*This article was published in contribution to the new frontier of Intelligent Reality (IR). Click here to learn more about the 2022 IEEE 2nd International Conference on Intelligent Reality (ICIR).
The topic of the Metaverse is rarely out of the news media for long, despite, or perhaps because of, a lack of agreement about what the term even means. Many large corporations have announced metaverse projects, and analysts are breathlessly touting metaverse technology as a “next big thing”. In perhaps the boldest example, Facebook renamed itself Meta and has invested billions in the creation of a metaverse platform. But is the metaverse really something new? Or is it just another immersive experience, similar to what we can experience today in virtual reality or augmented reality?
Many find the idea of different virtual worlds appealing, especially if they can create their own personalized virtual space within it. Perhaps the Metaverse can become the new form for social media? Will we all abandon reality and the real world for a virtual environment where we all build and customize our own digital assets? And what role will artificial intelligence play in this non physical world? Read on to learn more.
Why understanding metaverse technologies is essential
There are many components to Metaverse technology. When discussing the many types of technology that have a role in the metaverse, it is perhaps easier if we separate things into three buckets: user facing front-end technology, middleware, and back-end infrastructure.
User facing front end technology consists of a device to access the metaverse, and the tools the user needs to interact with the metaverse and make it theirs. It seems unlikely that the metaverse will be developed just for virtual reality or just for augmented reality; both will probably play a role. Obviously, that makes a VR headset or an AR headset a key requirement. The user will also need tools to create and customize content – the equivalent of blogging and video editing tools. These tools need to be powerful but easy to use, just like today’s 2D web tools. Also, like today’s web users, some users will be happy with lightweight customization options (the equivalent of one of the many easy website builder tools), while others will want to go much deeper.
The user will also need tools for communication and transactions. Some will argue that these tools already exist, but the clear counterargument is the history of technology. It is very likely that today’s tools will evolve into something new when used in a new platform like the metaverse. For example, the early internet version of SMS and phone calls was arguably Skype, launched back in 2003. Just as the internet has evolved, so has the concept of voice-over-IP and messaging. Today, we have an array of applications such as Twitter, WhatsApp, TikTok and many others. While they may share Skype’s roots, these applications bear little resemblance to it and are used quite differently. They evolved to fit the medium.
It seems likely that history will repeat as the metaverse gains traction; existing communication and transaction tools will either evolve or be supplanted by alternatives better suited to their new environment. For communication, it’s hard to predict what will win. For transactions, there is an argument to be made for blockchain technology, although it must become much easier for the end user to work with.
In the realm of middleware, we need tools for creating a virtual space, or even a virtual world. Tools to do this already exist in the form of game engines like Epic Software’s Unreal Engine and Unity3D, but they will need to evolve further to meet the needs of the metaverse. Building an entire universe takes considerable effort, so shortcuts can be very useful. That means there is a role for 3D reconstruction tools, and it spans both end-user and middleware categories. The same applies to authoring tools for virtual products. There is also a potential role for blockchain, both as a transaction system and for digital assets like NFTs (non-fungible tokens).
It is also likely that some technologies will span both the middleware and infrastructure categories. One example is artificial intelligence. AI may well be part of the underlying infrastructure, but it is so broadly applicable to the metaverse that will be many opportunities for middleware to build on the AI infrastructure built into the metaverse. Again, this follows a pattern we have seen before in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. The availability of AI tools like GPT-3 unleashed a flurry of applications that had GPT-3 as a foundation, but used it in many different ways.
In terms of foundational infrastructure, there are many layers that are needed and quite a few that have not been created yet. The metaverse needs an underlying engine that knows how to render graphics, assign properties and behaviors to objects, enable real-time interaction between users and support all of the hardware devices used to engage with the metaverse. We also need standards for interoperability. The World Wide Web is remarkably effective at providing a fairly consistent experience across browsers and hardware platforms, but that is largely a result of well defined standards. The metaverse is still working on this area.
5G, edge and cloud computing are likely to play a role too. 5G offers very low latency, high bandwidth connections. This allows computational power to be moved from a metaverse device, like a VR headset, and into the cloud. In turn, that can make headsets smaller, less power hungry and possibly lower cost.
As noted already, Artificial Intelligence will play multiple roles in the metaverse. So will IoT. Connected sensors and actuators can be used to enhance a metaverse experience, providing more context, feedback and the ability for the digital realm to influence the real world.
Whether delivered via augmented reality, mixed reality or immersive virtual reality, the metaverse will rely on all of these components working seamlessly together. It’s definitely a sizable challenge.
Key technologies powering the metaverse
It is probably clear by now that building the metaverse is not simple. The phrase “metaverse technology” covers a broad array of different topics, disciplines and technologies. Meta platforms will need to integrate all of them seamlessly to be successful. There are also areas and issues, such as accessibility, that are very much in active development.
The most obvious technology components of the metaverse are virtual reality and augmented reality. We will need VR and AR devices to experience the metaverse. Perhaps less obvious are the many other key technologies already discussed in this article, such as 3D reconstruction, artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, cloud and edge computing, and the internet of things.
Artificial intelligence and blockchain have both received a lot of attention, but both are already showing signs of being transformative in metaverse development. The uses for AI are wide ranging, from improving user interfaces through natural language processing and autonomous avatars, to creating 3D content, to pathfinding, language translation, simulation, code optimization and much more. Blockchain has potential to deliver a range of advantages too, from its use to support a truly digital currency, to its ability to provide an auditable transaction record.
One notion often mentioned alongside the metaverse is the concept of spatial computing. Unlike today’s world wide web, tomorrow’s metaverse will also attach navigable spatial meaning to everything.
Barriers to the growth of the metaverse
There are many challenges in implementing the metaverse. At the top of the list is the lack of agreement about what the term Metaverse really means. There is also lack of clarity about whether the metaverse should be open, or built on a proprietary system. The history of technology shows us that “walled gardens” of proprietary technology can be helpful in the early days of a new technology. Because the experience is so tightly controlled, it can be considerably easier for the end user to use. In the early days of the internet, proprietary services like AOL and Compuserve helped millions of people get online. Over time, the very limitations and restrictions that made these walled gardens easier to use contributed to their downfall. As the world wide web gained traction, and dial-up internet access was replaced with always-on broadband, the advantages of a closed ecosystem were overshadowed by the limitations. However, the web and the internet in general were built on fairly clear standards that ensured interoperability. Today, it does not matter what type of computer or browser you are using, you can still browse the web. The metaverse is a long way from having such standards in place.
The lack of standards is also a barrier for those wanting to use the metaverse. As of today, most virtual reality applications are built for a specific VR headset. Developers cannot easy build the equivalent of a web page that will work on any browser.
In addition to the many technical challenges, there are many legal and ethical challenges to overcome. What, exactly, are property rights in a virtual world with virtual products? In the real world, property rights are fairly clear. When everything is virtual, they are not. Imagine advertising in the real world. One business might compete against another, but it would not be allowed to block the entrance to a competitor or cover their windows with advertisements. In a virtual environment, this is absolutely possible. Without clear rules that prevent such behavior, it will inevitably happen.
Consider a digital asset or virtual product. If it is “stolen” from a user while they are in a virtual environment, is it really theft? The item never existed in the real world, and it didn’t leave the virtual world, so where is the crime? Virtual land is also fraught with difficulty. In the physical world, land boundaries are clear and easy to define. The same does not really apply to a virtual space. Both the boundaries and the meaning of the idea of boundaries becomes unclear when you are inside the metaverse.
We must also consider issues of accessibility and affordability. If we don’t, the metaverse will become yet another playground for the privileged, excluding those that are in any way considered to be outside whatever is considered “normal”. Many implementations of artificial intelligence have shown significant bias, such as voice recognition algorithms that work better for speakers with specific accents and predictive algorithms that apply stereotypes in their assessments. Women, people of color and other marginalized groups are notoriously underrepresented in the world of blockchain technology.
Another major issue and area of concern is the privacy of personal data. Motion data from a user can be as individualized as a real world fingerprint, allowing users to be tracked without their consent. Researchers have shown how eye tracking can be used to manipulate user behavior. Social media is already incredibly manipulative, driven largely on the harvesting of personal data. Social media within a metaverse platform could be even more problematic. Data privacy is just one aspect of the many broader security concerns for the metaverse.
Last, but by no means least, widespread adoption of the metaverse faces some key, fundamental obstacles. The cost of access to the metaverse will be a significant factor. But equally important will be the answer to why will someone want to participate in the metaverse. And that question has yet to find an answer.
Development progress of various related technologies and projects for the metaverse
Despite the many challenges and unanswered questions, metaverse development appears to be accelerating. Many organizations have become swept up in the idea of the metaverse, announcing at least one metaverse project. Meanwhile, the markets for virtual reality, mixed reality and augmented reality have continued to grow, but growth has been uneven. Not one has reached a level of significant adoption within the broader community.
The devices, tools and systems all need further development, and there are a number of issues that have yet to be addressed. Many of these issues fall outside the realm of technology per se. Unfortunately, the tech industry has a poor history when it comes to solving problems such as accessibility, bias, diversity, and inclusion. Perhaps the only area with a worse track record is the implementation of policy in the tech. It is difficult to see how an equitable and non-dystopian metaverse can exist without solving these largely non-engineering problems. A virtual world full of artificial intelligence, digital assets, digital avatars, virtual experiences and virtual real estate will need new sets of rules and guidelines if we want to ensure equitable access for all.
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