark Zuckerberg’s public comments this week that Facebook will transition over the next decade into a metaverse company. That’s right, he’s the latest to get caught up in the industry buzzword that seems to be inserted into every sentence.
To expand on that, ‘metaverse’ isn’t a new concept, defining digital worlds that host synchronous human interaction. But it’s been amplified over the past six months — with some legitimate discussion and some overused and vague marketing hype (as it often goes with buzzwords).
Zuckerberg is in the former camp, with some well-formulated visions for how the metaverse will play out, and what it means for Facebook. As he explained on Facebook’s Q2 earnings call:
“I wanted to discuss this now so that you can see the future that we’re working towards and how our major initiatives across the company are going to map to that […] What is the metaverse? It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”
But before Facebook’s earnings call, Zuckerberg appeared on the Vergecast to discuss his Metaverse ambitions, which we’re featuring for this week’s XR Talks (embedded audio and takeaways below).
Defining the Metaverse
Building on Zuckerberg’s above definition of the metaverse, another way to think about it is through the lens of today’s metaverse-like experiences. Those that have probably come closest are MMOs like Roblox or Fortnite. They’re synchronous in time but allow users to placeshift.
In other words, you can experience something with far-flung friends, represented by an avatar, where time is synced but your location is shifted to a common digital environment. If you think about it, this is the way the web operates — including Facebook to some degree — but in 2D.
“You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet,” Zuckerburg said, “where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage.“
With that framework, the idea is that the metaverse will offer things that the web offers today, including work, entertainment, social connections. It also makes experiences possible that weren’t appealing in two dimensions — such as virtual business events or concerts.
In that way, Zuckerberg thinks of the metaverse as the Internet’s successor (insert Pied Piper joke). And he’s making moves now to steer it, which Facebook failed to do in the smartphone era by owning a small piece of the stack. This is why it’s building AR and VR hardware and an OS.
Facebook Connect: The AR Angle
Ironically for a company known for walled gardens, Zuckerberg believes that the metaverse will have to be interoperable with many different companies and networks. This makes it sort of like the web in that it has several entities and walled gardens, but common standards.
Those standards include things like languages (HTML) transfer protocols (HTTPS), organizational layers (search), and accepted formats for interaction (social networks). The vision for the metaverse is to keep these principles but elevate them to three-dimensional co-presence.
Beyond multiple entities and networks, Zuckerberg also supports the idea of several platforms and devices to interface with the metaverse. That means it should be interoperable with VR headsets, as well as smartphones and other legacy devices….just as tools like Spatial do today.
This makes sense, as Facebook was born and built on the concepts of scale and network effect. It does that by being the social connective tissue for the web. If it’s going to do the same in the metaverse, it has to involve more devices than still-nascent VR and AR headsets.
And that brings us full circle to the term metaverse itself. Though jargony, it’s a smart term for Facebook to adopt in that it’s more expansive than “XR.” Mainstream consumers don’t like acronyms, nor intimidating hardware. The metaverse represents a bigger business opportunity.
“The metaverse isn’t just VR,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to be accessible across all of our different computing platforms; VR and AR, but also PC, and also mobile devices and game consoles.“
We’ll pause there and cue the full interview below…