The Facebook Metaverse is is a virtual reality world that is the intersection between real and digital life. Currently Meta is developing different products including fitness and social platforms. The Metaverse has consistently been criticized, even before being known as the Metaverse. This criticism surrounds privacy practices, monopolistic activity, and safety.
- 1 History
- 2 Social Networking
- 3 Fitness
- 4 Productivity
- 5 Education
- 6 Controversy
- 7 References
In 2012, Palmer Lucky crossed paths with John Carmack on an internet form. Lucky was was attending Cal State Long Beach and was pursing a journalism degree while experimenting with virtual reality on the side. John Carmack was the co-founder of id Software and was the lead programmer for games like Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, and Quake. During the online interaction, Luckey showed his head-mounted display off. Carmack asked Luckey to buy a headset and was instead given one for free. Later that year, Carmack went to E3 to demonstrate one of Luckey's rudimentary headset prototypes. Carmack's involvement and the E3 demonstration led to a wave of excitement over the project which led to Luckey dropping out of college and forming OculusVR in June of 2012 .
On August 1st, 2012, Luckey launched a Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus. The company originally aimed to raise 250,000 dollars. Prior to meeting Carmack, Luckey had hoped to get around 100 supporters for his project. In 24 hours, the campaign raised 670,000 dollars from 2,750 people. In three days, the million dollar mark was reached. The hype behind the campaign can be attributed to endorsements from Carmack and gaming industry leaders like Gabe Newell from Valve.
Dev Kit 1
Dev Kit 1 was a 350 dollar headset that was targeted to virtual reality developers and early adopters. It later became known as the Oculus Rift DK1. This headset had many drawbacks. It used a scree with a low resolution, downgrading environments that were well crafted. The view has been compared to "sitting too close to an old TV" and "staring at a display through a screen door". This lack of screen quality led to complaints of motion sickness that caused problems with people's inner ears and stomachs. The headset also lacked any positional tracking. It was able to tell if a user was looking up, down, left, or right, but it could not register actions like leaning in. Oculus was able to sell every headset that they produced even with the design limitations. In the end, the company sold 65,000 units, selling out on February 21st 2014.
Dev Kit 2
On March 19th 2014, Oculus began accepting pre-orders for the Dev Kit 2. The Dev Kit 2 had noticeable improvements over the Dev Kit 1. The previous low resolution display was bumped from 640x800 to a 960x1080 display. This was a 100% increase in in pixel count. The second iteration of the headset also implemented measures to prevent motion sickness. The company realized users were getting sick because of how the display blurred motion. Some of the measures include shifting from an LCD to and OLED display. OLED displays have a brighter screens and less motion blur. The latency of the headset decreased from 60 milliseconds to 30 milliseconds. The company also mitigated motion sickness by inserting black frames in between scenes. This tricked user's eyes into perceiving a smoothly moving image. The new version of the headset also introduced additional hardware components including an external camera. This new camera in addition to infrared LEDs built into the headset allowed for users to do things like lean in and peek around a corner, features that were not supported in the Dev Kit 1.
In March of 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus for 2 billion dollars. The company paid 400 million in cash and with 23.1 million Facebook shares. At the time of the announcement, Oculus released at least three blog posts claiming that they would remain independent at Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg and the Oculus VR founders both committed to develop partnerships with game developers regardless of the acquisition. The purchase of Oculus was in contrast with popular Facebook games at the time which included games like FarmVille which was much different than the immersive 3D nature of VR gaming. In the year of the acquisition, Zuckerberg wrote "This is just the start. After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences". Zuckerberg also wrote at the time that the plan was to not make money on the devices in the long term, but rather to set up a software and services business .
The announcement of this acquisition led to many of the companies biggest fans disappointment. Soon after the announcement, the top post on Reddit alluded to the end of Oculus with a photo of the Reddit mascot laying flowers on an Oculus grave. Many fans vowed to cancel their pre-orders for the newly announced Dev Kit 2. Notably the creator of Minecraft stopped the project to create an Oculus version of his game. He wrote at the time, "Facebook is not a company of grass-roots tech enthusiasts. Facebook is not a game tech company. Facebook has a history of caring about building user numbers, and nothing but building user numbers”. Criticism also came from outside of the tech industry. Peter Berkman, a member of the band anamanaguchi, wrote at the time that “It is infinitely easier to mine data in a completely simulated reality - Facebook will know where you’re looking, what you’re doing, and how long you do it. The data promised to them by VR (tele-conference meetings, games that portray our deepest desires, fears and fantasies) is everything they wish they could gather in the real world. When they cross-reference that with all the other information they already have on a billion people (faces, social dynamics, etc), suddenly there is one company with a lot of control” .
In early 2022, it was revealed that the Federal Trade Commission, along with at least three other states, was investigating Meta for antitrust violations related to their virtual reality division. New York, Tennessee, North Carolina, and the Federal Trade Commission were concerned about protections surrounding third party VR developers. The group of states led by New York and the Federal Trade Commission were questioning third-party Oculus app developers over the last few months leading up to 2022. They are investigating whether or not Oculus is using its position as a leader in the virtual reality sphere to crush their competition.
Dissolving Oculus Brand
Following the announcement of Facebook's name transition to Meta in Octobor 2021, the company announced that the oculus brand would be killed off. In the announcement, Andrew Bosworth, the future CTO of Meta, wrote that "While we’re retiring the name, I can assure you that the original Oculus vision remains deeply embedded in how Meta will continue to drive mass adoption for VR today".
In December 2021, Horizon Worlds became available to people in the United States and Canada via the Quest app. It is described as the " first attempt at releasing something that resembles CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse". Horizon Worlds is an interactive virtual reality world that allows users to hang out with up to 20 people in a virtual space. The application was originally announced in September 2019. It original intent was to serve as a building game in the VR space like Minecraft. It transitioned to more of a social application during the the private beta. In this time, Horizon Worlds hosted comedy shows, movie nights, and mediation sessions. Additionally, the app is home to pop culture references such as a replica of the Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters. One of the key features of the application is the ability to write basic code that dictates how objects act in the world. For example, users can program a gun to shoot when they press a trigger or make a ball bounce when it touches the ground. The company plans to eventually release a free library of these code blocks.
In early 2021 Facebook announced the ability to use Facebook Messenger through the Oculus headset. This is a cross platform feature allowing Oculus users to chat with anyone with a messenger account. Users communicate with others by typing out messages in virtual reality, using already generated conversations, or by using the voice-to-text feature. Oculus users can send invitations through messenger to create an Oculus Party.
Supernatural is a subscription based virtual reality fitness application. The service costs 19 dollars per month. Users can chose low, medium, or high intensity workouts that can last anywhere from 10 minutes to one hour. In addition to intensity, players have multiple workout options including a "Flow" workout where a player does lunges and squats, a boxing workout where a player will be ducking, blocking, and punching, stretching activities, or meditations. Users can conduct their exercise from places like France's beaches, the Great Wall of China, or the Egyptian pyramids. Workout progress can be tracked using a smart phone application. Supernatural players have access to a music catalog while playing. In early 2021, that music catalog was expanded through a deal with the Universial Music Publishing Group to include songs like Bliie Eilish's "Bad Guy" and The Weekend's "Blinding Lights" along with music from artists like KISS, Iron Maiden, and Bob Marley. This musical expansion has led to more themed workouts like one for Women's History Month featuring songs like "Chun Li" and "Savage".
Shortly after rebranding from Facebook to Meta, the company announced it was acquiring Within, Supernatural's parent company. According to the CEO Chris Milk, the acquisition would lead to "more resources to expand and bring you even more music, more creative ways to workout, more features and more social experiences for VR" . After announcing the acquisition of Within, The United States Federal Trade Commission opened a antitrust probe of the deal. This is an expansion of the federal scrutiny Meta was facing about its previous social media acquisitions. According to insiders, this deal was flagged because of its 400 million dollar price tag. This investigation may cause the finalization of the deal to be delayed until November of 2022. The investigation is a part of Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan's broader mission to prevent big technology companies from illegally shutting out the next generation of competition.
Quest for Business
Quest for Business is a set of features that is run on the consumer version of the Quest 2 headset. This program will allow you to login with a work account to collaborate with coworkers by giving users access to productivity applications. Current applications that are available include Facebook, Instagram, Smartsheet, and Spike. The addition apps like Dropbox, Monday.com, Mural, My5, Pluto TV, and Slack has been announced. Quest for Business is the successor to the existing Oculus for Business program that began winding down at the end of 2021. In 2022, Facebook plans on expanding beta testing to additional users, and in 2023, Quest for Business is targeted to be available to all businesses.
Horizon Workrooms is Facebook's virtual reality office meeting platform. It is a free to use software that can be accessed through video calling. In order to utilize full functionality, users need an Oculus 2 headset. Workrooms is able to support existing hardware by allowing users to connect their keyboards to provide input in virtual reality. Users are able to collaborate by using hand gestures to write on virtual whiteboards. Similarly, notes can be projected to a board in the center of the screen. People are able to communicate with each other using audio, and they are able to adjust who they are listening to by tilting their headsets towards other participants. Workers are able to customize their virtual reality space. They can do this by placing company logos or posters to personalize their environment. Third party productivity applications are available through Horizon Workrooms. In 2021 Oculus announced that Zoom Meetings and Zoom Whiteboard features would be integrated into Workrooms.
There have been many ongoing complaints about sexual harassment in Horizon Worlds. According to a Verge article, a Horizon World beta tester was groped by a stranger. The user described the experience as being intense because it was in VR but also because there were other people there who supported the behavior. Facebook directly responded to this incident saying the beta tester didn't properly use the safety features. One of those safety features is the ability to block someone from interacting with you directly. In February of 2022, Meta announced the ability to create a personal boundary of around 4 feet to combat any harassment.
Conversations around child safety in the Metaverse have been ongoing. Titania Jordan, the chief parent officer at Bark, a parental control application, has said "abusers could target children through chat messages in a game or by speaking to them through headsets, actions that are difficult to document". This misbehavior is difficult to report because most things happening in the Metaverse are happening in real time and are not being recorded. Not having proof has made it difficult to hold bad actors accountable for their actions, leaving children especially vulnerable. Callum Hood, the research head at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, has said that he has witnessed "sexual and violent threats against minors" and other people "showing sexually explicit content to a minor" while reviewing an 11 hour long recording of the VRChat game. He reported those incidents to Oculus and has not heard back. Under Meta policy, minors are not permitted to create Oculus accounts. Meta has deferred the responsibility of age verification to app developers.
Digital rights groups are raising red flags about privacy concerns surrounding the Metaverse. One area of concern is how many questions surrounding privacy in normal reality haven't been addressed yet. Without regulation of normal reality, it becomes increasingly difficult to create accurate rules and regulations for emerging technologies like virtual reality. Because of the nature of VR, headsets are able to collect much more data and create more accurate profiles of users to do things like advertise products. Advertisers could potentially have access to and use eye, head, and arm data to make inferences about things like personalities, health and habits to serve advertisements. In January of 2022, a Meta spokesperson said that they currently do not use hand positioning data to serve data, but would not commit to not do so in the future. With the introduction of Horizon workrooms, there are concerns about how employers can monitor employees. Horizon Workrooms opens up the possibility for employers to analyze different behaviors to a new level potentially invading employee privacy along the way. Future iterations of Meta's headsets will include hardware that can track users eyes. This hardware can be used to track if workers are paying enough attention while working. Eye tracking can also be used to attempt to measure cognitive load during a job interview. Digital rights experts are also bringing light to the fact that there is little in place to stop the government from utilizing data from VR headsets, meaning the government could have easy access to on body-related data.
Negative Public Reception
The announcement of the Metaverse has been met with heavy criticism. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Initiative for Digital Infrastructure and an early developer of his own metaverse, has said that Zuckerberg's VR world is uninspiring and boring. He points to different functionality like playing chess, ping-pong, surfing, and watching movies and points out how all of those activities can be done in the real world. He also criticizes Meta's business strategy of irresponsibly focusing on growth without consideration of it effects. Zuckerman has written that the Metaverse will contribute to " a set of diverse and fascinating sociopolitical challenges that it will take lawmakers, scholars, and activists at least a generation to fix". He says that for the past 17 years, Facebook has been avoiding the conflicts that it has created and that this trend will continue with the development of the Metaverse. Zucker also questions how a company that is only capable of blocking 6 percent of Arab hate content will be able to police the VR world.