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

from the all-gussied-up,-and-nowhere-to-go dept

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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Companies: facebook, meta

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Comments on “Patent Applications Hint That Facebook's VR World Might Just Be Web Mutton Dressed Up As Metaverse Lamb”

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

are they really going to want to spend time as an avatar moving through the same thing gussied up into a virtual world?

From what I’ve seen of that virtual world, existing programs such as Second Life and VR Chat (as well as MMORPGs such as Final Fantasy XIV) can already do most of what the Metaverse does⁠—and they can all do it better.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Like so many major companies, Facebook haven’t originated a lot of unique ideas in-house, their strength has been making them palatable to the mainstream and using them to create revenue while keeping users engaged. You can say what you want about the ultimate effects and ethics of a lot of what they do, but this is their strength.

Ultimately, if the meta idea works, that’s what’s going to happen here. Ideas that have been tested elsewhere will be promoted to people who would not even consider using the things you just mentioned, and Facebook will monetise it in a way that keeps people using it even if they grumble about it when they’re not using it.

I have serious doubts that it will work, personally, and I have some concerns about how it will be used by a sector of the market that’s already known to have a somewhat flimsy grasp on reality, but I’ve been proven wrong before.

charliebrown (profile) says:

Don't Know So I'm Asking

Is being addicted to shopping a thing?

I’ve heard of people blowing a week’s pay in a couple of hours on the pokies. erm… poker machines. erm… one armed bandits? Anyway, for those who don’t know, "pokies" is what we refer to them as in Australia. And they are a huge fucking problem here.

But what I’m thinking is if people can be addicted to shopping, sure Amazon and eBay (etc) is likely fueling their addictions. But this? This will make shopping addicts feel like they’re in a special shop while they buy shit they don’t need and will never use.

I can see the TV specials now: She was addicted to shopping. Now everything’s been repossessed, her house is filled with nothing but styrofoam packaging and she’s broke! sobbing voice "It got so bad, I was eating the styrofoam just to stay alive. It’s no worse than eating instant ramen." (with apologies to women for the stereotype that they would be the ones addicted to shopping, but I’m an older white guy, so what do I know!)

Anonymous Coward says:

@glyn moody.

Please stop calling the Meta announcement ‘cringeworthy’.

for Gods sake just LOOK at the quality of the animatronics on Zuckerberg. He’s almost moving like a real boy™ (Not to be confused with a Real Doll as he has far less features and holes).

If you ignore the horrible way those employees try to lick his sphincter, you can see just how far robotics have come.

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