Deeper Dive: The Metaverse: Episode 2 – When will it arrive?

This is again a text version and fairly lengthy summary of the podcast as opposed to a transcript. I (Jim Love) have edited it but it was created by Doug Sparkes PhD and me.  It draws heavily on the work of Matthew Ball.  Ball, for those who do not know him, has written extensively on the metaverse and is one of the undisputed experts on the topic. 

Some will say that we have years and maybe even decades of development before we have a functioning metaverse. Others might say it’s already here. To some extent, they may both be right. 

Which brings us to the work of Matthew Ball.  Ball has written one of the best “blueprint” documents on the metaverse, that he calls the “Metaverse Primer.”

Without hype and with astonishing clarity, Ball makes the case for just how significant the metaverse will be.  He compares it to transformative technology – one example being the electrification of our world.

Electrification happened over decades, but it truly transformed every aspect of our lives.  Ball’s essay on this is long and involved, but well worth reading for anyone who wants to understand how technology has transformed our world.  That transformation took almost a century so it’s possible to analyze each step in great detail.

But it really drives home his point.

“We can identify when a specific technology was created, tested, or deployed, but not when an era precisely occurred.”

For a more modern example, Ball looks at another transformation – one that happened much more rapidly and one most of us lived through – the mobile internet.

In fact, Ball makes the case that the metaverse “is best understood as ‘a quasi-successor state to the mobile internet’. This is because the Metaverse will not fundamentally replace the internet, but instead build upon and iteratively transform it.”

He goes on to make the case that “the mobile internet did not change the underlying architecture of the internet” – “the vast majority of internet traffic today, is still transmitted through and managed by fixed infrastructure”  – we still recognize it as iteratively different”.

Ball says, “This is because the mobile internet has led to changes in how we access the internet, where, when and why, as well as the devices we use, the companies we buy from, the products and services we buy, the technologies we use, our culture, our business model, and our politics.

But when did the “mobile era” truly begin?  Was it with the BlackBerry? It had a huge impact but on a relatively small segment of the population. Was it the iPhone? Again it was extraordinary, but was that the dawn of the new era?

It wasn’t really until all of the apps, all of the technological advancements and you could even argue – not until we had 3G or even 4G networks before the true mobile era began.  A lot of different technological developments have to happen before we can say that an “era” has begun.

It’s likely, that as with any other era, we may not recognize it has arrived until we are well into that new era.

But we can reach into the future and imagine what it would take for us to be truly in the era of the metaverse.  Ball gives us such a definition:

“The Metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”

When will if fully arrive?  Again, if we take Ball as an authority, his prediction is that “the full vision of the Metaverse is decades away. It requires extraordinary technical advancements (we are far from being able to produce shared, persistent simulations that millions of users synchronized in real-time), and perhaps regulatory involvement too. In addition, it will require overhauls in business policies, and changes to consumer behavior.”

But the most interesting thing in Ball’s Primer may be what the metaverse is NOT:

He says,“most commonly, the Metaverse is mis-described as virtual reality. In truth, virtual reality is merely a way to experience the Metaverse. To say VR is the Metaverse is like saying the mobile internet is an app. As a corollary to the above, VR headsets aren’t the Metaverse any more than smartphones are the mobile internet.”

Neither is it only “a user-generated virtual world or virtual world platform”.  Ball says,  “this is like saying the internet is Facebook or Geocities. Facebook is a UGC-focused social network on the internet, while Geocities made it easy to create webpages that lived on the internet. UGC experiences are just one of many experiences on the internet.”

And it isn’t a video game. Yes, we will play games in the Metaverse, but those are games in the Metaverse, not the Metaverse itself.

Lastly, the Metaverse isn’t tools like Unreal or Unity or WebXR or WebGPU. This is like saying the internet is TCP/IP, HTTP, or web browser. These are protocols upon which the internet depends, and the software used to render it.

The metaverse is not one development.   It’s when these things come together to create virtual worlds, persistent experiences that change behaviour, culture and world view on a massive scale. For us to get there, requires developments in a number of areas:

  • Hardware
  • Networking
  • Compute
  • Virtual Platforms
  • Interchange Tools and Standards
  • Metaverse Content Services and Assets
  • User Behaviours

To answer the question – when does the era of the metaverse truly begin, you have to look at the maturity of all of these components.

A lot of what Ball is talking about is possible given the hardware of today.  But it would be a big mistake to think that with mobile devices and VR headsets that we almost there?

Even if you could convince everyone to wear a headset – and that’s a point of contention with many, there would still be challenges with our current technology.

Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life made it his mission to come back to develop a metaverse that doesn’t require VR headsets.  Cook at Apple has basically said the same thing.

But even even if you COULD get past the resistance.  There are still technical issues.  We’ll talk about latency later but just the hardware challenges alone are incredible.

Humans can see on average a range of 210 degrees. Stare straight ahead and picture a circle around you.  Now we all know what 90 degrees is – so that would be a straight line going through your waist – or if you held your arms extended out from your side.  That’s 180 degrees.  Now push your arms, keeping them straight as far back as you can.  And unless you are a yoga guru you still haven’t reached the peripheral vision range of 210 degrees.

The average headset – even the high end can cope with a maximum of 52 degrees. That causes real problems for people.  So before we can have a truly immersive world we have to solve this technical issue.

Which is why the headset isn’t a slam dunk.  In fact, even Zuckerberg, who has bet the farm on virtual reality, acknowledges that making a wearable headset that is comfortable enough is a huge technical challenge.  Power, computing power – optics.

We aren’t even certain that these VR goggles will be the ultimate winners. Apple is working on their own augmented reality glasses – and that has proven to be a challenge even to get a first version out.  And Google got burned with its first release of Google Glass

But we shouldn’t count Google out of this.  They bought North – a Waterloo startup in 2020 and proceeded to take their current glasses off the market.  But Google also has “Google Booth” a 3D life sized calling booth.

This might be “version 1 of the holodeck in Star Trek” but there’s still a lot to do to make this a reality.

Networks

Finally, we are going to need phenomenal bandwidth. 5G isn’t enough. We will need a minimum of 5G speeds not just in specific locations but everywhere. These virtual worlds consume bandwidth.  Ball points out that Microsoft Flight Simulator requires over 2.5 petabytes of data – 2,500,000 gigabytes.

In games, there are tricks that you can use to fool the users but a huge metaverse has different challenges.  If we use “flight simulator” as an example of a virtual world what is required when we are all flying the same plane? How much data is used and sent if 10,000 people want to fly a plane?  Or what if a million do?

Finally, it’s not just raw speed or computing power, there’s also latency. We looked at this in our Deeper Dive into 5G.

Latency is the time it takes for signals to go back and forth.  It’s a huge problem today.  If you are watching a video you won’t be disturbed if the video and audio are out of synch by 45 milliseconds early or 125 milliseconds late. That’s still less than the “blink of an eye” – the average blink is 400 milliseconds – 4 to 8 times faster.

Even if we get perfect 5G everywhere, or full fibre to the home there’s still the physics —  If you go across North America, east coast to west coast – Halifax to Vancouver, New York to Los Angeles, there’s about 65 milliseconds that you have to deal with. Forget about network congestion, rerouting, inefficient networks, the challenge is real.

To do this in multiple virtual worlds and experiences is beyond the networks and even the computing power we have today.   Even if we replace all the copper in the world with fibre and perfect 5G, we still will have a computing challenge that will make cryptocurrency mining seem like a walk in the park.

Another of the issues with virtual worlds – how to make them persistent, have currencies and be able to be “owned” as unique properties is supplied by another energy and processing hog – blockchain.

Lastly, there is the challenge of interchangeability and standards. This could be solved by having one metaverse provider, but that is extremely unlikely.

To recap:

The metaverse isn’t a thing.  It’s really a “era” – like the electricity era or the mobile internet.

It does consist of massive 3D worlds that are synchronous and persistent.  It must accommodate unlimited users and offer a continuous and consistent experience.

We have solved some of the technology changes, but if there’s a comparison, we are at the level of pong or simple video games versus the 3D games of today.  There are real challenges to get us to the point where we will really feel the true impact.  And these are huge challenges.

There are a wide range of elements that must be developed and perfected before they can converge to truly bring us to the era of the metaverse – because it’s not one component.  It’s not:

  • VR any more than the mobile internet is a app – and the idea of virtual versus augmented reality isn’t a done deal yet
  • A game or games – even if we do play games
  • The tools that create it

And with what might be bad news for Mark Zuckerberg, it’s unlikely to be a single, dominant virtual world

That’s the content of episode two in a nutshell.  In episode three, we’ll look at the “map of the metaverse.”  Where are we now and what might we grow to become?

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Jim Love
Jim Lovehttp://www.changethegame.ca
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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