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What is the Metaverse?

June 23, 2022 | Much has been written recently about the ‘Metaverse’, especially as a rather large social media platform changed its name to reflect the new concept. But what actually is the Metaverse?

The Metaverse is a vision for how people may eventually use technology, writ large, to interact with each other, machines, and the world (and/or virtual worlds). What we experience today with respect to “the Metaverse,” narrowly defined as virtual reality and augmented reality, is like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave: mere hints of what the Metaverse might someday be.

Matthew Ball, in his Metaverse Primer, says that “The Metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”

We are nowhere near that vision. What we do have are discrete, siloed examples: the Oculus platform and HTC Vive platforms, AR games like Pokémon Go, online massive multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, digital twin applications for industrial use, online collaborative learning platforms, digital-only currencies, etc. These and many more examples can all be bundled into the broad term “metaverse,” so much so that the term itself loses meaning.

Ball’s Primer provides a framework for what it will take to create the Metaverse: hardware; compute; networking; virtual platforms; interchange tools and standards; payment services; content, services, and assets. Each of these categories is a gladiator’s arena of competition. The major U.S. carriers won’t share antennas and radios on a tower, and we expect them to collaborate in creating the metaverse vision that Ball laid out?

What they’ll do, what most companies will do, is build their own “metaverses” (or try to). We’ll end up with a multiverse of metaverses – not unlike the over the top (OTT) streaming situation today with $5 for this service, $20 for that one, $16 for this one with ads, etc., ad nauseum. Small wonder people share logins. The same silos exist, to greater and lesser extents, with device operating systems and applications, gaming systems, software, networks, processors, etc.

In Ball’s primer on metaverse networking, he covers the basics of bandwidth, latency, and reliability. I’ll boil it down: today’s networks are nowhere close to providing what is likely the bare minimum for the metaverse (as Ball defined it).

According to the FCC’s Broadband Map, 28.92 percent of the U.S. urban population has access to 1,000/100 Mbps Internet service while 17.8 percent of the U.S. rural population has access to the same – that is just from one provider (and those percentages are probably overstated).

Today, one gigabit service available is never one gigabit per second delivered. And even if one gigabit per second were possible to each household, the network itself could not handle that traffic. It would be like everyone in a household – assume four people – gaming online in a Microsoft Flight Simulator type world, in every house in every neighborhood in every town in every city in every region. And that’s probably low-balling it. With respect to cellular, 5G NR is certainly a step in the right direction, but cellular bandwidth, latency and reliability are not even in the same ballpark as wired broadband networks.

Obviously, I’m being hyperbolic. No one thinks the Metaverse will happen next year or even in the next five years. But within five decades? I’ll say, sure. Definitely. (But I won’t be around to experience it.)

So, what is the Metaverse? From an admittedly oversimplified (and jaded) computing and networking perspective, think of it like this: you choose to be fully immersed – visually, auditorily, haptically – in a world that seems real and can simultaneously incorporate the most outlandish things (e.g., Ready Player One) while being entirely incapable of delivering the most mundane, like eating actual food.

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