Why does Facebook want to be involved with something called The Metaverse? None of Facebook’s own statements really answer the question, but Tim Sweeney’s 2019 SIGGRAPH talk may shed some light.
Facebook is a company that focuses a lot on its competitors, and they have the resources to enter new markets and copy features.
Facebook has added disappearing stories, game streaming, a Facebook Portal that looks a lot like Amazon’s Echo Show, online dating, “checking in,” Facebook Workplace, and Facebook glasses (Ray-Ban Stories) that look a lot like Snapchat’s Spectacles.
In the SIGGRAPH talk, Sweeney directly criticises Facebook several times. He puts forward the concept of the metaverse as a better alternative to closed platforms like Facebook and hopes to avoid the problems with curation that social media networks have had.
Executives at Facebook, focused on competitors like they are, probably saw this talk. Facebook copies its competitors even when it doesn’t make sense, like with the glasses. They can afford to.
Below, each audio clip from Tim Sweeney’s 2019 SIGGRAPH talk is followed by a brief summary.
Audio Highlights and Paraphrased Summaries
In creator-centric games like Minecraft or Roblox, some or all of the game’s content is created by the community itself.
When people are playing Fortnite, they’re spending a lot of their time just chatting, emoting and hanging out in the lobby between sessions. But this is not the metaverse. Nobody really knows what the metaverse is.
The purpose of this talk is to try to say what the metaverse is, and establish what building blocks are necessary.
A definition of the metaverse needs to exclude DOOM and Halo. Players being able to create is a critical part.
Creating isn’t enough, because creating quality content costs a lot of money. So the metaverse must have an economy that’s open for players to participate in.
Creating and sharing in an open economy is a potential invitation for a corporate dystopia. One company sucks all the money out, and has the unilateral right to decide what can and should be seen. So that’s not enough. Participants need to be equal.
The web is based on DOM. This is loosely equivalent to the 3D scene graph in modern games.
The web is complicated.
Future 3D standards will be even more complicated, but it doesn’t all need to happen at once.
Candidate standards exist already for scene graphs, shading, materials, geometry, and so on.
It took five iterations for HTML to hit a sweet spot.
JSON and XML don’t solve the core problem. A simpler and more definitive format, for any datatype that could conceivably exist in any system, with no need for schema.
File format issues come to the fore with huge sets of user-created objects and scripts, it’s expected that they can move between servers, software products, and engines.
There is no workable standard for social graphs. Facebook found it more profitable if they didn’t open their graphs up to other people.
The metaverse cannot be just another app store. The unique element will be carrying your image or persona across different entertainment experiences in shared worlds.
Hype around bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and a focus on money obscures what the blockchain can do. An economic model incentivises everyone to be honest and conduct translations fairly.
The blockchain today is too slow. By orders of magnitude.
It can’t be another app store. Ford might unveil a car as a user-drivable object in the virtual world. More interesting and powerful than a Facebook page.
It’s not about Facebook pages or advertising.
It’s going to evolve as independent creators. Game objects need to be able to interact.
Creators need to be able to make money, or they’ll just go create games instead.
There’s a lot of disfunction in advertising and privacy-invading business models, but there is still a need for economic models that don’t include charging a “gate price.”
A high degree of trust is needed, and a system to ensure quality.
There are challenges around curation and moderation. All sorts of “bad things” will be created. Today’s social networks have gone terribly wrong. The problems don’t exist just because a lot of people are bad, but because the algorithms that drive curation in the system are driven by engagement.
Engagement can be positive or negative, but for humans what’s most engaging in an impersonal text-based social environment are negative things. The problems are not a defect of social communications generally, but of the specific curation practiced through the economic model of these platforms. Tweets that get more interation, even if it’s negative, get more visibility. They do that for money. We’re paying Facebook and Google to display crap that offends us.
We should think about designing platforms that don’t fall victim to this set of problems.
Fortnite is a more positive social experience. It’s not about strangers. Voice chat is only enabled with people in your squad you’re friends with or who you explicitly joined up with. Voice carries higher empathetic bandwidth. By focusing on small groups, it will be much less subject to abuse. On social media one nasty action affects millions of people because of curation.
An hour on the metaverse needs to be better than an hour on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or any of the world’s best games. You need great curation mechanisms for surfacing the best stuff. On Facebook Ford advertises the new Ford Escape and pays a bunch of money to reach people with an ad. The metaverse can escape an advertising based business model. Instead brands will compete to make engaging content.
In entertainment, failure is forever. Once a new platform is rejected it tends not to come back. To get to the metaverse, they’ll have to take existing successful platforms more in the direction of the metaverse. Standards will have to be gradually adopted.
For some reason, a bunch of guys can’t just get together to talk, but they can get together for billiards or shoot hoops or play Fortnite. That’s what’s going to make the metaverse a vastly better platform than Facebook or any social media platform that came before it. It will be small groups not affected by global politics to a greater extent than you want it to be. It will be based on open standards.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of Sweeney’s ideas, but he at least deserves to be taken seriously for clearly communicating a vision and not shying away from sharing particular details.
- Pursuit of a “definitive file format” is likely to fall into the same traps as other attempts at building “ontologies” that are mostly useless.
- The blockchain encourages “honesty” and “fairness” only in a very narrow sense of those terms.
- Brand owners are precious with their brands in a way that’s contrary to openness and interactivity. For instance: in the past racing games with licensed vehicles have had to refrain from showing realistic damage.
- Sweeney points out a need to ensure quality, but doesn’t get into what that might mean. If there’s a racing game that lets you bring your own car, won’t everybody just want the fastest one? If you get to choose your own avatar for a shooting game, won’t people prefer the avatars that are hardest to see, hear, and shoot?
- Sweeney emphasizes the need to move gradually and not fail in a way that sours people on the idea, but there’s no way to stop other companies from charging ahead.