Facebook, now rebranded as Meta, believes the metaverse will substantially change the internet -- including how people collaborate at their jobs. A new name won't change the concerns companies have about the social networking giant's data sharing and privacy practices, though.
At this week's Facebook Connect conference, CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out his vision for the technology he considers the next evolution of the internet: the metaverse. There's room for growth in the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) market, which research firm IDC expects will grow to $73 billion by 2024. However, Facebook/Meta faces competition from enterprise-focused AR and VR products and public skepticism about the way it does business.
Author Neal Stephenson came up with the term metaverse in his novel Snow Crash. The concept refers to persistent virtual spaces where people interact, often using immersive technology like VR or AR.
Zuckerberg said he expects the metaverse to transform the way people work together. Many workers shifted to remote work during the past year and a half, and he expects many people will continue to work remotely after the COVID-19 pandemic fades.
"We're going to need better tools to work together" to accommodate hybrid work, he said.
About the metaverse
According to Facebook, the immersive quality of the metaverse will help workers re-create the advantages of the office. When working in VR or AR, employees will feel as if they are in the same space as their coworkers, and will have opportunities for spontaneous interactions, Zuckerberg said. During the conference keynote, Facebook demonstrated a situation where two coworkers, represented as photorealistic avatars, reviewed a 3D design model in different locations, then jumped into a virtual conference room to present it to their team. Zuckerberg said workers can do their jobs without losing hours to the daily commute or hurting the environment with extensive business travel.
Whether its name is Facebook or Meta, Zuckerberg's company must allay privacy and data sharing concerns before businesses and workers trust it enough for collaboration. Facebook has faced fierce criticism after the recent release of the Facebook Papers, a set of documents a former employee shared with the press, alleging the company withheld internal research about the platform's negative effects from the public.
Kurt Opsahl, general counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said earlier this month that the metaverse poses a wide variety of privacy issues.
Kurt OpsahlGeneral counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Because the metaverse involves creating a virtual world, companies can track everything said, heard and seen in that space. As metaverse technology is refined to capture facial expressions, gestures and additional facets of one's appearance, it compounds the amount of data that Facebook can glean.
"Every time you're gathering more data about how someone will present in the metaverse, then you're necessarily processing more personal information," he said. "Facebook's history has left people concerned."
Metaverse tools already at work
Facebook has already put a VR collaboration product, Horizon Workrooms, into open beta. The app runs on the company's Oculus Quest 2 headsets, creating a virtual space where workers' avatars can meet, give presentations and work together. The Oculus Quest 2 is available to businesses for $799, while the consumer model starts at $299. The beta of Horizons Workrooms is free to download.
Companies using Horizon Workrooms will be able to customize those spaces with their own logos and posters by the end of the year, Zuckerberg said. Facebook will also bring 2D apps like Dropbox and Slack into its VR store. This move will allow workers using the company's Quest headsets to check on work from within VR spaces.
Other vendors have introduced virtual collaboration products of their own. Microsoft launched a preview of its AR/VR collaboration platform Mesh earlier this year. Cisco unveiled an AR meeting product, Webex Hologram, this month, saying it would represent coworkers as photorealistic 3D holograms to spur a sense of connection. BlueJeans by Verizon will launch a virtual workspace in 2022.
"This is only the beginning of hearing about the unfolding future of engagement," said IDC analyst Wayne Kurtzman.
The metaverse isn't expected to replace video conferences anytime soon, though. Immersive technology makes sense for particular use cases, like refining a design using a 3D model or referring to X-rays during surgery, said Zeus Kerravala, founder of ZK Research.
"[The metaverse] has a place, but it's industry-specific," he said.
Mike Gleason is a reporter covering unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily News, Walpole Times, Sharon Advocate and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as a local editor for Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.