A simple guide to the immersive future
It’s early days for the metaverse, but CSPs and enterprises should start thinking now about how to harness its potential. We look at what’s possible now and what’s to come.
The metaverse: A 30-year-old idea whose time has come
The metaverse has been exercising our imaginations since Neal Stephenson introduced the concept in his 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash.
Since then, we’ve seen fully-immersive virtual worlds in movies like The Lawnmower Man and Ready Player One, and we’ve seen Robert Downey Jr use AR-style heads-up displays and conjure up holographic digital twins in his role as Iron Man.
The past two decades have seen early versions of the metaverse creep into our real lives, too – from virtual social spaces like Second Life and Habbo Hotel through massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and Fortnite, to mobile AR games like Pokémon GO and Wizards Unite.
What will the future of the metaverse look like?
When thinking about the future of the metaverse, we might imagine a fully immersive, hyper-realistic virtual world that caters to all of our senses. Something like Star Trek’s holodeck, where crew take holidays in artificially-generated worlds that are largely indistinguishable from reality.
But even from our vantage point today, it’s clear that the metaverse isn’t on a single evolutionary path. While some developments are indeed bringing us closer to general-purpose virtual worlds, others have more specific applications – many of them in the world of work and industry.
At Northumbrian Water in the UK, for example, remote experts guide field technicians via AR headsets. Bank of America is using VR for employee training. And in a glimpse of what might one day be common practice, the team tasked with the restoration of Notre Dame in Paris collaborate in a VR version of the fire-gutted cathedral – a digital twin that they can work in, rather than on.
These examples show that some aspects of the metaverse are achievable today, with further developments around the corner. But what might those developments be, when will they arrive, and how can CSPs and enterprises best prepare for them?
Understanding the future evolution of the metaverse
To answer those questions, it helps to have in mind the different components that will contribute to the evolution of the metaverse. The metaverse is a complex concept, combining many technologies to create many different types of user experience, depending on the intended use case. Think of it like a kaleidoscope: the same elements can be shaken up again and again to create an infinite array of different experiences.
While those elements are many, they can be grouped into four key drivers of metaverse evolution and five key attributes of the metaverse user experience.
Let’s look at the four key drivers first
1. Devices: Accessing metaverse experiences
Everyone needs some kind of access device to experience the metaverse. Today, it’s typically headsets for VR experiences, and smartphones, tablets or head-up displays for AR experiences.
As time goes on, devices will become smaller, lighter, and more integrated with our own bodies – the first AR contact lens has just been developed, for example. And while today’s devices present the metaverse as a predominantly visual experience, future devices will cater to more senses – including haptic gloves (and even full bodysuits) for realistic touch sensation.
The pace of evolution on the device side will be driven by advances in multiple areas, including sensors, display resolution, battery life, network latency and compute performance. A lag in any one of these could hold back progress – for a contact lens to project pixel-perfect images onto our retinas, for example, it will need a source of considerable power that won’t cause it to overheat.
2. Applications: Creating metaverse experiences
The application is what we use the metaverse for. On the VR side, today’s applications are mostly games with some social elements, while on the AR side it’s a mix of experiences including games, shopping, infotainment and navigation.
The future will offer as many types of application as there are mobile apps today: from socializing in VR worlds where avatars are rendered as 3D holograms, to exploring parts of our planet without physically going there.
On the industrial side, digital twins may evolve into 3D virtual environments where colleagues in different geographies can collaborate, while AR could help city planners to experiment with placements of pedestrianized areas and cycle lanes to improve the city’s livability.
And while today’s applications are mostly single-purpose, in the future many applications will coexist within the same experience. Dorian Banks of Looking Glass Labs suggests you could order a real pizza from a pop-up restaurant in a VR world, for example.
3. Platforms: Building metaverse experiences
Development platforms and their technologies will have a huge bearing on what kind of metaverse experiences can be built and delivered – and when.
Already today, there are variety of platforms offering different capabilities. Decentraland, for example, allows people and organizations to buy land and build a presence in a 3D world accessed via a PC. Platforms like Spatial.io, meanwhile, enable the building of immersive virtual spaces that can also be accessed via a VR headset.
However, these early platforms need enabling technologies to catch up before they can be used to create truly immersive experiences. The seamless metaverse experiences of the future will rely on advances in many areas, including 3D graphics rendering, simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM), sensors and sensor fusion, blockchain, compute power and high-speed connectivity.
While these technologies are all rapidly advancing, they’re doing so at different rates and are subject to different blockers – making it hard to predict exactly how fast platforms will evolve in the decade to 2030.
4. Connectivity: Powering metaverse experiences
Most of today’s metaverse experiences place similar demands on the network as online gaming. Reliable, high-speed connections are required for seamless gameplay, while occasional downloads of virtual assets require networks that can cope with regular traffic spikes.
As metaverse experiences evolve, however, less content will be downloaded and more will be streamed. AR glasses and VR headsets need to reduce in size and weight to the point where they are easy and comfortable to wear for long periods of time. That means compute and storage capacity must be offloaded from the device and content streamed to it from an external server.
To ensure a glitch-free experience and avoid issues like VR motion sickness, that will require networks with high bandwidth, high capacity and ultra-low latency. For AR use cases, upstream connections will also need to be ultra-fast, to take data from device sensors like GPS and LIDAR, and ensure graphics seamlessly overlay the user’s real surroundings.
Five key attributes of a metaverse user experience
While the future of the metaverse experience will be broadly dictated by the four key drivers we’ve just looked at, the exact nature of the user experience will vary.
We’ve identified five attributes of a metaverse user experience, which are heavily influenced by the device, application, platform and/or connectivity. You could think of each of these as existing on a sliding scale, from a basic to a full metaverse experience.
Persistence: This relates to the metaverse’s ability to remember a user and their environment from one session to the next, and is strongly determined by the nature of the metaverse platform. A basic platform doesn’t store any information about the user, so they start afresh each time. At the other end of the scale, the in-world version of the user, with all of its attributes and relationships, is fully persistent.
Openness: This is also determined by the platform, and relates to the extent to which the metaverse is accessible to different providers – whether of technology, content, or services. At its most basic, the metaverse is a centralized, walled garden environment delivered by just one provider. At its fullest, a user can transfer any asset (such as their avatar, NFTs, skin or tokens) easily between different platforms, with no central or intermediate authority restricting asset transfer.
Immersivity: This is about the degree of digital-physical fusion offered by the metaverse experience. A basic experience might be something like a car’s navigation overlay, which barely alters the real world the driver is seeing and operating in. At the other end of the scale, a VR headset worn with a bodysuit might fully immerse the user’s body into a digital environment where hyper-realistic virtual assets are experienced through multiple senses, just like real-world objects. This attribute is influenced by a combination of device, platform, and connectivity.
Mobility: This is the extent to which the user can move around in the real world while using the metaverse. At the basic end of the scale, the user has to sit or stand in one spot, as is the case with most VR-based experiences today. At the top end, they can move around freely, both inside and outside. Technologically, this will be determined by devices and connectivity, but there may also be legal blockers. It may never be deemed safe to enter a fully immersive metaverse outside of legally-prescribed spaces, for example.
Interactivity: This last attribute is the ability to interact, collaborate or socialize with other users and things in the metaverse. This will be determined mostly by the device and platform, but to a lesser extent also the connectivity. In a basic metaverse experience the user has no option to connect or interact with others, while the richest experiences offer unlimited interaction between participants using multiple senses.
All five of these factors will evolve at different rates, encountering barriers and enablers along the way. The ultra-low latency required for some AR use cases, for example, won’t be achievable with mobile networks until the rollout of 5G-Advanced, in or after 2025. There will also be regulatory roadblocks as we grapple with issues of data privacy and online safety, among other areas.
Start preparing now for the metaverse to come
But regardless of how exactly it evolves, one thing is certain. The early metaverse is here now, and is already driving new applications and experiences – in business as well as in the consumer sphere.
For CSPs and businesses keen to capitalize on its opportunities, it’s time to get prepared. That means understanding the capabilities of the metaverse, following them as they develop, and starting to incorporate the metaverse into business planning.
For CSPs and enterprise network owners, it also means readying networks today for the metaverse evolutions to come. And it may even mean starting to think now about business models and partnerships to bring in-demand metaverse experiences to market.