"Israeli companies have major role in building the metaverse"

Nicola Mendelsohn Photo: Meta
Nicola Mendelsohn Photo: Meta

Facebook VP Nicola Mendelsohn explains why Facebook has rebranded as Meta and sets out its vision for the metaverse - the Internet combined with VR and AR.

When tech giant Facebook announced last week that it was rebranding, the company changed its strategy for the coming decade on all matters regarding the metaverse (the virtual space for those who wear head-mounted VR devices), by changing its name to Meta.

Newly appointed Facebook VP Global Business Group Nicola Mendelsohn told "Globes" that she is aware that Meta means dead in Hebrew. "It doesn't translate very well into Hebrew. We understand that there are people in Israel who laughed about this with us. But we chose 'Meta' because the meaning is 'beyond' (in Greek) - beyond what a digital connection allows today and of course it is connected to the word metaverse."

Meta Platforms Inc. cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself said, "We believe that the metaverse is the natural heir to the Internet, which will provide a richer social experience and allow all of us to feel the presence of each other anywhere in the world.

Zuckerberg announced that the company will invest $1 billion in virtual reality in the coming years, so that everybody  will be able to create a virtual reality alongside their real lives. All you'll need to do is put on your virtual reality headsets, create an avatar and meet friends, work, go to events and performances, play sports - and in effect the sky is the limit.

The vision: a billion people with VR

Meta is not the first company to have announced services or products in the field of virtual reality. Zuckerberg and Meta have presented an ambitious vision and some say it is too ambitious. In the next decade, about one billion users will be in the metaverse and they will transfer their social, family and career experiences into this space.

Many of the services in this area that the tech giants and startups have tried to operate were quickly dead and buried. What is different about your vision?

Mendelsohn said, "Our vision for the metaverse is in effect, and that is also the reason for the name change, our commitment to help revive the collective vision of the metaverse. This is a very natural development for us as a company and in practice it also solves the confusion that there has been about our company."

She explained that Facebook has had different brands and products and this step is designed to create an overall company that will amalgamate all the apps and technologies under one brand, "but there will still be Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp," she clarified.

"It's thinking about the Internet in a way that you are immersed in it and not just looking at it. There is no intention to replace the physical space or spend more time on screens - but to make time we already spend in the digital space better," she explained.

She added, "In 15 years time the metaverse will be the next stage or the next generation - a place that will make us feel that we are sharing space together."

The company has announced several major new technologies. For example, a system for cohesive movements of the hands and body attached to an open code and library of hand and voice gestures - and this mainly allows Oculus (the company's VR headset) to be a significant leader in the field. The company will also let users buy virtual clothes for their avatars and also build rooms in their personal home space.

"A feeling of social presence"

This grandiose ambition will be made possible, also according to Zuckerberg himself, only if other bodies, companies, entrepreneurs and organizations will cooperate. This is another way in which Meta expects to be different from others, by calling for others to join in this field, so that it is not the only company. 

Mendelsohn said, "This will be built by so many different people and things that all of us will do in the metaverse will reflect so many different subjects from our lives. It will be possible to spend time and play games with friends, to work and to create and do so much more. In practice, you can do everything that you can on the Internet at the moment and of course there will also be things that aren't logical on the Internet at the moment - that's the way we see it."

"This feeling of social presence is about to allow so much and to create so many opportunities regardless of where you live and you can invest more time on things that are important to you regardless of time or place," she added.

Do you think that there will be a 'killer app,' the first app that will be the most popular will bring people to VR?

"I don't think that there will be one app because I think that the way people will connect to the metaverse is going to be different. Everyone will reach it in the way that suits them."

She continued to elaborate on the options. "We have Horizon Workrooms that allows you to create the office that we are interested in, so for example my office has a backdrop of the Himalayas. It can be done so why not? And people are sitting around the table and the experience will include details like when somebody speaks, you will actually turn your head naturally to where the person is sitting around the table. This feeling of being together and presence changes the way we have communicated with each other."

She brings examples in both gaming and education. "Most people in the world won't have the privilege of traveling to Rome to see the ruins of the Colosseum. But if you enter the world of VR, then you can walk the streets of ancient Rome and see how the Colosseum was and how this will strengthen the experience for children learning about this."

When asked about marketing efforts on these products, she foresees a billion users joining the metaverse in the coming decade. "If we begin our vision from here, this defines clear guidelines for us, which we will need to bring to people."

Meta's Cambria headset which will come out next year will be very expensive. Asked if the company plans less expensive products she responded, "We are really only at the very beginning of that."

New monetization models

Oculus Quest 2, the company's VR headset currently on the market is not sold in Israel. When asked why, she insisted that she does not have the exact details but that it is probably due to licensing. "You can be sure that we want to bring Quest 2 to Israel at the first possible opportunity," she insisted.

At the launching of Meta, you didn't speak about the economic model and nothing was said about advertising. Is Facebook planning in the short term or long term to put ads on the metaverse?

"Yes. As we know on the Internet there will be many things that are free in the metaverse and it is reasonable to assume that they will be operated by advertising. So yes, it is reasonable to assume that this will happen. In addition, there will also be a payment experience that will be free of ads, for example to go to performances and things like that. And the vision is that a billion people will be in the metaverse and they will consume hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce and in particular they will also support jobs for millions of creators and developers.

"I do think that digital commerce will become more and more important with people and developers and creators buying digital products and digital experiences. And you are going to be in the metaverse every day. You will want to think about how you are presenting yourself with digital clothes or tools or different experiences. These are really only the first and early days but it gives you a hint of how many ways we are thinking about this from the monetization point of view."

Why did we not hear any of this at the launch itself?

"When we talk about everything that we are building, we are first of all building for people. That's the place that we start from. In addition, it is still too early. We are still in the vision stage, and there are things that will take years to build. And that's what we do with all our products. When we launch new things at Facebook or Instagram, we always begin with people. We never begin with publication."

Do you see a contradiction between publicity and privacy?

Facebook has acquired a difficult lack of trust from users in everything regarding information and this is not expected to disappear now that it has become Meta. Zuckerberg put off his announcement several times due to matters of privacy and security and said that this subject is considered a fundamental subject that has been checked and will be checked when they are building this space.

Mendelsohn also insists that they are being transparent and that is the reason that the new step is being unveiled as a vision even before there is something. "Part of the reason that we are beginning so early in this way is because we want to build the metaverse together with all the people that will be a part of it - in shared access and in our open way of doing this. This step is designed to ensure that issues like privacy are embedded right from the start and that is completely at the core of our approach. Our business approach in substance is privacy before all else because we know that that is what is important to people and what is important for people is important for us, so that we can promise to users that they can trust us."

Will you collect details about users in the metaverse as you did with Facebook?

"We have not even reached the point where are thinking about things like that. But there is a lot of very exciting research that we have developed, in which we are thinking about this subject of advertising from the business point of view and there we see that it is possible to show people things that are relevant for them and that does not mean that it's impossible that advertising and privacy go hand in hand."

Mendelsohn stressed that the area of privacy is being developed by the company. "To give people options to choose, in my opinion can really strengthen our private security regarding the information of users. But I think that this also relies a lot on how advertising will work on the Internet in the future. And I think that this is in practice exciting because it allows the potential to bring the personal and privacy matching to combine in a better way with each other."

There are risks. I imagine that a person with no money building fo himself an exaggerated space and fake life. Aren't you concerned about creating additional problems for people like addiction and a fake life?

"I think that is exactly the reason that we are conducting talks in an open way with relevant experts in all these different areas. We want to set principles in the right way and put up security barriers for people, and so together the various organizations, companies and entrepreneurs can cooperate to build something together.

A significant role for Israel

Mendelsohn, 50, is married with four children. She said that the biggest happiness in her life are her husband Jonathan and four children Danny, Sam, Zac and Gabi. She currently lives in the UK but at the start of 2022 she will move to the US to take up her new position. Two weeks ago she was appointed VP Global Business Group. Since 2013, she has been in charge of Facebook's business division for the EMEA. Before joining Facebook, she was in advertising for more than 20 years with Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), Grey London, and Karmarama.

She is Jewish and very much loves Israel and hopes to visit the country again soon. Facebook's Israel headquarters has many teams - over 700 employees with another 200 job vacancies, developing their VR technologies.

Mendelsohn said, "Israel is an amazingly important market for us. Israel is one of our most important engineering bases outside of the US. Some of the most innovative work is performed in Israel, and I personally love the time that I spend in Israel. It excites me that the entire country has some sort of business plan, a type of startup and there is certainly a lot of advances and development carried out here, especially in the field of AR and VRand that's really exciting for us.

She added, "Israeli companies are a central part of the Internet today and they will also play a significant and central role in building the metaverse."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 1, 2021.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2021.

Nicola Mendelsohn Photo: Meta
Nicola Mendelsohn Photo: Meta
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