Technology'Metaverse': the virtual world where Zuckerberg wants you to shop, have fun...

‘Metaverse’: the virtual world where Zuckerberg wants you to shop, have fun and work

The rumors were true. Facebook is now called Meta, and that name change has to do with its great bet for the future: developing a kind of virtual world, the metaverse, in which the company intends that we all spend a good part of our lives. We will go to him to interact with each other, to entertain ourselves, to work, to study, to play sports. And to buy, of course. With only virtual reality glasses (which ones have not yet been specified) and an internet connection, the user will be able to immerse themselves in that parallel universe that promises to revolutionize our idea of ​​the internet. A project to which the founder of the company, Mark Zuckerberg, trusts the future of his empire, born with the purpose of improving the world and accused 17 years after contributing to some of the worst evils that afflict it.

After having almost half of humanity pending on their social networks, the young tycoon considers that it is necessary to give a twist to his project. The metaverse, Zuckerberg said Thursday at his company’s annual developer event, is the logical evolution of the network, which does not give more than itself. It’s taking Facebook to the next level. Until now, our experience in cyberspace was limited to surfing the web or handling applications. The digital world existed on the screens of our devices; When you took your eyes off your cell phone or computer, that world was turned off. The metaverse is to get into it. In a universe, yes, designed and modeled by Facebook (or Meta), where everything we see, hear and touch is a virtual reality experience. A gigantic technological challenge to which the company also ties its financial future. According to Zuckerberg, this parallel world will move “hundreds of billions of dollars” in the next ten years. Bloomberg Intelligence puts the business at about $ 800 billion by 2024.

Two friends attend a concert in the ‘metaverse’. This environment does not yet exist, neither do the avatars: it is a recreation of what Meta aspires to achieve.

The Menlo Park company’s turn of the wheel comes after several weeks of leaks that have eroded its image and credibility. The announcement of the change in strategy may have been rushed looking for a coup d’état to cover the dirty laundry that was coming to light. But metaverse It has been cooking for a long time. “Many months ago we had set the date for the presentation in society of Meta for this Thursday. The news has not altered our strategy ”, Laurent Solly, Meta’s vice president for Southern Europe, assures EL PAÍS by video call.

As the journalists Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang show in their book Manipulated (Debate), already in the spring of 2016, when the first alarms about possible Russian interference in the elections that would take place in November jumped (and went unheard, as confirmed by the Facebook papers), the Facebook engineering team was “ totally committed to making the audacious vision of the company that its founder had for the next ten years come true, which included important advances in the fields of artificial intelligence and virtual reality ”.

The metaverse It was thus an old Zuckerberg obsession. AND Zuck he does not obsess over anything. For many years, the founder of Facebook only looked at two: improve the experience of his social network and increase the number of users. Convert one start-up That he only burned money in a profitable company, he left it to others (he entrusted the task to COO Sheryl Sandberg, who he signed from Google). The bet was round to him: the critical mass of users that it managed to gather, about 2,900 million today, is so large and the amount of data it gets from each one of them so diverse that advertisers fight to put advertising on their medium. Nowhere else can they come up with such rich segmentation. That is why its income statement continues to grow: the company earned 9.2 billion only in the third quarter, 17% more than in the same period last year. As it grew in size, it absorbed companies such as Instagram, WhatsApp or Oculus. The first two have been key to propping up its boom; the third, which makes virtual reality glasses, may be in the coming years.

Inside the ‘metaverse’

According to Meta, the technology they are developing will give the virtual environment of the metaverse enough verisimilitude that we feel the comfort of being in a parallel world. Zuckerberg announced on Thursday progress in his virtual reality glasses, capable of reading the facial expressions of their wearer and having them displayed on the avatar (the character that represents him in that virtual world). Throughout almost an hour and a half of presentation, which was actually a high-budget video, the founder of Facebook showed some of the brushstrokes of this new world. The executive parades through his luxurious house overlooking the lake and suddenly the house is transformed into a trustworthy digital replica of it and he into an avatar in his image and likeness.

“What Mark showed is our vision of what the metaverse”, Clarifies Solly. Meta’s technology is not yet enough to offer that resolution. But getting there is the goal. “The transformation we are launching may have more impact on our lives and on the economy than the smartphone has had in the last ten years,” says the French executive.

Zuckerberg outlined in his presentation a small skeleton of that metaverse. Once the special glasses are put on, the user will enter a starting space, his house (Horizon Home). There you can interact with your contacts. The conversation of a WhatsApp group, for example, can be taken to the sofa in that virtual home, with the avatars of the group members sitting or moving around the room.

An avatar of Mark Zuckerberg with a US flag is getting ready to ride a hydrofoil.  The image has been taken from the presentation last Thursday.
An avatar of Mark Zuckerberg with a US flag is getting ready to ride a hydrofoil. The image has been taken from the presentation last Thursday.FACEBOOK (Reuters)

The next level, Horizon World, will consist of additional spaces that will be developed by companies that want to embark on the project. For example, a concert hall or a museum. There will also be places to buy various decoration elements and accessories for this virtual world (Horizon Marketplace) or a platform to implement hybrid work (Horizon Workrooms), among others. The possibilities, Zuckerberg says, are nearly endless.

Meta is also intended to combine the real world with the metaverse. That is, to integrate virtual elements (for example, the hologram of the person with whom we are speaking) in the real environment that we are seeing. That would be done with other glasses, in this case of augmented reality.

Where does the money come from?

The idea of ​​creating a virtual world is not new. The video game sector has been exploring it for some time, as Secondlife has done with more or less success. Neither is the name. The metaverse It is the virtual world in which Hiro Protagonist, a pizza delivery man on the physical plane, becomes a samurai prince in the novel Snow crash, a cyberpunk classic published by Neal Stephenson 30 years ago.

Zuckerberg gave a significant clue this week during the presentation of the quarterly results, which he confirmed in his speech on Thursday, about one of the sources of income of this peculiar cyberspace: the sale of accessories to dress and personalize the avatars.

Once again, the idea is not original. The commercialization of suits (skins) or equipment of the characters of some video games, such as Roblox or Fortnite, is an important source of income for developers. Many players are willing to spend money to make their avatar look one way or another. In the case of Fortnite, one of the most popular titles in recent times (in 2020 it had 350 million registered accounts), one can disguise their character with the Superman suit, with the equipment of their favorite American football team or even with the appearance of Neymar. The more you pay, the more exclusive the tune will be.

Travis Scott's performance in the video game Fortnite gathered 12 million viewers.
Travis Scott’s performance in the video game Fortnite gathered 12 million viewers.

The success of this video game has been such, it is capable of bringing together so many millions of players from around the world at the same time, that some brands are already trying to position themselves in the scenarios for which they are chased after each other. According to Nate Nanzer, director of Epic Games, the company that created Fortnite, the video game has become a “social entertainment platform.” Friends stay there, in the game, and they no longer necessarily kill each other: they also chat or watch movies, among other activities. The singer Travis Scott reached 12 million viewers during a concert he gave in Fortnite, and his performance was seen in the following days by 27 million people from the video game. Ariana Grande, Paris Hilton or Steve Aoki are just some of the artists who have used this format to organize performances.

How it will develop

The metaverse de Zuckerberg seeks precisely that: to become a social meeting space. One that transcends what was already Facebook. Meta wants other companies to participate in the construction of this new world. All the metaverse is to be done. Zuckerberg announced on Thursday a $ 150 million investment to train “the new generation of creators of the metaverse”. It will also spend another 50 million to gather expert opinions on the form this virtual universe should take. Last week, amid a shower of leaks, the company said it intended to hire about 10,000 people in Europe over the next five years to develop its idea.

At Meta they trust that their metaverse can open up a world of possibilities in education.  In the image, recreation of the visit to ancient Rome.
At Meta they trust that their metaverse can open up a world of possibilities in education. In the image, recreation of the visit to ancient Rome.

We will have to wait, at least, until next year to be able to see what that of the metaverse. And its development will take years, perhaps decades, to complete. Meta is not alone in this race. Microsoft chairman Satya Nadella already said this summer, a month after Zuckerberg first uttered the word in public, that Microsoft wanted to lead the way in creating the “business metaverse.” Companies take positions to colonize something that does not yet exist.

How will Meta get people to prefer its virtual universe and not another? “We will offer the best user experience and many possibilities for companies to do business,” explains Solly, the company’s head of Southern Europe. Creating the technology capable of supporting a compelling virtual universe is a colossal project. But if there is a company that has the necessary technical means and financial resources, that is Goal. The stakes are high. Success can be tremendous; failure, very loud.

“In time I am confident that we will be seen as a ‘metaverse company,” Zuckerberg said Thursday. That is the legacy you want to leave. You know how you want to be remembered, and that image no longer fits Facebook.

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