Into the metaverse: How the evolution of VR and AR will impact the network
Seamless metaverse experiences rely on outstanding connectivity and hinge on the exponential potential of networks. We look at what CSPs can expect – and how to prepare.
It’s March 2030, and Metaverse Fashion Week is getting underway. Across the world, buyers and creatives wearing AR glasses and sensor-studded bodysuits are ready to network with the great and good of the global fashion industry. They’re eager to discover the latest digital apparel from the top luxury brands and excited at the chance to see Prince play his first concert as a hyper-real hologram.
As their real surroundings morph into the grand courtyard of a Florentine palazzo, it feels just like being there in person. Music pulses, a light show plays, and groups of avatars gather to chat. No one is fazed by the lions weaving among the guests, even though their fur feels real to the touch.
It might sound futuristic, but Metaverse Fashion Week is already a thing: the first one was held in March 2022. But as an experience, it’s not quite there yet. In its post-show report, Vogue Business noted that “the experience was often compromised by glitches, including massive delays or events turning into black screens of code, that made it challenging at times to experience planned events.”
Networks are critical to the metaverse experience
The lags and glitchiness highlight an inescapable fact about the metaverse. Its success will ultimately rest on the quality of the networks over which its experiences will be streamed.
Today, virtual reality (VR) experiences are only really accessible over high-speed fixed networks, limiting them to home or workplace use. Even then, latency issues can cause glitches, nausea and headaches.
Meanwhile, augmented reality (AR) is tied to the performance of mobile networks. While 4G is fine for simple applications like Pokémon GO, for AR to fulfill its potential as a seamless overlay on the world around us, it will need the kind of high capacity, high bandwidth and ultra-low latency that we will only really start to see when 5G-Advanced networks begin to roll out around 2025.
Nishant Batra, Chief Strategy and Technology Officer at Nokia, believes the ultimate form of the metaverse will be a world that combines VR, AR and other technologies to “immerse a human into a cyber-physical confluence.” Rather than removing us from reality, as VR experiences do today, it will become part of everyday life - an always-on extended reality (XR) that blends the physical, digital and virtual. “Through extended reality,” Batra says, “we can bring the metaverse wherever we go.”
Fixed and mobile networks will have to evolve for the metaverse to reach that point. But with so much uncertainty around how – and how fast – the metaverse will develop, how can CSPs plan for it today?
What we know about how the metaverse will evolve
Planning for the metaverse means starting with what we know. Early iterations of it are here today, offering pointers to its future direction and highlighting the technological and regulatory barriers that will need to be overcome. In a previous article, we looked at the four main drivers of a metaverse experience: applications, platforms, access devices, and networks. The way each of these drivers evolves will strongly influence the speed of evolution of the metaverse as a whole.
Take Metaverse Fashion Week. Last year – and this year, too – the application was a virtual world, the platform was Decentraland, the intended access device was a PC, and participants accessed it primarily using high-speed home or office Wi-Fi. The current capabilities of those enablers placed limitations on the user experience. “Newcomers attending on desktops with limited hardware could feel slightly deflated,” said one participant. Others noted that “the graphics were rudimentary.”
In our imagined Metaverse Fashion Week of 2030, the application is built on a platform that does not yet exist – although platforms like Decentraland and spatial.io are showing the way. Rather than a desktop virtual world or VR experience, this application is integrated with each participant’s real world, with hyper-realistic 3D graphics overlaying their real surroundings.
The access device combines smart glasses or contact lenses, earpieces, and haptic gloves or bodysuits. As they move through their own physical environment, the Fashion Week world around them constantly updates, as does their avatar within the world. They can interact with avatars of other participants, feel textures, move objects, and buy items with cryptocurrency.
The entire experience is made possible by ubiquitous high-speed networks, providing ultra-low latency for seamless streaming of hyper-realistic 3D graphics. Those graphics are rendered in the cloud or edge data centers, offloading compute power from the access devices and allowing them to become small and light enough to be worn comfortably and unobtrusively for long periods.
Metaverse impact on network traffic over the next two years
“The metaverse is already generating a lot of traffic,” calculates STL Partners in a recent report titled Metaverse and VR to drive traffic growth. This is based on a “loose definition” centered on gaming and virtual worlds that have nothing to do with VR. And once you throw more common VR experiences into the mix, the impact of the metaverse on IP traffic over the next two years looks set to escalate.
STL Partners – which was careful to keep its analysis short-term “as there as there are too many uncertainties” – conservatively estimates that VR gaming will rise to 21% in 2025. More bullishly, it believes that education, training and design use cases for VR will be used by 25% of the U.S. population at least once a month in the same year. While in the medium and longer term, it anticipates that live concerts and sports events, along with some movies and documentaries, will all commonly be consumed in VR and impact network traffic.
STL Partners are not alone in these assumptions. A comprehensive Credit Suisse report, Metaverse: A guide to the Next-Gen internet suggested that again, “based on modest metaverse assumptions, data usage could easily expand more than 20x during this decade.” Yet this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Because once we start looking beyond conservative – calculable – estimations, the future of technological pick-up is unpredictable.
IP traffic in the US
A killer app could change everything
Back in 2020, internet usage shot up to unprecedented levels, with some networks experiencing a year’s worth of traffic growth in just a few weeks. There was no way anyone could know this was coming. And it was a step change for CSPs who suddenly had to deliver unmatched bandwidth and optimize their networks to ensure resiliency, avoid congestion, and prioritize critical connectivity traffic.
Based on current estimates – and in its most basic iteration – the metaverse is already increasing traffic on the network. But developments over the next couple of years could see this increase exponentially.
One development could be the emergence of a new device that spurs people to spend more time-consuming metaverse experiences, like a lighter and higher-resolution VR headset or affordable AR glasses. A launch at the right price point could have the same disruptive impact on the metaverse as the launch of the iPhone on the mobile internet.
Another might be a killer application that propels metaverse experiences into mainstream use – just as the launch of Pokémon GO did for smartphone AR. Or the developments could be on the platform side, with advances in 3D graphics rendering and streaming or the opportunity to create and monetize user-generated metaverse content.
3 metaverse trends to watch
Devices: Watch for new devices that make metaverse experiences easier, cheaper, or more enriching to experience. Advances in smart glasses and heads-up displays could be particularly game-changing.
Applications: Watch for emerging applications that make the metaverse more compelling, such as co-creation opportunities, monetization of user-generated content, or new social experiences.
Platforms: Watch for new platforms that make it easier to develop and deliver metaverse applications and content – especially for mixed reality (MR) and extended reality (XR) experiences.
Enterprise use cases will drive further metaverse adoption
And that’s only considering consumer adoption. Enterprise metaverse use cases may also drive aggressive or disruptive traffic growth for fixed and wireless networks. Our 2022 research conducted jointly with Gartner Peer Insights (GPI) showed that by last year, enterprises were already considering a range of practical applications for the metaverse.
Some of those use cases will be applicable across industries, like training, collaboration, and remote sales. ABB is one company exploring use cases for VR, including user product training, where it would be costly for trainers to travel to customer sites or to fly users to a central training location. It’s also looking at using VR to demo large products like electrical transformers to prospective customers and collaborate with them over potential customization without anyone having to travel.
Top five enterprise use cases
We’re taking a similar approach at Nokia, using our Learning Space VR environment to deliver hands-on training in installing Nokia equipment to employees, partners and customers. Gilberto Serra, Head of Digitalization at Nokia People Services, whose team developed the Learning Space, believes the pandemic was an inflection point. “Before the pandemic, everyone thought our team was doing something a bit strange,” he says. “Then we were forced to work in front of a screen for two years, and that’s boosted a mindset change.”
AR is starting to prove its worth in the enterprise, too. Metaverse platform company Holo-Light boasts a growing array of enterprise customers for its XR streaming platform, ranging from automotive manufacturers using AR to visualize airflow over a vehicle design to hospitals using AR glasses and 3D medical imaging to help clinicians plan complex surgical operations.
In the future, Nokia’s Nishant Batra envisages a scenario where a city planner could walk on streets using glasses with XR overlay to assess how changes to traffic lights might impact traffic flow. This could feed into a digital twin in which colleagues from different municipal departments could collaborate to design a more livable city.
Use cases like that will start to become possible from 2025 with 5G-Advanced, he says, but the metaverse’s full potential for the enterprise will only be realized when the 6G era begins in 2030.
Start preparing now for metaverse traffic growth
Although we can’t predict precisely how the metaverse will evolve, CSPs should be ready for disruptive developments that greatly accelerate adoption, with a corresponding impact on network traffic.
On the mobile side, 5G will soon be table stakes: good enough for many AR experiences but not enough to propel us forward into the world of high-definition, go-anywhere XR streaming. CSPs that want to get ahead of the curve should start planning now for 5G-Advanced and beyond.
In fixed networks, near-term considerations will include increased demand for fiber to the curb and improved Wi-Fi – especially for multi-device households where low latency, high-definition streaming will be essential for video consumption, cloud gaming, and VR experiences. The availability of fiber infrastructure will allow us to cope with the forecasted demand, enabling household access greater than 1Gbit/s with GPON technology. Beyond 2025, fiber networks will evolve to 50G PON and 100G PON providing vastly increased capacity and bandwidth.
As metaverse use cases take off in the enterprise, CSPs should be ready to meet the growing demand for private wireless networks and 5G network slicing, as well as looking to join or lead ecosystems to deliver metaverse platforms and applications.
While the immersive XR metaverse of 2030 may seem a long way off, the groundwork that will get us there is being laid now – and networks are a vital component. CSPs that start planning now for metaverse traffic growth won’t just be ready when it happens but will also stand to gain the most from the opportunities it presents.
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