Facebook is moving into the metaverse, a digital environment that blends aspects of augmented reality, virtual reality, online gaming, social media, and more to facilitate interactions between users. In its Q3 earnings report, the social media giant said it is reserving USD 10 billion for its metaverse division, Facebook Reality Labs, just for 2021.
During the Facebook Connect event held on October 28, the company showcased several AR/VR features that will create portions of its metaverse. Its AR creation software, Spark AR, was launched in 2017, and its effects are viewed by 700 million people on Facebook and Instagram every month. Now, creators in the Asia Pacific and Latin America account for over 60% of Spark AR’s monthly active users. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam is a significant market for Facebook, and monthly active creators who utilize Spark AR have tripled in the past year, according to director of product management Sue Young, who presented the information in a virtual press briefing.
Young highlighted new features that will be added to Spark AR’s suite of tools. These include “geo-locked experiences,” which are effects that can only be initialized at specific locations; “body and hand tracking” effects that encourage expressive, active content; and Polar, a new iOS app that gives creators a way to design and distribute AR effects and filters without writing code. The geo-locked feature will be available to all creators in 2022, while gesture tracking and Polar will be released later this year.
Facebook’s VR development is anchored in the Oculus Quest VR headset and video game and game creation environment Horizon Worlds. From there, the company is developing use cases like Horizon Home, where users can invite friends into their virtual abodes, and Oculus for Business, a virtual collaborative environment that will be available in 2023.
To speed up the adoption of these products, Facebook launched a USD 150 million immersive learning fund for AR/VR creators and developers. The funds are meant to make its training courses, including a new AR Pro course and a formal Spark AR certification program, more robust and accessible. Creators who complete the coursework will gain access to the Facebook certification career network, which consists of more than 60 global companies that are commissioning projects from creators with newly developed AR/VR skills.
“We want to bring people together to share knowledge and equip aspiring creators and businesses with new avenues to monetize and earn a living,” said Young.
Real world problems
Facebook has been attempting to brand itself as the next major internet platform that connects people all over the world, moving beyond its status as a social media company with nearly 2.9 billion monthly active users. But the company has been mired in a series of controversies involving whistleblowers.
Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked internal documents, including research reports, online employee discussions, and drafts of presentations to The Wall Street Journal in September. The documents revealed that Facebook was aware of many disturbing findings. For instance, it acknowledged that content containing hate speech attracts more reactions and engagement. Facebook took minimal action to mitigate the presence of these posts—only 3% to 5% were taken down.
“Facebook realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, clicks on fewer ads, and Facebook will make less money,” said Haugen in an interview with CBS News’ 60 Minutes.
Facebook’s negligence has had devastating consequences in the Global South. Its social network played a role in inciting violence around the world, including the genocide of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar in 2018 and recent communal clashes between Muslims and Hindus in Bangladesh. Facebook and its creator, Mark Zuckerberg, justify the company’s actions (or inaction) by invoking concepts like free expression. But where profit is concerned, Facebook offers a compromise.
That was the case in Vietnam, where Zuckerberg personally agreed to comply with the ruling communist party’s demand to censor anti-state posts. The company reportedly earns USD 1 billion in annual revenue in the country. This decision has provoked criticism from Vietnamese and international rights groups.
Meanwhile, Facebook is losing users, especially millennials and Gen Z in Europe, the United States, and Canada.
These problems do not prevent Facebook from moving forward with its ambition to create a virtual world, which the firm sees as the next phase of online social experiences. Facebook also believes that its metaverse ecosystem will elevate the global creator economy, which is already valued at over USD 100 billion. In this area, Facebook has strong competitors, like TikTok, which now has 1 billion active global users. Last year, Instagram—a Facebook subsidiary—launched Reels, a short-form video feature that functions and looks like TikTok.
It is undeniable that Facebook is synonymous with the internet for many people around the world, particularly in emerging economies. It gives them a way to connect with other communities and even earn income. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have been plugging their move into the metaverse in the past few months. Many believe this is meant to be a distraction from the revelations presented by their former staff. While Facebook builds its new world where, for now, people are represented by legless avatars, the repercussions of its choices bring about real harm to vulnerable populations.