While those of a certain age might remember exotic news like access to primitive chat rooms, logging into AltaVista, or receiving an “email,” the wonder that accompanied the early Internet is gone.
Now, a group of companies is betting on a new frontier of the Internet – which they hope can invigorate this sense of technological fear and endless connection possibilities – with plans to build an online 3D virtual world where users can explore and interact, called “Metaversa”.
Technical observers set their sights on April when Epic Games, founded by CEO Tim Sweeney ’93, announced that it had raised $ 1 billion in funding to develop its metaverse vision after players of its hugely successful Fortnite went start spending time in the gaming world (e.g., for an Ariana Grande virtual concert) when you’re not competing.
However, interest in the idea overflowed when Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last month that the world’s dominant social media company saw its future in the metaverse. Just as it won’t be clear what the metaverse will look like, the details of Facebook’s planned change aren’t clear either. But expect the company to deploy huge resources and energy both to stay ahead of the technology curve and to divert attention from some of its current problems, said Information Studies professor Jennifer Golbeck, a scientist University of Maryland computer science that studies social networking algorithms.
Golbeck spoke with Maryland Today about what the Internet of the future might look like:
Metavers seems to be a big issue, but what is it, really?
The idea of a metavers has been around for years. Facebook not only developed it and it would not be a Facebook product, like Instagram. They are a company that is part of it. What it really is is still a bit indefinite; you may see it interacting with the real world through augmented reality, as with the old Google Glass, with a visual overlay on the real world that provides information as you walk. Where Facebook really focuses is a virtual space. Most of us have seen or perhaps tried Oculus virtual reality glasses: Facebook owns Oculus, and this seems to be their vision of how they experience metaverse.
What would you really see with glasses? A cartoon or photorealistic world?
I think it will be a mix. As with many online experiences, it depends on your hardware to depend on its appearance. It will not be a platform managed by a single corporation or an application like (3D virtual world online) Second Life. This would suggest that you have more heterogeneity in terms of how it looks and works. Thus, theoretically, one could walk from one thing built by one company or organization to another and the world would change completely.
Does Facebook’s interest make the metaverse more likely to take over?
Facebook will definitely invest a lot of money in it and have access to a large user base, so yes. If you want to see the metaverse done in a way that contains a lot of interesting stuff and is a place where you can interact with people, this is good for that. But Facebook proves a lot of things people don’t want, and I’ve wondered if this is a solution to finding a problem. Do people really cry out en masse to leave the real world behind? I’m not so sure they are.
Why is Facebook so committed to this, then?
After all the problems they have had, Facebook wants to restore the reputation they originally had, which is someone who comes and does very innovative new things that make the world a better place, such as something that helps us maintain relationships with people who could have lost contact with. I have no inside knowledge of what’s going on on Facebook, but I think there needs to be intense pressure to know what the next big thing will be and stay ahead.
How could it go wrong?
I think all the problems Facebook has had with people using their platform for the wrong purposes will intensify in a metaverse app, because a lot of what’s happening on Facebook these days is just trying to handle the bad stuff. There’s a lot of talk about anti-vax and insurrection-related stuff, but there’s also child pornography and a lot of other things that don’t get much attention, and I have to say that Facebook does a really good job leaving a lot of that content and its moderators suffer from it.
The problem with metaverse is that we have technology that can automatically mark text or images that may have child pornography or certain types of violence, but we don’t know how to manage this space in the virtual world. This means that it will probably be effectively deregulated for a while. There will be a lot of tech people who want to try new things there, and that will include some bewilderment. So I don’t think the idea of “Facebook is evil” that they’re dealing with is gone.
What could be good?
I went to a National Science Foundation review panel held at Second Life about five years ago, and it was fantastic. You could talk to each other in a much more natural way than with Zoom and you had visual cues that also helped in communication. Since you have a visual avatar, you don’t have to be on camera, you don’t have to look at your stupid face all day.
So just because I don’t think people will want to spend their lives in virtual reality doesn’t mean there isn’t any good use, such as better ways to do telecommuting. I think if Facebook overlooks this aspect, they miss an opportunity. But I think they have a bigger, more global view than a better zoom. I just don’t think it will work.