Facebook’s metaverse fantasy | Financial Times


Mark Zuckerberg introduces Oculus Quest headset on stage in 2019
Zuckerberg’s metaverse world. The company plans to create 10,000 new jobs in the Europe over the next five years to build products that will serve the metaverse © AFP via Getty Images

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Mark Zuckerberg has several pressing problems to cope with.

The Facebook founder and chief executive is facing the biggest public relations crisis since the Cambridge Analytica scandal after a whistleblower accused the company of putting profits before user safety and misleading investors. The revelations come as the US Congress inches closer to passing a package of bills that could force the company to break up its social media empire, which incorporates WhatsApp and Instagram.

But Zuckerberg is busy drawing up plans to build the internet of the future — also known as the “metaverse”.

On Sunday, Facebook announced plans to create 10,000 new jobs in the European Union over the next five years to build products that will serve the metaverse — an interconnected virtual world enhanced by augmented and virtual reality around which online avatars and digital goods can move seamlessly. The company says its products will be interoperable with those from other tech firms in order to build a cohesive cyber space.

This development has #techFT questioning whether Zuckerberg’s grand ambition to steward the internet’s future development is anything more than a distraction away from the litany of crises the company faces today?

What is the metaverse?

The mysterious world of the metaverse may be new to readers who have not seen The Matrix series. The concept originated in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel Snow Crash, depicting a world where humans interact through avatars in a three-dimensional virtual space created through a combination of physical, augmented and virtual realities. The idea is updated in the Wachowski sisters’ films, where humans are unknowingly trapped in a metaverse called the Matrix.

In an interview with The Verge in July, Zuckerberg said, “you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.”

Facebook plans to build a set of interconnected worlds using VR and AR that users access through PCs, mobile devices, and game consoles. Imagine a world where you will be “teleported” through a digital avatar into a conference meeting room. Imagine, after work, your hologram sits on a friend’s couch enabling you to watch a film together without either party stepping out of the front door.

The goal is to bring the world’s physicality into virtual communications and “give people that sense of presence”, says Zuckerberg.

The Facebook boss argues VR and AR can fill gaps created by the videoconferencing technology the world has grown accustomed to during the pandemic. He blames the uniformity of online meetings for dulling sensory experiences, which in turn makes social interactions more forgettable: “I sometimes find it hard to remember what meeting someone said something in because they all look the same and they all blend together. And I think part of that is because we don’t have this sense of presence in space.”

Is Zuckerberg’s metaverse out of touch with . . . reality?

The metaverse will incorporate different technologies including cryptocurrency, NFTs and live-streaming. For the part of the metaverse governing social interaction, VR and AR will be essential. The two are often spoken of simultaneously without sufficient explanation of how their underlying technologies differ. VR headsets obscure the user’s vision, replacing it with a virtual environment beamed through in-built screens. By contrast, AR devices such as smart glasses enhance users’ surroundings, projecting new information on top of what they are already seeing.

VR headsets is provide an immersive virtual experience © Getty Images

. . . while AR devices uses real-world settings © Snap

VR and AR have promise in certain industries. Gaming companies are slowly making better use of VR, although even on this front, innovation has been disappointing. The retail sector is experimenting with AR to encourage consumers to buy fashion and beauty products.

But Zuckerberg’s vision is for the metaverse to enhance interactions between individuals in different places. He envisages office workers, school friends and gamers alike turning to Facebook’s metaverse to collaborate, socialise and compete with one another. Facebook is, after all, a social media company.

But the jury is still out on whether VR and AR bring something that consumers are really missing in long-distance interactions. It might be cool to be transported to a different planet when video gaming, but do I really need to see my colleague’s face in 3D rather than 2D during morning meetings? I’m not so sure.

For the metaverse to be as transformative as preceding technological innovations including the fax machine, computer and smartphone, it needs at a minimum to bring convenience to our lives. Tech that has successfully embedded into our daily routines can make this claim towards bringing convenience, including, it should be noted the embattled social media site that Zuckerberg founded.

The Internet of (Five) Things

1. Eyeballing crypto
More than 100,000 people have had their eyes scanned in return for a cryptocurrency called Worldcoin, as a project to distribute digital money more widely around the world accelerates. Worldcoin has distributed about 30 iris-scanning hardware devices, which they call “orbs”, to early users on four continents, who get rewards for signing up more people. Orbs take photos of a user’s eyeballs, creating a unique code that can be used to claim free digital tokens. The project amounts to one of the most ambitious and complex attempts to hand out cryptocurrency to the world’s population, similar to the economic concept of universal basic income. The project has already faced feverish criticism, and its own developers admit the “outcome is uncertain”.

2. Quantum goes public
Investors are turning to quantum computing companies as the 35-year-old field transforms from a scientific endeavour into a burgeoning industry. Two start-ups with blueprints for a working quantum computer this month have made or announced their stock market debuts. IonQ became the first quantum computing company to pull off a listing with its debut on the New York Stock Exchange. It has a market capitalisation of about $2bn. A week later, Rigetti Computing announced it too would float by being acquired by a special purpose acquisition company, a type of listed cash shell. The deal values it at about $1.5bn.

3. Netflix grapples with a clash in values
The video streaming service has defined itself with a radical, “no rules” corporate culture, extolling the importance of both creative freedom and progressive values. But now those two ideals are crashing into one another. Dozens of Netflix workers staged a walkout in protest against the company’s decision to stream The Closer, Dave Chappelle’s comedy special in which the stand-up comedian make mocking references to transgender people. The walkout was greeted by protesters who said they were not demanding that the Chappelle special be removed from the streaming platform. Instead, they are calling for Netflix to invest as much money in “trans and non-binary content” as it does in “transphobic content”.

4. Trump’s moment of TRUTH
Donald Trump is launching a social media platform called TRUTH Social, which will go public via a merger with a blank-cheque company, as the former US president seeks to capitalise on his popularity among a large chunk of Republicans. The move comes after months of speculation about whether Trump would launch a media company to compete with Twitter and Facebook and set the stage for another presidential run in 2024. Trump, who used Twitter extensively during his 2016 campaign and four years in office, was banned from the platform, along with Facebook, YouTube and other big social media networks in the wake of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

5. Abu Dhabi pension fund goes to Indonesia
The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is leading a fundraising for Indonesia’s GoTo that is expected to increase the valuation of the south-east Asian country’s biggest start-up to at least $28.5bn. An ADIA subsidiary is contributing $400m of the $1.5bn fundraising for the Indonesian super app, which offers ride-hailing, food delivery, ecommerce and financial services across south-east Asia. The funding round comes ahead of a planned public listing by GoTo next year. The pension fund has already pledged to invest billions of dollars in south-east Asia’s biggest economy, including Indonesia’s new sovereign wealth fund.

Forwarded from Sifted — the European start-up week

Forget what Goldman Sachs said about useful quantum computing being five years away in finance. Banks can already get a 100-fold advantage by using quantum computers to solve problems such as portfolio optimisation and fraud detection fraud, according to Spanish start-up Multiverse Computing. The company, which raised a €10m seed funding round this week, has developed a quantum software product that it is supplying to customers including BBVA, Bankia, the European Tax Agency and the Bank of Canada.

Elsewhere in European start-ups, Nik Storonsky, the founder of London fintech Revolut, has opened a family office in London, months after becoming a billionaire. Companies House records show that the 37-year-old entrepreneur incorporated the office last month under the Storonsky family name.

The new fund raises the possibility that he could begin investing part of his estimated $7bn wealth into tech start-ups, having already backed some companies such as Sweden’s Tink. In the past, successful tech founders such as Wise’s Taavet Hinrikus and Checkout.com’s Guillaume Pousaz have opened family offices to ramp up their angel investment.

Tech tools

The HTC Vive Pro 2 Full Kit hits the shelves this month, which includes the latest iteration of the company’s virtual reality headset. The Vive Pro 2 is the leading consumer-available VR headset in terms of visuals but comes at a high price. The headset alone costs £719, while the full kit which includes controllers and base stations retails at £1,299. The headset is a bit clunky but has impressive visuals including a field of view of 120 degrees and a refresh rate of 120Hz, allowing for a smoother VR gaming experience.

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