Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has often been accused of looking like a creepy robot, and when he visited a lab in Pittsburgh last month, the 100 high-resolution cameras capturing his image from every angle were determined to make him look more human out.
However, they did not try to soften the image of his controversial social media empire, but to create a new face for him in his other world: Metaverse, Zuckerberg’s ambitious and increasingly risky master plan to create a futuristic three-dimensional virtual reality world.
In Metaverse, you are no longer simply staring into a computer, but actually feel like you are inside it, living in a richly animated and lifelike 3D simulation, an all-encompassing virtual universe that exists alongside the real one. At least that’s the theory.
People appear in the Metaverse as a so-called ‘avatar’, an animated online representation of themselves that they can design and that can be made to look like them.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has often been accused of looking like a creepy robot, and when he visited a laboratory in Pittsburgh last month
However, the real world is not showing quite the same enthusiasm as Zuckerberg for his new vision.
In the past 14 months, Meta – which used to be called Facebook – has seen its share price drop nearly 60 percent, wiping a staggering $600 billion off its market value. Admittedly, the company is still worth nearly $400 billion, but the collapse means Zuckerberg’s personal fortune has shrunk by more than $76 billion since January, and he’s no longer among the 20 richest people on the planet.
This monumental downturn partly reflects a general malaise in the tech industry, caused by declining advertising revenue and increased competition. The social media sites Facebook and Instagram – both part of Meta – are being pushed hard, for example by outfits like China’s phenomenally successful TikTok.
But increasingly, it appears that Zuckerberg’s obsession with his virtual reality kingdom Metaverse is playing a large role in the company’s difficulties.
The omens were not promising, as the avatar that engineers created of Zuckerberg became a source of widespread ridicule.
It made him look like a baby, or maybe a porcelain doll – with a fixed smile and wide green but lifeless eyes set in an unlined face.
Social media erupted in derision, prompting Zuckerberg — already a hated figure in Silicon Valley as he sinks tens of billions of dollars into the Metaverse in a make-or-break bet on the future of the Internet — to rush to get it done about. A company insider claimed they created 40 versions of Zuckerberg’s face before a final replacement was chosen.
In Metaverse, you are no longer simply staring into a computer, but actually feel like you are inside it, living in a richly animated and lifelike 3D simulation, an all-encompassing virtual universe that exists alongside the real one. At least that’s the theory
But despite this, the other avatar of the Meta boss also looked nervous. So last week, Meta unveiled a third Zuckerberg avatar as it took the latest big step in its march to the Metaverse.
It’s a new virtual reality headset called the Quest Pro. Although it costs £1,499 for each set and looks like a pair of oversized ski goggles, it packs some impressive technology that is said to enable you to ‘combine your physical environment with virtual elements in a realistic way’ as you look around inside your headset .
Sensors inside the headset are adapted to the user’s face and not only track eyeball movements, but monitor every muscle twitch, so it can detect when they’re smiling or frowning and ensure their avatar follows suit.
It’s a sad reflection of how little trust Zuckerberg and his scandal-plagued company have that the immediate response of many early reviewers of the Quest Pro was to ask if this mood-sensing technology was simply another underhanded attempt by the company. to spy on users and harvest data on how they react to what they encounter in the Metaverse.
For the record, Meta insisted that this was not the case, although the skeptics are not yet convinced – long gone are the days when anyone gave Zuckerberg the benefit of the doubt.
But questions about data harvesting aren’t the only criticism leveled at Zuckerberg’s dreamscape. Others include complaints that its graphics are still as primitive as those of 1990s video games, and there’s so little to do in the Metaverse that there doesn’t seem much point in venturing there in the first place.
The 100 high definition cameras capturing his image from every angle definitely tried to make him look more human
Those who have entered the Metaverse have reported with dismay how many of the users are clearly young children, despite an official minimum user age of 13.
Child welfare advocates warn that they are far more vulnerable to abuse in the Metaverse than they would be elsewhere on the Internet because young people speak in their real voices and therefore cannot hide their age from predators.
As for the expensive and rather heavy headsets, although they are the main means of accessing the Metaverse, their battery only lasts up to two hours and then takes another two hours to recharge, so no one is going to spend the whole day in there though they would.
Still, Zuckerberg, it seems, won’t budge from his messianic belief that this is the future of the Internet — even though his empire has suffered a huge reversal of fortunes since announcing it would focus its attention on the Metaverse.
Clearly, much of Meta’s disastrous slide is due to the simple fact that investors and others in Silicon Valley do not share Zuckerberg’s breathless passion for it.
While the 38-year-old wants to attract a billion users to this alternate reality within a decade and make it a meeting place for “hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce a day,” he has a long, long way to go.
Leaked internal company documents revealed over the weekend that the number of monthly visitors to Meta’s main Metaverse attraction, Horizon Worlds, has dropped to fewer than 200,000.
Despite paying $400 (£358) for the most basic headset, visitors generally don’t return to the site – a wandering collection of virtual worlds such as Hot Girl Summer Rooftop Pool Party and Murder Village – after the first month. Common complaints are that the technology is endlessly flawed and there isn’t enough to do. “An empty world is a sad world,” commented an internal document.
Clearly, much of Meta’s disastrous slide is due to the simple fact that investors and others in Silicon Valley do not share Zuckerberg’s breathless passion for it
Zuckerberg has been caught not only by rivals, but by changing times. His company made the big decisions to throw resources at Metaverse – it currently invests around $10bn (£8.95bn) a year – during the pandemic, as internet use soared and amid dark predictions that social distancing was here to stay, it really turned out that the future of so much work would be online.
Metaverse was going to another world where people interact with each other online – playing games, holding work meetings, buying and selling and just chatting – because they couldn’t do this in the ‘offline’ world.
Instead, many of us are scrambling to get back to the office—or at least out and about—and turn off our home computers. Even Meta’s own employees have given Metaverse a wide berth, as revealed by a damning series of leaked emails.
Last month, Vishal Shah, vice president in charge of Meta’s Metaverse division, discovered how few of the company’s employees were actually on it, and said managers will start checking up on them. ‘Why don’t we love the product we built so much that we use it all the time?’ he wrote imploringly on an internal Meta message board.
‘The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?’
It also emerged that some Meta employees derisively refer to all work done on Metaverse as ‘MMH’ or ‘Make Mark Happy’ projects. It’s hardly a ringing vote of confidence from the people who are supposedly building this brave new world. Zuckerberg has made it clear that those who do not share his vision will be shown the door.
As Meta’s 83,000 employees strive to please the boss and keep their jobs, critics of the Metaverse sincerely hope that this is a digital experiment that actually bites the dust before it becomes an even more toxic environment in pursuit of more users.
It also emerged that some Meta employees derisively refer to all work done on Metaverse as ‘MMH’ or ‘Make Mark Happy’ projects
While the company claims it wants “near-Disney levels of safety” for users, visitors report it’s a scary place with very little moderation.
A popular YouTuber named Ethan Klein streamed a session on Metaverse last month in which he tried to be as sexually explicit as possible while surrounded by children in the Plaza, its central venue. He was thrown off and barred from returning as punishment – but only for two hours.
A BBC researcher posing as a 13-year-old girl said she was able to easily gain access to a digital strip club on Metaverse, where a man told her avatars can ‘get naked and do unspeakable things’, while others spoke of ‘erotic role-playing’.
An NSPCC spokesman described some parts of Metaverse as ‘dangerous by design’.
Already condemned around the world for what one senior whistleblower called products that ‘harm children, inflame division, weaken our democracy and much more’, Meta’s ferocious CEO has the nerve to believe he can now convince people to spend yet more time in its darkness. and exploitative company.
His peculiar arrogance may have proved to be his undoing this time.