What is Facebook's Metaverse then?


It does sound like something from the Marvel films but the Metaverse is a real idea that is in the pipeline for our increasingly tech shaped future. Most people only became aware of it this week when the news that the company was set to hire 10,000 people to work on it albeit from the EU rather than the UK. Which says something about Facebook’s politics and let’s not forget one Nick Clegg is the company’s head of global affairs. Indeed the news story has been spun with a Brexit twist. However, most people’s reaction was “Yeah but what is the Metaverse?”


I suppose an avalanche of negative media headlines in recent years has led to a collective suspicion of every move Facebook and other social media make even though most of us use some of them. It seems that this latest wheeze is an online world that seems to be based on gaming wherein people use Virtual Reality headsets to immerse themselves in a war against giant insects on Pluto or a platoon in World War 2. Only in the metaverse we will be similarly immersed when working or seeing friends or going to the cinema except it wouldn’t be a cinema or the football. You could try on clothes without really trying on clothes. If you see what I mean. I know it does sound a bit like being spending your whole day in an upgraded Zoom meeting!

 So what exactly is the metaverse? The word was first used by author Neal Stephenson in the 1992 novel Snow Crash where it was defined as the merging of the physical, augmented and virtual reality in a shared online space. Facebook’s statement on it partly reads: “the metaverse has the potential to help unlock access to new creative, social, and economic opportunities” sounding just like an election pitch from a politician. They reckon it might take ten to fifteen years for this to become a reality which if you look at the way virtual reality has advanced in the last fifteen years doesn’t sound impossible. Yet to non -gamers like myself it all sounds a little bit…dull. Sure we could do all that in a virtual environment but – hang on- we can actually do it in real life as well! Unless they’re anticipating a scenario in which we have regular lockdowns due to endless virus threats- yikes I’ve just outlined a horrible dystopian novel.

Those who understand all this- and advocate it- say it will free us from devices so it wouldn’t be how we imagine spending all day sat at a laptop or tablet or some other physical device. The headsets – which presumably will be more comfortable than the current iterations- will allow us to walk about in this virtual world. Imagine `headsets` that are no more irksome to wear than glasses or sunglasses. Yes, you can have that kind of experience in the current VR headsets but from what I can tell the idea is that the metaverse’s VR topography will be far more immersive than anything we can even imagine now. We’ll probably be on 16G by then of course. The vision is that screens, holograms, VR headsets and augmented reality glasses will allow fluid "movements" in physical places, a process Facebook big cheese Mark Zuckerberg called "teleportations" even if, physically, you would only move by walking or running about.

Like any newly public idea its not actually a new idea being very much based on gaming technology and various virtual reality developments. Games like Fortnite and Roblox already use the concept. I suppose the closest fictional analogy would be the Holodeck from Star Trek - The Next Generation where characters walked around in a virtual world with which they could properly interact or become Sherlock Holmes. Is it so far fetched- after all Star Trek `invented` the mobile phone in the Sixties. There are plenty of films that use the concept in one version or another from The Matrix to Free Guy. Looking ahead you can see how it could especially help older people still have some sort of experiences if they have serious physical issues. Imagine at the age of one hundred being able to run about and feel as it you are actually running about. Now that would be a positive. Technology can sometimes be wasted on the young!

The one aspect of the all this that everyone is rather coy about is the cost. It is said that Facebook will pour “billions” into the project, presumably the money they’ve saved from their reluctance to pay anything like a fair amount of tax to national governments. It is worth remembering that for all the bile poured on them at the end of the day Facebook is free “and always will be”. So will the Metaverse be free? We are used to being seduced by some amazing idea then years later discovering we will have to pay rather a lot to actually use it. Perhaps advertising will pay for it? Imagine being able to interact with adverts so you too can stand in the rain singing “Where is the Sun?” or try and un-nerve the Money Calm Bull.

The other question is whether we actually need a Metaverse at all? It suggests an escape, a balm, a hiding place from reality itself. We all need that sometimes but the striking vision outlined by Facebook suggests we might spend most of our time ensconced in this enclosed place distracted from what is happening beyond. Its probably too soon to reach conclusions about something that’s a way off yet but perhaps we can, for once, check out both the good and the bad aspects of it before falling for it unreservedly?


"Number One, I think we should sue Mike Zickenburger. Make it so."

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