Facebook has announced plans to create 10,000 new jobs in the EU as part of its plan to create the ‘metaverse’, a new paradigm for the internet. In the short-term, this may exacerbate a “talent drought” in the field, experts warn. But its long-term commitment could also help European countries develop their immersive technology talent pipelines.
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is a still-ambiguous concept, with roots in science fiction, describing the integration of physical, virtual and augmented realities. It has gained mainstream currency after being championed first by Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games – the company behind popular game Fortnite – then more prominently by Mark Zuckerberg, who describes it as “a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces”. “It’s an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at,” Zuckerberg told investment analysts earlier this year. “We believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile internet.”
Facebook is investing billions of dollars annually in its metaverse-related initiatives, the company says, which include its Oculus Rift virtual-reality gaming headset, its Portal video conferencing device, and its Horizons Workrooms virtual collaboration app. But the key to creating a true metaverse is tying individual platforms such as these together. “To achieve our full vision of the metaverse, we… need to build the connective tissue between these spaces – so you can remove the limitations of physics and move between them with the same ease as moving from one room in your home to the next,” wrote Facebook CTO Andrew Bosworth in July.
Indeed, there is still much to be decided in creating anything resembling a metaverse. In an influential blog post published early last year, venture capitalist Matthew Ball identified numerous points of contention. These include whether “participants will have a single consistent digital identity (or “avatar”) that they will use across all experiences”; “how much interoperability is required for the metaverse to really be ‘the metaverse’, rather than just an evolution of today’s internet”, and the degree of decentralisation required in the technical architecture that underpins the metaverse.
Crucially, Ball wrote, it is not currently possible for tens of thousands of digital avatars to occupy the same live virtual environment at once. For example, a high-profile online concert in 2019, which attracted 11 million attendees, worked by splitting the audience into more than 100,000 instances of up to 100 users each. Epic Games “can probably do more than this today, but not into several hundred, let alone millions,” Ball wrote.
Nevertheless, proponents view the metaverse as the next iteration of the web – and predict an equal if not greater economic impact. “The metaverse should produce the same diversity of opportunity as we saw with the web – new companies, products and services will emerge to manage everything from payment processing to identity verification, hiring, ad delivery, content creation, security, and so forth,” Ball argued in his 2020 blog post. “This, in turn, will mean many present-day incumbents are likely to fall.”
What skills does Facebook need to fill its metaverse jobs?
Keen to ensure it is not one of those incumbents, Facebook is staffing up. In July, it was reported that the company already employs “close to 10,000 people” on its VR and AR-related hardware products alone. And yesterday, the company made specific mention of the metaverse when announcing plans to create 10,000 new jobs in European Union over the next five years.
“Bringing [the metaverse] to life will take collaboration and co-operation across companies, developers, creators and policymakers,” wrote Nick Clegg, the former UK deputy prime minister who is now Facebook VP for global affairs, and Javier Olivan, VP for central products, in a joint blog post. “For Facebook, it will also require continued investment in product and tech talent, as well as growth across the business.”
But what kind of jobs will the metaverse create – and what skills will be needed to fill them? Sol Rogers, global innovation director at immersive technology company Magnopus, says there are three key roles in creating real-time 3D experiences: programmers – typically in the Unity and Unreal game engine platforms; artists, who design 3D environments; and experience designers, who are akin to UX designers.
Ioana Matei, head of emerging and immersive technologies at Procter & Gamble, adds that integrating 3D experiences into the web requires further skills – either in WebGL, an open source platform for creating 3D web experiences, or the engineering skills required to stream Unity or Unreal Engine environments from the cloud.
New commercial skills will also be required to realise the economic potential of the metaverse, adds Charlotte Newton, thematic analyst at GlobalData. “Marketing executives and specialists in cryptocurrencies will also be required to navigate the creation of a virtual economy within the metaverse,” she explains.
Does Europe have the skills to build the metaverse?
Facebook may struggle to fill its new roles skills quickly. “There is a talent drought” in immersive technology, Rogers says.
Demand for real-time 3D graphics skills is especially high. A 2019 analysis of job postings, conducted by Burning Glass and backed by Epic Games, found that demand for real-time 3D rendering skills was “increasing 601% faster than the job market overall”. Outside the US, demand is highest in the UK, followed by Germany. The report predicted that global demand for Unreal Engine skills would grow by 138% in the following ten years, with demand for Unity skills growing 70%.
Europe does have some strengths over other regions, says Matei. Not only is there a strong pipeline of technical skills in the UK, Germany and Eastern Europe, she says, Europe can draw on its theatre tradition to create narrative experiences for 3D environments. "People who write for theatre have these skills," she explains. "Cinema has always been 2D."
Furthermore, Facebook has some time to put its plan in place. "Facebook reckons that building the true metaverse will take another ten to 15 years," says GlobalData's Newton. "They don’t need to be ready now, but they need to train future specialists now. The EU [has] the higher education institutions to do this."
Rogers agrees that while Facebook may poach some of the talent from Europe's nascent immersive technology sector, its long-term commitment allows governments and educational establishments to develop the talent pipeline. Furthermore, he says, the company needs a vibrant independent creative sector to create the content for its platforms. "I see it as a positive," he says.
The commitment will also catalyse the adoption of metaverse-related technologies, says Jeremy Dalton, head of VR/AR at PwC UK, which predicts that they will contribute $1.5bn to the global economy by 2030. "The pull for XR skills, and the investment by organisations in the metaverse, will accelerate interest in what this technology can do for business," says Dalton. "In turn, this will pull non-digital businesses into the market, encouraging them to step up to their peers' investment in this valuable technology."
Many commentators have observed, however, that the announcement may have been timed to distract attention from the numerous scandals which have beset Facebook in recent months, such as the revelations from whistleblower Frances Haugen. "Announcing more jobs will always go down well," says Newton.