Guest Post: Into the metaverse – Challenges and solutions for tomorrow’s digital infrastructure

May 1, 2023

Written by 6GWorld Contributor

By Ivo Ivanov, CEO and Chair of the Board of the Internet Exchange operator DE-CIX

The hype around the metaverse is rapidly approaching boiling point. Last year, internet searches for the term skyrocketed by more than 7,000%, and McKinsey research suggests that this new iteration of the internet has the potential to generate $5 trillion USD in value in the next decade.

In less than a generation, we’ve moved from dial-up modems and slow-loading JPEGs, to high-speed connectivity, ultra-high-definition streaming, and virtual and augmented reality experiences. The next logical step is the metaverse, a fully immersive internet experience that offers real-time interactivity and user agency on par with something that, until recently, we may have only read about in science fiction novels. This transformation is coming, but is our current digital infrastructure enough to meet the demands of this new reality?

While the internet is one of the greatest achievements and largest infrastructure projects in human history, comprising some 40,000 networks, there’s a growing concern that this “network of networks” might not be sufficient enough to support our digital future. We’re standing on the threshold of a new immersive digital age, and while our minds race with endless possibilities, the foundational infrastructure is yet to be built. What technical requirements are needed to guarantee an excellent user experience? Are our data paths efficient enough to traffic the sheer amount of data needed to realize some of the use cases we’ve come to expect? These are the questions we should be asking, and this article will attempt to answer some of them.

We can’t afford to be late

If we are to realize the potential of the metaverse, we need to start building now for the projects of tomorrow. Just as our investment in infrastructure needs to be rapid and timely, so too does the transfer of data. Data packets will need to travel at high speeds with low round-trip times, not only between the user and the network, but between countless networks themselves. No business will offer a fully realized and comprehensive metaverse experience on its own. Rather, it will be a combination of business partnerships combining their resources and services to deliver on user expectations and provide well-rounded user experiences. So, traffic will need to move from user to network, network to user, and potentially between networks themselves with the absolute minimum of friction.

Today, a maximum latency of 35 milliseconds is regarded as sufficient for a quality user experience, but as the ways we engage with technology change – whether visual, auditory, or even haptic – the latency requirements of applications become more demanding. These are problems we’re seeing now, so as career forward into the metaverse, we’ll need to think very carefully about latency, aiming to get it down to the single-digit millisecond range if we’re to stand any chance of making it a smooth experience for users. The term “cybersickness” might sound like something plucked from the script of The Matrix, but it’s a very real possibility that users will feel uneasy if they’re immersed in a virtual environment riddled with delays that make their reactions and interactions feel unnatural. This could make or break the metaverse.

An infrastructure fit for the metaverse

For immersive experiences to be truly immersive, they need to be instantaneous and seamless. We’ve already touched on how any delay in data transmission can completely break the illusion and take the user out of the experience. To achieve this, we need networks that can support ultra-low latency, which requires not only investment in infrastructure but also the development of new technologies that can reduce processing times and data transfer speeds. What’s perhaps more critical, however, is the challenge of interoperability. As the metaverse grows, it will be essential that different platforms, systems, and networks can seamlessly come together. This is where interconnection comes into play.

Interconnection refers to the process of connecting different networks together in order to allow them to communicate more efficiently with each other. This is typically done through Internet Exchanges (IX) – physical locations where different Internet Service Providers (ISPs), content providers, and other network operators can exchange traffic directly with each other rather than routing it through a third-party network.

IXs will play an increasingly critical role in supporting the development of the metaverse, facilitating the demand for high-speed, low-latency connectivity on which the technology will need to thrive and scale. Because an IX offers a way for networks to peer directly with one another, what businesses are able to achieve on those networks will be immeasurably improved, bringing a better quality of service to end users through the elimination of network congestion, packet loss, and other performance-impacting issues. Another key benefit to IX technology is the ability to scale – as we migrate into the metaverse our data usage will soar, creating a need for broader and more efficient data streams. This will require far more efficient use of network resources, which IX solutions can facilitate. Moving forward, as the metaverse takes hold, we’re likely to see software-defined internet exchanges (SD-IX) emerge, which will allow for more flexible and dynamic use of network resources, as well as the use of virtualized networks, to create a more hospitable environment for the metaverse and its many use cases.

The metaverse is coming, but before we immerse ourselves in the virtual world we need to re-evaluate our digital infrastructure to make sure that our initial experiences of the metaverse live up to its true potential.

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