Several upper-echelon tech companies announced earnings recently, including Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. They all have some things in common. They’re all making lots of money: Each benefited because they are mainly digital companies, well positioned to profit from the increased time we spent within digital spaces during the pandemic. And they all have a stake in something called the “metaverse.”
What’s that? The metaverse is a sort of shared digital reality experienced within the lenses of augmented reality glasses or within the sealed-in space of virtual reality headgear—a digital world where you can work, play, and socialize. (The term comes from the Neal Stephenson sci-fi novel Snow Crash.)
The tech company talking the loudest about the metaverse lately is Facebook. In an interview with The Verge’s Casey Newton, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this: “I think over the next five years or so, in this next chapter of our company, I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”
Facebook believes its users will eventually experience the social network not on a smartphone screen but superimposed over the real world they see through the AR glasses. The company is now exploring how to create a map of the real world so that this digital, social layer can be put over it, with certain digital items anchored to certain physical places. In one use case the glasses may superimpose around the head of a person approaching in the real world that person’s social information such as name, city, relationship status, interests, and message history. Virtual meetings between avatars can happen within real-world spaces. Cameras within the glasses will detect where the user’s eyes are moving.
The idea that Facebook might be moving in this direction is far from new: But one of the advantages of Zuckerberg talking up the metaverse now is that it gives us more time to fully process all the negative repercussions if Facebook were to play as big a role as it does in today’s online social spaces.
As more people spend even more time in digital space, what’s to stop Facebook from capturing them? Despite the arguments of Facebook’s lawyers, the company faces little real competition as an all-purpose social network. It’s worth paying attention when a company as big, rich, and ambitious as Facebook is talking about creating an alternate, digital universe. Building a successful metaverse might deliver Facebook from an old conundrum: Its reliance on Apple’s and Google’s app stores and smartphone operating systems. Such a platform could also put Facebook in a position to access unprecedented levels of personal information about its users, and about people its users encounter in the real world.
Who knows what consumers will ultimately accept, but some very big companies (including Facebook) are betting big money that some flavor of mixed-reality glasses will be our next big personal computing platform. Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and numerous smaller players are putting increasing numbers of people behind overcoming the technical hurdles preventing the creation of a pair of AR glasses that are small and light enough for all-day wear.
The quality of mixed-reality content, and how well it’s integrated around and within the real world in front of our eyes, may determine whether people eventually adopt it. If it’s done artfully, the little displays within the glasses might become our main computing environment. We’d no longer have to keep our noses in our smartphone screens, which would be nice, but at the same time the canvas of software makers and platform operators would become far bigger. The user interface would overlay most of the world in front of our eyes. It would be far more immersive, and could easily take up even more of our attention. The technology would grow closer—potentially in a far better position to mediate our experiences and know things about us. We’d need to trust it.
That’s why Facebook is the wrong company to operate this computing platform. Within the metaverse, where user privacy could be greatly exposed, the company’s worst instincts might be magnified as it harvests user data and keeps the ad machine humming. In the metaverse there will be much more opportunity for commerce; users would have to trust Facebook not to clutter the world in front of them with flashing ads and offers of digital goods. There’d be more content to moderate, and Facebook would likely continue relying heavily on artificial intelligence to do it. There’d be new ways for content to go viral in a metaverse, and Facebook might continue to struggle as misinformation and disinformation proliferates.
If the next big personal computing platform turns out to be a metaverse within mixed-reality glasses, it could unleash all kinds of creativity and new experiences. Let us hope it also brings with it a totally new kind of social network—one that is far less centrally controlled, better moderated, not dependent on user surveillance, and less rewarding of misleading content.