What is Facebook’s metaverse, the new reality that needs 10,000 people to build it?

‘The next best thing to teleportation’ will create 10,000 new jobs in EU over five years

Facebook announced this week that it is to create 10,000 highly skilled new jobs in the EU over the next five years building its "metaverse", which led a few people to wonder exactly what a metaverse is.

Go on then. I'll take the bait. What is the metaverse?
According to Facebook, it is "an online world where people exist and communicate in shared virtual spaces".

Right. Isn't that just….Facebook?
Not at all. Mark Zuckerberg sees the metaverse as the successor to the mobile internet, linking virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) together. "Instead of just viewing content, you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn't necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness," he told The Verge earlier this year. The idea is that you'd use technology such as its Oculus VR headset to virtually have a meeting, go to a gig or comedy show or travel, and pay for purchases using cryptocurrencies.

So virtual reality then. Don't we have that already?
It "isn't just virtual reality" either, Zuckerberg explained. "This is a persistent, synchronous environment where we can be together…You might be able to jump into an experience, like a 3D concert or something, from your phone."


Why do I feel like this is just going to end up being Zoom with headsets?
You may not be entirely wrong there. "A lot of the meetings that we have today, you're looking at a grid of faces on a screen," Zuckerberg said. "The interactions that we have will be a lot richer, they'll feel real. In the future, instead of just doing this over a phone call, you'll be able to sit as a hologram on my couch."

At work, “if you want to talk to someone, you’re working through a problem, instead of just calling them on the phone, they can teleport in…they can see your five monitors, or whatever it is, and the documents or all the windows of code that you have, or a 3D model that you’re working on. And they can stand next to you and interact, and then in a blink they can teleport back to where they were.”

Okay. Sounds like some bold, futuristic thinking from the guy whose first big idea was a platform to rate the hotness of college students.
Now, now. He claims he dreamed this up in middle school, when he came up with the idea for an "embodied internet where you could be in the environment and teleport to different places and be with friends." Strictly speaking, the metaverse is not actually his idea – it's a concept developed in a 1992 science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, to refer to a convergence of physical, augmented and virtual reality. The venture capitalist Matthew Ball defines the key characteristics of a metaverse as follows: it has to span the physical and virtual worlds; have its own economy; and allow you to take your avatar and goods from one part of the metaverse to another. And crucially no one company can run it.

I'm guessing Facebook has other ideas.
Zuckerberg has said "it's certainly not something that any one company is going to build", but that won't be for want of trying. The social media giant has committed $50 million to building the metaverse.

Any other companies in the race?
There are already limited interpretations of the metaverse out there. Think games like Fortnite and Roblox, which recently launched 'Dynamic Heads', "a first step towards reactive facial expressions that make conversations feel as real inside the #metaverse as they do outside it"' – basically, talking versions of those me-mojis from your iPhone. Microsoft has also said it is "uniquely positioned" to start developing metaverse apps, and Apple has similar ambitions. The whole idea of the metaverse is that it won't work unless you can cross between different apps and platforms without leaving it. A realised metaverse could be the next best thing to a working teleportation device, Zuckerberg reckons.

Shudder. But 10,000 jobs is good news for the EU.
Well, Facebook certainly thinks so. According to Bloomberg, Ireland will benefit – along with Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands. "This investment (in new jobs) is a vote of confidence in the strength of the European tech industry and the potential of European tech talent," the company said. "Europe is hugely important to Facebook."

Yay! Take that Britain! Isn't Facebook in the news for other reasons recently?
Correct. This is happening at the same time as serious conversations in the US about the possibility of breaking the company up. A package of bills making its way through Congress could end up forcing the company to spin off Instagram and WhatsApp.

Not to get cynical about it, but I presume the metaverse would offer lots of new and innovative ways to invade our privacy and put ads in front of us.
Well, you didn't think Facebook was pursuing this purely for the good of humanity. A metaverse populated by "hundreds of millions of people ... compounds the size of the digital economy inside it," Zuckerberg has said.

What's the timeline for this? Should I be adding a metaverse headset to my Christmas list?
Maybe not this Christmas. But Zuckerberg predicts that over the next five years, Facebook will transition from being a social media company to a metaverse company. Of course, we'll need ultrafast 5G – some people even suggested 6G – internet for any of this to be possible. And VR-AR headsets that people actually want to wear. So don't start planning your hologram's launch party outfit just yet.