When Facebook first launched in 2004, no one had any idea of the scope it would have just a decade later, or the way it would participate in a societal shift towards digital platforms and new social technologies.
In an effort to preempt future technologies this time, and build on the impact of the platform, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a rebranding and change in his company’s vision.
That new brand is Meta, and its vision is to create a whole new virtual reality (VR)-based social experience called the metaverse. Zuckerberg’s founder’s letter, published in late October of this year, goes into further detail on what that means.
Why Meta? What is the Metaverse?
Speculation and metacommentary aside, taken at face value, Facebook’s rebranding is part of a completely new direction for the company, but one that still remains true to what it’s been focused on over the years – social networking, and the ability to connect and remain connected through the Internet. Except rather than relying on the interface of an app or website, and the medium of a screen, Meta’s metaverse will be utilizing virtual reality.
With the news being so new, there are very few concrete details on what the metaverse will look like, or what it intends to consist of.
What we have are a few details from Zuckerberg on his vision for the project, including his hope that “within the next decade, the metaverse will reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers.” Meta states that it seeks to invest $10 billion over the next year alone to further develop the technologies needed to build the metaverse.
This tells us two things: First, Meta is extremely invested in this. The financial commitment is immense, and with it comes a massive manpower commitment as well.
Secondly, Meta intends for the metaverse to be as ubiquitous as Facebook is now. It’s more than a potential new avenue for games. As Zuckerberg claims: “You will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up.”
Virtual reality is far from a new venture for Facebook. The Facebook company purchased VR company Oculus VR in March 2014, for $2 billion, seeing the creation and commercial release of the Oculus Rift and Rift S, following several development kits, and associated software (the Oculus Home and Oculus Store). Oculus’s VR technology has seen applications in gaming, sports, television, education, and media since its purchase by Facebook.
The investment in VR was more than just a way for Facebook to diversify.
Facebook and VR
John Carmack, who was behind much of the technical development of Oculus’ VR technology and joined the company after spending decades programming revolutionary game engines for id Software, spoke up about Oculus VR’s acquisition under Facebook as a sign that the company “get[s] the big picture as I see it, and will be a powerful force towards making it happen. You don’t make a commitment like they just did on a whim.”
However, he has been bullish on the actual creation of the metaverse since before the acquisition of Oculus. “I have pretty good reasons to believe that setting out to build the metaverse is not actually the best way to wind up with the metaverse,” he stated at his Facebook Connect keynote following the announcement by Zuckerberg.
“The most obvious path to the metaverse is that you have one single universal app, something like Roblox. I doubt a single application will get to that level of taking over everything.” Roblox is an online game platform marketed as the “ultimate virtual universe”, first released in 2004, with an average of over 224 million monthly players.
His arguments against the intentional creation of a metaverse under Meta’s new direction is that its walled-garden nature would make it too vulnerable to collapse under the weight of individual bad decisions by the application’s managers and executives.
“But here we are,” Carmack ultimately stated. “Mark Zuckerberg has decided that now is the time to build the metaverse, so enormous wheels are turning, and resources are flowing and the effort is definitely going to be made.”
But not all of what he said was sceptical. Concurrent to the announcement, Meta also marketed its VR products Horizon Workrooms and Horizon Worlds, both of which attempt to provide context for what something like the metaverse might look like, on the smaller scale of workspaces and public media events, respectively. With respect to products like that, and the technology associated with them, Carmack stated that: “interacting with other avatars in Workrooms, in particular, can be much more enjoyable than staring at a wall of Zoom faces”.
But these are ultimately small-scale applications with up to 16 other people, versus the envisioned application of VR as a virtual world, where live events with thousands of concurrent users would be possible.
“Everybody that wants to work on the metaverse talks about the limitless possibilities of it,” Carmack said. “But it’s not limitless. It is a challenge to fit things in, but you can make smarter decisions about exactly what is important and then really optimize the heck out of things.”
What Does This Mean for Facebook?
There’s a lot of work left between the proof-of-concept VR technology Oculus and Meta have provided, and the vision Mark Zuckerberg presented this year. But $10 billion is no small investment, and Rome wasn’t built in a day.
If the metaverse, as it’s envisioned, is the next step in social networking, then we might be looking at a literal new plane of reality for in-person events, content creation, large-scale gatherings and small private meetings alike.
On other concrete notes, Meta will start trading under the stock ticker MVRS on December 1, 2021, and Meta intends to report on two new operating segments related to the metaverse in the fourth quarter of 2021, titled Family of Apps and Reality Labs.
Does This Affect Me?
If you’re a marketer for a major global brand, then it might affect you sooner rather than later. Zuckerberg has already alluded to new opportunities for companies interested in digital goods, and as we’ve mentioned, the metaverse will undoubtedly become a new “frontier for advertising”.
But smaller companies shouldn’t write this off as a billionaire’s pipedream, or an elaborate attempt at sweeping headlines related to recent whistleblowing revelations under the rug. If the metaverse is indeed coming to a VR headset near you, it’s sure to present more than a few interesting challenges and opportunities to engage with audiences in a way that’s never been done before.
Was this a good move? Who knows. Scepticism and backlash are certainly at an all-time high, and Meta isn’t exactly the best rebrand we’ve ever seen (far from it). But only time will tell.