Meta (formerly Facebook) is putting a lot of importance on the “metaverse” — think of it like the Internet, but with presence or immersion, where you can work, play, and socialise — and Vishal Shah, Vice President, Metaverse at Meta spoke to Gadgets 360 at a press conference to explain what the company is planning, and how it sees the metaverse expanding in India. Although Shah stressed the importance of India for the metaverse and Meta, if you're hoping that this means that the Oculus Quest line finally comes to India, then you'll have to wait a little longer. “We're just getting started but you could absolutely expect as we launch new things and make them available especially as they cut across devices and helping people access them from more than just a VR headset,” Shah said.
Shah, former head of product at Instagram, added that while Meta's goal is to bring the hardware are far, he couldn't give a date for it, although Oculus Quest 2 was launched in October 2020, over a year ago. But Shah also described Meta's focus on the metaverse as a 15-year long journey, highlighting how the company, which was synonymous with Facebook, sees itself changing today.
“We genuinely believe that this is the successor to the mobile Internet, not a new Internet, not a new set of protocols, not an entirely new foundation, but a new way to experience the Internet,” Shah said. Back when it was still known as Facebook, the company had drawn a lot of criticism for attempts to redefine the Internet — its Free Basics free Internet access programme for example, was criticised for violating net neutrality, and in some parts of the world, the distinction between Facebook and the Internet was completely elided, sometimes to dangerous results.
All of that is far and away from where Shah says the metaverse is today. With VR being limited to just a few people with headsets, and augmented reality remaining highly niche in its application, standards are still being designed.
When Meta talks about the metaverse, it's not talking about just a silo of Facebook powered applications, but a broader Internet that others can connect to. “This idea of co-presence stitches through a lot of what we're trying to do,” Shah said. “But also, this idea of continuity — the idea that, just like in the physical world if I was to go and buy a piece of clothing, and own that piece of clothing, I could wear it anywhere I wanted to. I could move from place to place, and I could wear that same thing but that's not how digital environments work today. If you buy a digital good, that tends to be mostly restricted to the place in which you bought them.”
“The idea of continuity, of being able to move from space to space, and being able to take things with you is a pretty powerful construct, which will require a set of interoperable standards that we will build because at the end of the day, while we're investing deeply in the space, we believe strongly that the metaverse will not be built by any one company,” he added.
This could come in many ways, including through the use of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, he suggested, adding, “We are making explicit investments to embrace that ecosystem and to give people more control over objects, over rules, and we'll kind of see how those things continue to evolve.”
A number of companies are now building experiences for the metaverse, though depending on what stage of funding they're in right now, they might be called virtual reality experiences instead. Mozilla was an early leader in the open standard of WebVR (now WebXR, or Mixed Reality), and anyone with a browser can go to Mozilla Hubs to see what this can be like.
Largely though, most companies are working in their own sandboxes, and their tools can't talk to each other.
“I think some of the work that we're going to do is going to be open standards, that many companies will adopt, that they'll just become industry standard,” Shah said. “A couple of examples of that might be the work that we're doing with GLTF and some of the 3D object standards, you know, there is no such thing today yet as like a JPEG for 3D. What is the equivalent of that? So, working towards that just from a purely object perspective.”
But the need for standards, he added, goes beyond the technology, and to how we interact with it. For example, Pinch-to-Zoom seems very intuitive and obvious today, but at the time it was first introduced it was a powerful new idea and had a profound impact on how we use our phones.
Similarly, some very basic questions in virtual reality still need to be answered. “Some things might be more like, travel standard. Travel in the sense that how do you move and navigate from place to place just like a URL,” Shah said. “It's pretty understood how you can navigate from one web page to the other. [But] how do you navigate from one space to the other? Even if it's a completely different, 3D engine that you're actually in. But a layer above that might be more kind of interoperable standards around. How those objects show up the environment that you're in, the avatars that you have to kind of show up in your identity and how you move from space to space.”
“And actually, I would hope that most of that actually can be applied beyond just the platforms that Meta builds because I think that's the best thing for both consumers and for creators to ensure that their work can be used as broadly as possible today,” Shah added.
To that end, Meta has also started promoting UGC-led experiences called Horizon Worlds in the US and Canada, and he also promised that over the next year or two, “Meta will continue to build VR centric experiences, but also bring them more broadly across different devices.”