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What’s so unique about Meta? Mixing reality with an Alphabet soup

Alphabet today is “mostly a collection of companies”, the largest being Google. Declaring results for the quarter-ended 30 September, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet and Google, said: “Five years ago, I laid out our vision to become an AI-first company. This quarter’s results show how our investments there are enabling us to build more helpful products for people and our partners…”

When Zuckerberg made his Meta announcement on 28 October, he said among other things, “Our mission remains the same — it’s still about bringing people together. Our apps and their brands aren’t changing either. We’re still the company that designs technology around people…” While Meta Platforms, Inc. (FB)’s corporate structure will not change, the company plans to report on two operating segments — Family of Apps and Reality Labs — starting with the fourth quarter results of 2021.

However, Zuckerberg, unlike Page, made no reference in his speech to “a cleaner and more accountable” company, despite the numerous legal and privacy tangles that the company has been embroiled in, and continues to grapple with, in the US, European Union and other parts of the world. For example, Facebook’s spat with whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, continues in the US courts. All he said was, “…This period has also been humbling because as big of a company as we are, we’ve also learned what it’s like to build on other platforms. Living under their rules has profoundly shaped my views on the tech industry…”

Regardless of whether the ‘Meta’ name will alter the fortunes of Facebook, valued currently at just over $900 billion, the fact remains that the company needs a perception change — from that of the world’s largest social networking site to one is futuristic the way Google did with DeepMind.

Zuckerberg wants the new identity to be “metaverse-first, not Facebook-first” (remember, Google underscores AI-first, and Meta cannot work without AI). This, he explained, means that over time you won’t need a Facebook account to use the company’s other product and services. This simply means that users can be on Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, or soon leap beyond all that with Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse entity called ‘Meta’. During the first quarter of 2021, Facebook said 3.51 billion people were using at least one of its core products (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, or Messenger) each month, according to Statista.

This is similar to how individuals and businesses can do a plain Jane search and leverage advertising with Google, while investors can deal with an expensive Google parent called ‘Alphabet’, now valued at $1.97 trillion.

For now, though, the Meta brand is a work in progress. According to Zuckerberg, the metaverse encompasses both social experiences and future technology. Going forward, Zuckerberg hopes the metaverse “will reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers”.

But how unique is the Metaverse to Facebook?

To begin, it isn’t. Many technology firms including Microsoft, Nvidia and Fortnite maker Epic Games have been talking about their own visions of the metaverse for quite some time. In fact, the term itself has been borrowed from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash wherein the concept was used to describe a new kind of internet with virtual reality (VR).

And if you’re a sci-fi movie buff, you will recall Tom Cruise encountering interactive billboards and iris-triggered direct marketing in the film Minority Report that was released nearly 19 years back, or Tony Stark as the Marvel Comics superhero in the movie Iron Man going a step further with his artificial intelligence (AI) partner Jarvis (just a very intelligent system), providing him with all the information he needs on holograms, computers, and also in Stark’s Iron Man suits.

Pokémon Go, a free location-based augmented reality (AR) mobile game for iOS and Android smartphone users, mixes online reality with the real world. It allows players to use GPS (global positioning system) and Google Maps on their smartphones to look for PokeStops at places such as public art installations, historical markers and monuments, where they can collect Poke Balls and other items. And like PokeStops, Gyms can be found at real locations in the world—all this without users needing a virtual reality (VR) headset, which indicates that AR technology is coming of age.

You may recall Second Life, which can be said to be a different kind of metaverse within, or beyond, the Internet. Developed by San Francisco-based Linden Labs in 2003, this multi-player world became a craze digital when it allowed users to create their digital 3D avatars, socialize with others, play games, and explore multiple worlds called Sims. While Facebook’s Metaverse is a VR and augmented reality (Mixed Reality that melds VR and AR with the real world) platform, Second Life is a virtual online world that can be accessed on a PC. It also has a thriving marketplace where users can buy and sell merchandise, property, and services using a virtual currency called Linden dollar. Second Life’s user base reached a record high of 1.1 million monthly active users in 2013 and is currently believed to have 900,000 active users.

Magic Leap, founded in 2010 by Rony Abovitz, went a step further. It was seen as one of the most promising companies in the field of mixed reality. Abovitz managed to create and sustain buzz around Magic Leap headsets for years without actually launching a product in the market. In 2018, US telco AT&T acquired stakes in the company, and the first Magic Leap One headset was launched at AT&T stores the same year.

However, Magic Leap One failed to live up to the hype and was a far cry from the tall promises made in their many demonstrations. Palmer Luckey who is best known as the founder of Oculus VR and designer of Oculus Rift (both owned by Facebook or Meta now), in a blog post titled ‘Magic Leap is a Tragic Heap’, called it a flashy hype vehicle that nobody can use in a meaningful way. Abovitz eventually stepped down in 2020 and Peggy Johnson, a former Microsoft executive, was appointed the CEO. In October 2021, Magic Leap raised $500 million in funding taking the total investments to up to $3.5 billion and announced that its next AR headset, Magic Leap 2, will launch in 2022. 

The craze around Second Life and Pokémon Go may have sure waned with time, but the fact remains that technology companies like Microsoft with its HoloLens, and US-based start-up Magic Leap Inc. are increasingly betting on the melding of technologies like AR and VR with the real world to give users and businesses a world of so-called “mixed” reality (MR) or “blended” reality concepts to deal with. The belief is that these technologies have the potential to become the next big computing platform.

While VR is all about a world created solely on computers or online, AR still deals with the real world and has elements of the virtual world built atop it, akin to layers of information. AR technology was envisioned by Ivan Sutherland, who devised the first AR system in 1968, but the technology is blooming only now with customized applications in industrial automation, theme parks, sports television, military displays and online marketing. 

Jaron Lanier, an American writer, computer scientist and composer of classical music, is credited with popularizing the term AR. He and Thomas G. Zimmerman left gaming firm Atari in 1985 to found VPL Research Inc., the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves.

Mixed Reality or MR, as the name suggests, mixes both realities in a bid to capture the best of both worlds.

To be fair, Zuckerberg did say in his note that the metaverse will be a collective project that goes beyond a single company and that it will be created by people all over the world, and open to everyone.

In September, Facebook itself introduced Ray-Ban Stories–smart glasses that can capture photos and videos, help you listen to music or take phone calls. Built in partnership with Facebook and EssilorLuxottica, Ray-Ban Stories are already available in a few countries (but not in India). A month later, Facebook announced a $10 million Creator Fund to “encourage more people to come build with us as we continue rolling out Horizon in beta”. Facebook Horizon is a place to explore, play and create with others in VR. Further, Codec life-like Avatars from Facebook Reality Labs is another ongoing research project.

Microsoft, too, is betting big on its MR holographic computer which it christened HoloLens. HoloLens has sensors that allow you to use your gaze to move the cursor when you want to select holograms. You can use gestures to open apps, select and size items, and drag and drop holograms, and use voice commands to navigate, select, open, command and control the apps. You can also speak directly to the personal digital assistant Cortana.

Indian companies are having their own brush with mixed reality. In his 2014 campaign, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi used London-based Musion’s 3D life-like holographic technology to address audiences in 128 locations simultaneously across India.

Mumbai-based VR startup Tesseract, in which Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio has a majority stake, is promising a mixed reality future like that with its Jio Glass, Quark camera, Holoboard headset, and Jio Fiber. It is promising applications for both consumes and enterprises. For instance, you could watch a football match on a VR headset that streams the match live and projects interesting stats on the fly with the help of augmented reality (AR). Similarly, a Hyderabad-based mixed reality startup called Imaginate enables cross-device communication over VR and AR wearables for enterprise collaboration in the industrial sector.

All these examples underscore how Mixed Reality or MR is coming from the shadow sci-fi movies like Blade Runner 2049, where Officer K. played by Ryan Gosling develops a relationship with his AI hologram companion Joi. It indicates why MR is poised to be the next big computing platform.

Will that, however, help Facebook go beyond its past with Meta? Or will adding Meta to the Apple, Amazon, Alphabet or Google, Microsoft, Netflix, and Tesla group only add more confusion to the Alphabet soup?

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