Facebook Shouldn’t Own the Metaverse

People collaboratively working in AR and VR

Meta may promise an open Metaverse, but it hasn’t shown we can trust it to deliver one.

A little under a year ago, Facebook’s parent company got a new name: Meta. And along the way, it popularized and took ownership of the term Metaverse. While no really agrees on what the Metaverse is, it’s looking more and more like VR and The Matrix. And the most terrifying part of that is Facebook.

Now don’t get me wrong—I’m a fan of virtual reality. And I even like some of what Meta has done for VR. I own both the original Oculus Quest and its sequel, the Meta Quest 2 (formerly Oculus Quest 2), though I am on record as preferring the original. I still use both frequently, and for plenty of use case scenarios, they are compelling systems with plenty of potential.

But while Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have strong arguments as a new form of gaming and maybe even exercise, Meta doesn’t want to stop there. It envisions a future where we work in the Metaverse, live in the Metaverse, socialize in the Metaverse, and of course, spend money in the Metaverse. Meta hints at a future where the boundaries between reality and virtual reality slowly fade until there isn’t one anymore.

And if that thought doesn’t give you pause, then realizing the company that wants to know everything there is to know about you also wants to create and rule your reality should.

What Is the Metaverse Anyway?

A picturesque digital backyard

Before we get too much further, we should probably talk about what the Metaverse is in the first place. Meta (the parent company formerly known as Facebook) popularized the term at its 2021 connect event when the company rebranded. But technically, Meta didn’t come up with the term. It first appeared in a 1992 novel, Snow Crash.

In that novel, the Metaverse is a virtual reality world people can join either through VR goggles or low-quality public access terminals. Users can purchase virtual real estate, interact, and transfer goods through this fictional Metaverse. The novel actually inspired real-world versions of the concept, starting with Second Life and Active Worlds.

Since then, dozens of similar concepts have come along, some embracing Virtual Reality and others settling for computer interaction. PlayStation Home featured shops, gaming, social centers, and more, along with homes you could decorate with furniture and invite friends over. Today, Minecraft and Roblox let you create worlds, homes, craft games, and experiences and invite friends into your worlds. These are, by the original definition, Metaverse concepts.

You could argue a game like Fortnite counts, with its built-in shops and avatar interaction, but that might be somewhat of a stretch. But if you’re looking for VR-specific examples, look no further than VR Chat and Altspace VR (now owned by Microsoft). In either, you can create home centers, public spaces, meet up with friends and strangers, watch movies together or play games. AltspaceVR could be considered notable for hosting a virtual reality church, complete with Sunday morning services.

But it’s best to keep in mind that while some VR falls under the Metaverse umbrella, not all Metaverse content is VR. You’ll find AR in the space and traditional gaming. The idea of the Metaverse is generally to create some form of digital world where you can live out a life and of course, spend money.

The Future of Metaverse According to Meta

A digital avatar working at a computer

So if the current state of the Metaverse is essentially any form of digital world where you can interact with others, whether for work, socializing, or gaming, then what’s the future? Meta has a lot to say about that, and it is, at times, both concepts flung far into the future and a little iterative.

At the Meta Connect 2022, the company showed off several products that are ready to release and in early development. The biggest and most anticipated gadget is the Meta Quest Pro, and as its name suggests, it’s a more powerful higher quality version of the Meta Quest. And it needs to be, given that it costs $1,500 for one VR headset.

But Meta doesn’t intend for the average person to buy a Meta Quest Pro. The biggest use case scenarios given were collaborative work in AR and VR. Meta spent practically no time showing the system doing any sort of gaming or entertainment. What it can do, however, is fairly impressive.

Passthrough, the ability to see the real world while in a VR headset on the Oculus Quest 2 is currently a black-and-white smudgy affair. It works, but it looks very electronic. The Quest Pro promises full-color passthrough that can enable AR-like experiences with digital whiteboards, shared surfaces, and integrated avatars. At the same time, the company promises screens at such a high quality you would be comfortable working in VR on a triple digital “monitor” setup, replacing the single monitor station you might have in an office.

A digital personal space with smart lights and plants

As someone who uses a real triple monitor setup, I am curious to see if the Quest Pro stands up to that promise. But that’s the near term—with enough money (like $1,500), high-resolution displays in a small compact form is an easy problem to solve. Meta also hinted at a farther-flung future.

The company has openly admitted it is working on a set of AR glasses that are comfortable enough to wear as you walk around town. The Microsoft Hololens and Magic Leap systems promise to be high-quality AR systems you can wear, but they aren’t comfortable enough or convenient enough to wear on the go. But while the glasses are a tantalizing promise, Mark Zuckerberg also showed off a new form of control for the Metaverse.

Using a wrist device, Meta says it can track simple gestures made by your hand through a neural interface. It tracks EMG signals to determine your intentions, not because you mirrored a flick of your thumb left exactly as a developer intended, but because it understands what you intended. Over time, Meta showed that it could learn what you intend to gesture without any real movement at all. That posits a future where you can interact with a digital world with little more than a display and a chair that measures your intentions. Wall-E doesn’t seem so unlikely after all.

Why Meta Shouldn’t Run The Metaverse

The Meta Quest Pro over a gorgeous and colorful background.

Meta is hardly the only company working on the concept of a digital world. Setting aside FortniteRoblox, and even Second Life, major players like Microsoft, NVIDIA, and Amazon are all interested in bringing about the “next generation in computing.” So why is Meta’s participation in the Metaverse a concern? Because the company is promising to act as an open steward and showing all the signs of wanting to be the sole ruler of our digital future.

Take the Metaverse name alone. Before Connect 2021, it’s likely you never heard the term. It came from a sci-fi book several decades old and never took off as an encompassing term for the overarching concept. But in one move, the company formerly known as Facebook both popularized the term Metaverse and renamed itself, Meta, tying itself inexorably to the term. You can’t talk about the Metaverse without acknowledging Meta.

That might be fine if the company both promised and followed through with being a good steward of the Metaverse concept as an overarching whole. But Meta has a habit of promising a Metaverse for all and by all and yet claiming all credit for everything to do with the Metaverse. Connect 2022 was no different.

During the event, Meta promised that in the future, it would open Horizon Worlds, the company’s answer to VR Chat and AltspaceVR, beyond VR. The company plans to introduce the ability to interact with Horizon Worlds through computers and smartphones. And in announcing it, one of Meta’s spokespersons stated, “this is going to be the first way a lot of people experience a virtual world.”

That outright ignores every other instance of Metaverse that already exists off VR, like Roblox, Minecraft, and even VR Chat, Yes, VR Chat, which is very similar to Horizon Worlds, already had a desktop mode you can connect with through your computer. As does Mozilla’s hubs Metaverse concept and Microsoft’s AltspaceVR.

But more concerning is Meta’s promises to develop an Open Metaverse while doing the opposite. Most versions of the Metaverse, like VR ChatAltspaceVR, and hubs, are cross-platform. You can access them from any computer or VR headset, even the Meta Quest.

'Horizon Worlds' open in Instagram Reels

But despite its open promises, Meta’s branded initiatives like Horizon Worlds remain exclusive to the company’s hardware. The company announced collaborations with Microsoft and Zoom to bring experiences to the Meta Quest and Horizon Workspaces, but it didn’t announce anything going in the other direction. You’ll only find Meta’s Metaverse on Meta properties. Even that first promise to open up Horizon Worlds is coming first to Instagram, a Meta property.

The company continues to gobble up any other VR company doing well in the space along the way, having purchased the developers behind Beat SaberSupernatural, and more. Even the Meta Quest itself started as its own company, Oculus, and that purchase gave Meta a giant lead in the space.

Eventually, when the Metaverse takes off, you’ll have to choose where you put your digital identity. Meta hopes to create digital avatars that look exactly like your real self, and it’s already making promises to keep those digital avatars safe. But that’s one more piece of your identity that Meta will own beyond just the Facebook social network. You’ll have to choose where to spend your money on digital real estate, clothing, and even wheelchairs to make your digital twin look like you.

Meta may have promised an open Metaverse, but so far, it’s developing and delivering a closed system under its full control while acting as though other digital worlds don’t exist. Currently, there is no hope that you could easily take your digital avatar out of Horizon Worlds and into AltspaceVR. You’re only option is to recreate who you are in digital form all over again.

And that seems to be the end goal. The new name of the company may be Meta. But underneath it all, the values of Facebook are clear and present. A promise of an open community that can digitally connect you to friends, families, and even strangers across the world. In exchange for living solely in a world of the company’s making. Thus far, Meta hasn’t proven that it should be trusted with that power. I’m not sure any company has. It’s not something we should be so quick to e mbrace.

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