Is The Future Of The Internet In The Metaverse?
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Since Facebook's splashy keynote event last month, Benedict Evans has heard one word over and over again - Metaverse.
BENEDICT EVANS: I referred to the scene in "Being John Malkovich" where everyone in the room is John Malkovich and everyone just says, Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich, which - it does feel a little bit like that.
CORNISH: Evans has been in the tech world for a while, and he used to work for a venture capital company. Now he's an independent analyst, and he keeps an eye on the next big things coming in tech.
EVANS: For the last sort of 15 years, it was smartphones. Smartphones were the center of the tech industry. Before that, it was the web. Before that, it was PCs. And smartphones are kind of boring now. They happened. Everyone's got one. So what's next?
CORNISH: For Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, that next big thing is the Metaverse. At that keynote event, he proclaimed it the next chapter of the internet, so central to his company it rebranded itself Meta.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK ZUCKERBERG: Together, we can finally put people at the center of our technology and deliver an experience where we are present with each other.
CORNISH: In an occasionally hokey video presentation, he painted a picture of a world where you could put on a virtual reality headset or augmented reality glasses and jump seamlessly between business meetings, card games with friends and workout classes. And Meta, he said, was going to help create this universe.
(SOUNDBITE OR ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ZUCKERBERG: I am dedicating our energy to this more than any other company in the world.
CORNISH: Benedict Evans says that this is tricky. It's hard to pin down what the Metaverse is.
EVANS: Imagine we were in the early '90s and we said it feels like these computer things, these PCs are going to be a big consumer trend. What would that mean?
CORNISH: You might start writing concepts on a whiteboard - multimedia, graphical user interfaces, broadband.
EVANS: And so then you'd write all these words on a whiteboard, and you draw a box around it. And you'd say, information superhighway. And many of the things that you talked about did end up happening, but a lot of them didn't.
CORNISH: And what did emerge evolved organically in bits and pieces through innovation by all kinds of companies. Evans says it's the same thing today with the Metaverse. There's augmented reality, virtual places, gaming, the creator economy. You could draw a box around all that and call it Metaverse.
EVANS: A lot of those things are real. Some of them aren't here yet. Some of them probably won't happen. But we don't know which ones. In 10 years' time, we'll be doing all of many of those things. Yes, almost certainly. Will they all be in one box called Metaverse? Probably not.
CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - there are a lot of big ideas about what the next chapter of the internet might look like. How big a role will Meta have in writing it? I'll talk to a Meta executive about the company's vision and whether it has earned a role in building the future of the internet. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Tuesday, November 9.
It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. And we've been talking about the Metaverse as the future, but versions of the Metaverse actually already exist - VRChat, NeosVR, Roblox, a handful of others. And to get a sense of what Meta the company is planning, it helps to know how those current platforms work.
JASON MOORE: It's hard to visualize the spectacle that can be created inside a virtual world. You have to kind of imagine the most spectacular fantasy or action films that you've ever seen, where you're transported into worlds that seem completely alien and magical.
CORNISH: That's Jason Moore. He teaches television and virtual reality at Brooklyn College. He'll throw on a virtual reality headset and be transported to a video game or a live concert. He even teaches some of his classes in the Metaverse.
MOORE: And one location might be an educational classroom where I'm going to meet with my students in a couple of hours and we're going to talk about storytelling using VR.
CORNISH: It's the internet, and it feels like real life, kind of.
MOORE: You know, you're wearing an avatar. You look down at your hands, and you see hands. You might not be human, you know? My avatar is a big bulldog. So I look down and see these big, meaty paws.
CORNISH: Meaty paws aside, Meta wants to move the Metaverse from a gamer and early adopter niche, squarely into the mainstream. It's betting on a future where many of the nearly 3 billion active Facebook users become Metaverse users, whether that's briefing colleagues in virtual Metaverse conference rooms or playing cards on a virtual spaceship.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What's going on?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey, Mark.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whoa. We're floating in space?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Uh-huh.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Who made this place? It's awesome.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Right?
CORNISH: Now, full disclosure. Facebook's parent company, Meta, pays NPR to license NPR content. Now, as we reported at the time of the announcement, the company plans to spend $10 billion this year on hardware and software to support the Metaverse. Jason Moore sees that investment as a double-edged sword because fundamentally, he does not trust the company. And like we mentioned earlier, he's not the only one. I mean, just look at the reaction to the name change on late-night TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON")
JIMMY FALLON: This feels like when there's an E. coli outbreak at a pizza place and they just change the name from Sal and Tony's to Tony and Sal's. Yeah, same gross owners, yeah.
VISHAL SHAH: You know, I love the idea that we could have come up with a name change and a roll out of our brand and in just a couple of weeks. Frankly, this has been in the works for a couple of years and in earnest in the last 6 or 7 months.
CORNISH: That's Vishal Shah, vice president of Metaverse at Meta. I also spoke to him about the company's intentions around establishing this digital world.
Does the company want the Metaverse to be a walled garden, an economy under its control?
SHAH: No is the short answer to the question. The Metaverse is not something any one company can own, can even build alone. We're explicitly not trying to build this alone. It's kind of like saying, you know what company owns the internet? It doesn't really make sense if you frame it that way, but it is talking about the next generation of experiences that we want to build. And we've said pretty clearly that we want to these experiences that get built to be as interoperable as possible because that creates the most value for creators, for consumers, for the economy that you just referenced.
CORNISH: So the way I experience this right now is, let's say you have a mall. There are lots of different stores in the mall. They compete with each other, but someone owns the mall. It sounds like Meta will own the mall. Am I getting that right?
SHAH: Well, if we get this right, then there might be an infinite number of malls that might all contribute in different ways. And maybe we aren't the - in fact, I hope we aren't the mall builder because there will be someone who creates a really amazing mall world. We want to build the underlying infrastructure that helps people build those malls.
CORNISH: And that's a pretty big land grab, right? Like that saying you own the city, you own the streets, right?
SHAH: Well it's, I think, a little bit different because that's like a physical analogy. There's infinite potential land available in this new experience that we're talking about. That's even if you assume that land is the right analogy because in a digital experience, you know, you have worlds and you have experience. I think the spatial model is the most important thing we're trying to create, which is that this is a set of virtual spaces that people can be in together and the idea that there might be a mall experience for shopping together, a school experience to - for the future of education, thinking about the future of entertainment in concerts and live events. And so there are certainly physical analogs, but because we don't have some of those same constraints, how those things might evolve, what they might look like, how they might feel, might be pretty different than what we experienced in the physical world.
CORNISH: Mark Zuckerberg has said that, quote, "privacy and safety need to be built into the Metaverse from Day 1." To you, what does that look like? And what would be the definition of safety in this environment?
SHAH: I think the most important thing is that we are talking about it now and early. The vision that we've talked about is five, 10, 15 years out into the future.
CORNISH: But can I stop you there? Because I don't think we all agree on what the it is. As Facebook, as Instagram, Meta has had a serious problem - a serious struggle to moderate harmful content. What do you have to do differently to make content moderation efficient in something like a Metaverse?
SHAH: I think these are really challenging topics and ones that we've had - as a company have had to deal with for the last, as I mentioned, 10 or 15 years. And I don't sit here pretending to say we've gotten it perfect, but I will say we've dealt with every single one of the issues that you've talked about. And if you're thinking about a company that's building the next generation of platform and technology, I think it's - I think we're in a better position because we have dealt with those things to ask the right questions upfront to ensure that we are thinking about them in a way that can be future compatible.
CORNISH: What I'm saying is if you can't handle the comments on Instagram, how can you handle the T-shirt that has hate speech on it in the Metaverse? How can you handle the hate rally that might happen in the Metaverse? You're creating a scenario where I don't see how it's clear that you moderate that, or if you even see it as your responsibility in helping to create this infrastructure.
SHAH: I think these are exactly the right types of questions to be asking now. I think a lot of times some of the challenges that we have talked about as a company are not a question of whether something should stay up or should come down from a legal perspective or from a specific cost perspective but what is the right balance between freedom of speech and freedom of expression and something that is harmful. And the rules and the lines on where those are are not something that we, I think, can define ourselves alone as a company. It's why we've asked for more explicit regulation to be able to define what some of those rules are.
Now, that being said, the ability to detect some of those things, the technology to find them - we've invested for years. So I don't mean to say that this is not something that we're taking seriously, that this is not a responsibility that we shy away from. We're very much bringing our heritage and our past with us, both the good in terms of looking at this stuff and the challenges that we've faced.
CORNISH: Do we think people want this? The headsets have been around for some time and augmented reality. I mean, what's your sense of actual demand? Or is this a if they build it, they will come scenario?
SHAH: Well, you know, like with anything new, we've got your typical hype cycle, and then everyone kind of figures out where the real use cases might be. And I think we've seen early traction in gaming, certainly. At the same time, we're starting to see other use cases start to emerge. Fitness has become a really important category that we've seen, and education is a place we are certainly seeing some early traction. It is early. We've said this is five, 10, maybe even 15 years into the future. And I think it's rare for us certainly as a company to talk about something this early but as an industry for us to talk about something so early. But, yeah, this is many, many years into the future.
CORNISH: Vishal Shah, vice president of Metaverse at Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: So why is Facebook willing to make a $10 billion bet that won't bear fruit for another decade?
EVANS: When I hear people talk about Metaverse, it sort of - it still sort of has a sense that it's one thing.
CORNISH: That's Benedict Evans. We heard from him earlier.
EVANS: It's like somebody in, like, 2005 saying, you know, our company is going to build the mobile internet. Well, that wasn't really what happened. You know, nobody built the mobile internet. It just evolved out of what thousands of people were doing. So that sense of, like, a centralized project seems deeply weird to me.
CORNISH: Evans says every 15 years or so, there's a great generational reset in tech. We're at the start of one now.
EVANS: Well, so Facebook has a bunch of different strategic imperatives here. One of them is that if there is a next generational change after smartphones, they want to make sure that they don't miss it and that they're part of it, which - of course they should.
The second is that on the smartphone, Facebook is completely beholden to Apple and Google. I mean, as we've seen this year, you know, Apple controls the platform. Apple decides what Facebook can do. And so that also incidentally applies to Amazon, which is why things like Alexa exist. And so Facebook wants to make sure that if there was another thing after smartphones, we want to be leading it, not following, not to have some other company, some other monopolist decide how we can run our business.
CORNISH: In the meantime, it's still a lot of ideas on the whiteboard, and Evans says that's OK.
EVANS: You could argue that kind of ideas that are crazy enough to change your world kind of come from crazy people with crazy politics. And the crazy ideas sort of get left behind, and it turns into Amazon. And Microsoft is full of open source now. And the same thing will probably happen with crypto and Metaverse or whatever it ends up being. It will get absorbed into our lives, and in the end, we won't notice.
I mean, this is what's happened with smartphones. Pick up your smartphone now, and imagine looking at it in 1990, and think how amazing that would have been. And now you kind of look at it and go, yeah, it sucks. The battery life - you know (laughter)? This amazing machine that gives me access to all the world's knowledge - yeah, boring. The new iPhone - yeah, boring, whatever. That's where all of this stuff will end up. It will be boring.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: Benedict Evans, tech analyst. You can find a link to his essay "Metabrand" in our episode notes. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.