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Facebook has turned its social media battleship toward the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. And that was evident at its Facebook Connect online event today, where CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced new stepping stones on its virtual reality and augmented reality journey toward the metaverse.
Zuckerberg is so serious about this journey that he changed the company’s name to Meta today. Yep.
As part of a broad effort that involves billions of dollars of research, Zuckerberg introduced social virtual reality with Horizon Home, which uses an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset to entertain people in connected VR spaces. You will also be able to make Messenger calls within VR. And he teased new augmented reality glasses (Nazare) and a high-end VR headset (Project Cambria) that are coming soon.
“We see view this progression of technology as we’re constantly getting more natural ways to connect and communicate with each other,” Zuckerberg said in a press briefing regarding the metaverse focus. “Through Facebook’s lifetime, we started off typing text into websites, and we got phones with cameras. So the internet became more visual and mobile. And then as connections got better, we now have a rich video which is more immersive as the main way that we share experiences.”
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Of course, Facebook faces a lot of issues now. Antitrust regulators are investigating it around the world, it faced some bad press for weeks from whistleblower leaks about putting profits ahead of the welfare of its users, and its financial performance slowed after Apple prioritized privacy over targeted advertising. Its social media business has entangled it with many issues, but it has also given the company an unprecedented financial engine with $29 billion in revenues in the September 30 quarter. And that has given it the war chest to be perhaps the most ambitious company when it comes to ushering in the metaverse, which Zuckerberg said is the next generation of the internet.
Given the controversies, Zuckerberg said, “I just want to acknowledge that I get that probably there are a bunch of people will say that this isn’t a time to focus on the future. And I want to acknowledge that there are clearly important issues to work on in the present. And we’re committed to continuing to do that and continuing the massive industry-leading effort that we have on that. At the same time, I think there will always be issues in the present. So I think it’s still important to push forward and continue trying to create what the future is.”
Zuckerberg continues to invest in VR, noting how his Facebook Reality Lab division — which includes Oculus — will invest more than $10 billion this year in metaverse efforts that include both VR and AR. Facebook also plans to hire more than 10,000 people in Europe for the division.
As for defining the metaverse, Zuckerberg said it isn’t like being on a Zoom call, as we have all done during the pandemic. Zuckerberg said the metaverse should feel like you’re embedded in a place, with a sense of presence, the feeling that you are transported to some place. He said that gaming will be the way that people step into the metaverse for the first time, as gaming has the infrastructure for economies through virtual goods and engagement with fans.
In the press briefing ahead of the event as well as in his speech itself, Zuckerberg talked extensively about how the company views the metaverse.
“We basically think of the metaverse is the successor of the mobile internet, in the sense that the mobile internet didn’t completely replace everything that came before it,” Zuckerberg said. “It’s not that the metaverse is going to completely replace something that comes before it. But it’s the next platform. In that sense, it’s not a thing that a company builds. It is a broader platform that I think we’re all going to contribute towards building in a way that is open and interoperable.”
He added, “We think about the metaverse as, it’s an embodied internet. So instead of looking at the internet, or at documents, which I think is sort of the experience of what we have today, it’s an internet and you’re going to be in and a part of something that’s going to feel qualitatively different. And the defining characteristic that we think is going to exist here in the metaverse is this feeling of presence, like you’re right there with another person or in another place.”
Andrew Bosworth, head of Facebook Reality Lab, said in a press briefing, “We really want to dispel the idea that the metaverse is only accessible through virtual reality. It’s not the vision that we have imagined it being, even though it’s 3D, even though it’s immersive. There are lots of 3D immersive things that we access today through screens and through our phones, via Fortnite and video games or more social experiences.”
But Bosworth said that the experience of the metaverse will be better in virtual reality and augmented reality.
“And so it just depends on the context. If I’m on the go, I’m very likely to be on my mobile phone,” he said. “If I’m in this room by myself, virtual reality might be a better way to go. If I was in this room with other people physically here, augmented reality might be the way to approach it. And so there are many ways that people will interface with the metaverse.”
Zuckerberg said that privacy and safety have to be built into the metaverse from the start. In his vision, he said you can take metaverse items and project them into the physical world as holograms. You can gesture with your hands rather than tap or type. Your devices won’t be the focal point of your attention. He said it has to be open, interoperable, and not built by one company.
He said the metaverse will unlock a massively bigger creator economy.
Facebook is partnering with VR game studio Vertigo Games on five upcoming titles. Zuckerberg said he loves Beat Saber, which just passed $100 million on Quest alone. Population: One, a battle royale shooter on Quest, has become the most popular VR multiplayer shooter game on Quest since it launched last year. It’s also getting regular updates. The game has 24 people in a match.
Blade & Sorcery: Nomad is launching on Quest later this year. And Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is coming to VR as well, following the launch of Resident Evil 4 on the Quest this month. Zuckerberg said it was a new version of “one of the greatest games ever made.” Zuckerberg showed off a lot of visions, like a simple game of chess played with a friend via augmented reality, or fencing with someone who is remote, or even playing basketball against friends over VR.
To talk more about the coming games, Oculus will have a gaming showcase in 2022.
Facebook has unveiled Horizon Home. Soon, when you join an Oculus Party in VR, you’ll be able to invite your friends into a new social version of your Home where they’ll be embodied as their avatars. You’ll be able to spend time together with friends, co-watch videos together, and launch games and apps together
On top of that, you will also be able to communicate with your friends across all your apps and devices — including Portal — with Messenger calling in VR coming later this year. From anywhere in VR, you’ll be able to invite your Facebook friends to join a Messenger call and eventually spend time together or travel to VR destinations.
“In terms of the software aspects, it’s important that this can be continuous across different devices,” Zuckerberg said. “So we’ll talk a bit about AR glasses. We’ll talk about the VR devices for having the most immersive experiences. But of course, it’s going to be really important that you can jump into the metaverse through phones and computers, and including the social media apps that we build where people are connecting all day already.”
Horizon Home, Horizon Workroom, and Horizon Worlds are all part of the company’s effort to create VR spaces for the home, work, and other spaces.
“It’s our collaboration experience where people come together to work in a virtual room and feel that sense of presence together,” Bosworth said. “It helps them communicate, collaborate, and connect while remote.”
He said the Horizon Worlds VR social space is still in testing and growing daily.
“We’ve been really amazed at the imagination, the collaboration that we’re seeing from the creator community there,” Bosworth said.
He said the company has added a $10 million creator fund to encourage even more investment in Horizon Worlds.
The new fitness offerings on Oculus include Supernatural boxing and new FitXR fitness studios. Player 22 by Rezzil, which is currently used by pro athletes, is adding guided and hand-tracked bodyweight exercises.
Next year, Facebook will also release Active Pack for Quest 2. The company is making a fitness accessories pack that makes Quest 2 more comfortable, with controller grips for when things get intense and a facial interface that you can wipe the sweat off, making your sessions more comfortable.
Fitness on Quest is like a Peloton without the bike, Zuckerberg said. The vision for what comes next looks pretty cool.
You’ll be able to work out in new worlds against an AI, like the photos in the top of this section shows.
You’ll be able to play fitness apps in groups, like three-on-three basketball, Zuckerberg said. Your Facebook cycling group could do an AR charity ride, he suggested. You could fence with someone on the other side of the world, and so on.
VR for Work
Facebook also unveiled Quest for Business, including Work Accounts support on Quest 2. The new business offering will bring work capabilities into consumer Quest devices, including the ability to log into Quest 2 with a Work Account instead of your personal Facebook account. It will also bring businesses the tools they need, like account management, IDP & SSO integration, mobile device management, and more. It will begin testing this year, move to open beta in 2022, and will be fully available in 2023.
There are also 2D apps coming to Quest in Horizon Home. Facebook will announce that services like Slack, Dropbox, Facebook, Instagram, and many more will soon work in VR as 2D panel apps in Horizon Home — so you can multitask, cross things off your to-do list between gaming sessions, and stay connected while in VR. This starts bringing some of your favorite 2D internet services into the metaverse.
The first 2D apps are available in the Oculus Store today, including Facebook, Instagram, Smartsheet, and Spike. More apps will follow soon, like Dropbox, Monday.com, Mural, My5 (UK), PlutoTV, and Slack — all built using the Progressive Web App industry standard.
Facebook has also added a new personal workspace environment in Horizon Home. This is a place to focus and work using the new suite of 2D panel apps, or just check a few things off your to-do list.
Facebook earlier announced its Horizon Workrooms VR experience for office meetings. Now it is adding Workrooms customization. For Horizon Workrooms, it will add the capability to customize your Workroom with your company logo, posters, or designs.
“I am generally optimistic about work in the metaverse,” Zuckerberg said.
He said that working in the metaverse, with things like teleportation, could make a huge difference for the environment if you wind up taking one less business trip per year.
Facebook is unveiling its Presence Platform, a broad range of machine perception and AI capabilities that will enable developers to build mixed reality experiences on the Quest platform. A realistic sense of presence will be key to feeling connected in the metaverse, and Presence Platform’s capabilities deliver on this promise with things like environmental understanding, content placement and persistence, voice interaction, and standardized hand interactions.
“One of the lessons that we’ve learned over the last five years or so is around trying to take into account some of the principles are what we want to build up front and be clear about where we’re going and building something that is not just a great product for consumers, but can build a great creative economy for creators and developers as well to participate and be a part of the upside of what gets created,” Zuckerberg said.
Presence Platform consists of three offerings: Insight software development kit (SDK) for developing mixed reality experiences; Interaction SDK to make it easier to add hand interactions to apps; and Voice SDK to make voice input a part of the experiences they build.
“There’s something magical about that sense of presence. And I think that being able to deliver that is is the ultimate dream of building these social experiences,” Zuckerberg said.
And it is rolling out the tools to allow any developer to start creating and testing progressive web apps (PWA) apps on Quest devices. In the near future, developers will be able to ship their PWAs to App Lab.
PWA developers will be able to submit app packages to Oculus, and their apps will show up in either the Oculus Store or App Lab. PWA apps stay up-to-date without requiring app package updates since they display live content from the developers’ site. This will allow developers to transform the 2D experience of their websites into an app on Oculus. PWAs in App Lab can also use WebXR.
The Avatars 2.0 SDK, which overhauls Avatars in VR, will be available in December. And Facebook is launching a new cloud backup system later this year, allowing users to back up their device’s app data, like game progress or settings, so they can easily pick up where they left off in a game. It works at the filesystem level, with no coding required.
Facebook said it is exploring new ways of viewing ownership through technologies such as nonfungible tokens (NFTs).
Multiplayer gaming is also getting an upgrade. That includes direct invite application programming interfaces (APIs) that let you send invites directly from your own UX. It will also intro a new channel into an app from discovery surfaces called Ask to Join (existing integrated apps get this for free), and it will have ways to more easily friend other users and discovery opportunities in VR and 2D. Facebook also built a new multiplayer sample called SharedSpaces to help developers get started with the new social platform APIs. It’s available for Unity and Unreal 4.
As VR hits an inflection point, Facebook is investing in the core technology and work needed to bring fully featured AR glasses to market.
The company says it has packed in as much technology as it could into good-looking glasses today with Ray-Ban Stories; it is also working toward fully featured AR glasses. The company also claims to be cultivating the content, capabilities, and communities that can enrich Facebook experiences today and illuminate the path to AR glasses ahead with the Spark AR platform.
With Spark AR, Facebook’s AR platform for creation and distribution across our apps and devices, Facebook is seeing a lot of people engaging with AR technology today. More than 700 million people use AR effects across Facebook apps and devices every month, the company says.
New Spark AR capabilities will unlock more sophisticated AR experiences and use cases with location services, virtual objects, and new input models. It has new geo-locked experiences for public spaces. This allows for location-locked effects that link together in a cohesive, long-form experience, using multiple AR activation points. For example, imagine a theme park scavenger hunt or guided tour of monuments in a city center. Spark AR is currently testing with Spark Partner Network and select brands, including Sanrio in Japan, opening to all creators in 2022.
Body tracking and hand tracking
Facebook will have new capabilities to enable what it calls more fantastical, fun, and imaginative self-expression through AR effects. It is doing foundational work to unlock people-centric forms of input and virtual object interaction in AR, coming in November.
The company says its upcoming Virtual Objects Pipeline will let people create and place 3D objects in the real world that can include text, characters, GIFs, stickers, and more. To ensure realistic performance, this will also include underlying technical capabilities like depth, occlusion, and improved plane tracking. This will be available in private beta later this year and opening to everyone in 2022.
Virtual objects are critical to the future of AR and the cornerstone of continuity in the metaverse. Built on Spark AR, these objects will be versatile and scalable across different surfaces and use cases like commerce and shopping, Facebook says, with virtual try-ons and product previews.
For creators, Facebook says it’s making it easier to participate and reach new audiences in the AR ecosystem. Polar is its new, free iOS app that the company promises makes it easy to imagine, create, and share AR effects and filters without needing to code or work in the Spark AR Studio. Creators will be able to extend their personal brands, art, and creative vision in new ways — like a virtual sticker with the creator’s own tagline, or a piece of swag they can share during an AMA. Opening applications to the closed beta program for iOS later this year.
Facebook also said its Facebook Reality Labs will invest $150 million in an education program aimed to help create economic opportunity for AR/VR creators and developers, ranging from new training and career development resources to new content and technology partnerships.
After over 22,000 creators enrolled in Facebook’s AR Curriculum program in less than a year, the company is expanding the Spark AR Curriculum to include additional AR training courses — including a new “AR Pro” course — as well as a formal Spark AR certification program.
Spark AR Certification
For the first time, Facebook will provide AR creators with a formal pathway and program to demonstrate their knowledge and proficiency of Spark AR, and to earn a Facebook Certified Spark AR Creator credential. The first exam will take place in November, and registration will open soon.
Creators who earn the Spark AR Certification will get access to Facebook Certification Career Network. This job-search platform features 60-plus companies looking to hire skilled talent, including agencies like BBDO, Havas Media, GroupM, and more.
And Facebook is working with game engine developer Unity to help people gain the skills necessary for creating incredible VR content, bundling Unity’s “Create with VR for Educators” tool and training with Quest 2 devices for nonprofits and educational institutions. The company is also partnering with a number of institutions to help bring immersive and collaborative learning experiences to life: VictoryXR and Byju’s FutureSchool; nonprofits like Generation, Urban Arts Partnership, and the Peace Literacy Institute; and learning organizations, including a number of historically Black colleges and universities.
As for how far away we are from the metaverse, it’s not clear. But Bosworth said, “We’re not there.”
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