The term metaverse continues to be a runaway train in spatial computing circles. Though it has legitimate principles and promise  – astutely examined by Matthew Ball and Avi Bar-Zeev among others – it’s been obscured through overuse in marketing and generalist media.

Broadly speaking, the metaverse denotes 3D virtual spaces that host time-syncronous interaction among place-shifted participants. Zuckerberg calls it an “embodied internet,” while Tim Sweeney calls it a “3D social medium where people create and engage in shared experiences.”

But this ritual of defining the metaverse is a double-edged sword. It’s too early and abstract for certain terms, yet it’s productive to conceptualize it. Facebook is leading this charge through various public dialogues, which we can expect to see more at the upcoming Facebook Connect.

Until then, the most recent such activity was a virtual event hosted by The Atlantic and sponsored by Facebook. Consisting of various interviews with Facebook execs such as Andrew Bosworth and Nick Clegg, it’s the focus of this week’s XR Talks (video & takeaways below).

What’s Behind Facebook’s Metaverse Play?

Follow the Money

First, why is Facebook putting so much priority on the metaverse, including potentially changing its name to reflect that mission? It’s the same reason as its VR play – to future proof its business. It sees the future of social and workplace interaction happening in 3D.

But a misconception about Facebook’s vision for the metaverse is that it wants to own the whole thing. This notion is repeated in editorials that either assume or misquote the company’s metaverse aspirations. Its actual comments support an open and interoperable metaverse.

Of course you may not believe its words, so instead follow the money. Facebook stands to benefit more from an open and decentralized metaverse than a closed one that it solely controls. The latter seems ideal at first but not after looking at how Facebook makes money.

In other words, Facebook makes tens of billions of dollars every quarter by being a gateway to, and social framework around, a massively scaled and decentralized web. It would diminish its own addressable market (advertisers) if it were to build its own insular web or metaverse.

Indeed, the model that many people, including Facebook, often apply to the metaverse is today’s web. It has a certain balance of openness and proprietary interest. The former makes it scale while the latter provides incentive for companies to innovate and invest in web presence.

What’s Behind Facebook’s Metaverse Play? Part II

Get it Right this Time 

But the web isn’t all good. The inception of the metaverse – though it’s years or decades away from actualization – offers an opportunity to rethink and reinvent the parts about today’s web that are inequitable or suboptimal. And privacy reform is at the top of that list.

To address that privacy point, Facebook’s Nick Clegg argues that the company will get it right this time when it comes to responsible data use. He points to the long runway for the metaverse as a way for Facebook to engineer its place in that world in slower and more thoughtful ways.

He contrasts that to the speed at which social media errupted in the past decade. The “move fast and break things” ethos that caused lots of damage was a product of a land-grab attitude to blitzscale a new market. Or at least that’s the angle Facebook is applying in retrospect.

But despite its misdeeds and data misuse, credit is due for investing aggressively to jumpstart spatial computing. It’s selling VR hardware at a loss and hiring tens of thousands of AR and VR pros. It’s doing this for its own long-term interest but will lift other boats in the process.

Andrew Bosworth points to Xerox Parc as an historical analogy. In jumpstarting the PC revolution, it had to invest ahead of returns as a research center. This is the model for Facebook Reality Labs, which will hopefully have equally-meaningful results. That’s an open question.

We’ll pause there and cue the full video below…

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