Facebook change of name to Meta has been met with a variety of opinions. Some are critical of the change and the whole technology as a whole while some are enthusiastic about the potential that lays ahead.
Whatever your opinion of the news, what is clear is Zuckerberg’s intention of dominating what could be perhaps one of the most defining technologies of the next digital era.
But before I get ahead of myself, I am well aware that some are quite cynical about the potential of technology as a whole. Some even see the whole venture as pointless pointing to previous failed attempts at building the metaverse such as Linden Lab’s Second Life.
Ethan Zuckerman’s scathing critique of the metaverse on the Atlantic explains how previous attempts at building the metaverse by other companies (including his) were doomed to fail from the onset.
“…after watching metaverses spring up and crumble for 27 years, and after building one myself, I feel fairly well equipped to offer context for what Mark Zuckerberg is trying to do with his firm’s pivot to ‘Meta.’ “
Companies such as Tripod, Netscape and the aforementioned Second Life have all tried this before and failed. Why then should Meta succeed?
But Stephen, I hear you say, surely games such as Fortnite and Roblox illustrate how far we have come in VR and AR technology? And I agree with you on this. These VR games and virtual rooms such as Meta’s own Horizon Workrooms at least show that we are not far off from a Ready Player One kind of technology prophesied by Neal Stephenson.
However, here again, Ethan is critical of these advancements.
“Let’s be frank about this: Facebook’s metaverse sucks. From the first images in which legless torsos sit around a conference room, staring at a Zoom-like videoconferencing screen, to Zuckerberg’s tour of his virtual closet, filled with identical black outfits (see, he’s got a sense of humor!), Zuck’s metaverse looks pretty much like we imagined one would look like in 1994. Look, I’m playing cards with my friends and we’re in zero gravity!”
He goes on to criticise the technology behind the products as being underdeveloped and at the same time vastly oversold as being ready.
“The graphics are a little better—though frankly, not that much better. The blocky avatars of Horizon Workrooms are so cartoonish because animating complex sets of polygons is pretty hard when they can all move in any given direction at any given time. Your video games look marvelous in part because we can predict that the terrain is (roughly) going to stay on the ground and that your character is going to take (roughly) predictable paths through the scenery. But in an open, user-created metaverse, a lot of inefficient polygons are flying around, which is why dance parties in Second Life suffered from terrible frame rates. (Not to mention the orgies.)”
Now I have to confess that I am a techno-enthusiast and these critiques make me a little disappointed about a possible future I was really excited about. I however agree with some of Ethan’s comments here. While games such as Fortnite clearly show just how far we have come in developing these technologies we are way far off from what Zuckerberg showed in his much-publicised metaverse ad.
That said, the metaverse is not a pipe dream. While the technology is not quite there yet we are in the right direction and Facebook’s reposition into Meta is perhaps the best indication of Silicon Valley’s determination to make the metaverse a reality.
Even Ethan, in his scathing critique, admits as much, albeit a little pessimistically.
“He’s promising future technologies that are five to 10 years off. But it still looks like junk. The fire in his fireplace is a roughly rendered glow. His superhero secret lair looks out over a paradise island that’s almost entirely static. There’s the nominal motion of waves, but none of the foliage moves. It’s tropical wallpaper pasted to virtual windows. The sun is setting behind Zuckerberg’s left shoulder, but he’s being lit from the right front.”
Note here that he doesn’t say that the technology is impossible to achieve rather it is about five to ten years off. Quite a long time in the innovation timescale if you ask me, especially now that there are many more players in the market besides just Meta. Five to ten years is more than enough time to solve the technical issues that I see are the focus of Ethan’s critique on the metaverse.
Overall, the way I see it: the metaverse while not a complete product is not an impossible dream. Much like the rapid development of technologies such as integrated circuits, software and with it the whole of internet 2.0 the Metaverse is closer than many people think.