Facebook wants to be a metaverse company, Epic Games wants to be a metaverse company, most of the world’s biggest tech companies want a piece of the action. But before we can even think about life in a massive virtual universe, we are going to need a huge upgrade to internet networks and technology “cheats”, according to one expert.
The metaverse is a much talked about concept that is gradually creeping towards reality. Definitions of the metaverse vary, but most agree it will be a massive virtual world where millions of people – or their avatars – will interact in real time. The metaverse will have its own economy, will span the physical and virtual worlds, and will be available to everyone at any time.
In 20 years’ time, you might go to work in the metaverse. Instead of driving to your nearest arena, you might attend a rock concert in the metaverse, in a virtual stadium with thousands of other fans. You might walk into an Amazon store in the mall, put on a pair of AR glasses, and be able to see any of the millions of different items it has in stock in a virtual store.
The major tech firms are already starting to build ‘proto-metaverse’ projects. Facebook’s recently released Horizon Workrooms, for instance, creates a virtual office, where you can interact with colleagues, collaborate on work and see what your co-workers are doing on their screens. This is no futuristic concept: it’s available today, if you and your team have the right virtual reality headsets.
Epic’s Fortnite is pressing ahead with metaverse-like entertainment, such as the Ariana Grande concert that took place in the game earlier this year, just the latest in a series of gigs that have been attended virtually by tens of millions of people worldwide.
But these proto-metaverse projects are silos. You can’t leave work in a Facebook Workroom and head straight to an Ariana Grande gig in Fortnite. The metaverse isn’t yet joined up. To achieve that, we’re going to need to rethink the entire infrastructure of the internet.
Networks on the scale we’ve never seen before
Jerry Heinz is the co-founder of Ball Metaverse Research Partners, a company that is doing an enormous amount of research into the metaverse and what it will take to get us there.
Heinz believes that even today’s massive data centers and increasingly fast broadband networks aren’t going to cope with the demands of the metaverse. “I think the biggest challenges that are ahead of us are really at the foundational level,” he told the SamKnows Podcast.
“You need highly concurrent, highly persistent experiences that are on a scale and magnitude that we haven’t really yet seen before. At a network level, it’s funny, but it’s the same problems that we’ve faced throughout all of networking history. It really boils down to our old friends latency, bandwidth and reliability.”
Imagine a virtual universe where every facial movement, every gesture, every movement of the lips has to be replicated in real time to make your avatar look convincing. Simply carrying that sheer weight of data at speeds fast enough to avoid lag is going to require new networking infrastructure, new protocols and standards, according to Heinz.
“If you’re interacting in real life, obviously there’s zero lag whatsoever,” he said. “When you’re operating over a computer network, you have laws of physics that you have to adhere to. And it’s not a Twitch game we’re talking about, it’s an ultra-low latency experience because there’s that feeling of realism you’re looking for. With even just the slightest perception of latency, it just doesn’t feel real – something feels off.”
Latency is less of a problem on fixed-line fiber networks, but on mobile, even 5G connections show great variations in latency. SamKnows measures mobile broadband performance in many countries and its figures show latency on 5G networks can rise to hundreds of milliseconds in the worst-case scenarios, something that would ruin a metaverse experience.
“The network itself and the protocols that need to get developed we’ll have to keep that [low latency] in mind,” said Heinz, adding that latency “hasn’t been the primary focus” in the development of the internet to date.
Finding new cheats
In the same way that today’s broadband networks use content delivery networks (CDNs) to push, say, Netflix movies closer to the end user, ensuring the data has less distance to travel, the metaverse will require similar ‘cheats’ to make sure the user experience isn’t spoiled.
Games such as Fortnite “actually predict to some degree” where the player is going to move next, said Heinz, meaning that Epic Games can “add just a little bit of latency into the experience and not ruin it”.
Similar techniques will need to be developed for the metaverse. “We will need to invent cheats there to… reduce latency and build the experience.”
How long will it take?
The massive infrastructure changes required mean we’re not going to be running a full-scale metaverse anytime soon. Mark Zuckerberg has talked about Facebook becoming known as a metaverse company within the next five years, but Heinz believes that timescale is ambitious.
“We need visionaries to direct this,” he said. “I would love to see Facebook and Mark drive Facebook in that direction, especially just within five years. It’s going to take that bold vision of leaders, especially in the infrastructure and content-production side, to really drive this forward, but if they believe in it, then amazing things can happen.”