This post first appeared in the Mercury News
by Larry Magid
As you’ve undoubtedly heard, Facebook has renamed itself Meta. Some people thought that was in response to the company’s recent troubles, but a company the size of Facebook doesn’t go through a major rebranding in a matter of weeks. It’s clearly been on the drawing board for months, if not longer. And, of course, a name change will do nothing to silence the company’s critics. The name Meta is to symbolize Facebook’s new product strategy — bringing social interaction, work, education and play into “the metaverse.”
Metaverse, a term coined by Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” envisions a world where humans and their avatars interact with each other and software in a virtual 3D space. It’s no longer science fiction. Virtual reality headsets from Meta-owned Oculus (now Reality Labs) and other companies have been on the market for years. It includes augmented reality where computer generated images are interspaced with the real world.
Facebook is far from alone. There are several companies with virtual reality goggles and millions of people have, for several years now, experienced a simple form of augmented reality (AR) via Pokémon GO, a game played on regular 2-D smart phones where players look for virtual monsters superimposed over real-world scenes in neighborhoods across the globe. Extended reality (XR) is a broader term that includes VR, AR and “Mixed Reality” (MR) and there are already XR experiences on iPhones, Androids and other devices.
Apple is working on its own metaverse strategy that includes existing hardware and software for iOS devices, including a lidar sensor on newer iPhones and iPads that enable software to map environments to provide that background for 3D AR applications. The company is encouraging developers to create XR experiences for iPhone and iPad and is reportedly working on other devices, including AR glasses. Snap, which owns Snapchat sells Spectacles, eye-glasses that can capture video and pictures and provide an augmented reality experience. Meta’s Reality Labs recently introduced smart glasses for capturing images and listening to audio in partnership with Ray-Ban.
In 2016, Microsoft shipped the developer version of its HoloLens mixed reality glasses and, last week, announced new features for its Teams videoconferencing service that will let companies create immersive meeting spaces where workers have the option to represent themselves as avatars by combining augmented and virtual reality experiences using either flat screens or 3D goggles, including Microsoft’s HoloLens. HoloLens, like most augmented reality glasses, is currently marketed towards manufacturing, health care, and education, but Microsoft, which owns X-Box, is no stranger to gaming and other consumer products.
Already, we’ve seen industrial applications using products like Google Glass, Vuzix M400, Microsoft HoloLens, Epson Moverio and other augmented reality smart glasses being used by airline mechanics, medical educators and other professionals to superimpose computer generated images over real-world scenes.
SATS, an airline ground handling service, is using Vuzix AR glasses so that workers at Singapore Changi Airport can scan QR codes on cargo containers to know exactly where on the plane to place the container.
But the metaverse — which is in its very early stages — will include lots of consumer products for all ages from a variety of companies. Most tech executives who are talking about it, including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, envision a world like the internet itself with open standards and interoperability. In theory, an avatar you create on one platform will also exist on other platforms just as you as a person can take your identity from one physical location to another.
Roblox, which is a gaming platform popular with pre-teens and teens, already supports virtual and augmented reality and is expected to create even more immersive environments not just in gaming but other ways people interact. Roblox games are developed by a community of independent creators, some as young as 13, who can earn money from the games they develop.
Virtually every major gaming company is likely to jump into the metaverse if they haven’t already. If you think about it, video games have for decades enabled players to portray themselves as avatars and have long been immersive and interactive. The metaverse will take this into another level and include realistic looking images and experiences including 3D images of the players themselves, which can look just like they do in real life or morph into a fantasy version of ourselves represented in other life forms, genders, or non-life forms such as robots. There are already camera arrays that can capture people in motion and render 3D images that can make us look however we want to look as we move about the screen. The metaverse will also have economic components, including cryptocurrencies, advertising and ways to sell both physical and virtual products along with services.
Safety and privacy
Just as the internet created challenges for safety, privacy and security, the metaverse will add even more challenges. Safety experts, including myself and my colleagues at ConnectSafely.org, worry about stalking, bullying and uncivil behavior in virtual or mixed reality worlds. The metaverse could provide forums for misinformation and manipulation. There will of course be advertising, and as Brittan Heller and Avi Bar-Zeev wrote in The Problems with Immersive Advertising: In AR/VR, Nobody Knows You Are an Ad for the inaugural issue of the Journal of Online Trust and Safety, “Imagine five years from now, you’re walking down a street wearing your own mixed reality glasses… A virtual car drives by — it’s no coincidence that it’s the exact model you’ve been saving for.” Without regulations to prevent it, advertising in the metaverse could make today’s TV and movie product placement seem as ancient as grainy old black and white silent movies.
During his keynote where he unveiled the metaverse work and the new company name, Zuckerberg said the right thing, “Interoperability, open standards, privacy and safety need to be built into the metaverse on day one.” I couldn’t agree more, but to pull this off, Zuckerberg not only has to keep his own employees and algorithms from allowing harm, but also police the thousands of developers expected to create products that work inside the metaverse. Because we are at the very early stage of this new technology, there is opportunity to do it right. Imagine if Henry Ford or government regulators put in more effort trying to prevent the Model T and the cars to follow from harming their occupants, other motorists, pedestrians, the environment and the world’s cities. If so, perhaps we wouldn’t have had the destruction of urban mass transit, as much carnage on our highways, and the environmental and health problems that the automobile has unleashed.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives financial support from both Google and Facebook.