Facebook is dealing with a slew of issues, ranging from proposed antitrust legislation to allegations that it is aiding in the spread of vaccine misinformation. However, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg joined a recent conference call with analysts to discuss the company’s latest quarterly results, much of the conversation centered on something entirely different: the metaverse. The metaverse was mentioned nearly two dozen times during the hour-long call.
The metaverse was originally envisioned as a setting for dystopian science fiction novels in which virtual universes serve as a haven for people fleeing crumbling societies.
Now, the concept has evolved into a Silicon Valley moonshot goal, and it has become a popular topic of conversation among startups, venture capitalists, and tech behemoths.
The goal is to create a space that is similar to the internet, but where users can walk around and interact with one another in real time using digital avatars. In theory, you could sit around a virtual meeting table with colleagues from all over the world (rather than staring at their 2D faces on Zoom) and then walk over to a virtual Starbucks to meet up with your mother, who lives across the country.
Zuckerberg has been extolling his vision for turning Facebook (FB) into a “metaverse company” in recent weeks, claiming that he first considered the idea in middle school. Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Satya Nadella said last week that his company is working on building the “enterprise metaverse.” Epic Games recently announced a $1 billion funding round to support its metaverse ambitions, pushing the Fortnite maker forward.
In June, venture capitalist Matthew Ball assisted in the launch of an exchange traded fund (ETF) that allows people to invest in the metaverse space, which includes companies such as graphics chipmaker Nvidia (NVDA) and gaming platform Roblox (RBLX).
Despite the current hype cycle, the concept remains nebulous, and a fully functional metaverse is likely years and billions of dollars away — if it ever happens. Big companies joining the conversation now may simply want to reassure investors that they won’t miss out on the next big thing, or that their investments in virtual reality, which has yet to gain widespread commercial appeal, will pay off in the future.
And, in the case of Facebook, exaggerating the metaverse’s long-term potential could be a good way to divert attention away from the company’s current problems.
Whatever the motivations, major questions remain, including how tech companies will handle safety and privacy issues in the metaverse, as well as whether people really want to spend so much of their time inside a virtual reality simulation.
“My biggest concern about the metaverse is whether we’re ready,” said Avi Bar-Zeev, the founder of AR and VR consultancy RealityPrime and a former employee of Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, where he worked on the HoloLens.
“Are we emotionally evolved enough yet to move beyond the safe division of having screens between us and typing words?” he said. “Are we safe to start interacting at a more person-to-person level, or are the a**holes still going to ruin it for everybody?”