Mark Zuckerberg just laid out his vision for the metaverse - These are the 5 things you should know
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The age of the "metaverse" is upon us - or at least that's what Mark Zuckerberg would have us believe. The CEO of Meta, which up until this afternoon was called Facebook, spent more than an hour Thursday walking viewers of the company's annual Connect developer conference through his expectations for how this next version of the Internet will work, as well as the hardware and software that will get us there.
Meta's event was ambitious, especially by developer conference standards, which means there's plenty to unpack. Here's what you should know about Meta's plans and what that means for the people who may (eventually) use it.
The first half-hour of Meta's presentation was dominated by Zuckerberg's vision of the metaverse, made up of virtual public rooms, spaces for games, and people's personal domains - "home spaces" that you can customize with art and dedicated work spaces. (As the name sort of suggests, you can invite other people into your virtual home space, or choose to keep it totally private.)
But that's just the start. According to Zuckerberg, the metaverse will also contain full "worlds" as well as places plucked out of time. One example: When talking about the value of the metaverse for education, Meta's chief business officer, Marne Levine, suggested that people would be able to watch the Forum being built in ancient Rome.
The metaverse as a concept is steeped in science fiction history, so it's no surprise to see the company lean in to the lingo. When you're ready to move from one space to the next, you'll "teleport into it" by performing the metaverse's equivalent of clicking a link.
And the "you" that Meta believes eventually wanders between these virtual spaces will be represented by an avatar - or multiple avatars, depending on what you're trying to do. Think of these as the equivalent of profile pictures: Just as you probably present yourself differently on LinkedIn and Instagram, you might select a more photorealistic avatar for a meeting and save the fun ones for spending time with your friends and family.
Meta looks at the metaverse as a sort of successor to the mobile Internet, which took more than a decade to assume its current form. Similarly, anyone waiting for the metaverse to become the vast collection of worlds Zuckerberg described in his keynote shouldn't hold their breath.
"This may sound like science fiction, we're starting to see a lot of these technologies come together," Zuckerberg said. "In the next five to 10 years, a lot of this is going be mainstream."
That's partly because of the time and effort needed to craft the underlying systems that make the metaverse work, but also because the kinds of gadgetry needed to make people feel "present" in the metaverse isn't ready for regular people yet.
Fun fact: Nearly every non-Meta employee who appeared to be engaging with the metaverse in the company's hour-plus presentation was wearing stylish glasses - even a woman going full-speed on an exercise bike. Maybe Meta's vision of the future is one where shortsightedness runs rampant, but it's more likely a nod to the kinds of gadgets you'll need to steep yourself in the metaverse.
Zuckerberg argued that, once the metaverse becomes a reality, our devices "won't be the focal point" of our attention any more - instead we'll come to rely on hardware that allows people to feel properly present in whatever online world they've wandered into. And to start, that means some kind of wearable display.
Among other things, Meta teased a new, high-end "mixed reality" headset code-named Project Cambria that offers high-resolution, full-color video pass-through. That means you'll be able to see the physical world around you in reasonable clarity, and weave digital elements like art and virtual computer screens into your surroundings. Project Cambria is also meant to look at you, too, to make sure your facial expressions and skin tone are accurately reflected in the metaverse.
And to really capture the sort of presence Meta thinks will be key to life in the metaverse, it once again showed off its wrist-worn "neural interface" - a set of funky-looking smart bracelets essentially that it hopes will eventually let people type at full speed and access controls while their hands are resting.
Maybe your home space could use some art. Or maybe you're tired of your avatar's outfit. Meta believes that, at some point, you'll want to spend money on virtual goods to use in its virtual world, and the company is keen on building out a digital economy to support the people who create those products.
"At the end of the day, it is really the creators and developers who are going to build the metaverse and make this real," Zuckerberg said, before noting that those people need to be able to "make a good living doing this work."
The public face of that economy will be the Horizon Marketplace, where Meta will let those creators sell their wares. For now, it's unclear whether that will be the only place we shoppers will be able to purchase digital items, but considering how Zuckerberg seemed to subtly swipe at Apple during his address, that might not be the case.
"I've come to believe that the lack of choice and high fees are stifling innovation, stopping people from building new things and holding back the entire Internet economy," he said, after lamenting having to develop products for other platforms. As a result, Meta plans to continue subsidizing its devices and in some cases selling them at cost to "make them available to more people."
That may ultimately mean you'll pay less for the hardware to access the metaverse and the stuff you'll buy when you're inside it, but the kind of rapid growth Zuckerberg seems to be encouraging has led to problems for Facebook (the platform) in the past.
Emphasis on "trying." Zuckerberg argued that privacy would be a key component of the metaverse, and pointed to a few ways people can safeguard themselves.
"You'll get to decide when you want to be with other people, when you want to block someone from appearing in your space or when you want to take a break and teleport to a private bubble to be alone," he said. Because the metaverse is still in its infancy, though, it's not yet clear what other tools people might have for looking after themselves.
Consider blocking, for instance: If a troll harasses you on Twitter, you can prevent them from seeing your tweets or interacting with you. But what happens if you wander into a shared virtual or public space - say, a concert's after-party - and see someone you absolutely don't want to engage with? Will you be able to block them in a virtual world? What would they see if you did block them? It's far too early to tell.
Meta also addressed the role regulators could play in shaping the development of the metaverse.
"The way I look at it is that in the past the speed that new technologies emerge sometimes left policymakers and regulators playing catch-up," said Nick Clegg, Meta's vice president of global affairs. "And I really think that it doesn't have to be the case this time around, because we have years until the metaverse we envision is fully realized."
Lawmakers have grown more sophisticated in the way they approach the nuances of social media, and with conversations around the metaverse becoming more popular, we'll probably see them play a role in defining how some of its systems should work. But as The Post's reporting on the Facebook Papers has shown, Zuckerberg - who is known to be a very hands-on executive - has made decisions that emphasized growth over people's safety. Whether regulators will be able to curb the effects of his product decisions over the next few years is something only time can tell.
THE WASHINGTON POST