This week: rebranding the company and the metaverse play: we discuss the Facebook announcements, meta and verse.
Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Futures Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
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Sandra So we're not even gonna ask what are we talking about today, because...
Kai No, that would be Meta.
Sandra It is Meta.
Kai Meta and verse.
Sandra Yes. A couple of hours ago Zuckerberg announced at Facebook's annual Connect conference, the move to rebrand to Meta, and then a whole bunch of things to do with the metaverse. So today...
Kai Meta and verse, let's do this.
Sandra Let's do this.
Intro From The University of Sydney Business School, this is Sydney Business Insights, an initiative that explores the future of business and you're listening to The Future This Week where Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer sit down every week to rethink and unlearn trends in technology and business. They discuss the news of the week, question the obvious and explore the weird and the wonderful.
Kai What happened?
Sandra First part of the Facebook announcement was that it's renaming itself to Meta and getting a new logo for that and reorganising its company into basically the family of apps, that's your Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, and then Facebook Reality Labs, and that reorganisation was already announced on Monday. But today, we have a new name for the Facebook overlords, and that is Meta.
Sandra It's a very meta name. And so the question is, what does that mean, and why the rebrand?
Sandra First, let's clarify Facebook is not the first one to rebrand. We've had this with Google, when they went away from the search engine, reorganised as Alphabet. And they have, you know, YouTube, Google Cloud and so on and all their other bets having to do with those whole bunch of other industries.
Kai And so as Google moved beyond just search having all these other apps, Facebook is now trying to do the same, moving beyond social media with its vision for the metaverse, hence the Meta brand.
Sandra And obviously Meta has to do with the metaverse, and we'll spend most of this episode talking about what does that mean, both for Facebook and for reality, and have a reality check on all of this. It is hard not to notice that they are rebranding at a time when Facebook has been in the news. We have the whistle-blower revelations, we have Senate inquiries, we have articles coming out every day about the nefarious effects of both content that is displayed on Facebook, algorithms that move that content around, privacy issues, lack of interference, too much interference. Not a lot of good news for Facebook these days.
Kai And so commentators on the Internet were quick to point out that Zuckerberg in his announcement, stressing that meta is Greek for beyond, and that the company was moving beyond, and they were building something beyond the current Internet. It is also likely a form of personal and corporate therapy in that the company wants to move beyond the problems of today and control the story outline a vision for the future. And it's also been rumoured that Zuckerberg wants to distance himself from the problems with Facebook. And so he becomes the CEO of Meta and remains to be seen whether he'll be the one who will attend Senate hearings on behalf of Facebook or if they will instal a different person to head up that product.
Kai And that's a significant shift from what we've seen when Google reorganised and came up with Alphabet also different to what we've seen when Microsoft reorganised Microsoft never changed its name, but still reorganised, as Zuckerberg very much remains both the CEO and the chairman of Meta, the new parent company, and very much in charge of everything and the development and the direction that both meta and Facebook are taking in the process.
Kai Yeah, but as with, you know, virtual reality, much is perception here. And so, if Zuckerberg can distance himself from Facebook, the name, by being the CEO of Meta, he wants to present himself as the visionary who presents something great and new for the world.
Sandra And the great and new is what we're going to talk about because Zuckerberg said that he wants to move past the confusion and awkwardness of sharing a name with one of its apps. Facebook has a number of apps, but once now to be a metaverse-first company.
Kai Yeah, the awkwardness is not in you know, sharing the name between the company and the product, but rather in what this product is doing for the world. But I can't help but point out a few things about the choice of logo and name
Sandra The blue pretzel, you mean?
Kai The blue infinity logo that got a squash on its head so that it looks like a blue pretzel. Yes, the infinity pretzel and the word Meta. And Zuckerberg pointed out a number of times meta means beyond, so infinity and beyond?
Sandra To infinity and beyond.
Kai I think Buzz Lightyear wants his slogan back.
Sandra And to be fair, he did sound like that when he was describing the metaverse.
Kai And we will include the link to the video in the shownotes.
Sandra And it is worth quoting from the announcement. Zuckerberg said, "I want to share what we imagine is possible, the experiences you will have in the creative economy we will all build and the technology that needs to be invented, as well as how we're going to do all of this together".
Kai I think you would give your students in your Futures class a fail for such a loose vision announcement.
Sandra Yes, there is a bit of magic thinking in there in how we will build this together. But let's first unpack the Zuckerberg announcement, the metaverse vision. Let's then look at the rather mundane building blocks that were announced today. And then let's see what questions need to be asked, whether that's around the metaverse or around what this means for Facebook, and what it means for the metaverse in general.
Kai So I want to start off by reading a couple of phrases from Mark Zuckerberg's Founder’s Letter that he just posted on the Facebook blog. He starts off by saying we started out with a text-based internet and then we had photos and videos, everything became visual and mobile. So, "the next platform will be even more immersive — an embodied Internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build. The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence — like you are right there with another person or in another place. Feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology. That is why we are focused on building this".
Sandra That was very poetic. So presence as the defining quality of the metaverse was one of the things that Zuckerberg announced. The second one was interoperability. In order to unlock the potential of this Metaverse, you should be able to take your avatar and your digital items across apps and across worlds and so on. And they were going to build an API to enable this interoperability. And the third thing he focused on was the safety and privacy aspect where they were going to do much better than they did with Facebook.
Kai And I have so many questions about all of this, about, you know, interoperability, what does this really mean? Does it mean interoperability between Facebook and other companies? Or is it between the various services that Facebook will launch? Safety and privacy in the context of Facebook, that raises questions. And also with presence we know from research, and this is probably material for a different episode that the feeling of presence is not a function of technology. It's not a function of having better goggles, or more 3d experiences. So all of this raises a lot of questions that were not answered by Mark Zuckerberg, but he outlines this grandiose vision of this magnificent space that we can traverse with our holograms where we can jump from one place to another, go from fitness to a meeting with friends, to a concert, to a work context. Everything sounds well, very fiction.
Sandra And Zuckerberg was the first to acknowledge that we are ways off. And he said a number of times that there is a lot that still needs to be built, that this is a faraway vision in the future. But there are fundamental building blocks taking shape.
Kai And in the true spirit of a Silicon Valley Tech company, we got a whole lot of announcements of technologies and products to bring that vision alive. And some sense of what they envision could be done with it, and it raises a lot more open questions that we'll look at after that, but let's take a look at some of the products that they announced.
Sandra First, the hardware got a mention, things like Oculus, or the new specs in collaboration with Ray-Ban got a mention. And a reminder that Oculus is a company that Facebook bought more than six years ago, it was a Kickstarter company that has now grown considerably, and a lot of money has been poured into developing the VR headset that Oculus makes. And there's also collaboration with Ray-Ban for augmented reality glasses. They have a camera; they can record the environment and allow you to better participate in the social online world.
Kai So quite clearly, Zuckerberg's vision for the metaverse centres around what he calls digital reality, digital worlds, VR/AR. So the pronouncement that this will finally be the moment that VR will come alive and will come into its own. And it is worth mentioning that, you know, the Oculus product has an equally grandiose name, Cambria, hinting at the Cambrian explosion that this will take us to the next level. But the main feature that these glasses have is also a slightly dystopian one in my view, because it will read the user's emotions of their face and then display it into the virtual world. So no need to press like or send an emoji, the emotions will be read right off your face and then displayed to other people and presumably also stored in the big meta database about the user. So it remains to be seen how this will be squared up with the privacy and safety pronouncements that Zuckerberg made.
Sandra And here we have to take a pause and we have to mention a headline from Wired from back in July, because it's still virtual reality goggles, they've been coming for a long time and they would provide the seamless experiences so we're waiting for Cambria to come out and, you know, again revolutionise this. But the Wired article we're talking about a David Karpf article talks about the fact that "Virtual Reality Is the Rich White Kid of Technology". For decades, VR has failed to live up to expectations, yet somehow it keeps receiving more chances and even more resources.
Kai So it lives on potential, not on actual merit. And yet again, VR is the next big deal.
Sandra And the investments in the space are staggering. So Oculus now invests almost 20 billion annually into research and development. Facebook Reality Labs is part of and accounts for a lot of Oculus is workforce. But collectively, we are yet to be amazed or blown away by virtual reality and by augmented reality.
Kai But presumably that will be done by the other announcements under the Horizons brand. There's a whole bunch of announcements, Horizons Home, which is a user's virtual home space that they can decorate, into which they can invite friends, there are various Horizon worlds, there are games, there is Horizon Workrooms, meeting rooms in which users can meet to have virtual meetings, instead of you know, Zoom or FaceTime meetings.
Sandra And by and large Facebook hopes that Horizon will be the social platform that they will build that will enable people to interact in the metaverse and as you mentioned, Horizon home is the idea of having a home space to do this, and Horizon Workrooms, which to be fair has been around for a while. It's this VR-based alternative to Zoom that has yet to make any significant inroads into the corporate space. And this again, going back to the technology that we just discussed, raises some really kind of basic questions that seem to remain unanswered. Things like the fact that on average, 20% of people still get sick in VR. The figure is much worse for women, about three times as bad for women as it is for men, but there's still a significant number of people who do get motion sickness in VR.
Kai So 1/3 of women, 30%, would get sick, simply by going to a corporate meeting. And you know, not just the normal sickness that you might get from participating in all these meetings, but an actual sickness from just being there and looking around, which raises questions as to the practicability of, you know, doing this on a daily basis.
Sandra Of doing this on a daily basis in a corporate environment, right. So an organisation would have to adopt a platform that they know many of their employees would suffer significantly from using and, you know, given how careful we are to get chairs that we can sit up straight in.
Kai Good luck with the HR implications of that one. But there are real issues, right, that are being overlooked by this techno-positive vision of how we're all going to live in this space.
Sandra There were some other interesting announcements. Obviously, games and entertainment of any sort has always been big in this space. So a number of new games together with Vertigo that Facebook announced.
Kai Vertigo? Aptly named. So maybe they are hinting at, you know, the motion sickness aspect.
Sandra Well, there's also fitness apps hopefully to get you more fit. But there's obviously huge potential for any virtual developments in the entertainment space. But it's at this point that we suspect our listeners and also everybody else is going, 'but what is the metaverse?'
Kai What is Meta and verse?
Sandra So what is the metaverse?
Kai Well, according to Zuckerberg, it's "the unification of disparate digital worlds". So the metaverse as a composite universe melding online virtual augmented worlds that people can seamlessly traverse where you can go from one experience to the next where it can be fully in VR. It can be overlaid onto the physical environment with AR or on a device, but everything seems to be seamless and immersive.
Sandra And at this point, it's really hard to not mention where the term comes from, metaverse. Because it is science fiction, much like it's still a science fiction today. But it is science fiction. And it happens to be a novel Snow Crash in which it is as you describe this immersive reality where there's an alternative universe with shared space with VR and everyday objects and people move around. And it happens to be a dystopian view.
Kai And it's worth mentioning that other renditions of Metaverse like experiences in science fiction, like Ready Player One or The Matrix, typically all end up in dystopian worlds.
Sandra Yeah, it's basically people trying to flee the real world that has gotten so bad and fleeing into the virtual world as a way to escape. It's hard to believe that we can't even imagine this being a good thing. It's always some kind of dictatorship, totalitarian capitalism, where people have to live their lives in this reality.
Kai And Mark Zuckerberg was actually asked the question in a recent interview in The Verge.
Sandra Yes. Why would you lean into something that has these connotations? And his answer was, well, obviously, the book, he was talking about Snow Crash. "Obviously, the book has this whole environment around it that’s sort of negative. But I don’t think it has to be that way. I also think that as these technologies develop, they take on different connotations and metaphors".
Kai So what I'm hearing is that because Facebook is building it, it will all be better.
Sandra Sounds like it.
Kai Okay. And Vice had an interesting headline, "Zuckerberg Announces Fantasy World Where Facebook Is Not a Horrible Company". So we only have to trust Facebook this time around to build something that will not end up in a dystopia.
Sandra Dystopia or not, it still begs the question at this point, what is the metaverse? Everyone seems to define it really loosely. And granted, it doesn't exist. So we do tend to define things fairly loosely. But it is useful to have some concepts that define it beyond the fact that it's going to be this world where everyone can do whatever they want. And it's all nice and fluffy.
Kai So that's where we have to move beyond Facebook a bit. And conceptually, I think we can define the metaverse in analogy to the distinction between the universe and worlds. So the universe being the collection of physical stuff out there, and then worlds as being what humans build, what we inhabit different cultures, societies, organisations, all these different worlds, the world of business, the world of sport, is basically the things that we experience and live in. And the idea of the metaverse would be to have one digital realm that connects many of these digital worlds, you know, something that Zuckerberg takes up in its language, but it raises questions as to who is actually going to be in that metaverse? What is being connected here? How is this going to be brought alive? You know, in terms of technologies, but more importantly, in terms of governance, and who's going to be in charge? There's so many unanswered questions.
Sandra But when we talk about what it is, it still involves a number of technologies that need to come together and then a number of business models, behaviours, interactions that will come as a layer on top of that. And we know some of these things, hardware that has to exist for this to happen, whether that's VR headsets, or whether it's just simply mobile phones, or whether it's some sort of gloves or vests or other things that we will need to wear to interact in this space.
Kai And also part of the metaverse is that it is this always-on persistent layer. So we would need the kind of network technology that makes this metaverse and its various digital worlds always accessible from different devices in different ways.
Sandra So networking technologies will be one of the components as well, real-time connection, high bandwidth, data transmission, the backbone to enabling participation in this world is yet to exist that scale.
Kai And then it needs 3D environments. So this is where games come in games engines, the Unreal Engine by Epic Games and Tim Sweeney of Epic has been talking about metaverse, way before Mark Zuckerberg has made his announcements right now. So there is other companies, of course.
Sandra And Facebook is creating its own digital avatars and enabling similar types of technologies. But there are a number of companies here that enable various parts of this ecosystem. There's also the necessity to support for instance, payments in this world, and they can be purely digital currencies, there can be any of the new plays, we've seen the Bitcoins and the Dogecoins of the world, or it could be simply adaptations of current payment systems that we have in the real world.
Kai There's going to be ways to acquire digital assets and transfer them between the digital worlds presumably, you know, evolvement of the NFTs, the non-fungible tokens that are experiencing a hype right now.
Sandra And again, Zuckerberg was fairly subdued in talking about any of these. So the role that these things will play, or the extent to which Facebook will lean into these technologies is quite unclear at the moment.
Kai In essence, he wasn't leaning into the kind of technologies where Facebook doesn't currently have a presence.
Sandra And then last but not least, there will have to be some sort of tools, standards, protocols, formats that will enable that interoperability that has been defined as key to what a metaverse would be.
Kai And that means interoperability between the various offerings that companies like Epic Games and Roblox the games world, Microsoft with its AR office technology and Facebook are producing, but also interoperability between virtual worlds and the real environment. And another technological domain here is that of digital twins, digital twinning, the digital overlay onto a physical environment where people can experience virtual representations of a physical space and then presumably interact with what is happening in the physical space. So there's a whole range of technological developments that are in their infancy that presumably have to come together to bring about the vision of the metaverse.
Sandra And bring together the embryonic forms that already exist. And you've mentioned a number of companies there, obviously Facebook's Horizon plays come alongside Epic Game’s Fortnite or Roblox as a digital space or even Second Life. There are a number of different digital spaces that already exist out there that could form the backbone of a metaverse. But still, we have to mention that independent of where there are in their stages of growth, where these companies are and where these technologies and these domains are. Everything is still very much a vision and very much a distant future that these companies aspire to.
Kai So back to Facebook then, what does this announcement mean for Facebook as a company? How do we read this against Facebook's current setup strategy and business model?
Sandra Yeah, what's the Meta for?
Kai What's the metaphor, yes.
Very practically, it means billions of dollars, right. At least $10 billion in this year alone, building towards that metaverse vision. And that $10 billion, at least raises a couple of important questions because this is $10 billion, that are not going to fix the problems that Facebook is currently having with their social media app.
Kai So Meta moving beyond Facebook spends $10 billion on this vision when it's safety division that is in charge of curbing and weeding out problems on the Facebook platform receives about half of that, according to revelations by Frances Haugen, and doesn't do the best job. So it's actually in need of much more funding. So that's one way this money could be spent by fixing the problems that Facebook has created for, you know, teenagers, democracies in various countries, health and vaccine spread of misinformation.
Sandra Yep, Facebook does assure us that they will build this one responsibly and make sure that they implement all the lessons learned from you know how it didn't work out this time around.
Kai Yes, they have committed $50 million for research into how this metaverse can be developed responsibly, we want to point out that this is one two hundredths of the total spend of building it. They're spending three times that, $150 million in training creators on how to use the platforms that are putting out, the Horizon platforms, to scale things up and to entice people, obviously, to adopt the technologies.
Sandra But let's be fair that the $10 billion from a business perspective does make quite a bit of sense and this very meta move from Facebook from a strategic point of view, it is the move for Facebook because among the big five big techs, the likes of Amazon and Apple and Alphabet, or Google has been the only one that hasn't really had that protected position where it's a vertically integrated company that dominates the market. We've seen that with Apple, we've seen that with companies like Amazon, but for a company like Facebook, its position has always been dependent on other companies distributing their product.
Kai And it is worth noting that in the Founder's Letter, Zuckerberg makes a thinly veiled dig at Apple, complaining about the closeness of platforms that require to pay a share, and that make it harder for developers. And so Facebook, obviously being dissatisfied with having to rely on Google's Android or Apple's iOS for its distribution. And that comes against the recent move by Apple to curb the collection of privacy-related user data, which makes it harder for Facebook to advertise and grow its business and its share price based on the traditional targeted advertising model. And so the metaverse presents an opportunity to create its own hardware, to be its own platform that has creators work for it. Hence, the investment into training creators on the platform, it really presents the opportunity to become virtually integrated not having to rely on other players for access to the customer.
Sandra So this Meta play from Facebook might indeed allow it to move past the competition that it's currently in. It's, as we said, unlike Amazon, and unlike Google, it's in a space where there's TikTok, there's Snapchat, there's YouTube, there's always the new kid on the block. And in the social media space, they always have to defend their position, they've been getting less and less popular with younger audiences, which we know are critical for the growth of companies in this space.
Kai And even in advertising there is Google as the big competitor.
Sandra So there is an opportunity now to develop a whole new market, to develop the metaverse where they would have everything from Oculus to Horizon to games to entertainment, to APIs to a creator ecosystem, where they would be the dominant player.
Kai Which then begs the question as to what does Zuckerberg mean by 'openness', by 'interoperability'? And this needs to be read against how Facebook is used to making money. Facebook's acid is that it captures the user experience, the network's the social graph that it exploits for targeted advertising. So the vision here would really be to own the technology stack, so to speak, the platform for the metaverse to then monetize that in as yet unknown ways. But if it was to really build an open interoperability metaverse that would connect with the platforms of other companies like Fortnite, Epic Games, for example, or Microsoft or whatever Google will announce it would not be able to capture the users in that way. It will not be able to keep the revenue generated from digital assets.
Sandra Which begs the really, really straightforward question, what is the business model for this new thing that they're building? Because the business model for some of the pieces is quite obvious. But the business model for the metaverse is really not.
Kai It cannot be a hardware one, because that's not going to sustain a company like Facebook, it has to be something to do with recurring revenue subscriptions, capturing the user attention. And some commentators on the Internet have made that point that this is the ultimate way to appropriate a user's attention, no more distractions from the real world from the outside world when you are fully immersed in the digital world. So in many ways, this is not a new thing. It might be just the Facebook business model on steroids. But then openness really only means openness to the world of creators of people who want to join Facebook, on this platform rather than a true openness that would create a metaverse that is really platform independent.
Sandra And this is kind of where all the initial analysis that we've seen in the last couple of hours tend to go, like there's this fear that things will be closed, and they will be monetized. And there'll be privacy issues, and there'll be all these problems. And to this, we can add some very practical alarm bells around the fact that Facebook does dominate to a large extent the VR market. It did hire 10,000 people to work on this and it is intent on hiring another 10,000 people in Europe. It's had dozens and dozens of acquisitions of smaller companies working in this space. It does seem intent on metaverse domination. And yet many people do seem to somehow still find the silver lining here by agreeing with Zuckerberg that this doesn't have to be a dystopian view. And this somehow can be a place where everything works and we all get along, much like the Internet was in early days. And many people quite critical of the vision and where they seem to be going, say, but it's fine. Because we have a way forward, we can just go back to the original intent and sentiment that the Internet had pre-Facebook's pre-Google's and so on, which was this open and collaborative space where everybody just got along and created wonderful things.
Kai The Internet, when it emerged, was built by governments, by academic institutions by volunteer organisations who came up with standards that underpinned everything, but were owned by no one, in order to make sure that the infrastructure was shared to then enable all this innovation over the top of it.
Sandra This is quite dissimilar to how the Internet was born, a very public space. This is one of the largest corporates in the world making a play for the metaverse. And in fact, the little lesser-known companies in this space, don't even get a mention these days, you know, metaverse start-ups like Decentraland, or The Sandbox, barely get the footnote in this conversation.
Kai And we'll put the links in the shownotes.
Sandra And even if we do accept the premise that we could make this like the Internet used to be at the very beginning, open, accessible to everyone not dominated by large players. Even if we manage to do that, it's important to remember that as we grew the Internet and as we thought of business models, as we started to need to have companies that would validate who you are, that would enable transactions that would enable payments that would reduce the costs of being in this space. As the Internet grew, that's when these companies started to emerge. That's when we got the likes of Facebook, the likes of Amazon. Remember, Facebook started out as a fairly open company that allowed you to connect to your friends. It wasn't monetized in the ways that it is now. The corporatization of the Internet very much grew with the Internet.
Kai But now we're in a position where we have the corporatization and one of its largest players is setting out to build the metaverse.
Sandra So as we sit here talking about Zuckerberg metaverse, the news is still coming in around, you know, regulating the last thing that Zuckerberg built. You have to give it to the man, he is ambitious, and he is changing the world. So maybe a moment to keep an eye on how we're all as he said, going to be involved in building this, and how we maybe can make it slightly better this time around by giving it a bit more thought upfront.
Kai By being involved in creating governance mechanisms for the various worlds in the metaverse so that we do not end up in a place like Facebook that Facebook wants to move beyond Meta.
Sandra That was very meta, Kai. But that's all we have time for today.
Kai Thank you for listening.
Sandra Thanks for listening.
Outro This was The Future, This Week, an initiative of The University of Sydney Business School. Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Business Insights and Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organisation. Connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Flipboard and subscribe, like or leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any weird and wonderful topics for us to discuss, send them to email@example.com.