Facebook logo

A cellphone and a computer screen display the logo of social networking site Facebook. 

| Noberto Duarte | Afp

What’s the metaverse and why should I care?

You already know that Meta, just like Google’s rebrand to Alphabet, is now the parent company that will manage Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Oculus.

But just what is the metaverse? This is the question that has dominated Google searches over the last two days following Facebook’s rebrand to Meta.

Many Facebook users in Kenya have tried to explain the origin of ‘Meta’, some humorously tying it to ‘meta meta’, Swahili for ‘shining’ others claiming the company had METAmorphosed despite its recent muddles while a few said it has something to do with metaphysics and science fiction.

But Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has in the past three months been posting on the platform about the need to create the next wave of internet norm, which will move the consumption of internet content from smartphones to modern devices such as Virtual Reality (VR) headsets.

And though his consistent long social media explanations on going meta have done a great deal to popularize the concept before launch, he is not the one who coined the word.

American Neal Stephenson famously originated the term “metaverse” in his 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, where it referred to a three-dimensional virtual world inhabited by avatars of real people. 

In 2011, another sci-fi novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline was also launched, further driving the conversation on the question: what should replace the current internet? 

 So, what’s the metaverse, how does it work?

There may be no consensus on the definition of this buzzword because its meaning is broad.  However, if you have ever worn a VR gear and experienced immersive technologies, then you are a step ahead in understanding the metaverse.

Think of it as services of the internet being brought to you in three dimensional. For a second, think of disappearing from this world and entering into a new world where everything you see and experience looks real, but tech-wise it is virtual.

Forget about watching football matches from your 65 inch TV, that’s changing. Using a VR headset, you can experience, for instance, an English Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool as though you were live at Old Trafford.  

 For Christians, if you are too busy on a Sunday, in a metaverse context, you will be able to contribute to and experience all service proceedings, from praise and worship to the sermon and even give your offerings right from your house.

 TV presenters will be able to deliver news bulletins from wherever they are, so long as they are connected to the immersive technology.

 I know you are used to the normal Zoom meetings where you only see your colleagues on your phone screen. In a metaverse, you will be taken to a nice venue where you can see each other as avatars but maintain your natural voices and non-verbal cues. I call it a doppelganger universe.

 This makes the metaverse a world of endless, interconnected virtual communities where people can meet, work and play, using VR headsets, Augmented Reality (AR) glasses, smartphone apps or other smart devices.

 According to US venture capitalist Matthew Ball, author of Metaverse Primer, the Metaverse is an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and entitlements, and can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.

How will this change how we hold meetings?

 This could make working from home effortlessly possible as it combines VR, Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence to make tasks easier and office consultations realtime.

 Last August, Mr Zuckerberg launched Horizon Workrooms, a virtual work service where you feel like you're really there with fellow employees.

 It allows conversations to flow more naturally and you'll pick up social cues that are missing on video like people turning to listen to each other, hand gestures, and spatial audio to give everyone a sense of place in the room.

 “There's also a whiteboard for brainstorming together, a screen for people to video conference in, and a virtual desktop so you can use your computer in VR for presentations or multitasking,” he explained during the launch.

 That means in the future, working together will be one of the main ways people use the metaverse.

 That means metaverse is just a Facebook project, right?

 Not really. Microsoft and Nvidia are also warming up to the metaverse. Expect every tech company to be interested in playing a role in building the new virtual network, the same way millions of companies currently offer services on the world wide web.

 Epic Games, for instance, has raised over Sh100 billion to contribute in building the metaverse. Roblox also has a vision for the metaverse, saying it aims to create a platform where people can come to learn, work, play, socialize and create content through 3D experiences.

 Vice president of Nvidia’s Omniverse platform says it's important for companies to be open and extensible so they can allow users to teleport to different worlds, the same way you navigate from one web page to another.

 How soon will the metaverse be available?

 Though still in its early stages, the ground work being done across the world in the spread of 5G connectivity means it could be the norm in the next ten years.

 VR headsets are already in the market, Meta’s Oculus going for Sh30,000 but as more tech behemoths jump into the bandwagon, expect the cost of experiencing the metaverse to reduce.

This will make it more accessible to countries that have 5G networks like Kenya, so how fast it comes closer to you is dependent on the speed of competition of various vendors.

 Okay. Is this now how my private data will be siphoned in the metaverse without my consent?

Users are already thrilled by what the metaverse promises. But they are worried that it could come at the expense of their private information being shared across immersive worlds. People are afraid they will be tracked and monitored.

 After rebranding to Meta, I did not see anywhere where Zuckerberg said he now wants to change his business model. It remains the same. Tinkering with algorithms based on user date to make profits.

 “Ads are going to continue to be an important part of the strategy across the social media parts of what we do and it will probably be a meaningful part of the metaverse too,” he said.

If Meta targets to be the major player in the metaverse, then it will be coerced to address serious private data leakages via Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram that have been previously reported in the recent past. Otherwise, metaverse could be another platform for massive abuse of user private data and spread of misinformation.

Though Zuckerberg has previously said he is committed to protecting user data, announcing last month that WhatsApp users will soon be able to use an end-to-end encryption for their message back-ups stored on Google Drive and Apple iCloud, calling it “another layer of privacy and security,” unveiling the metaverse will be his real test for data privacy protection.