What is the Metaverse? Ask Mark Zuckerberg.

Today, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg kicked off Facebook Connect 2021, the company’s annual tech conference, with a deep dive into all things metaverse, the presumed heir to the mobile internet. Joined at various points with the executive members of his metaverse team, Zuckerberg spent an hour-long keynote teleporting in and out of dreamy virtual worlds and extolling the virtues and rich possibilities the metaverse holds for connection, entertainment, gaming, fitness, work, learning, and more.

Mark Zuckerberg announces that Facebook is now Meta.

Facebook is now Meta.

The central theme throughout Zuckerberg’s keynote was that the metaverse is the next chapter for Facebook — nay, for all of us — and that is why Facebook has changed its company name to Meta.

“We just announced that we’re making a fundamental change to our company. We’re now looking at and reporting on our business as two different segments — one for our family of apps and one for work on future platforms, and as part of this, it is time for us to adopt a new company brand to encompass everything that we do, to reflect who we are and what we hope to build, I am proud to announce that, starting today, our company is now Meta.

“Our mission remains the same — still about bringing people together. Our apps and their brands — they’re not changing either, and we’re still the company that designs technology around people. But now we have a new Northstar — to help bring the metaverse to life — and we have a new name that reflects the full breadth of what we do and the future that we want to help build. From now on, we’re going to be metaverse first, not Facebook first.”

Zuckerberg’s interest in the metaverse isn’t news. Back in July, he announced his intention for Facebook to transition from a social media company to a metaverse company. Facebook had purchased VR hardware company Oculus back in 2014, and in 2019 announced the coming of its own virtual world. Facebook’s transition to a metaverse company has been well underway with Horizon Worlds, Facebook’s in-development VR platform, Horizon Workrooms, the company’s nascent virtual conference rooms, and a workforce of more than 10,000 employees dedicated to building metaverse-related projects such as the aforementioned virtual world and augmented reality glasses.

Oculus Quest 2 VR Headset

But what is the metaverse?

As stated by Zuckerberg and others, the metaverse is purported to be the successor to the mobile internet. We already spend a significant portion of our lives in the digital world — chatting with friends, consuming media, working, playing, and navigating our world via our mobile devices. Zuckerberg’s vision for this next iteration is that it will be “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” He speaks passionately of a deep feeling of presence with others in this new space where we will work, learn, shop, play, and socialize. This feeling of presence — that you’re really there with other people — is a defining feature of the metaverse.

“You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.”

Ariana Grande performs for millions in Fortnite in August, 2021

Already, digital worlds spawned from gaming platforms such as Fortnite and Roblox host events that are being attended virtually by millions of people, and major global companies create and sell digital clothing and accessories (“wearables”) for our avatars in these worlds. Virtual avatars gained popularity as early as the 1990s, evolved in multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and The Sims, and are of course commonplace in the games of today. You can’t show up at the Fortnite-hosted Travis Scott or Ariana Grande concert without your avatar. Still, the big metaverse players like Facebook, Epic Games, Roblox, Microsoft, etc have a long way to go to realize the interoperability that will allow for us to traverse the metaverse’s many virtual worlds with our avatars and other digital assets. Interoperability implies that the assets that you create or buy in the metaverse are owned by you rather than by a particular platform.

Not that the metaverse will take place entirely in the virtual world. Augmented reality and mixed reality, in which virtual elements intermingle with our physical world will be central to our experiences, as well, and to that end, Meta is building tools such as Spark AR for creators and developers to author their own augmented reality experiences, as well as the hardware that will allow us to more fluidly experience augmented reality. In a partnership with Ray-Ban, Meta has produced Ray-Ban Stories Smart Glasses, which Zuckerberg twice characterized as “normal, good-looking glasses,” through which the wearer can have AR experiences.

Did Zuckerberg utterly sidestep the allegations of complicity in the global spread of hate and misinformation to paint a utopian digital future? Yes. Did he also, in a cheesy moment, blink himself into avatar mode to virtually shred big waves with world-famous surfer Kai Lenny? Also, yes.

But it is a compelling story — Mark Zuckerberg’s fervent commitment to this next chapter and his positioning of Meta as a company devoted to empowering creators — “the metaverse isn’t something we’re building so much as it’s something we’re building for.” Whether or not Zuckerberg is correct about the metaverse reaching a billion people and supporting jobs for millions of creators and developers in the next decade is anyone’s guess, but it will certainly transform the way we engage in our digital lives. Does it seem unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg will be the visionary to lead this transformation? That’s a yes, as well. However, he will do what he’s good at, which is get the message out.

Welcome to Meta.