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If the Metaverse Is To Become More, It Needs To Do More

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Image: everything possible - Alamy Stock Photo
The metaverse is certainly an exciting concept, but let’s face it, the bar is pretty low in generating “excitement” in tech these days. When it burst on the scene, interested parties could envision it as social media and more, as well as a boon to collaboration. Virtual “you” interacts with virtual “me” in a realistic way, inside something as immersive and visually stunning as a good video game.
Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, clearly saw the metaverse as a way of offsetting declining revenue growth and user engagement, something their recent quarterly earnings show they need. But look at the way Meta describes the metaverse today, and you see applications that make paleontology fun for kids and heart surgery easier to teach. A metaverse of one isn’t what most people hoped for. What this all means for the metaverse is that more is now less. But in the long term, maybe the metaverse can offer more again.
The first of our “mores” is more challenges. We know now there are three challenges in creating a compelling metaverse. The first is immersive virtual reality (VR), which, since the metaverse needs to feel real, means VR goggles. The second is community rendering of a virtual place where people/avatars congregate, so that a common and consistent view is created for all. The third is faithful avatar tracking of the people the avatars represent, so that interactions seem realistic.
Meta’s new metaverse examples suggest that it’s likely taking its own metaverse plans forward in that order. VR is essential, and so it’s first. Community rendering is a challenge in proportion to the number of avatars you have in a community, so a company can dodge that challenge with a “metaverse of one” thrust into education and virtual medical training. Improving how well avatars track the movement of those who control them is a network and process latency challenge that Meta may not be able to solve on its own, and so that’s likely left for last.
That’s what creates our current metaverse, which is less than it could be. For those who believed that the metaverse would be a true virtual and alternate reality, a place where we could be social in the same way we might be in the real world (except better-looking, stronger, richer, etc.), the near-term metaverse potential is pretty grim. That creates a problem for Meta because they probably can’t hope to get a big current-quarter revenue boost from social-metaverse opportunities, and they need one to satisfy Wall Street. It’s also a problem for many metaverse and NFT startups, who saw this shift to a virtual/alternate reality as a trend they could support. If Meta can’t make it happen, they probably can’t either.
What gets us back into “the metaverse can be more” territory is that other metaverse hopefuls now understand those three specific challenges, and some are working pretty hard to solve them. While we may be stuck in a “mini-verse” for a time, we do have a clearer path out into something like the real virtual/alternate-reality, socially adept, metaverse most had hoped for.
The challenge of community rendering happens because an avatar in a virtual place should see not only the background and perhaps some computer-generated objects but also the avatars of other inhabitants. Those, being under control of other individuals, change position over time and change the field of view for everyone else. In fact, what a given “avatar” sees depends not on who is there and how they’re moving but also the three-dimensional structure of the space, including what’s hidden and what’s visible. The more avatars share a space, the more difficult it is to do that community rendering in time to synchronize with avatars’ behaviors.
A U.K. company called Improbable has developed technology for multi-player gaming that takes a giant step toward solving the problem of community rendering. These include how to mix independent avatar behavior, game-generated “non-player” avatars, and “background” into a realistic 3G model that can be used to derive what each player would see. This worked for 4,500 players, which is likely far more that would have to be accommodated in a single virtual location in a social metaverse.
Does this resolve the last of our challenges, that of faithfully tracking a lot of avatars? No, because these players weren’t globally distributed. However, if you remove the community rendering challenge, what’s left isn’t a metaverse problem as much as a network problem, and it turns out that another startup, RP1, claims to have a solution to that—or at least a part of a solution.
RP1 is a “platform” provider, meaning that they’re building foundation technology on which metaverses could be created. Part of that platform is a set of network services designed to facilitate the coordination of avatars and hosting points. The platform also includes visualization (the community rendering piece) and realistic virtual communications (avatars can speak, and you hear them at a volume that’s related to the distance between your avatar and that of the speaker). The combination of these things lets a metaverse break that roughly-four-thousand user limit.
The reason this is only a part of the solution is that you can’t add a functional layer that reduces latency. The network abstraction RP1 creates still has to ride on real-world networks, and latency on those networks can be significant. Human reaction times are roughly 200ms, and quick hand movements take less than 100ms. It’s easy to find examples on the Internet today where hops and path latencies combine to top those numbers by a large margin.
The network changes needed to make the metaverse truly and universally realistic at the social interaction level will take time, and they’ll depend on the business case for metaverses that resolve the first two of our three challenges. The “metaverse of one” model that focuses on education and other non-gaming missions could help build that business case. In the meantime, there’s still a chance that the final challenge of limited global latency will be met. If that happens, the metaverse (and Meta) can still meet all its goals.