The covid-19 pandemic has forced changes in our world in many ways including the acceleration of technology transformation. Artificial Intelligence and virtual reality are two digital megatrends that have grown astronomically through the pandemic, pushing tech companies to invest more in what already is the future of technology.
Facebook recently joined the race with the introduction of its new focus on metaverse which aims at taking virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality to a whole new level. The company which recently changed its name to Meta also teased its consumers with details on a series of developments targeted at bringing metaverse to life through its online presence. But what exactly is metaverse, how can it change the way we use the internet today and how inclusive is the African audience?
What is metaverse?
The term metaverse was first coined by science-fiction author Neal Stephenson back in 1992 in his novel Snow Crash. Stephenson defined metaverse in his novel as a shared virtual space where people connect with others virtually using the Internet, VR, and AR together. Individuals were given the power to create their avatars in virtual space.
Imagine a world where you can be anywhere from shopping malls to try on clothes before purchase, to meetings to stadiums or concerts at the click of a simple button on your headset or eyewear? This is what metaverse can bring you. With metaverse, individuals are equipped with high-quality avatars communicating with others in virtual spaces. The concept of the metaverse is similar to the remote working culture the world has familiarized itself with due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many companies including Apple, Google, and Microsoft have been trying to grow their businesses with virtual spaces and their native AR experiences for some time. However, Facebook seems to have gained with the first mover’s advantage by not just showing off its interest in building the metaverse but also renaming itself Meta.
Facebook further dived into the world of virtual reality with its Oculus VR headsets. With the Oculus headset, consumers are already experiencing near reality projections which the company plans to take further to include augmented reality, a sort of step back from VR where elements of the digital world are layered on top of reality.
Another professional version of the metaverse underway is the Horizon Workrooms, an app that lets Oculus-sporting workers enter virtual offices and hold meetings as avatar versions of themselves.
How much is Facebook spending on the metaverse?
Billions of dollars a year already. The company said that investment in its Facebook Reality Labs division – where the company works on VR and AR – would reduce operating profit by $10bn (£7.25bn) in 2021.
It is a significant sum, but Facebook generates huge amounts of money from its core business of harvesting users’ data and then charging advertisers to access those people with targeted ads (focusing on things such as gender, location, income, relationship). Across Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and, of course, its eponymous platform, Facebook generated a net income – a US measure of profit – of $29bn last year from its 2.8 billion daily users. It can afford $10bn.
What are the legal concerns about the metaverse?
The overwhelming concerns, particularly in the context of the Frances Haugen revelations and the widespread targeting of social media by state-backed hackers, are privacy and security.
For instance, an advertiser targeting you in a virtual world might not just be reacting to old-world data like your age and gender: what about your body language, your physiological responses, knowing who you are interacting with and how?
Facebook has already announced a $50m (£36m) investment programme to ensure the metaverse is built responsibly”, with the money distributed among organisations and academic institutions such as Seoul National University and Women in Immersive Tech.
The African audience
There are several concerns on affordability of this experience for people in low income countries in Africa and other parts of the world. For instance, Facebook’s Oculus VR Quest headsets cost about $399, an amount that is open to inflation once the VR tech is in full throttle. This means that the high prices of this device, coupled with bad internet service could potentially alienate people in low income countries from experiencing metaverse.