Patent Applications Hint That Facebook’s VR World Might Just Be Web Mutton Dressed Up As Metaverse Lamb

The unexpected rebranding of Facebook’s holding company as “Meta” has prompted a good deal of head scratching. Was it because Mark Zuckerberg is now a true believer in the metaverse religion, as the rather cringe-worthy video released at the time of the name change is meant to suggest? Was it perhaps an attempt to change the conversation in the wake of the damning testimony and leaks of Frances Haugen? Or maybe it was just a desperate bid to find a way of attracting younger users now that Facebook is increasingly an old person’s social network, as the New York Times pointed out recently: The truth is that Facebook’s thirst for young users is less about dominating a new market and more about staving off irrelevance. Facebook use among teenagers in the United States has been declining for years, and is expected to plummet even further soon — internal researchers predicted that daily use would decline 45 percent by 2023. The researchers also revealed that Instagram, whose growth offset declining interest in Facebook’s core app for years, is losing market share to faster-growing rivals like TikTok, and younger users aren’t posting as much content as they used to. Whatever the reason, there is no doubting the seriousness of Facebook’s corporate swerve to virtual reality (VR). The company has said that it is spending at least $10 billion on its new VR division this year, and that it will create 10,000 new jobs at Facebook across the EU to “help build the metaverse”. The new strategy may not be in doubt, but one thing is: how will Meta make money in this brave, new virtual world? At the heart of Facebook’s current business model and profitability are two things: surveillance and advertising. Everything that a Facebook user does on the site — and on thousands of other major sites around the Internet — is tracked and analyzed in the minutest detail. The personal profile that results is then sold online — algorithmically, in real-time — to the highest bidder, who buys the opportunity to display online advertising targeted at the person in question, as they visit a Web site. At the moment, the surveillance takes the form of recording which pages people visit on which sites, and where they click. It’s not hard to extrapolate that to a virtual world, where Facebook/Meta records everything a user looks at, talks to, touches or interacts with in any way. In addition to using eye gaze direction and pupil activity monitored within the virtual reality headsets to gauge user interest, there may be other biometric inputs — things like heartbeat, blood pressure and skin conductivity. In-world advertising is also easy to visualize. These could be in the form of virtual ad hoardings in the metaverse, or the more subtle use of product placement. None of these are particularly novel suggestions — they’ve been around for years. But it is fascinating to see precisely these ideas mentioned in a Financial Times article (paywall alert) looking at “dozens of patents recently granted to Facebook’s parent company”. Among the patents reviewed by the FT there are several that concern mapping users and their movements onto avatars in the metaverse as realistically as possible: There is a “wearable magnetic sensor system” to be placed around a torso for “body pose tracking”. The patent includes sketches of a user wearing the device but appearing in virtual reality as a soldier complete with a sword and armour. Another patent proposes an “avatar personalisation engine” that can create three dimensional avatars based on a user’s photos, using tools including a so-called skin replicator. To do that requires even closer surveillance of what users do, both online and offline, which potentially allows even more information to be sold to advertisers: One patent explores how to present users with personalised advertising in augmented reality, based on age, gender, interest and “how the users interact with a social media platform”, including their likes and comments. Another seeks to allow third parties to “sponsor the appearance of an object” in a virtual store that mirrors the layout of a retail store, through a bidding process similar to the company’s existing advertising auction process. As the FT notes, these kind of approaches would allow Meta to offer an immersive virtual world that is even more personalized than the existing Web-based system. It’s important to note that these are just patents. Nowadays, companies apply for as many of them as they can, just in case. Most are never used. But the similarity between today’s Facebook and the one that the approaches detailed in the patents might produce is striking, as is the absence of anything truly radical or innovative. And that could be a problem for Meta. If young people aren’t interested in what today’s Web-based Facebook has to offer, are they really going to want to spend time as an avatar moving through the same thing gussied up into a virtual world? Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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