Not satisfied with dominating our online lives, Facebook – now rebranded as Meta – plans to merge the physical and digital worlds into what it is calling the metaverse.
During the company’s annual Connect conference yesterday (28 October), CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the metaverse as a place where “you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine — get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create”.
In practice, it appears the metaverse will be a virtual space - accessed through virtual reality headsets - where people can interact, connect and collaborate with others. And that doesn’t just mean at home or while gaming, but at work as well. Examples of how this could apply to the hybrid workplace include digital office environments where avatars of colleagues can work together, VR work setups to reduce distractions and the ability to use applications like Slack or Dropbox while in a virtual space.
The social media giant has explored some of these ideas before, for example Horizon Workrooms lets users of its Oculus headsets hold meetings in VR, but the vision of working within the metaverse presented at the conference appears to be all encompassing.
Mario Ramic, founder of Takeaway Reality, an AR and VR agency, claims that Facebook’s idea of a metaverse could eventually succeed the internet and bridges the gap between in-person and remote working. He says: “It represents a halfway point between a Zoom call, which can be quite impersonal, and a physical meeting. For businesses that want to improve the remote work experience even more this technology can eliminate the lack of social interaction, which is its biggest downside.”
However, Justin Parry, COO of virtual reality training provider Immerse, believes this could be a step too far for businesses, certainly for some time. He says: “The enterprise offering of the metaverse is incredibly broad and could involve people spending half of their day jumping into a VR headset. From my perspective, we’re quite far away from that model at the moment.”
Although he admits the buzz the announcement has created is positive for the the industry, he questions how long it will take for the concept to take hold. “There are a number of companies that are really taking this technology seriously but it’s certainly not the majority,” Parry says. “It’s not at that level of maturity yet where you could see this becoming something that every employee would have, so it’s very bold for Facebook to be pushing that vision.”
What’s the meta with Facebook?
Another concern for businesses will be around privacy and security. Earlier this week, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen warned MPs that Facebook is “unquestionably making hate worse”. The leaked documents she released outlined how the tech company’s focus on engagement is amplifying division, polarisation and “undermining societies around the world”.
In light of the metaverse announcement, concerns have also been raised around the amount of data VR technologies can gather about a user. An individual’s physical response, actions and body language could all be translated into data for Facebook’s digital advertising algorithms to analyse.
Under the rebrand, Facebook’s corporate name will change to Meta. The company hopes that the new name will better encompass the businesses future ambitions as it looks to expand beyond social media. Its current platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, will keep their current names.
Facebook will hope that its rebrand will help draw attention away from current criticisms, but it raises the question of whether businesses will want to continue to use its services – irrespective of the name it comes packaged under.
Despite these concerns, GlobalData technology analyst Rupantar Guha doesn’t think this will impact adoption of this technology in the workplace. “The challenges Facebook is facing right now are focused on the consumer side of the business. Even if businesses are sceptical, if the technology it provides can help them grow and, in this case, revolutionise their operations, they will adopt it. However, any business that does will have to pay close attention to the data that is going to Facebook.”
Parry adds: “There are companies that will not be entirely comfortable with having to use a Facebook or Meta login for their operations. If they find a way to bring users in without using the Facebook ID, that will get around that. But there is serious tentativeness in the market about having to go all-in with Facebook to fully sign up to its ecosystem.”
If Zuckerberg’s vision of employees donning a VR headset is to become a reality, the company will have to address some of these concerns with its business customers. And even so, with a ten-year timescale on Facebook’s new project, it may still be a while before we’re greeting our colleagues in the metaverse.