Ever since Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook, Inc. was being rebranded as Meta Platforms, Inc., the phrase ‘metaverse’ has been everywhere. The fact that one of the world’s most prominent tech tycoons has so publicly thrown his considerable financial weight behind an idea that quite frankly sounds like science fiction has certainly made the world sit up and take notice.
What exactly is the metaverse? It’s the vision of a shared, global virtual reality, a new physical iteration of the internet where we won’t just be connected via web pages and messaging and audio and video streaming. We’ll actually be able to walk, talk and interact in digital 3D spaces.
A good explanation is offered in this article. It describes the current state of VR as a multiverse - lots of isolated, separate experiences through computer games like Fortnite and the emerging generation of VR meeting and collaboration spaces like Spatial and Meta’s own Horizon Rooms.
The metaverse is all about breaking down the barriers between all these emerging VR platforms. Connecting all the islands to create one big, fully integrated alternate reality.
Why all the excitement about the metaverse?
The big vision is that the metaverse will create a brand new digital economy that will transcend what’s been achieved in the past 30 years with the first and second generations of the internet. Providing heightened, more tangible, more immersive experiences will be key.
Get frustrated shopping on your mobile having to fiddle about with small images? In the metaverse, with your VR headset on, you (or your avatar) will be able to walk into a virtual shop and try things out. Feel here’s something missing chatting to friends via live text chat or video? In the future, you will be able to meet up in the virtual universe any time you like, wherever they happen to be in the real world.
With remote working now a well-established trend, there is a lot of excitement about how the metaverse could take remote collaboration to new levels. Nevermind Slack, Teams, Zoom and all the rest. How about stepping into a virtual office where you can discuss, share, plan and interact exactly as you would in a real office?
If all of this sounds fanciful, then the caveat has to be made that there are a fair few technological barriers to break through before the vision of a global VR internet becomes a reality. But given the pace of technological progress, you would perhaps not be wise to bet against viable solutions emerging in the next decade. Especially as many of the main challenges have already been identified.
Take connectivity, for example. As things stand, network speeds and latency are proving problematic for the further evolution of VR applications. Immersive 3D video games, for example, are huge pieces of software that require considerable computing power. Making them accessible via the cloud, there are currently limitations as to how big, how graphically detailed, how realistic you can make them because of transport speeds.
When you are talking about scaling that up to a global network of realistic digital 3D spaces, that’s obviously a major challenge. The grand vision comes tumbling down if the alternate reality is glitchy and as slow as an old dial-up connection.
So park your plans to start building connected VR apps until network technology catches up, then? You might not have to wait as long as you think.
We’re only just starting to see the full rollout of 5G, with the promise that it will usher in a new era of full wireless connectivity yet to be realised. Even so, attention is already turning to 6G and the next steps forward that would represent.
And what is at the heart of current conceptual thinking around 6G? That’s right, ultra-fast, minimal latency hyperconnectivity at a global scale. The kind where concerns over the number of devices or the size of applications just disappears, because capacity is a couple of orders of magnitude above anything we’ve yet conceived.
To give an example, it’s thought that 6G technology could achieve connection speeds of up to one terabit per second - 1000 times faster than the current gigabit gold standard.
That’s the kind of connectivity on which something as massive as the metaverse could be built. And if you believe the current forecasts, we’ll all be living in a 6G world by the middle of the next decade.