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Facebook’s metaverse will still track your every move

This article was first featured in Yahoo Finance Tech, a weekly newsletter highlighting our original content on the industry. Get it sent directly to your inbox every Wednesday by 4 p.m. ET. Subscribe

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Meta's metaverse could track you more than you ever imagined

Facebook is now Meta (FB), reflecting its focus on building up the so-called metaverse — a future version of the internet that will let people interact with others in 3-D virtual worlds.

But that doesn’t mean the social media giant will change its business model. Yes, despite the new name and logo, Meta’s business will likely remain the same as Facebook’s. It will make money by tracking your every move to target you with ads.

And according to two experts I spoke with, Meta will find even more ways to follow you than Facebook did. Imagine a headset that can track your eyes, determining how long your gaze dwells on a digital billboard while you stroll down the virtual street in the metaverse. Meta may also know how often you visit a virtual location and who you’re grabbing a virtual beer with.

The metaverse might open up new possibilities for you, the user, but it will also open up a new world of advertising possibilities for Facebook, er, Meta.

“If you're doing an augmented experience or a virtual experience, you could be collecting data on that user constantly,” Mark Skwarek, industry associate professor at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, told Yahoo Finance. “You'll be able to predict what people think.”

Sound far-fetched? It’s not. And it could be the future of our connected world.

How Meta’s metaverse could track you

Facebook already has a reputation for tracking its users. The Facebook app’s creepy ability to serve ads for items you’re just about to buy has some people, incorrectly, assuming the service listens in on their conversations through their phones’ microphones like a high-tech Bond villain.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces the company's future plans for the metaverse during the company's Connect keynote. (Image: Facebook)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces the company's future plans for the metaverse during the company's Connect keynote. (Image: Facebook)

The reality, however, is that Facebook understands its users so well that it can predict what you’re likely to be interested in. That’s why you’ll see an ad for something you swear you’ve never searched for online and only mentioned to a friend in passing.

Now imagine what Meta can do with data it collects from the metaverse.

According to Skwarek, companies could create technologies to see where you’re looking and base future ads off the items you’re gazing at. So, if you’re walking around a shopping mall while wearing an augmented reality headset and pause to look at an ad, the software would immediately pick up on your glance — and begin serving you even more relevant ads. Or it could just serve up ads that you’ve expressed previous interest in.

“It could be a way of drawing your attention to something without you even knowing it's happening,” Skwarek explained.

Tech's latest obsession

The metaverse, tech’s latest obsession, is expected to be the next permutation of the internet. Those pursuing the concept imagine it will be a series of online worlds that you can access via virtual and augmented reality headsets, your smartphone, or even your laptop.

Right now, the metaverse is still in its early stages. Sure, there are games like “Fortnite” and “Roblox” that embody aspects of the metaverse, but we’re far from the grandiose ideas Meta has floated.

Even Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t expect the metaverse to become a consumer mainstay for another 5 to 10 years. It still requires billions in investment. To that end, Zuckerberg announced on the company’s Oct. 25 earnings call that it is spending $10 billion on the technology this year alone.

Still, other companies also have big plans for the metaverse. During its Ignite conference on Tuesday, Microsoft (MSFT) said next year it will launch a version of its Team software that allows people to appear as themselves or as digital avatars in video chats. The idea is to give users the ability to appear on video without the pressure of having to look video ready. Better still, the feature won’t require you to wear a headset but will be able to detect your facial cues.

Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook's civic misinformation team, leaves the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, Britain October 25, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook's civic misinformation team, leaves the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, Britain October 25, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Meanwhile, Nvidia’s (NVDA) efforts with its Omniverse platform will create something called a digital twin, or a computer-generated version of a physical object or location that you can explore in a virtual world.

A focus on the metaverse amid controversy

Meta's new focus on the metaverse and its corporate name change come in the wake of revelations by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who leaked internal documents showing the company ignores or is slow to respond to issues like hate speech, its apps’ impact on the teen girls’ self-esteem, and human trafficking. The leaks led to a Congressional hearing, as well as speculation that Facebook was changing its name to distance itself from its controversies.

Zuckerberg announced that name change during his keynote address at Facebook Connect on Oct. 28. Rather than addressing the controversies, Zuckerberg discussed his company's vision for the metaverse.

Microsoft is bringing the metaverse to Teams. (Image: Microsoft)
Microsoft is bringing the metaverse to Teams. (Image: Microsoft)

In one demo, Zuckerberg demonstrated how Meta’s Cambria prototype headset will have eye and face-tracking technology. That will allow users to show emotion to others. Importantly for Meta and its advertising business, the technology will allow meta to see what you’re most interested in.

“The way I think about it is these are all new touch points that can inform the profiles that they build around all of their users and the accounts today,” Syracuse University assistant professor of advertising Daniela Molta told Yahoo Finance. “That's going to be massive for them because it's going to create this new unique way that they can essentially target audiences.”

That could include ads that appear in metaverse-based stadiums on giant signs, or billboards you see while walking around your favorite meta environment. Or, in the worst case scenario, it could be like that one episode of “Futurama” where the cast jumps into the internet and is chased down by flying pop-up ads.

More than an ads business

It’s not just about ads, though. According to Molta, Meta could sell special items for your avatar. That could mean going to see a metaverse-based concert and buying a so-called skin for your avatar that matches the band’s getup. Or think of being able to don a pair of Gucci shoes that you could never afford in real life. Or driving your Lamborghini to your own Space X rocket and launching into space.

The metaverse offers ample branding opportunities for companies in these types of scenarios. We’ve already seen examples of this in games like Epic’s “Fortnite,” where users have purchased character skins from famous franchises like Marvel and characters from Sony’s stable of games.

And, of course, there’s the hardware angle. During his keynote, Zuckerberg discussed how working with third-party tech companies was like paying an industry tax. That "tax" has to do with Apple’s recent privacy changes that prevent apps like Facebook from tracking users on their iPhones.

If Meta offers its own headsets, though, it could bypass roadblocks like Apple’s policy changes, and track users under its own terms.

Meta's next-generation headset, Cambria, will be able to read and understand users' facial expressions. (Image: Meta)
Meta's next-generation headset, Cambria, will be able to read and understand users' facial expressions. (Image: Meta)

It’ll take a lot for Meta to pull this off

Just because Zuckerberg showed off a slick, pre-recorded demonstration of his plans for the metaverse during his keynote, though, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen overnight.

And Meta needs to tread carefully to avoid the mistakes that have tarnished Facebook’s name — like losing user data and allowing disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech to run rampant.

As the recently leaked documents show, Meta hasn't solved those problems on its own. So before it becomes as much a metaverse giant as it is a social media giant, Congress finally needs to step in and regulate at least some aspect of the company. Or we’ll just end up with Facebook with a new name.

By Daniel Howley, tech editor at Yahoo Finance.

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