Facebook metaverse: what do we know about the persistent and virtual world project dreamed by Mark Zuckerberg?

Facebook has for a few years now had a project that is still not well known to the public: that of creating a metaverse (or metaverse). It is a virtual and persistent world, accessible via an augmented reality headset. A kind of Second Life, but revisited by the giant of social networks.

What is Facebook announcing?

At first glance, this is a very classic recruitment ad on which just communicated Facebook, October 17, 2021. The social network is opening positions and looking for new talent to fill them. So far, nothing very special. Except that this hiring campaign is on the scale of the social network: colossal. And above all, it focuses on a project that is still poorly known on the site: the metaverse.

In detail, the American company intends to recruit 10,000 profiles over the next five years. She does not intend to look for them anywhere: it is in the European Union that Facebook says it wants to look for individuals ” highly skilled “, In particular” highly specialized engineers “To develop what the site describes as” IT platform of the future ».

What is a “metaverse”?

This is another name for what Facebook describes as the ” IT platform of the future “. It is a fictitious virtual universe, in which individuals could evolve in persistent and shared spaces, in three dimensions. It would be a kind of future Internet, where we would no longer navigate online in two dimensions, with web browsers, but with avatars, 3D and virtual reality headsets.

The universe depicted in Ready Player One is similar to a metaverse (very evolved, of course). // Source: Ready Player One

For its part, Facebook describes the project as follows: “ a new phase of interconnected virtual experiences using technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality. At its heart is the idea that by creating a greater sense of virtual presence, online interaction can become much closer to the experience of interacting in person. »

The concept of metaverse is a notion that could be found in an embryonic state in massively multiplayer games – which feature persistent worlds – or in a much more advanced and futuristic version in the sci-fi movie. Ready Player One, by Steven Spielberg, where the protagonists put on visors and haptic outfits to reach a world outside the world, the Oasis.

Are there other “metavers”?

The example most often mentioned in the field of “metaverse” is undoubtedly the very famous Second Life. It was he who publicized the idea of ​​these virtual worlds in which we could lead a slightly different existence, in a universe of bits, in parallel to that occurring in a world of atoms. It is an old project, because it was born in June 2003, after four years of gestation. An eternity on the scale of the net.

Second Life is still operational, even if it remains confined to a niche of users. In 2012, the game had 60,000 simultaneous connections according to Les Inrocks and one blog post dedicated to Second Life published in 2013 claimed that it had an active base of 600,000 users. a newer article of 2020 reported that the universe remains crowded, while another noted in 2018 thatthere were always inscriptions.

Second LifeSecond Life
An avatar in Second Life. // Source: Chika Watanabe

The success of Second Life in the early 2000s whetted appetites. In 2007, we suggested ten alternatives. It cannot be said that their fate was brilliant. Some have not passed the stage of rumor or vague concept. Others existed for a while, before disappearing. For a while, there was even talk of a Google Earth in the sauce Second Life ! Alone Entropy Universe held on.

Much closer to us, the Epic Games studio, to which we owe the essential Fortnite, regularly describes this title as a social platform and not just a game. In September 2020, the publisher reiterated its desire to make this game ” a complete metaverse that is an interactive, persistent virtual space, with multiple uses. »

The boss of Epic Games himself recalled this goal in March 2021: “ It’s no secret: Epic is investing in building a metaverse “. In other words, Facebook will not be at all a precursor in the metaverse. However, the community site has a strike force certainly never seen in the midst of virtual and persistent worlds. And that could make all the difference.

Since when has Facebook been interested in the metaverse?

It is certainly very difficult to date precisely the moment when Mark Zuckerberg said to himself that he was going to launch a metaverse, especially as the social network ensures that it does not want to work alone on the subject – in its press release, Facebook specifies that the construction of this IT platform of the future is ” in collaboration with others “. But obviously, the idea has been floating around for almost a decade.

We remember that in 2014, on the occasion of the ten years of the social network, Mark Zuckerberg engaged in an exercise of anticipation by imagining the next ten years of the site: “ over the next decade, technology will allow us to open new avenues for capturing and communicating new forms of experiences “. We were then in February. And in March, Facebook bought Oculus VR.

For style, good… // Source: Pexels / Julia M Cameron

Facebook has spent lavishly, having spent a total of $ 2 billion to get its hands on this American company specializing in virtual reality devices. And two months later, Brendan Iribe, the CEO of Oculus VR, spoke of the possible prospect of taking advantage of the Facebook community to have some sort of MMO with a billion members – number of subscribers at the time.

We can assume that, unlike a World of Warcraft, there would be no adventures. It would be more of a Second Life, where the whole project would be to incarnate or to embody another avatar and to lead various social interactions. In short, Facebook’s metaverse could be the after-version of Second Life, and much more accomplished, by taking advantage of Oculus’ virtual reality technologies.

Facebook’s initiatives in this area gained momentum in 2019, when it was unveiled Horizon, a concept of a social and playful universe in virtual reality – even if in this area, Facebook was already communicating on projects in 2016. More recently, in August 2021, the site gave news of Horizon by showing a first variation, Workrooms, which offers a virtual reality alternative to videoconferencing.

Who wants the Facebook metaverse?

This is one of the questions whose answer remains uncertain: given the very degraded – not to say catastrophic – image of Facebook, it seems difficult to say that the public would be ready to dive into a virtual world and persistent whose strings are at least partially pulled by the social network. As we say The Economist, « Facebook is approaching a reputation tipping point ».

The grievances against the American site are innumerable and it would be almost futile to list them here: the pages in English and in French on Wikipedia offer an already very complete summary for those who want to refresh their memory. Our Facebook tag also provides a myriad of articles questioning the platform, on many topics. Therefore, Facebook’s foray into a metaverse is viewed with caution.

A photograph precisely marked the spirits. We see the boss of Facebook, smiling, crossing an alley, in the middle of dozens of spectators whose faces are masked by virtual reality headsets. The photo dates from February 2016 and the comments already saw it a warning of the “terrifying dystopian future” dominated by Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg speaking at MWC 2016, with the striking photo.

Another event hadn’t really argued in favor of the Facebook metaverse. In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg tried to praise the merits of Facebook Spaces, a virtual reality interface then in the experimental phase. The boss of the social network was then “teleported” virtually to Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria, in the form of a virtual little man. The initiative had greatly displeased.

Many of the criticisms directed at Facebook are in fact fueled by the social network’s business model, which is based on targeted advertising. Currently, the social network uses many different signals to find out what interests Internet users and offer them related content. But with a metaverse, Facebook could suck even more data, especially behavioral.

« Part of the reason Facebook is so heavily invested in VR and Augmented Reality is that the granularity of data available when users interact on these platforms is an order of magnitude higher than on screen media. », Declared to the BBC this summer Verity McIntosh, an expert officiating at the University of the West of England

« Now it’s not just about where I click and what I choose to share, it’s about where I choose to go, how I stand, what I watch the longest, the ways subtle ways that I physically move my body and respond to certain stimuli. It’s a direct route to my subconscious and it’s gold for a data capitalist She added.

The Facebook metaverse, a diversion?

The communication of Facebook on these 10,000 recruitments in the European Union could appear as a diversion and a means for the social network that one speaks about him a little differently than through scandals and controversies. However, his metaverse project actually predates the outbreak of the most recent controversies.

It is true that Facebook is having a rough start: a Wall Street Journal survey has highlighted the fact that the site is aware of the toxic nature of its Instagram subsidiary on young women. A massive blackout took down the entire Facebook empire for hours. His Instagram Kids project meets almost nothing but opposition. Its way of dealing with fake news, including covid, is highly criticized.

Clearly, Facebook is in a mess, especially with the action of Frances Haugen, a whistleblower who recently fed the media with confidential documents. Other upheavals are to be expected, because Frances Haugen must be heard by Facebook’s supervisory board, which it says got carried away by the social network.

Facebook might sound like a diversion, but its metaverse project is actually very old. // Source: Nino Barbey for Numerama

The blackout, moreover, also had the effect of highlighting Facebook’s monopoly on the net. This is perhaps also why, in the Facebook press release of October 18, the social network gives the impression of making gestures – thus, the recruitment of the 10,000 positions will take place in the EU, an area where the regulation is among the most marked in the world, like the GDPR.

Perhaps this is also why the Facebook press release ensures ” that no company will own and operate the metaverse “. The social network states that, ” like the Internet, its main feature will be its openness and interoperability “. And that it is also laudatory towards the European Union, its values ​​(such as privacy) and its leadership in terms of regulation.

But whether or not this is a distraction tactic – even if the project, as we have said, actually predates the platform’s more recent troubles – it is above all questions of the governance, privacy and personal data that will arise. But also the toxicity that we blame the Facebook ecosystem. Nobody wants to endure it yet, 3D environment or not.

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