What exactly is the (or a) “Metaverse”? Why do enthusiasts claim it is the dawn of “Web 3.0”, that it will render flat-screen technologies such as Zoom obsolete? Why did we start hearing about the Metaverse tsunami less than six months ago?
In October 2021 Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg startled the world by announcing that he was changing his company’s name to Meta. He explained his decision by pointing out that in just a few years computer hardware and software technologies had evolved from desktop to web to phones, and from text to photos to video as internet capacity increased. But this isn’t the end of the line, Zuckerberg notes. “The next platform and medium will be even more immersive, an embodied experience where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” This new platform will allow you to do just about anything: “get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create – as well as entirely new categories that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today.” Hence his company’s change of name, signaling that Facebook realized its social media empire was receding into the background, but Meta was positively embracing the new. Until now, cyberspace was actually a two-dimensional flatland; now – soon – we would live in the 3-D splendor of the real cyberspace.
The rest of the hour+ video is devoted to illustrating how Meta envisions this somewhat-hazy future. Boiling it down, to enter Zuckerberg’s immersible VR world we will have to put on headgear such as his company’s Oculus 2 Quest headset, linked to your Facebook (sorry, I mean Meta) account. Meta is working hard to reduce the cumbersome headset to a device resembling today’s glasses.
While we’re there we’ll need to create digital versions of ourselves as 3D “avatars”. Some avatars can be highly realistic, useful for business or talking to your mother. But we can also create fantastical avatars for gaming ventures. Currently Zuckerberg’s avatars tend to be cartoon likenesses showing heads, arms and torsos only. Nothing from the hips down. The glimpses he shows of avatars conducting business in the Metaverse are cringeworthy.
The reaction to the prophecies the former wunderkind presented was mixed. The financial services/investment bank Jeffries positively swooned: “could be the biggest disruption to human life ever seen.” Others were more guarded: its future technology incursions could make Meta even more invasive of individuals’ privacy than the old Facebook. Besides, other corporations such the gamers Roblox and Fortnite had beaten Meta to the punch with their own versions of the Metaverse. Niantic’s CEO John Hanke condemned Zuckerberg’s vision as a “dystopian nightmare”; technology should try to augment reality, not replace it with a couch-potato version. On February 3, Meta stocks fell by 26%, a major unfriending by investors.
But the consensus is that we are indeed embarking on a new version of the internet, online destinations where (places like workspaces excepted) we pay with “non-fungible tokens” (NFTs) based on blockchain technologies. This future is only in its infancy, hobbled with regulatory issues and questions of interoperability, but it will reach maturity in a few years. Already, CNBC reports, “Siemens and Hyundai have used virtual worlds for hiring and people management.”
It’s worth keeping tabs on this serious implication for recruiting and working.