Metaverse ahoy, captain

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POSTED: October 29, 2021

Yesterday Mark Zuckerberg announced the rebranding of Facebook Inc. Facebook now sits under the company as an app and a service, just like Instagram and WhatsApp. The company itself has become Meta.

As Aaron Mak put it in Slate,

On Thursday, Facebook turned its annual Connect conference on its virtual reality offerings into a brand-wide, midcrisis makeover: The company debuted a new name—Meta, replacing Facebook Inc.—and a sales pitch for the metaverse, which is essentially an internet in which users interact with one another in virtual three-dimensional spaces.

The keynote presented viewers with Facebook’s far-off vision of the metaverse, which apparently consists of people building virtual home offices and playing cards with robots in zero gravity. It was a sweeping and strange presentation, with the news of the name change reflecting the company’s stated pivot to, and substantial investment in, building the metaverse.

The Facebook platform will now just be one of the subsidiaries —along with Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus VR, and others—under the Meta parent company.

You can find other takes on all this in The Guardian and Fortune, and everywhere else on the internet.

The Verge also has an interview with Zuckerberg.

Here comes the elephant

Nobody has mentioned Second Life so far in this context. I understand that the technology involved in Zuckerberg’s dream operates at an entirely different level than the engine that drives Second Life. I understand that it will look and sound different. The underlying social and psychological problems remain the same though.

Put simply “virtual worlds” work in some contexts and not in others. Specifically they work when the point of the simulation revolves around its impossibility in real life. If you want to simulate the world of Star Trek, as arguably a game like No Man’s Sky does, the an immersive world will do nicely. If you want to run around inside Club Penguin rather than looking in from outside then an immersive world will work well.

If, on the other hand, you want to participate in a meeting with other people then Teams or Zoom, or a coming-soon even smoother version of them, have you covered. People may well feel happy negotiating with Vulcans in a metaverse, but not with venture capitalists or bank managers.

In “real” meetings people rely on visual cues and clues and these arise more naturally and in more detail using video calls than they do using avatars. Many companies tried to build upon Second Life’s success by offering “business versions”. Not one of them succeeded.

The reasons for their failures lay not in the technology but in the kinds of interactions it permits. I doubt that Zuckerberg will get any closer to solving this than anyone else ever has.

If the metaverse offers an alternative life for users, a kind of infinite World of Warcraft on steroids, then it might work for the millions of people who will learn to want that sort of thing. If they intend it to replace Zoom they I think they will get a nasty shock.

And all that needs dealing with before we get to the question of who wants to wear headsets and glasses…