Facebook changed its corporate name to Meta yesterday, as part of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s sweeping vision of creating a next-generation “embodied” internet inspired by science fiction, where users, as he described it, will be “in the experience, not just looking at it.” And he is targeting education as one key part of that vision.
What that metaverse will look like is still a bit vague, but the company gave some hints in prepared statements and in an hour-long video it released. And it has committed real dollars to the educational part of its effort, promising that its Facebook Reality Labs will invest $150 million in an education program to assist with tech development and to train people to use augmented and virtual reality tools.
And Facebook (er, I guess now Meta) announced that it would partner with Coursera and edX to help push Meta’s curriculum in augmented and virtual reality, which it calls the Spark AR Curriculum. A spokesperson for edX, which started as a nonprofit by Harvard and MIT but is in the process of being sold to for-profit 2U, said the group would share more information about the partnership and its broader shifts in the coming weeks.
The choice to bet the future of Facebook on the word “metaverse” is an interesting one at a time when Facebook is under intense scrutiny for its growing power, and after the recent leak of internal documents that suggest the company has moved forward with features despite internal research showing social harm. As it turns out, the term “metaverse” was coined in a dystopian novel that is highly critical of growing corporate control of society and of internet technologies.
That book that spawned the term is the 1992 science-fiction novel “Snow Crash,” an action adventure set in a world where much of everyday life is lived in an immersive digital world that eventually replaces the internet. In the novel, the metaverse has emerged after a worldwide economic collapse, where governments have given up power to private companies and entrepreneurs—leading to a huge divide between haves and have-nots. Basically it is as far from a sales pitch for a visual internet run by a giant company as you can get, though somehow over the years it has become a template in Silicon Valley for what a shared visual cyberspace might look like.
Zuckerberg’s interest in virtual reality is nothing new. In 2014 the company bought VR company Oculus for $2 billion. And in his statements yesterday Zuckerberg said the idea for the name change predates recent criticisms of the company.
The version of the metaverse imagined in the hour-long video that Meta released yesterday involves a mix of technology, including what appear to be holograms. That’s the case in a scene (at about 31:00 into the video) where a student is getting help on her astrophysics homework by swiping her hands to manipulate a giant picture of the solar system, zooming in on the rings of Saturn by gesturing with her arms.
“If you were taking astrophysics, you could study in the multiverse,” said the narrator of this part of the video, Marne Levine, Meta’s chief business officer.
But high-end VR headsets also seem part of the Meta metaverse vision for education as well.
The next example shown in the video is a student wandering around ancient Rome, thanks to an immersive VR world where the student is transported as an avatar.
“Imagine standing on the streets hearing the sounds, visiting the markets,” said Levine in the video’s narration. To get a sense of the rhythm of life more than 2,000 years ago. Imagine learning how the forum was built by actually watching the forum get built right in front of you.”
Most of the graphics shown in this part of the video appear to be an artist rendering rather than any demo of actual technology, as the video showcases one possible future rather than any specific products (though one VR documentary by David Attenborough developed for Oculus VR headsets was briefly shown). It seemed at times more like some optimistic ride at a World’s Fair or at Disneyworld than a sales pitch.
One challenge for bringing this vision to life is that VR headsets have failed to take off widely, despite years of attempts by Facebook. The company discontinued the Rift headset this year after lackluster sales, though it now sells a VR headset called Oculus Quest 2 that it says is selling better (though the company has not released sales figures). This week that headset was renamed Meta Quest to match the new corporate brand.
VR headsets remain clunky and expensive, and it’s also costly to develop materials for them for education—or any other purpose.
And with all the problems and challenges that educators are facing during a global pandemic, adding bells and whistles of more Hollywood-inspired course materials does not feel like the best way to spend time and resources to many educators. Earlier this year, Arizona State University touted a company it is backing to develop educational material for VR headsets at the ASU GSV Summit. The demo attracted curious interest, but also many shrugs from officials that EdSurge talked to, who were more interested in the better use of existing tools than investing in expensive new gear.
New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose said one reason for Facebook’s strategic shift may be concern that it is losing younger (student-aged) users to other social media platforms.
“The metaverse could help with the company’s demographic crisis, if it encourages young people to strap on their Oculus headsets and hang out in Horizon—Facebook’s social V.R. app—instead of watching TikTok videos on their phones,” Roose wrote.
Disclosure: EdSurge has received support from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic organization co-owned by Mark Zuckerberg.