On October 28th this year Facebook’s CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg officially made public the company’s intentions to create its version of the metaverse, Horizon. Some days later, Microsoft announced it was bringing 3D avatars into Teams. And Decentraland’s cryptocurrency grew 45% in 24 hours with so many moves in the metaverse field.
Yes, everybody’s talking about the metaverse. And while it will take time to become anything similar to Ready Player One, if at all, 6GWorld asks the question: what is technically needed to make the metaverse possible in its full potential?
What Is the Metaverse?
There is no single answer for that. The term was coined by Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash (1992) and it was envisioned as a parallel environment to the internet, where people would use avatars to interact with each other.
In a basic way, that’s the same idea behind Facebook’s metaverse. So much so that Stephenson even went online to clarify he was not involved in the project.
“Since there seems to be growing confusion on this: I have nothing to do with anything that Facebook is up to involving the Metaverse, other than the obvious fact that they’re using a term I coined in Snow Crash. There has been zero communication between me and Facebook and no business relationship,” he posted.
Parallel universes where people interact with each other are not exactly a new thing. Platforms like Habbo Hotel (launched in 2000) and Second Life (2003) already developed a virtual world where avatars could run as free as the technology made possible at that time. Then massive online gaming, augmented and virtual reality became more mainstream, and the term “metaverse” started to gain even more traction.
Today, initiatives like Decentraland aim to create a decentralised world where users are also co-creators. They can build houses, attractions, neighbourhoods. And, yes, they can use cryptocurrency to make financial transactions like buying virtual land or digital artwork through NFT.
And now Facebook – or Meta, the company’s new name – has entered the game, with a billionaire investment in a virtual world where you can rest, work or hang out with your friends. And be immersed into Facebook’s environment.
In summary, there is not a single metaverse today, there are many. However, as of now they are just in the first stages of development. Immersive, real-time 3D interaction in a whole different and virtual universe co-created by its users is still a scenario that today’s technology can’t deal with.
A recent article reviewed relevant literature about the metaverse and outlined 14 areas that need to align for it to exist. They fall under two main categories: ecosystem (an independent and meta-sized virtual world, mirroring the real one) and technology (the components required to technically enable the ecosystem).
Here are three of the technical aspects which the advancement of 5G and 6G can help enable, and the obstacles they pose to making the metaverse a “real” experience.
Low Latency. Very Low Latency
According to the researchers who authored the study, a low latency environment is fundamental for users to feel immersed in the metaverse to the same level as they would in the real world. This is especially true of motion to photon (MTP) latency – that is, the time it takes for the user’s action to be reflected on the display screen.
“Researchers have found that MTP latency needs to be below the human perceptible limit to allow users to interact with holographic augmentations seamlessly and directly. For instance, in the registration process of AR, large latency often results in virtual objects lagging behind the intended position, which may cause sickness and dizziness,” the article reads.
While the current cloud distribution can deliver network latency of less than 100ms, networks need to meet a 20ms threshold to avoid the user feeling sickness. Only 24 out of 184 countries meet this criterion over wired connections, and only in China it is possible to achieve it wirelessly, according to a recent study.
That’s why the researchers say that edge computing is the most promising approach to enable those very low latency standards required to make immersive experiences possible, especially for mobile connectivity.
“Currently, last mile access is still the latency bottleneck in LTE networks. With the development of 5G (promising down to 1 ms last mile latency) and future 6G, Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) is expected to boost metaverse user experience by providing standard and universal edge offloading services one-hop away from the cellular-connected user devices,” the article explained.
“With the advancing 5G and 6G technologies, the last mile latency will get further reduced. Hence, MEC is promising to improve its benefit on the universal metaverse experience.”
Haptics and Presence
“You’re going to really feel like you’re there with other people,” Zuckerberg said during his keynote introducing Facebook’s metaverse. “You’ll see their facial expressions. You’ll see their body language. Maybe figure out if they’re actually holding a winning hand. All the subtle ways that we communicate that today’s technology can’t quite deliver.”
Zuckerberg himself acknowledged, though, that this dystopian future is “still a ways off,” and for a good reason: today’s technology just can’t handle the computational power required for such a heavy data flow.
“The network requirements of delivering haptic stimuli would be another key challenge [for the metaverse],” the study points out.
“The existing 4G communication technologies can barely support AR and VR applications. […] Although 5G networks feature low latency, low jitter, and high bandwidth, haptic mobile devices, considered as a type of machine-type communication, may not be able to support large-scale user interactivity.”
The Internet of Things
With the number of connected machines expected to reach 26.4 billion by 2026, IoT is also featured as a promising field for the metaverse.
“Many observers believe that integrating IoT and AR/VR/MR may be suitable for multi-modal interaction systems to achieve compelling user experiences, especially for non-expert users. The reason is that it allows interaction systems to combine the real-world context of the agent and immersive AR content,” the study reads.
Some initiatives and projects are already testing the intersection between physical IoT and digital worlds.
A group of researchers from the Tohoko University, in Japan, created an interface using AR to facilitate drone positioning and programming, enabling multiple users to control the flying machine remotely.
Another idea comes from Hyundai. In September 2021, the vehicle manufacturer announced the launch of Hyundai Mobility Adventure, a metaverse space on gaming platform Roblox featuring Hyundai Motor’s advanced products and future mobility solutions.
“Hyundai Mobility Adventure is a collectively shared virtual space in which various users can meet and communicate with one another and experience Hyundai Motor’s mobility offerings in the form of avatars, digital characters representing the participating players. Operating on a metaverse platform, it allows participants to customize their avatars to their preferences and interact with each other in imaginative ways,” the company said in a statement.
Journalist since eight years old, when I would read the newspaper out loud and pretend it was a radio show. Based in São Paulo, I have worked for Brazilian websites as reporter and editor before joining 6GWorld