In the not too distant future...
You look across the company boardroom, smile at the bullish sales executive who has just drawn another zero on the sales targets you’re presenting for the following year, and beckon to your financial director to take the floor for her section of the presentation. You’re trying to pay attention to the charts, which are refreshed with live data as she speaks, but your mind wanders to the gig you and your husband are attending that evening. Ten thousand people in a concert hall with gorgeous acoustics and an unplugged set from Calvin Harris, who must be pushing 60 by now, but has just embarked on a 200-night tour – a tour for which he never has to leave his studio.
The office, the concert hall, pretty much your entire professional and social life is all taking place in the metaverse – a persistent, virtual space where we each have our own presence. Companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, Fortnite-maker Epic Games and others, are scoping out what the metaverse might look like, hoping that they’ll be the first to plant their flag in this new territory. If the metaverse becomes the next-generation internet, a space where the majority of the world’s population congregates, the rewards for the early pioneers could be as massive as they were for Google, Amazon and the early internet innovators.
However, experts believe that if the metaverse is to be the next big thing, it cannot be controlled or dominated by a single company. Much like the internet, the metaverse must be a shared space that, according to Matthew Ball
– creator of The Ball Metaverse Index, which ranks “the companies that are building the next version of the internet” – offers unprecedented interoperability. Facebook must work seamlessly with Google, not build separate silos. A dress designed in The Sims, for example, must also be available to wear in Roblox, or be giftable to friends on Etsy.
We’re going to explore what the metaverse might look like: what the early pioneers are proposing to bring to this uncharted virtual universe. We’re also going to examine the networking infrastructure that the metaverse will need, and ask whether the technology even exists to create this new space.
If the metaverse is to be the next big thing, it cannot be controlled
or dominated by a single company – it must be a shared space
Defining the metaverse
Trying to define the metaverse is like trying to define fine art – everyone has a different idea of what it should be.
Any article on the metaverse is duty bound to credit Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash, in which the term was first coined. Snow Crash depicts a virtual reality-based world where humans are represented as avatars. Hiro Protagonist (yes, that’s the character’s name, not a typo) is a pizza delivery boy in real life, but a warrior prince in the metaverse, unlocking the notion that people can be whatever they want to be in a virtual environment.
The precise ingredients of the metaverse aren’t nailed down, but most agree that it comprises a shared 3D space, with elements of virtual worlds, virtual reality and internet technology blended into the mix. It’s a space that exists beyond today’s internet – you’re not going to access the metaverse via the Google Chrome browser – but which remains intrinsically linked.
Matthew Ball’s brilliant metaverse primer defines the metaverse as a persistent, synchronous space with no cap on the number of concurrent users, a fully functioning economy, and with content and experiences created by a vast range of contributors. It isn’t a game, but it might have elements of gaming. It isn’t just virtual reality or a user-generated content platform such as YouTube either, but it will likely involve both of these elements. “If you want a simpler way to think about the metaverse, you can imagine it as The Nightmare Before Christmas,” writes Ball.
“You can walk into any experience or activity, and potentially address almost any of your needs, from a single starting point or world that’s also populated by everyone else you know.”
There have already been dozens of proto-metaverse projects. As far back as 13 years ago, for example, companies such as Microsoft and IBM were building campuses in Second Life, an online world where players had their own avatars, designed their own houses and clothes, socialised and worked together, and partook in an awful lot of virtual sex. MMORPG games such as World of Warcraft have elements of a metaverse, with functioning economies, factions and open-world exploration. Fortnite – often dismissed as a game, but actually far more than that – is probably as close as we come to a fully fledged metaverse today, but it still falls someway short of that overarching vision of an alternative universe.
If you want a simpler way of thinking about the metaverse, you can imagine it as The Nightmare Before Christmas
The metaverse visions
Many big tech companies have their own vision for what the metaverse will look like, and although it’s a tad more mundane than Snow Crash, there’s plenty to get excited about.
Facebook is making a big bet on the metaverse, with founder Mark Zuckerberg telling The Verge recently that “we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company” within the next five years.
The company has already begun showing off parts of its metaverse vision, including Horizon Workrooms – a virtual reality office space into which you can effectively teleport and hold meetings with colleagues, doodle on virtual whiteboards, and present without being physically present. It isn’t only looking at new ways of working. Zuckerberg has talked of experiences such as jumping into concerts, exercise classes and classrooms.
Facebook has a head start on the technology front, having bought virtual reality firm Oculus for $2 billion in 2014.
And although Zuckerberg insists the metaverse isn’t all about VR, he envisages it playing a major part – along with “normal-looking” augmented reality (AR) glasses that you’d be happy to wear in public. “So, anywhere you go, you can walk into a Starbucks, you can sit down, you can be drinking your coffee and kind of wave your hands; you can have basically as many monitors as you want, all set up, whatever size you want them to be, all preconfigured to the way you had it when you were at your home before,” he told The Verge.
Facebook will transition from people seeing us as a social media company to being a metaverse company
“If you want to talk to someone, because you’re working through a problem, instead of just calling them on the phone, they can teleport in, and then they can see all the context that you have,” he added. “They can see your five monitors, or whatever it is, and the documents or all the windows of code that you have, or a 3D model that you’re working on. And they can stand next to you and interact. Then, in a blink, they can teleport back to where they were and kind of be in a separate place.”
Microsoft has metaverse ambitions in the workplace, too – in fact, it claims it’s already here. At this year’s Build conference, the company explained how it was helping businesses create ‘digital twins’ of their properties, whether that be warehouses, offices or even power plants. The digital twin is a rich, virtual model of the property that enables a company to interact and experiment with the virtual building.
This allows companies to run ‘what-if’ scenarios. For example, what would happen if that wind turbine was moved 50ft to the east, or how is the production line affected if two staff members are moved from sector A to B? Once the models are established, they can even be synchronised with the real-world plants with two-way internet-of-things connections, enabling the company to use software models to make changes to the real-world environment.
“You can interact with this digital replica overlaid on to the physical environment,” said Sam George, corporate vice president of Azure IoT at Microsoft. “You can get rich metadata and insights about anything you’re doing in the physical world from the digital copy. You can also interact in a pure virtual space, with colleagues and experts anywhere in the world.”
You can get rich metadata and insights about anything you’re doing in the physical world from this digital copy.
Ahead of the game?
One company that’s definitely focused on the more fun side of the metaverse is Epic Games. Much like Facebook, the Fortnite maker has been upfront about its metaverse ambitions. “Fortnite is a game,” Epic CEO Tim Sweeney tweeted in December 2019. “But ask that question again in 12 months.”
Well, it’s still one of the world’s biggest games, but there’s no denying that Fortnite has broadened its offering beyond blowing up 99 other players with virtual bazookas. The Fortnite game world has become a venue. It was, for example, used to preview a clip from the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker movie in December 2019, with director JJ Abrams presenting using his own avatar. When Travis Scott performed a short concert in Fortnite in 2020, more than 12m people turned up to watch.
It doesn’t quite meet Matthew Ball’s definition of a metaverse: clever server management meant those 12m viewers were diced up into 100-viewer chunks over the course of 48 hours to stop Epic’s servers suffering a meltdown. You couldn’t be sure to meet friends and watch the show together, but it was impressive nonetheless, an example of the lines between virtual and real worlds blurring.
Fortnite has also become the poster child for one of Ball’s other key metaverse traits – interoperability.
Fortnite was the game that finally forced Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo to play nicely with one another, allowing players on a Sony PlayStation to interact with friends on a Microsoft Xbox, for instance. Epic is now in a court battle with Apple because it’s trying to break down restrictions that prevent iOS apps from using their own payment system. Epic has its own business motivations here, of course, but it is arguably the biggest exponent of cross- platform experiences and economies. And it has recently bagged another $1 billion in a funding round to help “support our vision for Epic and the metaverse”.
Fortnite is a game, but ask that question again in 12 months
Is the hardware ready?
It’s all well and good plotting out what a metaverse will look like, and blasting social media with jaw-dropping videos of what’s to come, but is the hardware there to support it? There are a number of technological hurdles to overcome, both at the consumer end and at the network level.
VR hardware is arguably the biggest obstacle as far as consumers are concerned. There’s a reason virtual reality remains a niche hobby – it’s because the hardware is expensive, clunky and induces a horrible wave of motion sickness in many users.
Mark Zuckerberg – who owns a VR hardware company, don’t forget – is remarkably candid about how far the hardware needs to improve, if it’s to become mainstream. “The hardest technology challenge of our time may be fitting a supercomputer into the frame of normal-looking glasses,” he tweeted earlier this year. “But it’s the key to bringing our physical and digital worlds together.”
Then there’s the challenge of making your virtual being more realistic. One of the reasons those Second Life offices were swiftly abandoned is that avatars don’t convey the full range of human expressions, facial movements and tiny body language cues that are critical to human communication.
However, progress is being made on that front. Last year, Epic Games released its Live Link Face application for the iPhone, allowing users to take advantage of the camera hardware that uses infrared sensors to track up to 30,000 points on your face.
Apple uses that data to unlock your phone with Face ID, but Epic’s application can capture all those tiny facial movements you make and uses them to create a real-time avatar based on the company’s Unreal engine. That not only allows your avatar to accurately lip-sync, but to display those little head nods, half-smiles and other facial ticks that give context to what you’re saying. It’s quite unnerving to watch.
However, when you’re talking about live streaming 30,000 data points from a mobile device to capture facial data for a single person, you can only begin to imagine the type of network infrastructure you’re going to need to power a virtual universe inhabited by millions, maybe even billions, of people.
Latency on different mobile network generations
(Lower is better)