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2 September 2021

Foundational questions for Metaverse concept, broadband isn’t one of them

The metaverse is the shiny new buzzword doing the rounds, and while we suspect that we will shortly be fending off PR and marketing types with a bargepole, the trend does have transformative potential over the next few decades. However, the video world has been burnt before, and so metaverse vendors are going to have a lot of persuading to do.

We can understand the skepticism. Many billions of dollars were sunk into AR and VR ventures that went nowhere. Magic Leap might be the best posterchild for disaster in that sector, and AR hardware has only really found use in specialized industrial applications, typically in manufacturing lines and field engineering work.

It seems inevitable that many more billions will be sunk into start-ups tackling the ‘new age of remote working,’ in the wake of the pandemic, and collaboration and social interaction are one of the more promising functions of metaverse technologies. So, while there is distinct potential, the metaverse, as an industry, needs to dispel a lot of the sci-fi sheen currently surrounding it.

Put simply, the metaverse is a digital universe that will exist within our evolving computing and internet infrastructure. The central tenet is that people can experience another reality inside an application or service, distinct from our tangible actual reality, but one in which they can work, play, and eventually live – should the technology advance enough.

Yes, you are quite right to think this sounds overblown, and comparisons to The Matrix are inevitable. One of the main problems facing the metaverse concept currently is that its most ardent supporters are discussing the problem on a hundred-year timeframe. The people they need to convince, most urgently, are investors that view nearly all problems on the five-year schedule that most venture capital investments adhere to.

There are some early examples of immature metaverses – worlds within which we can lead a digital life. Second Life is a very different beast now than when it first launched, but it might have a solid claim on being first. Separately, one of the main arguments in Epic Games’ lawsuit with Apple is that Fortnite is not a game, but rather a metaverse. In Fortnite, Epic argues, users are experiencing a different type of reality, complete with concerts, media events like the Marvel crossover, and social interaction – not simply a game.

Apple took a very dim view of this argument, and it appeared that the legal system in the US agrees. While album launches and concert tours do seem to have an appeal in Fortnite, their staying power is less understood. Ariana Grande might have just held the biggest virtual concert in history, thought to have eclipsed the 12.3 million live viewers that Travis Scott netted earlier this year, but detractors will argue that these viewers in Fortnite are not equivalent to a tangible concertgoer.

That viewpoint is valid of course, and the better test of Fortnite’s approach will be whether the likes of Scott and Grande return to the platform for their next album cycle. Fortnite has leant into the frenetic video game aesthetic in both instances, creating something that could not be done in-real-life – and therefore something an audience cannot get anywhere else.

However, a more pragmatic metaverse example exists in Roblox. Initially seen as a Minecraft rip-off, complete with the cubic graphical aesthetic, Roblox is now one of the largest video games in the world. It is particularly popular with children, and many of our readers will be painfully familiar with their children’s requests for more Robux – the in-game currency.

Roblox began as a fairly standard videogame, but has evolved into a platform that people can create new games on top of. It is programmable, via an in-game studio editor, and some of the games that have been created within Roblox are radically different to the initial game. These new games can be sold to users, via those Robux, and there are many developers that make a living doing so – either selling a full game, or smaller in-game items.

Here, the developer is viewing Roblox as the equivalent to a games console or PC. Instead of choosing a hardware platform to code for, the developer is working within Roblox. Given the evolution of cloud streaming, and how consoles have moved away from obscure silicon architectures and into conventional approaches, future developers would essentially be coding to a platform too, rather than a device.

Roblox has a better argument than Epic, when it comes to being a metaverse purveyor, due to its embrace of the programmability of the game world. While Fortnite was a last-man-standing battle royale shooter, Roblox was always focused on worldbuilding and creativity. Due to its younger audience, Roblox does not have the same social interactions and community features that the conventional consoles have curated, but you can see how the Roblox platform would evolve to include the social backbone that would create immersive community experiences.

Roblox prepared to go public during the pandemic, reporting 31.1 million daily average users, who spent an average of 2.6 hours per day in the game. Revenue for the first nine months of 2020 was listed as $588.7 million, in the SEC prospectus filing, but losses were reported at $203.2 million. Despite this, Roblox Corporation went public with a $41 billion valuation, and currently has a market cap of $47.2 billion.

Roblox is now larger than most gaming studios. It might still hold the title for largest virtual concert too, after Lil Nas X performed to a claimed 30 million Roblox users in November. Epic might claim Grande now holds that crown, but Roblox is also not embroiled in lawsuits with Apple and Google, which will not have hurt its valuation.

While Fortnite and Roblox are demonstrating the beginnings of metaverses for entertainment, Facebook recently showed off what it thinks the future of work might look like. You have likely seen the cartoon avatars sitting around a virtual desk, enabled by Facebook’s Oculus VR headsets. Here, Facebook brings users into a shared virtual space, meant to be more interactive and memorable than a Zoom call, and complete with screensharing and virtual whiteboards and office software.

Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms might prove more desirable than its Workplace from Facebook initiative, but it seems likely that Microsoft will have a Teams equivalent, and Zoom, Google, and Slack will make similar moves. And so, in the near future, there will be fairly wide familiarity with these environments for both work and play. Children growing up playing with Roblox are not going to be averse to working inside such an environment, and that seems especially true if working from home becomes as commonplace as many say it will.

However, there are still some foundational problems to solve. Most current discussions of the metaverse, as the name implies, view it as a single joined up entity. Currently, we have a few examples of nascent metaverses, which are very much islands unto themselves. Are we meant to move between such islands, and if so, how do we bring our metaverse identities from one to another?

That sounds like a classic industry standards question, but given Facebook’s reach, it will want to be an arbiter of that dynamic – moving from your personal social metaverse into your corporate work one, and then back out at the end of the day.

Immediately, you can spot the sorts of arguments that will be leveled at Facebook, and the cries of a lurking dystopia will fuel an inordinate amount of column inches. How to retain some sense of personal control over your digital identity inside these metaverses, if they become essential to modern life, will be a source of much consternation.

But on the technical level, we seem to have the groundwork in place to fuel these deployments. Broadband is the main requirement, and because these environments are rendered locally on the viewer’s device, the data requirements are not exorbitant. That might change in the future, if we move towards the cloud-gaming model of rendering the game remotely and streaming it as a video to the viewer.

However, latency will be the main barrier to that experience. Lag will be the killer of such streamed environments, but fixed-line latency is about as good as it gets, and so should not be a problem. For mobile experiences, 5G is of course pointed to as the panacea there, but it is not clear how a public WiFi network would stand up. In-home WiFi should be fine, however.

The underlying computing infrastructure is not alien either. These metaverses run on standard cloud platforms, and should be able to scale up and down with the userbase through the day. No funky silicon is in play, and data centers do not need to be overhauled to run these instances. In this regard, it is all quite straightforward. Joining up the different islands into something resembling a concurrent metaverse should be a case of API calls between the cloud platforms, using an agreed-upon common format to try and reduce headaches.

The biggest question is the extent that headsets will be required. Ultrawideband (UWB) chips in smartphones might enable excellent object and environment scanning, to create an in-metaverse equivalent of your home or street, but both Roblox and Fortnite require a PC, console, or smartphone, and are played in the same way that conventional games are – on a flatscreen.

VR gaming is still not popular. Most users report much quicker fatigue in VR than on a screen, and many users cannot play long enough to experience fatigue due to the nausea. Latency seems to be the biggest factor here, with some people being particularly sensitive to any delay between the movement of their head and the rendering of the world they are seeing through their eyes.

If the hardware cannot solve that problem, it is hard to see how workers could spend any considerable time within a metaverse environment. Similarly, shifting into VR from screens for entertainment is not going to work for a lot of users. No matter how appealing an event is, nausea is a hard stop here.

The larger question then is whether a conventional screen is going to be enough to create the metaverse that the evangelists are so enthralled with. It seems that Fortnite and Roblox are doing just fine, but those games are a long way from the vision of the future that is currently being hyped. Can a flatscreen ever be immersive enough to convince you that you exist within a proper metaverse?

Local rendering for VR devices seems the most practical way to avoid the lag-induced motion sickness, but you run into the classic problem of compute and battery capacity constraints. Streaming a rendered video to the device can alleviate that problem, but at the expense of latency increases.

In addition, if streaming video becomes the preferred distribution model, streams to VR-type devices are rather data-intensive, and require a lot of cloud-based horsepower to support. Scalability becomes a significant concern, and supporters will have to face increasing environmental scrutiny.