MENLO PARK (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Mr Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive officer of Meta, formerly called Facebook, pledged that the metaverse, the futuristic immersive reality platform he envisions for the coming decade, will have privacy standards, parental controls and disclosures about data use that his social network has famously lacked.
Speaking during the live-streamed Connect event on Thursday (Oct 28), he gave examples of privacy and safety controls that would be needed in the metaverse, such as the ability to block someone from appearing in your space.
Mr Zuckerberg is betting that the metaverse will be the next big computing platform, calling it "the successor to the mobile Internet".
"Everyone who's building for the metaverse should be focused on building responsibly from the beginning," he said. "This is one of the lessons I've internalised from the last five years - that you really want to emphasise these principles from the start."
For half a decade, Facebook has been bombarded with criticism from lawmakers, regulators and its own employees for its lax privacy standards.
In the latest controversy, whistleblower and former Facebook employee Ms Frances Haugen leaked documents which she said showed the company chose profit over user safety. Mr Zuckerberg earlier this week said the documents were being used to paint a "false picture".
The company is likely to face questions from regulators about how it will protect privacy and manage the potential for hateful or harassing content in the new digital worlds of the metaverse.
On Thursday, Facebook re-christened itself Meta Platforms, decoupling its corporate identity from the eponymous social network mired in toxic content, and highlighting a shift to the emerging metaverse computing platform focused on virtual reality,
Apps including the flagship social network, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp will keep their monikers.
During the Thursday event - a lengthy demo of Meta's hardware and VR projects - Mr Zuckerberg was joined briefly by Mr Nick Clegg, the company's government affairs chief.
Mr Clegg said the company's work in the metaverse would have age and parental controls, as well as transparency about how data is used and collected. He also said the company would be consulting with human and civil rights groups, without naming them.
Regulators have been "playing catch-up" with Internet advances because of consumer demands for fast technical progress, Mr Clegg told his boss during the event.
"I really think that it doesn't have to be the case this time around," he said. "Because we have years before the metaverse we envision is fully realised."
VR tools for home, work
Meta is trying to make VR feel more like home, part of a sweeping plan to bring the immersive technology to a broader swath of users.
At its Connect conference, the social media giant unveiled Horizon Home, an addition to the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset.
The new feature will let users interact as digital avatars in virtual homes created through the company's VR system, where they can also watch videos or play games together, the company said. In the future, people will be able to customise their digital homes.
In a demonstration, Mr Zuckerberg displayed a virtual avatar of himself dressed identically in jeans and a black long-sleeve shirt.
The CEO said people will probably have multiple avatars for work, home and gaming. During the demo, Mr Zuckerberg took a call from his wife, Priscilla, on a watch device.
"All right, so that's a glimpse," he said. "It's a ways off, but you can start to see some of the fundamental building blocks."
The presentation included an announcement that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the popular game from Take-Two Interactive Software, is in development for the Oculus Quest 2.
Meta also said it will test a program that lets users log on to the Quest 2 VR goggles with special work accounts instead of via their personal Facebook accounts, through a new service called Quest for Business. And it is releasing a high-end headset next year called Cambria.
"The goal that we've had is to continue to develop new use cases beyond just gaming that make VR something that people use in multiple areas of their lives," Mr Andrew Bosworth, who leads the company's Reality Labs, said in a briefing earlier this week.
Within the next decade, the metaverse is expected to reach a billion people and "host hundreds of millions of dollars of digital commerce", said Mr Zuckerberg.
He tried to position the metaverse as the future of e-commerce and said it would bring wide benefits to society and the economy.
Specifically, he said Horizon's ability to hold virtual meetings could potentially reduce air traffic.
Other new VR tools introduced on Thursday, to be ready in the coming months or next year, include new fitness apps and accessories and the ability to invite Facebook friends to join Messenger calls via VR.
At the conference, Meta also said it is investing in capabilities that will let developers build new experiences that blend real and virtual worlds on the Quest platform.
And the company announced a US$150 million (S$202 million) education programme to increase training and partnership opportunities for augmented reality and VR creators.
Meta is bulking up VR offerings while building out the metaverse.
"Even though this sounds like science fiction, we're starting to see a lot of these technologies come together," Mr Zuckerberg said. He gave a rough "five to 10" years time-frame for their broader use.
Building out the metaverse will also allow Meta to reduce its dependency on mobile operating-system and browser makers such as Alphabet's Google and Apple to deliver services to consumers.
"This isn't about spending more time on screens," Mr Zuckerberg said. "It's about spending the time that we already spend better."