Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… with the recent announcement by Facebook that it intends to build its own online universe, in this edition we’ll be analyzing 1) what, precisely, a “metaverse” is, 2) the origins of the idea, 3) how Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook intend to build one of their own, and 4) how efforts to build virtual reality and augmented reality systems mirror other “races” that Big Tech companies are presently undertaking.
Before we dive into things, a quick look at stories we’re covering this week includes a new Harvard-led team launched to investigate “unidentified aerial phenomena”, along with news that the Curiosity rover found that signs of martian life may have been erased. We also look at how scientists have been hunting for ET in our solar system for a decade, and why their efforts may prove that aliens have been in our cosmic backyard all along. Don’t forget to check out all of the stories we’ll have linked from The Debrief at the end of this newsletter… and now, it’s time to strap on our headsets and enter a virtual realm as we analyze Facebook’s new plans to build its own metaverse.
Facebook is Building its Own Universe
Earlier this week, Facebook announced its plans to move forward with the construction of what it calls the “metaverse.” The company’s ambitious plans detail its aims to build a virtual reality environment that multiple users can enter and operate within simultaneously.
Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went so far as to say that the company’s new effort may become its defining enterprise.
“I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company,” Zuckerberg said last week.
Preceding the announcement, in recent months Facebook has been observed investing in several technologies related to both virtual reality (VR) and its close cousin, augmented reality (AR), which entails overlaying or projecting aspects of virtual environments onto the real world and interacting with them. It is believed that such investments will be geared toward the company’s goals to produce its own proprietary technologies in support of the platform.
Yesterday, Today, and the Metaverse
The concept of a metaverse is not unique to Facebook, and in fact, many companies are planning to build, or have already built similar virtual environments (more on that a bit later).
However, the conceptual roots of the metaverse idea are attributed to science fiction novelist Neal Stephenson and his 1992 book Snow Crash, which featured a 3D space in which humans were capable of interacting through avatars. More specifically, Stephenson’s metaverse had essentially been what the Internet would eventually become (or what might eventually replace it), which may not be far from being likely in terms of the future of VR, AR, and world wide web.
Countless similar examples have emerged in popular fiction in the ensuing years, and Stephenson himself acknowledged later that he learned of earlier examples in writing that predated Snow Crash. If anything, the ubiquity of the metaverse concept in fiction was suggestive of the fact all along that technologists would eventually attempt to bring it into fruition in reality (or rather, in virtual reality).
Crafting Tomorrow in the Reality Lab
“Much of the work we’ve been doing at Facebook Reality Labs connects deeply to the Metaverse vision Mark has talked about,” wrote Reality Labs executive Andrew Bosworth in a post on Facebook on Monday.
“Today we’re standing up a Metaverse product group under my organization to bring together the teams focused on responsibly building this ambitious work,” Bosworth said.
According to its website, Facebook Reality Labs features a “world-class team of researchers, developers, and engineers,” who are aiming to shape the future of virtual and augmented reality systems through innovations that “will become as universal and essential as smartphones and personal computers are today – and just as personal computers have done over the past 45 years”.
Currently, Reality Labs is focused on developing an array of new wearable technologies that include “optics and displays, computer vision, audio, graphics, brain-computer interface, haptic interaction, eye/hand/face/body tracking, perception science, and true telepresence.”
What is “true telepresence”, you might be asking yourself? This involves the control of machinery at a distance by employing virtual reality and augmented reality systems, which effectively allow a person to be “present” within an augmented environment even if they are not actually there.
According to its website, Reality Labs says that all these technologies are required for a future where AR and VR can “become an integral part of our lives,” which the company says it is “making all of them happen.”
Forget the Space Race, Let’s Build Our Own Space
Facebook’s prospective metaverse is one of many aspired VR or AR systems that are currently being constructed by major tech giants that include Apple, Microsoft, and Google, among others. In recent days, comparisons have also been drawn with Roblox, an online gaming environment which describes its mission as being “to bring the world together through play.”
“We enable anyone to imagine, create, and have fun with friends as they explore millions of immersive 3D experiences,” says a statement at the Roblox website, “all built by a global community of developers.”
Of course, there might be more to the timing of Facebook’s entry onto the VR playing field than just innovation. Ars Technica recently quoted computer scientist Jen Goldbeck saying that the company has “a history of doing these kinds of technical projects that look like they might be revolutionary at times when they’re being criticized for their lack of social responsibility.”
Whatever the reasons behind the move may have been, Facebook’s plans to construct a metaverse mark more than just its further entry into the VR/AR environment. It signals a quickening of the pace at which leading tech companies will aspire to be the first to build not just the world of tomorrow, but an entire universe of their very own in which people will work, socialize, and perform any number of other everyday interactions in the years ahead.