Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has filed a number of patents for technology that would allow it to register Metaverse users’ facial expressions and use the extrapolated data to cater ads to them. Here’s how the technology will turn your face into cold hard cash.
What Is the Metaverse?
The first thing we should make clear is that this technology is aimed at the Metaverse, not Facebook. In October 2021, Facebook changed the name of its company to Meta and announced that it had started work on something called the Metaverse. (The actual site you use to connect with friends and relatives is still named Facebook.)
The Metaverse would be a world based on virtual reality, where your avatar—a digital version of you—could walk around and interact with other people and other things you’d associate with social media. If you’ve watched the movie Ready Player One or read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, you probably get the idea.
The difference between the Metaverse and these two fictional worlds is that the reality will probably be a lot more bland, corporate, and more overtly aimed at making its parent company, Meta, money. Up till recently, people figured that this would take the form of bombarding users with ads, much like Facebook makes its dough now.
It looks like the Metaverse will be as much about you looking at ads as looking at people’s avatars. The Metaverse’s ads will be targeted like Facebook’s. This means that, based on the information Meta has on you, it will show you specific ads.
The easiest way to explain this is to use your location: if you live in, say, New Mexico, Meta can easily figure this out, from the location information you’ve entered into Facebook or even just getting your location from your IP address. Because Meta knows this, it won’t show you ads for car dealerships in Arizona or a bagel shop in New York City.
Thanks to data collection and the advanced algorithms to sort it, companies like Meta can get a lot more specific about who you are than just where you live. Though it’s hard to nail down exactly what Facebook does and does not know about you, similar technology has been used to reliably predict people’s sex, sexual preference, education level, political leanings, and a huge number of other factors.
They can make all these predictions based simply on your online behavior. What you click on, who you connect with, how often you click, your location; these and many other data points can all be used to create a profile of you. That profile is then used to bring specific ads to your attention.
You can easily check how this works yourself: if you start visiting a bunch of websites of used car dealerships, there’s a good chance you will get more Facebook ads for used cars. If you start looking up holiday destinations, expect more ads for plane tickets. You can reduce this data collection by using a VPN, though the only way to stop it is to not use Facebook.
Metaverse Facial Recognition
Though you’re not able to jump into the Metaverse right now—it will be years before it’s live—we already have an idea of how Metaverse will make money when it does: The Financial Times (our apologies for the paywall) found several patent applications that give us a hint of what Meta might be planning. (Editor’s note: Bear in mind that a company patenting a technology doesn’t guarantee that company will use it.)
Besides using the tactics and technology that made Facebook one of the world’s biggest companies (according to Investopedia, it ranks seventh by market cap), it seems Meta is also betting hard on some emergent technologies, particularly facial recognition.
In the patent filings uncovered by the FT, it seems that Meta is particularly interested in tracking eye movement and even pupil dilation. If you like what you’re looking at, your eyes will linger on it. Supposedly, the tech meta is developing would allow it to track things like that and then use this data to deliver ads to you similar to what you looked at.
Other things that Meta is apparently interested in are tracking other micro expressions like scrunching up your nose or changing your posture, all things that would be tracked using state-of-the-art sensors in your VR headset or through magnets you’d wear on your body.
Developing this type of technology would be a huge win for Meta and other companies that rely on data collection. Currently, they can only track what users do and don’t like through clicks, searches, and likes. If technology like the above can be made a reality, even your expression could become a data point.
Will It Work?
For now, though, the operative word is “if.” While there’s no doubt that Meta is banking hard on the Metaverse and related technologies — the FT quotes Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg as pledging $10 billion to its development — we have heard wild predictions before. The technology described in the patents is certainly feasible, but it remains to be seen how well it will really work in practice, especially within the next decade.
Besides possible technical issues, there’s also the problem of legislation: Zuckerberg has caught a lot of flak for his data collection practices and even stopped using facial recognition technology on Facebook because of legislative threats—though tellingly made no such pledge for Meta. Regulations could stop these plans.
However, the biggest stumbling block for Meta is, well, us. If we refuse to play in the Metaverse, there won’t be any data to sell. If the company truly means to collect our expressions to hawk us stuff, then all we really need to do to avoid it is to simply not enter the Metaverse.
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