Momentum for the metaverse continues to grow. A recent article on hospitalitynet cited some interesting survey results. The findings indicated that 82% of U.S. enterprise executives expect to incorporate metaverse applications into their business activities and plans within the next three years, while half of consumers feel excited about this virtual space. The opportunities are extensive, for everything from gaming to e-commerce, and from industrial digital twins to customer care. To make these immersive experiences all possible, there are six underlying technology pillars powering the metaverse:
- Three-Dimensional (3D) and Web3
- New and updated Internet Protocols (IPs)
- Augmented Reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR)
- Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML)
- Distributed computing
3D and Web3
At its core, the metaverse centers around 3D interactivity and we’re currently in the midst of trading Two-Dimensional (2D) environments for real and virtual world convergence. One of the driving forces behind this shift is the demand for 3D and digital assets. Content generation applies to 3D assets created by both enterprises and user communities (user generated). For example, someone may purchase virtual items for a digital avatar, which falls under the Direct-to-Avatar (D2A) business model. This demand for 3D content has brought Web3, a technology that symbolizes the proliferation of blockchain and cryptocurrency, to the forefront of metaverse discussions.
Figure 1: Timeline for Metaverse-Centric Business Models
The advocates of Web3 see blockchain and crypto as the foundational layer of the metaverse. In this regard, the metaverse will result in the decentralization of identities, with user data and proof of trust handled by blockchain technology. 3D content creation and ownership will be integral to Web3. In the consumer metaverse, users will be able to purchase virtual assets and, in some cases, sell them on the same platform or other marketplaces. However, digital asset ownership does not usually translate to the purchaser gaining the IP rights of the item, which is no different from buying something from a retailer.
In the metaverse, the end user is empowered with more control. The redistribution of control and value will involve the use of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), which are unique records on the blockchain connecting to virtual or physical assets. In the Web3 framework, NFTs will also be integral to designating asset ownership and will have strong ties with cryptocurrencies. As stated in our 2023 technology trends whitepaper, the questions around content ownership must be settled before the creator economies and 3D content generarion reach their full potential.
While knowledge of NFTs is relatively low, a recent Harris Poll survey has confirmed that for those who are in the metaverse, 68% of these users are interested in NFTs and 57% are interested in cryptocurrency. This means early adopters are, like in many product categories, more technically literate and passionate about emerging technologies. Broader public education for NFTs may need to be explored more in-depth for significant uptake in the future. Additionally, as pointed out in ABI Insight “The Metaverse Standards Forum Is Looking to Bring Standardization to the Metaverse, but It Is Still Light on Blockchain,” a lot of work needs to be done when it comes to blockchain standardization.
New and Updated IPs
The development of new and updated IPs is a must. Current IPs simply won’t satisfy the network and latency demands of the metaverse in the future. For example, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is not well-suited for the most latency-taxing applications, something that will only be more commonplace as the years proceed. Moreover, TCP, and even Quick User Datagram Protocol (UDP) Quick User Internet Connections (QUIC) for that matter, won’t be able to support the handover requirements of future holographic use cases.
To address these IP shortcomings, the following groups and companies are closely studying metaverse requirements and working on creating IP standards:
- ITU Network 2030 Focus Group
- Non-IP Networks (NIN) Industry Specification Group (ISG)
- Internet Research Task Force (IRTF) Information-Centric Network (ICN) Research Group
- Huawei (e.g., NEXT IP)
As noted in a recent report posted on Advanced Television, 82% of Americans say they will probably use Augmented Reality (AR) or Virtual Reality (VR) more often in the coming years. Although this is just one country, it goes to show the growing consumer interest in virtual worlds.
AR and VR devices aren’t a core requirement for the metaverse, but these technologies will undoubtedly play a key role. VR enables metaverse users to interact with a 3D computer-generated virtual environment in a more immersive manner, allowing them to see and feel the surroundings as one would in person. To illustrate, a team of engineers could use VR in the metaverse for 3D modeling, data visualization, project management, or other collaborative functions that can be done via a virtual headquarters.
Meanwhile, AR allows users to engage with 3D digital content, such as graphics and video, that’s overlaid onto the physical environment. AR technologies are a cornerstone of remote assistance, interactive games, and education, and will continue to make online commerce more immersive and personalized.
Mainstream-level smart glasses are anticipated to hit the markets around the 2025/2026 time frame. As these devices gain popularity, the more transformative aspects of the metaverse will begin to materialize, and demand for 3D content and new use cases will surge. Taking the long-term outlook on the metaverse, consumer-grade AR/VR devices will potentially trigger a host of immersive applications. Holographic communications, avatars, location-based advertising, and other immersive experiences could become expected in users’ digital lifestyles and identities.
Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) will be resisted by many people and others will find that wearing headsets for a long period of time can be uncomfortable. To accommodate these accessibility challenges, some companies are embedding AR into other mediums, such as contact lenses or holographic projectors. Regardless, these technologies will reverse user reservations about the metaverse and enable users to embark into the virtual world.
Figure 2: Augmented Reality (AR)-Enabled Mojo Lens (Contact Lenses) Overlay for Golfer
In 2020, Huawei published a paper that pointed out the fact that the communications and immersive of today will be tomorrow’s “Holographic Type Communications” (HTC) that entail a technological foundation that supports “Instantaneous Teleportation Systems” (ITS) and “Trustable Network Infrastructure” (TNI). Long story short, Huawei emphasized the need for super-ultra-low latencies (sub-1 ms) for many future (2030 and beyond) applications. While this reality is still some way out, it does highlight the fact that contemporary connectivity solutions will not cut it in a full-fledged metaverse.
When American telecommunications equipment company Ciena asked 15,000 business professionals what challenges they face with the metaverse, unreliable network performance was considered a prohibitive factor for 38% of organizations. The metaverse, especially with the proliferation of smart glasses, will require greatly enhanced connectivity. Applications, such as synchronous data connections for understanding the user’s environment, will necessitate lower latencies and improved network intelligence. The latter must be a core component that’s embedded natively into the network (this is more for later 6G networks).
While markets today are already seeing demand for lower-latency connectivity and these solutions will suffice during the buildup to the metaverse, the long-term view indicates the need to improve protocols or create new ones. Otherwise, advanced use cases like holographic communication and media-rich Real-Time Communications (RTC) will not benefit from the ultra-low latencies that the applications require.
Figure 3: Timeline for Consumer Metaverse Use Cases and Connectivity Requirements
6G will need to deliver on multiple fronts in the broader Internet of Things (IoT) market. The metaverse will involve extensive implementation of interconnected sensory networks that contain cameras and sensors. These sensory networks are one of the key ingredients to introducing physical assets into virtual spaces and developing lifelike digital twins of the real world. Pertaining to fixed, mobile nomadic, and satellite communications, 6G has to coalesce these network technologies into a unified network.
Something to be mindful of is the fact that, as demanding as consumer metaverse applications may be, the enterprise has more rigorous connectivity demands. For example, bringing applications, platforms, and content/data to the cloud must be highly secure and reliable so that workflow obstructions don’t occur. Further, the introduction of simulations and digital twins to large-scale deployments like factories, warehouses, supply chains, smart cities, and ultimately global levels will apply significantly more demand on networks and compute resources.
Of all the metaverse technology pillars, AI is the broadest in its application. On the network side, AI will make on-demand intelligence, which is an integral component of the metaverse, possible. Moreover, AI services will support external applications. No doubt, 5G-Advanced will put the wheels in motion for AI-metaverse convergence, but it won’t be until the age of 6G that it becomes a native function of the network. This will bring intelligence and computing, crucial to workload orchestration, to the edge and closer to the end user.
AI will also be a conduit for making 3D content creation more accessible. 3D content creation, as it stands today, is a nascent area. Most people who are creating 3D content have acquired specific skill sets that the average user does not possess. If the metaverse is to gain mass popularity, virtual spaces will need to be populated with far more 3D content, stretching across the virtual and real worlds.
While there is a handful of low to no-code metaverse platforms available today that help users create digital assets via Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), their capabilities are limited and can’t expand across various platforms/applications. On the other hand, neural graphics, which use AI, physics, and animation models to create 3D assets and environments, make content creation easier. Neural graphics involves the convergence of AI and graphics to speed up the development pipeline and automate design for artists and creators.
A few more metaverse use cases that will be powered by AI include:
- Digital humans (e.g., customer service and virtual assistants)
- Digital identity management
Figure 4: Neural Graphics Software Development Kit (SDK) for 3D Content Creation in the Metaverse
From both the consumer and enterprise segments, the metaverse will drive demand for cloud and edge computing to a disproportionately higher level than what current digital transformations are generating. To satisfy these demands, three main types of edges will be incorporated into cloud networks: the devices themselves, telco/Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC), and Content Delivery Network (CDN) edges.
Deciding which type of edge will be leveraged depends on the use case and latency needs. Below is a breakdown of each type of edge that will be deployed in the metaverse:
- Edge computing on the device itself will apply to motion tracking, federated ML, and more of the most latency-sensitive functions.
- Focused on use cases in the sub-20 Milliseconds (ms) range, telco/MEC edge will commonly be applied to cloud Extended Reality (XR), multiplayer location-based gaming, industrial and manufacturing applications, the IoT and smart city, and location-based immersive experiences.
- While the least developed, CDN edge will present some of the first growth opportunities once mainstream smart glasses come around. CDN edge will be useful in caching and processing/packaging content, and network operators will be instrumental in personalizing content and advertising, social networking, and gaming markets.
Metaverse Technology Focus Points
These 6 technology pillars of the metaverse will be the fuel for bridging the real and virtual worlds. The buildup to the metaverse is a gradual process and hinges on meeting key technical milestones, notably mainstream smart glasses hitting the market. The focus should be on the parallel evolution of connectivity, computing, network intelligence, workflows, and user experiences—and the junction of enabling technologies.
Still, there is a lot more to know about the road to the metaverse, including other technologies, standards and regulations, Web3/cryptocurrency problems, regional differences, and more. To learn about these concepts grab the A Look at the Technical Realities of a Virtual Metaverse whitepaper.