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The Metaverse: Mark Zuckerberg's Next Big Idea

November 2021

I hate to admit it, but Facebook founder Mark Zuckergberg keeps getting things right. First he envisioned Facebook itself, a way for people to connect with friends. And it's been a smashing success. Then he envisioned Facebook groups, which bring together people with common interests. I've come to find this feature quite useful--as have millions of other Facebook users.

Now he's saying the "metaverse" will be the next big thing. And based on a recent experience, I think he's right.

Everybody these days loves to criticize Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, just as I have in this column on several occasions. But darn it, he seems to know what's coming and is determined to make it happen.

I now feel like it's essential to check my Facebook “news feed” for maybe 15 minutes each day. I learn things I wouldn't otherwise know, like when an acquaintance has a serious health problem or has passed away. The Fairfield-related Facebook groups have become a good way to learn news about the community, effectively supplementing the Southeast Iowa Union.

For example, when in September we had a severe storm, I turned to Facebook to get details such as sustained winds in the 70s and various power outages around town. Groups related to things such as Covid, housing, jobs, rides, local politics, photography, and buying/selling are also useful.

So what's the metaverse, Zuckerberg's next big thing? Let me share an experience I had recently.

I came across an unusual tree and was eager to know what it was. I got out my iPhone and used two apps to find out. These apps work by finding similar images and then naming what's in those images. You determine whether the proffered images match what you're seeing. If they do, then you've identified the object at hand.

My iNaturalist app and the Google Lens feature of my Google app both identified it as a bald cyprus. That was cool. But what impressed me was how versatile and easy to use these apps are. iNaturalist will not only identify plants, but also animals and insects. Plus, it will identify sounds you hear. As I continued my walk, I pointed these apps at everything I saw. It was amazing--and empowering--to immediately know what I was looking at. A flowering plant with tiny flowers that I often see is called boneset. Maybe you knew that, but I didn't.

I found I could actually point Google Lens at a range of objects. I tried pointing it at cars, and it would tell me the make, model, and year, even if I only captured a portion of it in the image. It did, however, tell me that my car is a 2005 Camry when in fact it's a 2006.

How does this relate to Mark Zuckerberg's vision? Imagine wearing a pair of glasses that tells you what you're looking at just the way that my iPhone apps do--but without the inconvenience of having to get out one's phone.

He refers to this as "augmented reality." You're looking at the real world, but with information superimposed. He envisions eventually adding augmented reality to the glasses that Facebook and Ray-Ban began selling in September. Called Ray-Ban Stories and priced at $299, the glasses can take photos and videos, play music, and answer phone calls.

His vision for the metaverse also includes "virtual reality." In this case, you're not seeing something superimposed on reality, but are immersing yourself in a graphically created reality.

During the pandemic, we've become accustomed to Zoom meetings in which the pariticpants appear in little boxes on your computer screen, with the person speaking filling your display. To Mark Zuckerberg, that's insipid. Why not create a virtual room, with participants seated around a table and each represented by a graphical representation, referred to as an avatar?

In a call to investors in early August, he said he expects Facebook to transition from being primarily a social media company to a metaverse company.

He defined the metaverse as "a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces," and as "an embodied Internet that you're inside of rather than just looking at. We believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile internet."

He imagines there will be metaverse equivalents for everything we do in the real world, such as dancing, taking a walk, hanging out with friends watching a movie, attending parties.

I'm not sure how much this appeals to me, but it really does seem like we're heading toward a metaverse, and that Mark Zuckerg will help make it happen. In the meantime, I may try a pair of Facebook's new glasses. I do hope that they come out soon with a version that includes augmented reality.

© 2021 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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