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Tech giant Facebook might be changing the company’s name, according to a Tuesday report from The Verge. The rebrand would cast the Facebook app as just one of many products under a parent company which would also oversee other Facebook-owned properties like Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and Giphy

This possible move mirrors what Google did in 2015 when it reorganized under holding company Alphabet to recognize the fact that it had expanded from being a search engine to a company with a variety of projects under its umbrella, The Verge noted. 

The Verge said that this rebrand (which could happen at the annual AR/VR-focused Facebook Connect conference on Oct. 28) could be related to the company’s ongoing efforts to build out the “metaverse,” defined by Facebook as a “set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.”

Let’s dive into the metaverse

Earlier this week, Facebook announced that it was looking to hire around 10,000 employees across Europe to create the multi-modal computing platform that would be the foundation for the metaverse; the metaverse would be an interconnected medium of virtual experiences brokered through technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality. 

[Related: Congress is coming for big tech—here’s how and why]

“At its heart is the idea that by creating a greater sense of ‘virtual presence,’ interacting online can become much closer to the experience of interacting in person,” Facebook said in the announcement. “No one company will own and operate the metaverse. Like the internet, its key feature will be its openness and interoperability.” 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told The Verge in July that they aimed to “effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company,” elaborating that he sees the metaverse as “a big part of the next chapter for the way that the internet evolves after the mobile internet.”

So what exactly is the metaverse? Several outlets have noted that the term was first coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in the 1992 book Snow Crash to describe an alternate (and somewhat dystopian) 3D virtual world where avatars of real people live and connect. Here’s what we know about Zuckerberg’s vision for the future of Facebook, and the future of digital communications. 

Enter the metaverse

The metaverse is something Facebook has been hyping up for a while now. 

It all started when Facebook purchased VR tech company Oculus in 2014. Input wrote recently that Facebook likely bought that company because they believed that virtual reality would become one of the main ways we interacted with each other online. 

[Related: Facebook has an explanation for its massive Monday outage]

Earlier this summer, Facebook introduced “Horizon Workrooms” through Oculus, responding to the trend of changing work spaces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “More people are working remotely, more people want flexible work options, and more people are re-thinking what it means to be in an office,” Facebook said in a statement. “Workrooms is our flagship collaboration experience that lets people come together to work in the same virtual room. It works across both virtual reality and the web and is designed to improve your team’s ability to collaborate, communicate, and connect remotely, through the power of VR.”

Through the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset, workers can come into these virtual rooms using Oculus avatars and really “feel like” they’re in the room. The virtual workspaces will also integrate other features like mixed-reality desk and keyboard tracking, hand tracking, remote desktop streaming, video conferencing, and spatial audio.

At the start of September, Facebook said that it was going to invest $50 million to research and develop metaverse-related products that could connect augmented and virtual reality with consumer hardware, which would lead to new ways for people to connect with others. “It’s not necessarily about spending more time online — it’s about making the time you do spend online more meaningful,” Facebook wrote. “Many of these products will only be fully realized in the next 10-15 years.” 

[Related: Facebook users can now mix Messenger and Instagram friends in group chats]

Shortly after, Facebook’s Reality Lab debuted Ray-Ban smart glasses that can capture and share photos and videos through the Facebook View app (think Black Mirror: The Entire History of You). These glasses, along with other VR and AR tech, would be able to allow users to access and participate in the “metaverse.”

On September 22, Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post that Andrew Bosworth, the VP of Facebook Reality Labs, will become the next chief technology officer of Facebook. After the transition, Bosworth will still run Facebook Reality Labs and spearhead the company’s developments in augmented reality and virtual reality. “This is all foundational to our broader efforts helping to build the metaverse,” Zuckerberg wrote. 

And just last week, Facebook AI unveiled a new project called Ego4D, which has captured thousands of hours of first-person videos with the goal of teaching artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistants to remember and recall events (like where you left your keys), predict what you might do next and give appropriate prompts or warnings (you’ve already added salt to this soup), guide you on how to do tasks (like how to play the drums), record and categorize audio and visuals, and improve social interactions (by picking up on what your friend said in a loud restaurant). These AI assistants would then support users in AR and VR settings, and will likely be a part of the connective tissue in the metaverse. 

“Machines will be able to help us in our daily lives only if they really understand the world through our eyes,” Kristen Grauman, lead researcher on the project at Facebook AI Research, told MIT Technology Review. However, MIT Technology Review noted that big tech companies like Facebook profit by selling data regarding people’s online behavior to advertisers. And this AI venture could further track everyday offline behaviors, “revealing what objects are around your home, what activities you enjoyed, who you spent time with, and even where your gaze lingered—an unprecedented degree of personal information.”

Connecting the world?

Part of the vision for establishing and populating the metaverse is based on the goal Facebook has to network together the world. But these visions don’t come cheap. Take, for example, the tech that needs to be purchased to embed into the metaverse: Facebook’s Ray-Bans are around $299 each, and the Oculus Quest 2 starts at $299. 

[Related: Instagram now lets you manage ‘sensitive content.’ Here’s how to use it.]

On one hand, while a rebrand could separate the future tech Facebook is working on from the way its social platforms operate today, as The Verge pointed out, Facebook’s current practices and reputation makes many heavily skeptical that they will be able to protect users from harm in these experimental spaces. Several lawmakers are actively trying to break up Facebook, claiming that it is a monopoly that harms consumers. The recent whistleblower testimony in Congress has made it abundantly clear that Facebook has historically prioritized profit over the safety of the people using its platform. 

“Social media transformed the media environment by increasing the velocity and scale of information diffusion and lowering the cost for each of us to become media producers (not just consumers),” Zeve Sanderson, executive director at NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics, says in an email. “As the last decade has shown, technology developed faster than the norms, rules, and institutions necessary to make our online platforms healthy.”

In building this “so-called metaverse,” Sanderson says that many companies are heavily invested because they can create solutions for technical and computational challenges that may arise, such as low-latency image rendering and easy-to-use hardware. 

However, Sanderson thinks that this novel platform could also introduce “new social and political dynamics, such as the potential prevalence of hate speech and the flow of new types of misinformation, among many others,” he says. “The hope is that these companies learn from the last decade and consider, from the outset, how to make these new social spaces as healthy and robust as possible.” 

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