"They're doing what cigarette purveyor Philip Morris did when they tried to rehab their image and rebrand to Altria," sniveled many Big Tech critics over the past week when news surfaced that Facebook would be rebranding. In reality, Facebook—which announced yesterday that it would be renaming the parent company Meta, while keeping the name Facebook specifically for the platform—is pulling a move more similar to the Google/Alphabet split circa 2015, but using the moment to signal plans to get serious about its virtual and augmented reality divisions.
"Now we have a new north star: to help bring the metaverse to life," says Mark Zuckerberg in a video released yesterday. "Imagine you put on your glasses or headset and you're instantly in your home space. There's parts of your physical home, recreated virtually. It has things that are only possible virtually. And it has an incredibly inspiring view of whatever you find most beautiful."
The future, according to Zuckerberg's vision, has 3D street art seen via augmented reality glasses; it has poker games comprised of a mix of avatars and meatspace; a forest room that seems both psychedelic and relaxing. Presence is not eliminated, rather it's "the defining quality of the metaverse."
"You're going to really feel like you're there with other people," via body language and facial expressions and other subtleties, that "today's technology can't quite deliver." He sees nonstatic images—avatars, "photorealistic for work, a stylized one for hanging out, and maybe a fantasy one for gaming"—becoming commonplace in our new hybrid world, a world that won't be device-reliant the way we are now. "Lots of things that are physical today like screens will just be able to be holograms in the future," he says, reminding viewers that some of these technologies nevertheless remain a few years out.
"The software underpinning Zuckerberg's take on the metaverse is called Horizon. It's part Minecraft meets Roblox with an application for work collaboration as well," reports The Verge. "Next year, the company plans to introduce Project Cambria, a high-end, mixed reality headset previewed at Connect that mixes virtual graphics with the real world in full color. It will have face and eye tracking to allow for more realistic avatars."
All of this seems pretty luxe and sophisticated for a company currently most widely known for a product populated largely by boomers who alternate between sharing apoplectic political posts and terribly photoshopped memes in a news feed oversaturated with weak acquaintances. Facebook's present isn't so hot, but maybe its future will be. Or maybe Zuckerberg knows that he has a dying star on his hands, and this will eventually be remembered as a futile attempt to resurrect something too far gone, but in a manner too ambitious for current technology to accommodate.
The Meta announcement was greeted with warranted skepticism. "Mark Zuckerberg wants to be the hero of the metaverse because he knows Facebook is boring," reads the subheading of an article by tech reporter Brian Merchant in The Atlantic:
The metaverse is likely propelled as much by the founder's ego as it is by PR stuntery. Behind the opportunism is Zuckerberg's desire to take a billionaire-size step into the unknown, à la Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, something that can truly make a dent in the future, rather than running an ad-stuffed social-media feed that is no longer anyone's idea of a bold new tomorrow. Zuckerberg has talked about how he was inspired by the science fiction of the metaverse when he was younger, and he clearly loves the novel Ready Player One; new recruits to his Oculus division were handed copies of the book upon hiring. Becoming a hero in the metaverse feeds Zuck's ambitions the way aspiring to space travel feeds Bezos and Musk.
"Today's Facebook Connect keynote is entirely about a future that doesn't yet exist; believing that it will happen rests on the degree to which you believe that Zuckerberg the founder can accomplish more than any mere manager," writes Ben Thompson at The Stratechery. "I'm skeptical that Facebook—a lumbering bureaucracy whose biggest breakthroughs in the past decade have mostly come by buying competing apps or copying their features, rather than developing its own ideas internally—will create an immersive digital universe that people actually want to spend time in," comments Kevin Roose at The New York Times. After all, since "there is only so much of the physical world for software to eat," writes Merchant, Silicon Valley seems "in desperate want of a big new idea."
Perhaps Facebook's current disappointing cheuginess really can give way to something more dynamic and cutting-edge. Perhaps we really will hold our poker games in the psychedelic forest with our avatars dressed to the nines, merely a few years from now. Or perhaps Zuck, like spacemen Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, wants to seek new frontiers but isn't quite sure where to find them.