May 28, 2022 7:32 pm
With its social media biz under siege, Facebook looks to build a new ‘metaverse’ empire

With its social media biz under siege, Facebook looks to build a new ‘metaverse’ empire

Not content with this world, Facebook believes it can build a new reality.

Amid a crush of bad publicity, governmental scrutiny and growing competition for its social media business, the company is hiring workers and making products to create the “metaverse.”

On the company’s blog, Facebook vice presidents Nick Clegg and Javier Olivan described the metaverse as a new computing platform and “a new phase of interconnected virtual experiences using technologies like virtual and augmented reality.”

The expansion of the Facebook empire would position the social media giant to compete with tech manufactures such as Google and Apple, who also host Facebook apps.

Facebook’s new products are designed to remove barriers between the physical and digital worlds. For example, Facebook said in March it was building a neural wristband to allow people to type while moving their fingers without using a keyboard. The company insisted the product would not involve “mind reading.”

Last month, Facebook debuted “Ray-Ban Stories,” which are glasses that allow people to take pictures, videos, listen to music, and make phone calls.

Facebook intends to hire 10,000 new workers in Europe over the next five years to build its augmented reality business. It has already started rolling out products and acquiring companies to make it happen. 

The shift is dramatic for the massive social media company, which said in July it averaged 2.9 billion monthly active users. But business and marketing analysts say the changes underway at Facebook are necessary as shareholders and potential investors feel pressure from governments threatening regulation and public criticism following claims from former employees that the company knowingly harms kids and foments political manipulation.

Instead of letting U.S. lawmakers’ accusations stick that the tech giant affected elections, increased suicides by children, and should be associated with ‘big tobacco,’ University of Louisville marketing assistant professor Aaron Barnes said Facebook’s aim is “to rewrite history.”  

“They’re not playing the 12-month game,” Mr. Barnes said. “A smaller company can change their name at the drop of a hat. … They’re hoping to affect how they’re remembered decades from now.”

Facebook has continued to acquire companies and recruit teams of workers to grow its metaverse business even as previous acquisitions of prominent tech platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp face antitrust scrutiny from regulators and legislators around the globe. 

Facebook recently acquired AI.Reverie, a company that built virtual worlds and environments on which people may train artificial intelligence products. Some of the company’s early funding came from U.S. taxpayers through the U.S. Air Force’s innovation arm, AFWERX, and In-Q-Tel, the strategic investor for the U.S. intelligence community. 

Asked about Facebook acquiring his company, AI.Reverie co-founder Paul Walborsky declined to answer questions and referred The Washington Times to Facebook. 

Facebook confirmed it acquired AI.Reverie but was mum on details about what precisely the acquisition would provide. A Facebook spokesperson said the AI.Reverie team would “accelerate our synthetic data capabilities” and “unlock improved user experiences in a range of use cases,” including in the metaverse. 

Downpour Interactive and BigBox VR are among the other companies bought up by Facebook in 2021. The additions were announced by Oculus, Facebook’s virtual reality hardware company. Both Downpour Interactive and BigBox VR are responsible for virtual reality games. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told The Verge in July that his company would “effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.” 

More recently, rumors have spread that Facebook is considering adding a new name overseeing its various products, from Instagram to Oculus. Business and technology analysts pointed to Alphabet, the parent company for Google and the companies it acquired, such as YouTube, as a potential roadmap for Facebook.

Facebook declined to comment on the speculated “rebrand,” which the Verge said could involve the name “Horizon” given that word’s repeated appearance across various Facebook projects.

Facebook is holding a conference involving its augmented and virtual reality business on Thursday and the rumored name change promises to attract more attention to the company’s new direction. 

Tim Derdenger, Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of marketing and strategy, said Facebook is attempting to distance itself from the negative perception of social media companies because of the pressure on shareholders. 

He thinks the company is also considering how new entrants may compete in the social media industry with different approaches to content moderation, such as former President Donald Trump’s TRUTH Social platform that is scheduled to launch next year.

“It’s a delicate space if that’s the space they’re going to want to go down,” Mr. Derdenger said. He emphasized that one ‘misstep’ could cause Facebook’s work to unravel if it damages the cycle of people using its platform and connecting with others. 

In Washington, Facebook still faces federal antitrust action but its new business model could change the perception of the company on Capitol Hill, possibly heading off a crackdown, said Neil Chilson, former acting chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission. 

Mr. Chilson, author of a new book on leadership ‘Getting Out of Control,’ said Facebook’s ability to create a metaverse is far from guaranteed.

Unlike people’s current way of interacting online through web pages and social profiles, Mr. Chilson described the metaverse as a realm where people may take their profile with them in the physical world all the time, everywhere they go.  

“We’re talking about establishing physics, essentially, of a new world and in a current environment where consensus is hard to get,” Mr. Chilson said.

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