BY Wesley Diphoko 4 MINUTE READ

If you are on Facebook you probably have your own Avatar by now. If not, you will probably have one soon. If you are not familiar with them, they are a cartoon-like version of yourself on Facebook. One of South Africa’s gadget and technology magazines has declared them as unnecessary. The writer went on to say they are dumb. This is far from the truth, here are key reasons why they matter at least for FACEBOOK.

In 2014 Facebook announced that it had reached a definitive agreement to acquire Oculus VR, Inc., the leader in immersive virtual reality technology, for a total of approximately $2 billion. 

Why would a social networking company pay so much money for a hardware company? 

At the time Oculus was a leader in immersive virtual reality technology and it had already built strong interest among developers. In its announcement about the acquisition, Facebook mentioned that the plan was to extend Oculus’ existing advantage in gaming to new verticals, including communications, media and entertainment, education, and other areas. The statement went on to emphasise that given these broad potential applications, virtual reality technology is a strong candidate to emerge as the next social and communications platform. Facebook has since struggled to get market traction beyond a niche audience because of the hefty price of VR headsets and the amount of technology required to use them.

Enter Facebook Horizon, a virtual reality sandbox universe where you can build your own environments and games, play and socialize with friends, or just explore the user-generated landscapes. This is Facebook’s take on Second Life, another virtual reality social network.

The social platform was  launched in closed beta this year, providing a space for collaborative, shareable creations, virtual exploration and multiplayer gaming.

Back in 2017, Zuckerberg said that the company wanted to “get a billion people in virtual reality. This is where your avatar comes in. Facebook will do everything in its power to get a billion users for Facebook Horizon and existing users of Facebook can easily make this a reality. Your avatar is also more important for other key reasons.

One of the key features within Facebook Horizon is commerce. Users will be able to buy and pay for services on the virtual social platform. Users for instance will be able to attend virtual events within the virtual space and to do this they will have to pay. Some of the items that you will buy will be critical for the offline world as well, education (e-learning) is one example that comes to mind. 

Facebook is also working on new kinds of social things, from new forms of business cards to new kinds of virtual games you will play in the park with your friends. All of these require having everyone using the real-world identity. The social graph you have on Facebook (or its other properties like Whatsapp, Instagram, Messenger, etc) is hugely important and will be more so by 2025 as XR glasses come along, enabling new ways to work together and play.

Recently Facebook has informed current users of Oculus headsets that they need to have Facebook accounts or identities in order to continue using the headsets. 

Starting later this year, you’ll only be able to sign up for an Oculus account through Facebook. If you already have an account, you’ll be prompted to permanently merge your account. If you don’t, you’ll be able to use the headset normally until 2023, at which point official support will end. Old headsets using non-linked accounts will still work, but some games and apps may no longer function. Developers can keep using an unlinked developer account without social functionality. In simple terms, your Facebook identity has become the most important item in the development of future products on Facebook. Your Facebook avatar will be your key identity going forward to play on the Facebook virtual world. Without it, you cannot become a citizen of the Facebook virtual world.

In other words, Facebook is angling to become the WeChat of the West, where everything you do in the ever-expanding digital world can be accessed through its platform.

Facebook is moving users into its virtual world, known as Facebook Horizon. As part of this process, the global social network is slowly familiarising its users with its social virtual world. Before you know it you will be part of the Facebook virtual social network.

Broadly speaking, we are undergoing a move towards the fourth phase of computing, known as Spatial computing. Users of technology have undergone 3 major phases in the evolution of computing. The first one had to do with the beginning of personal computing and the interface being text-based. The second phase, graphics, and color capabilities were later included. Movement and mobility were added with the third phase in the form of mobile phones.

As indicated, we are now moving towards the fourth phase. This phase is mainly inspired by the transition from physical to virtual space. Spatial Computing comprises all software and hardware technologies that enable humans, virtual beings, or robots to move through real or virtual worlds, and includes Artificial Intelligence, Computer Vision, Augmented Reality (AR), VR, Sensor Technology, and Automated Vehicles. This phase in the evolution of technology will impact mainly the following industries: Transportation; Technology, Media, and Telecommunications (TMT); Manufacturing; Retail; Healthcare; Finance; and Education. 

We are at the early stages of moving towards this fourth phase of computing. Avatars are conscientising users with this new world of computing. It will be difficult to avoid for those concerned about privacy. Facebook will not be alone in this game. Other leading tech giants are also working on their own VR glasses which will be key as we move towards the fourth phase of computing. Apple is reportedly working on one, Microsoft Hololens is just another tool that will form part of this transition. Soon Facebook will reveal the real strategy behind the Avatars that are popping everywhere. For now, understand that Avatars are not just nice cartoons version of yourself or unnecessary dumb idea, they are your identity on the social virtual reality world.

Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of Fast Company (SA) magazine. Follow him on Twitter via @WesleyDiphoko