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What Exactly Is Facebook's 'Metaverse' Group Building?

Facebook Reality Labs is “standing up a Metaverse product group”, but it isn’t clear what this actually means.

FRL’s VP Andrew Bosworth announced the new effort in a Facebook post, though it’s light on specific details:

The Metaverse is already here as a collection of digital worlds each with its own physics to determine what’s possible within them. The defining quality of the metaverse will be presence — the feeling of really being there with people — and FRL has been focused on building products that deliver presence across digital spaces for years. Today Portal and Oculus can teleport you into a room with another person, regardless of physical distance, or to new virtual worlds and experiences. But to achieve our full vision of the Metaverse, we also need to build the connective tissue between these spaces — so you can remove the limitations of physics and move between them with the same ease as moving from one room in your home to the next.

The group will be led by former Instagram VP of Product Vishal Shah, and will report directly to Bosworth.

Facebook Horizon, the company’s upcoming customizable social VR platform, will be a part of this product group. Horizon will be led by former Head of Facebook Gaming Vivek Sharma.

Jason Rubin is returning to VR to “lead the Content team” in this new metaverse group. Rubin co-founded Naughty Dog , directing Crash Bandicoot & Jak and Daxter. He oversaw Oculus VR content (mostly games) from 2014 until late 2019, when he moved to Facebook’s mobile & web gaming initiatives.

But there’s an important question the announcement didn’t answer: what exactly is this “metaverse” group building?

Horizon?

At first glance you might assume the answer is Facebook Horizon. But Horizon is only a part of this group. As the announcement notes, Horizon’s lead will report to Metaverse lead Vishal Shah.

Horizon was marketed alongside Quest 2 and was originally supposed to launch in 2020, but is currently still in a closed beta. Facebook no longer actively markets Horizon, and hasn’t given any specific updates on its progress.

The only clue in the announcement is “the connective tissue between these spaces. This seems similar to an answer CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave to CNET back in May – “there needs to be a social fabric that goes across all of the different layers of virtual reality. That’s what we hope to do with Horizon“.

Oculus Quest experiences today are independent Android applications, mostly made in the Unity or Unreal game engines. Horizon’s client is currently just another app built in Unity.

So how exactly could Horizon be the “social fabric” or “connective tissue”?

This description doesn’t seem to match the current siloed app store model, and may suggest a significant strategy shift.

In our most recent hands-on in August 2020, we found Horizon to essentially be a more polished Rec Room with less functionality. Given its lackluster state, is it possible Facebook now plans to significantly expand the scope of the project?

A New Engine?

Protocol reports that the recent acquisition of Unit 2 Games – mostly unnoticed – may play a role in Facebook’s “metaverse” plans. Unit 2 developed Crayta, an Unreal Engine based “collaborative game creation platform” available on Google Stadia & Epic Games. The report also cites a Facebook spokesperson claiming the company “intends to hire hundreds of new employees for the [metaverse] group”.

Crayta certainly looks more impressive than Horizon, but it’s unclear how much of its functionality could be ported to standalone VR headsets.

So how do these two separate efforts, made in completely different game engines, come together? Again, it’s unclear. Could Facebook intend to build its own game engine, one designed for the needs & constraints of an online virtual reality universe?

Such a “metaverse engine” could provide persistent networking, physics, spatial audio, avatars, and hands-on object interactions built-in. If the tools became powerful enough to build entire games, the Oculus platform could evolve beyond its app store model of today. You wouldn’t need to download a new app for each kind of experience, instead – much like the web – you’d just teleport into an experience loaded dynamically.

A ‘Graphics Research’ Facebook job listing listing refers to “custom rendering pipelines driven by UE4, Unity and internal game engines”.

But how would such an engine would be interoperable or in any way open? Here’s how even Zuckerberg described “the metaverse” in an interview with Vergecast this month:

So I think part of this is, I think it’ll be good if companies build stuff that can work together and go across lines rather than just being locked into a specific platform. But I do think that, just like you have the W3C that helps set standards around a bunch of the important internet protocols and how people build the web, I think there will need to be some of that here, too, for defining how developers and creators can build experiences that allow someone to take their avatar and their digital goods and their friends, and be able to teleport seamlessly between all these different experiences.“

Marketing Term Or Long-Term Goal?

Another possibility is that the “metaverse” is not a specific product, but instead simply a long term vision for Facebook’s re-organized VR content strategy.

Zuckerberg could be directing teams to ensure future funded content leverages Oculus platform-level APIs like avatars, destinations & rich presence – this would keep the app store model but allow seamless & consistent teleportation between installed social experiences as if they were Horizon worlds.

“The Metaverse is already here as a collection of digital worlds each with its own physics to determine what’s possible within them,” Bosworth’s post explains. “But to achieve our full vision of the Metaverse, we also need to build the connective tissue between these spaces”.

But simply streamlining the Oculus platform’s consistency wouldn’t explain a new large top-level product group with hundreds of new hires & experienced executives like Shah & Rubin. Something is being built – Facebook just doesn’t seem ready yet to say exactly what.

What do you think Facebook’s new “metaverse” group is building? Is it an innovative new social platform, a generic marketing term, or something else? Let us know in the comments below.

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