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How’s Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse Doing These Days?

That’s been quite the flop — but the world of virtual reality and avatars is mainstreaming quite rapidly

Apple’s Tim Cook doesn’t think much of it, apparently. Billions of dollars later, lots of people don’t:

As waves of critics pointed out, the design of this “immersive” world is astoundingly underwhelming. In the cursed screenshot, Zuck’s pasty, robotic avatar — the design of which is perhaps a half step above a Wii Mii — is pictured in front of a sparse, sad landscape upon which arbitrarily sized replicas of France’s Eiffel Tower and Spain’s Tibidabo Cathedral are uncomfortably plopped.

Maggie Harrison, “Wave of criticism hits Zuckerberg’s Metaverse for looking like crap” at Futurism (August 17, 2021)

It turns out, even employees who built it don’t use it.

At Forbes, the Money columnist thinks the basic idea is the way of the future:

The metaverse is (or will be) an interactive environment build on blockchain and internet technology. By combining virtual reality, augmented reality, digital reality and actual reality, people will be able to interact with avatars, each other and their environment at the same time, even across vast spaces.

It’s a place that always exists – even when you’re logged off – populated by avatars and decorated with NFTs. Cryptocurrency is often involved, usually backed by a real-world financial investment, to facilitate a digital economy with virtual representations of legitimate ownership.

Q.ai, “What’s Up With Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse — And How Can You Get Invested?” at Forbes (August 19, 2022)

Here’s another view: It will mainly appeal to people who prefer Zoom meetings to in-person ones and travelogues to tourism. But, in terms of sheer numbers worldwide, that may be a large and profitable group.

So far, though, the financial news is not good. As of October 3, the metaverse focus is reported to have caused Zuckerberg’s Meta (formerly Facebook) a $71 billion-dollar loss.

But markets go up and down for all sorts of reasons. Here are two big problems successful metaverse developers will need to grapple with: fraud and deepfakes

About fraud, a forensic accounting prof and a researcher comment:

Unlike traditional social media platforms, users have no guarantee that the data they share is only shared with those they choose to share it with in the metaverse. That means user identities can be tracked and revealed

As one researcher explains: “We cannot just turn off who can follow our avatars in the metaverse as we can do in the traditional social media.”

Personal information, such as biometric data, can be collected through the metaverse and in turn used for marketing purposes. Organizations using the metaverse need to ensure data is anonymized and users cannot be identifiable.

The rapid development of the metaverse has also brought risks related to cryptocurrencies, which are already subjected to very little official regulation.

Nadia Ismaili, Audrey de Rancourt-Raymond, “We need to anticipate and address potential fraud in the metaverse” at The Conversation (September 7, 2022)

The challenge is that, if metaverse developers succeed (as Zuckerberg clearly didn’t) in creating a very believable virtual experience, frauds of all kinds will seem very believable too.

And deepfakes are becoming a business, especially in show business. At Wired, Steven Levy tells us, it’s economical now. Russian firm Deepcake deepfaked 67-year-old Bruce Willis, using a younger actor:

While leasing an actor’s rights might be about 30 percent less than the usual appearance fee, she says, still bigger savings come from the lower costs of filming a cheap actor-double instead of a superstar, who requires first-class travel, a big trailer, and ridiculous demands in contract riders.

But Deepcake isn’t just faking superstars. They recently did a job for an agricultural firm that wanted to make educational videos starring its in-house expert, a busy person not comfortable in front of a camera. With the subject’s permission, Deepcake converted video of an understudy in an exact duplicate. “We also cloned the voice for full similarity, of course,” Chmir says. Steven Levy, “The Plain View” at Wired (October 7, 2022)

Levy shares a concern about where all this is headed:

Don’t the people watching this stuff deserve to know that they’re watching a fake, or “twin,” instead of the real person? “Absolutely! There should be responsible disclaimers,” says Notchenko. But there was no such disclaimer on the Willis ad. Notchenko explains that no disclaimer was necessary because the fake version of Willis, who is 67, looks like he did in his younger years. And he has a smartphone, which the younger Willis did not have access to. On the other hand, Chmir says that 80 percent of people watching the video thought it was really Willis.

Steven Levy, “The Plain View” at Wired (October 7, 2022)

We can just bet they did. That was the whole point. But it still wasn’t actually Willis…

And just think: Deepcake was not even trying to “deceive” anyone (unless we want to quibble that all art is, in one sense, a form of deception). But what about people who are trying to deceive? “Fake news” could become something much more serious than the usual “news I don’t think people should be allowed to hear!” …

There is considerable current industry doubt now about whether Zuckerberg’s Meta can really do the metaverse properly. But some developers are sure to. And we had best prepare in advance for some of the more problematic outcomes.

Update on Twitter vs. Musk: aka Muskageddon! The lawsuit is currently paused while the parties negotiate.

Headlines say it all: “Elon Musk now says Twitter ‘will not take yes for an answer’” Also: “Media worries as Elon Musk closes deal to buy Twitter: ‘Be afraid, be actually afraid’

Afraid of what? That the show might not go into a second season after all? Hey, we’ll keep you posted. We work for popcorn.

You may also wish to read: Why don’t some tech moguls like Web3, the new internet? Web3 is a decentralized, less controlled version of the internet, as George Gilder predicted in Life After Google. However, some developers want to go further and make Web3 a virtual reality in which our avatars can live, as in the film Ready Player One.

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How’s Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse Doing These Days?