The metaverse is set to fundamentally shake up the way we live, work, and play. But what is it? Is it all just hype or really the future?
You’ve likely heard a lot about the metaverse lately. Collins Dictionary shortlisted metaverse among the words of the year in 2021. The same year, Facebook went all in by changing its name to Meta, a sign of its long-term intentions to create a virtual world that will transform our lives. Numerous other technology companies are also investing hugely in the metaverse too — Amazon, Microsoft, NVIDIA, to name a few. These are big names putting their weight (and financial might) behind building the metaverse.
Origins of the metaverse
The term metaverse is not exactly new. It was first coined in the 1992 science-fiction novel Snow Crash written by Neal Stephenson. The novel imagines a virtual world known as the “Metaverse”, in which users are able to interact with each other through their avatars. Written in the early days of the Internet, the author was no doubt envisioning what the Internet would one day become.
The metaverse really came to prominence though back in 2003 when the online multimedia platform Second Life was released. It allows users to create avatars through which they can interact with other users in an online virtual world. Sharing many of the features thought up by Neal Stephenson over ten years prior, Second Life lets users explore, discover, and create an online world where they can socialize, shop, learn.
Yet 20 years ago, the technology and underlying infrastructure was not sufficient to support a truly immersive, large-scale metaverse. Fast-forward to today, and the building blocks needed to create a true metaverse are becoming reality.
What is the metaverse?
There is still much debate about what exactly the metaverse is. That said, most definitions converge on it as a virtual 3D space that bridges the digital and physical worlds, and one in which users can interact with each other.
The most common ways to experience the metaverse will be through virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) headsets and glasses. But the metaverse is not just a fancy name for VR. Just like how the Internet is a network of networks, the metaverse will be a network of 3D worlds. Indeed, some have referred to the metaverse as a 3D model of the Internet.
What will it be like in the metaverse?
If you’ve ever tried on a VR headset or a pair of AR glasses, then you’ve had a peek into what the metaverse will be like. But so far these experiences are limited to very specific scenarios, and immature technology means that the experience can be lackluster. A true metaverse will be able to virtually represent many — if not most — of the features we’re accustomed to in the real world. For example:
Social interactions: While many people might imagine the metaverse as a place where we can interact with others through cartoon-like avatars, the potential the metaverse has to enable social interactions is much, much more than that. Once avatars become nearly indistinguishable from our real selves, we could potentially interact with friends and family just like we’re in the same room. Despite the vastness of the metaverse, it will bring people closer together.Shopping: E-commerce has made shopping more convenient than ever before. With just a few clicks of a mouse or taps on a screen, we can order any product from anywhere in the world. But the experience is still not comparable to physically stepping into a store and trying out the products first hand. This will all change in the metaverse. For example, you will be able to try on different virtual outfits and see yourself in a 3D augmented reality mirror, just as if you were trying the actual clothes on in the store.Tourism: VR is already being widely used for tourism, allowing travelers to virtually visit places that they could not otherwise see. We’ve being doing this in some form for years on Google Earth, visiting random locations anywhere in the world, all with just a click of a mouse. In the metaverse, it may be possible to visit digital twins (virtual replicas) of tourist attractions or even entire cities, transporting yourself anywhere without needing to ever get on a plane.
What tech will power the metaverse?
The metaverse is not going to build itself. To create a truly immersive experience with a real sense of presence, the underlying networks will need to see huge advancements in network latency, symmetrical bandwidth, and overall network speed.
Latency: Current VR and AR applications require very low latency, as higher latency can lead to things like motion sickness that will degrade the experience or even make it unusable. The latency requirements in the metaverse could be orders of magnitude higher still. While local rendering is one way to get around the latency issue in VR and AR, this would not be feasible in the metaverse due to the size and complexity of its virtual worlds. Instead, edge computing will be leveraged, tapping into the computing power of the cloud while keeping latency minimal. Mobile networks, such as 5G, 6G, and beyond, will also need to be built to enable a truly “on-the-go” experience.Symmetrical bandwidth: While most Internet applications, such as streaming videos, require much higher download speeds than upload speeds, users in the metaverse will need to send just as much information as they receive. This would put a huge strain on current networks. Bearer networks will need to be designed with this in mind, and the uplink potential of mobile networks will need to be fully unleashed. Huawei’s Cloud VR bearer network is working toward this goal, providing the infrastructure necessary to get information to users in just a snap of the fingers.Overall network speed: For truly immersive experiences, head-mounted displays will need to provide resolutions even higher than 4K, due to being so close to our eyes. The bandwidth requirement of 8K is over 200 Mbps and, as frame rates and color depth increase, requirements will grow to reach 300 Mbps. Considering that a surge in Netflix demand during the pandemic nearly caused the Internet to collapse in Europe, networks need to undergo major upgrades in order to deliver the speeds necessary for the metaverse.
Defining the metaverse
Indeed, there is more to the metaverse than just the hype — it’s well and truly on its way. Construction of the metaverse has already started, with big-name players investing heavily in it. In another 5–10 years, it might be as tightly intertwined with our daily life as the Internet is today.
Now is the time to define what we want the metaverse to be, so we can start to put in place the necessary infrastructure, standards, and applications. The future is almost here, where our avatars will be able to socialize in an online virtual world full of possibilities and unparalleled experiences.
So, what do you want the metaverse to be?