The metaverse: explanation and how it works
Metaverse is the buzzword of the moment. Between the name change of the Facebook group to Meta and other companies and government agencies announcing goals on the subject. This term, which may seem very "obscure" to most people, what does it really mean?
What is the concept of the metaverse
The concept of metaverse is old, since the 70s, several science-fiction authors use it in their works. In 1981, in the book Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, the term metaverse is created. Since then, it has been more widely used, and is notably found in films such as Matrix, Ready Player One, etc.
There is no official common definition, but the general idea is that the metaverse is an open, permanent and global "parallel" universe. In this universe, you will be able to perform various tasks, in an "immersive" way, and even to build a life there. You notice the use of quotation marks in this definition, it is to show you that all this remains theoretical and not very precise.
Why are Facebook, Microsoft and other companies interested in the metaverse?
Despite a vague definition, for many experts, it is the natural evolution after the mobile internet. Since the creation of the Internet, we have been increasing its use in our personal and professional lives. With the arrival of cell phones, we have had access to a personalized and permanently accessible internet. Thanks to technological advances around 5G, VR headsets and more, it's reasonable to think that the next step will be a VR or AR internet allowing even more creations and interactions.
More importantly, the next evolution of internet will be brought by the private world, not the public. The Internet was created by public institutions (researchers, military) and without any commercial purpose, because, at the time, only they had the capacity to do so. Today, we are in the opposite situation: only companies like Facebook, Apple or Google have the skills and resources to make the Internet evolve.
In a dystopian world where the Internet was invented by IBM, Apple or Microsoft, we might all have to pay a subscription to Chrome or receive a bill according to the number of images we browse. Even if the metaverse of tomorrow won't have these restrictions, a company that gets to this "world" first will be one of the next leaders, and that's why big companies are so interested in it.
A not so simple concept to imagine and create
To achieve a fully functional metaverse, 7 challenges need to be addressed:
#1 The hardware
How to access the metaverse? With the use of virtual reality headsets or augmented reality glasses? These tools are improving year after year, but are not yet efficient enough to be used for 8 to 10 hours a day. According to some experts, to be able to support such a helmet all day, it would have to be able to replicate our human vision, that is to say :
- 210° of vision (helmets today reach an angle of 52°)
- A frequency of 120Hz (today we are more at 90Hz)
- Finally, a graphic quality of twice the 4K
Moreover, no study exists on the effect of the weight of a helmet and the effects on our eyes if we were to wear them all day long.
#2 The internet network
Our Internet network has many technological limitations, which for the moment have always been solved by alternative software and server architecture solutions. These limitations are among the most structuring to date: how can we imagine a real-time session on a single server for 7 billion users, when today even AWS does not support more than 100,000 live sessions? Solving this problem would require a global infrastructure review.
#3 Computing power
To be able to display this virtual world and act in it, our servers, PCs, Macs and other digital devices that would allow us to connect to this metaverse, will have to be capable of calculations that have not yet been reached. Even edge computing does not seem to reach the necessary goals. Several theoretical solutions exist to date, such as using the computing power of connected objects that are not used in the immediate environment and using their power in exchange for a fee. For example, if you have a connected fridge that is not often active, you can rent its processor.
#4 Virtual platforms
What will be the Chrome, Firefox, or Facebook app of the future and how will they allow us to experience the metaverse and what will they allow us to do? Several current games (Minecraft, Roblox for example) already show the example: they allow players to create what they want. However, the possibilities and their uses remain limited.
#5 Tools & Standards
If tomorrow the metaverse is to replace the Internet as we know it, it will need open standards. This is today one of the main reasons for the success of the Internet, HTML being a standard recognized by all. In order to be able to produce content dedicated to this new medium, we will need specific tools that will meet the technical needs and limitations of this environment.
#6 Payment services
This challenge is probably the most advanced, with the explosion in recent years of virtual currencies and more recently of NFTs, it is easy to imagine currencies dedicated to the metaverse.
#7 Content, services & assets
The last but not least piece is the one that will make users decide to use the metaverse and stay in it. Already, many companies have raised funds and have a clear vision of what they want to offer in this futuristic universe.
The most advanced projects
- Nvidia: world leader in graphics cards, they have created a tool called Omniverse that allows real-time collaborative work between different graphics and 3D environment creation tools. This corresponds to the need for tools, and standard.
- Microsoft: rather oriented on the business world and productivity, the software giant wishes to replicate our world in a virtual version "Twin world" which will be connected to the physical world via sensors and other IoT subjects. In addition, the company also owns the Hololens which is currently one of the most powerful augmented reality products and a whole IoT solution (Azure IoT). Finally, Microsoft owns Minecraft which is one of the most developed "metaverse" to date.
- Meta: having recently changed its name to indicate its intention to enter the metaverse race, the Facebook group does not have a live solution, but has the largest user base in the world. Note that they also own the Occulus rift, which are the market leaders in virtual reality headsets.
- Epic Game: coming from the gaming world with the very popular Fortnite which has a creative mode (which contains several points similar to a metaverse), with a real will to be one of the creators of the metaverse, pushing other players to open up (case of payment on Apple), Epic wants to create a universe where it is possible to navigate between these games invisibly (and to transfer the purchased content between games) With a policy of buying different aggressive solutions (Unreal engine, Quixel, 3Lateral & Cubic motion), even if Epic may not be the leader, it is sure that these tools will be part of the creation of a metaverse.
What is the future of the metaverse?
It is difficult to define what will really happen, but based on the latest trends, we can already predict that :
- a large number of metaverse experts will appear,
- many companies will raise funds on the subject with more or less clear objectives.
In any case, we can also expect that many of them will disappear quickly.
The big companies working on the subject will release their partial metaverse (partial because it does not correspond to the broad definition). Which ones will be a success is still to be determined, but a real "metaverse" (Open, global, etc.) remains a utopia, these metaverses will undoubtedly be compartmentalized according to their creator:
- Enterprise (Microsoft)
- Games (Epic Game)
- Social (Facebook)