*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).
Over the past couple of years, the term “Metaverse” has become quite popular. In addition to Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, a large number of organizations have been touting metaverse strategies, and analysts have been sizing up the metaverse market. Metaverse development and metaverse technologies have become a priority for many organizations, and there is a sense of “gold rush” intensity as companies rush to bring novel ideas to market.
Virtual reality lies at the core of the metaverse. The fundamental idea is a vast and interconnected virtual world, somewhat like the world wide web but as a 3D reconstruction of reality. And of course, we don’t have to stop at reality. The metaverse can contain literally anything we can imagine, however fantastical, as long as it can be displayed on a VR headset. Corners of the metaverse could be devoted to digital twins and digital avatars.
The metaverse is generally talked about as a VR experience, but there is an opportunity to create an augmented reality metaverse that is more closely tied to the real world. There are roles for other technologies in the metaverse too. For example, augmented reality and virtual reality are key to displaying the virtual world, but blockchain technology could be used to underpin the value of virtual goods, or certify virtual transactions.
It could be argued that meta platforms are nothing new. In the early 2000’s, Linden Labs launched Second Life. While it did not use virtual reality, it was a completely virtual 3D world that eventually attracted a million users. The technologies underpinning the modern metaverse share some roots with their precursors, but they also have some unique aspects that are enabled by today’s technologies and processing power.
Technologies used for metaverse development
There are two approaches to developing the metaverse: build a proprietary “walled garden” that is largely controlled by a single entity, or create standards that allow ad hoc growth based on contributions by many different groups. This very much mirrors the early days of the internet. Companies such as AOL and Compuserve offered email, chat and other internet services within the confines of their proprietary systems. These systems are called “walled gardens" because they create a well controlled space within a broader environment. It’s a “garden” because it is pleasant for most users–easy to use and relatively safe. It is considered “walled” because it is deliberately kept separate from the broader environment. AOL and Compuserve initially offered no access to the broader internet, but the experience was relatively easy to use and did not require a lot of technical knowledge to set up and operate. In contrast, in the early 2000’s, the technical complexities of getting a Windows PC to successfully send email and browse the World Wide Web were quite significant.
However, over time most technologies become easier to use. At some point, walled gardens often reach a point where they are no longer competitive. Their limitations become too restrictive, and the majority of the population move on to a more open environment. It seems very likely that the metaverse will follow a similar pattern.
A good question to ask is what does it take to develop the metaverse? The simplest answer is a set of tools that enable the creation of a virtual world and its contents. However, there are many technical complexities involved in implementing a virtual world designed for use by many digital avatars simultaneously. This can be broken down into several broad categories: foundational technologies, world building, content creation and enabling a user’s virtual experiences.
Foundational infrastructure includes creating the underlying architecture, from the servers to the software stacks that enable metaverse applications. Decisions must be made to ensure that the system can deliver adequate performance for the proposed number of users. A metaverse is pretty limited with only one user, but as soon as you introduce a second user you must deal with issues of synchronicity and lag. The second (or millionth) user’s experience of an event should be consistent. Both distributed and edge computing may play a significant role in the development of a large scale metaverse project.
Worldbuilding includes both the tools for world creation and 3d reconstruction, but also the basic rules that govern the virtual world. The advantage of the metaverse is that anything can be created. Its greatest challenge is that nothing exists until you build it. An organization in the business of building meta platforms will have to consider precisely what will and will not be allowed. Will all spaces experience gravity? Unlike reality, they don’t have to. But someone somewhere has to make that decision and set the rules. Again, this is likely to follow the patterns seen with the Internet. Some companies may follow the internet model of MySpace and GeoCities, allowing users free reign in their approach to the design of their virtual land. Others may follow the Facebook model and force users to stay within a strictly defined template. There are pros and cons to both approaches. More freedom means more experimentation and more novel experiences, but it also means a messier and often uglier experience for users.
Once the infrastructure is in place, the virtual world built, and the rules applied, it’s time to consider metaverse development and content creation. Without user-driven content creation, any metaverse platform is going to be limited in scope. It has proven almost impossible for a single entity to keep pace with user-driven content, as the demise of the traditional encyclopedia versus the rise of Wikipedia clearly shows. But for broad world building, the tools must be exceptionally easy to use. This is why user experience is so important for the metaverse.
Many of the technologies being used to develop the metaverse come from the world of video games, specifically game engines and related toolkits designed for interactive, collaborative 3D worlds. These tools already support various types of extended reality, including augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality.
Artificial intelligence and metaverse technology
Artificial intelligence has a number of potential applications within a metaverse. AR headsets and some VR headsets already use artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms in the form of computer vision and object recognition. This provides spatial tracking and object recognition. A VR headset can be enabled with natural language processing so that regular speech can be used to interact with a metaverse experience. An AI system could also be combined with a digital avatar to act as an interactive guide.
AI technology can also be used in metaverse worldbuilding, from aiding in the creation of virtual worlds, to replicating real world objects as virtual objects in 3D, to tools that make it easier to design digital humans. AI tech may also be used to help recognize negative behaviors that contravene whatever guidelines the developer has established for that space.
Why understanding metaverse technology is important
As should be clear by now, creating the metaverse is a big undertaking. To imagine how metaverse technology might shape the future, we can compare it to the rise of the smartphone. In the past decade, the smartphone has become ubiquitous. As a result, billions of people are now connected to the internet. It has enabled a wide variety of unanticipated applications, from eCommerce to social media to mobile gaming. But it has also changed many aspects of the electronics industry. Components that literally cost tens of thousands of dollars and were the size of a small fridge, such as precision gyroscopes, have been miniaturized and turned into components that cost a dollar. Processing power, memory and storage has become absurdly cheap. Display technology has made incredible leaps in quality, affordability and power consumption. As the metaverse gains traction, it is inevitable that the virtual reality headset of today will quickly become antiquated. Technology from virtual reality will spill over into augmented reality, and vice versa. The boundary between the physical world and the digital world will become even more blurred. Today’s virtual reality makes Second Life look antiquated. The metaverse will make today’s VR headset and virtual reality experiences look primitive.
The future is hard to predict, especially for new technology. Will virtual space and virtual real estate compete with real world property? How far can digital twins go? Can blockchain technology play a useful role? What is the future of the $200 Billion video game industry in the context of the metaverse? Will successful video game companies like Epic Games be able to translate that success into metaverse success? All of these questions are hard to answer. While outcomes may be unclear, one thing that is certain is that the metaverse will be a driver of change.
Primary uses for metaverse technology
The metaverse does not yet truly exist. What we have are pieces of technology that collectively can help enable it. Technologies that bridge the gap between regular users of smartphones and computers and the metaverse will be critically important. One example of this is Microsoft Mesh, which enables Mixed Reality remote presence experiences on a wide range of devices. It’s almost a Microsoft Teams for the embryonic metaverse.
Inevitably, multiple companies are building proprietary “walled gardens”, such as Facebook Horizon Worlds (now Meta Horizon Worlds). These enable a variety of metaverse-like experiences, such as the ability to create a 3d avatar and collaborate with others in Horizon workrooms.
Metaverse technology has applications in both the commercial sector and the private sector. Virtual Reality has been shown to improve knowledge retention, increase empathy and provide a meaningful sense of immersion. All three traits have considerable value, whether used for training, collaboration, negotiation or simple social interaction. Today’s virtual reality technology needs to become better, easier to use and less expensive, but this will happen over time. As extended reality takes hold and people become more comfortable with concepts like a digital asset or a digital twin, the physical world may itself become just one aspect of an intelligent reality that exists within the metaverse.
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