Microsoft, Nvidia, and Facebook announced significant investments in the metaverse in the last few months. At the development level, people wonder:
- What is the REAL definition of the metaverse?
- What impact is this going to have on the tech industry?
- How will developers and engineers contribute to this virtual overlay?
Let’s dig in:
What is the Metaverse?
Everyone has some sort of vision for what the virtual overlay of the real world, with unlimited creativity and commerce, might look like. As a new topic gaining wide interest, individuals and organizations envision a future metaverse, but none of those visions match precisely. One thing is for sure: future innovations and a sea change in how companies co-exist are required to fulfill most of the grand designs.
The metaverse is a transformational platform that will likely bring as rapid a shift in business and entertainment as wide broadband access did in the 90s. It’s not only virtual reality; it’s shared, connected virtual worlds where real people work, socialize, play, and spend their hard-earned money. Here are just a few definitions of the metaverse:
“...a variety of virtual experiences, environments, and assets that gained momentum during the online-everything shift of the pandemic.”
“...a convergence of physical, augmented, and virtual reality in a shared online space.”
"...a massive communal cyberspace, linking augmented reality and virtual reality together, enabling avatars to hop seamlessly from one activity to the next.”
“...a network of always-on virtual environments in which many people can interact with one another and digital objects while operating avatars of themselves.”
Now, if all of this sounds familiar, it should. Walled garden digital destinations, such as Facebook, World of Warcraft, or Xbox Live have been around for a long time, and fit some of the definitions currently being batted around. These types of walled garden environments, however, don't meet some of the shared visions, among those being seamless transition from one environment to another, shared currency, and avatars that represent you everywhere.
Origins of the Word "Metaverse"
The word "metaverse" is literally a science fiction word. Neal Stephenson used the term first in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, which was a virtual world, accessed with VR headsets, where people could interact. To note, virtual reality headsets did exist when the novel was published, but mostly prototype, non-commercial versions.
Another work of science fiction that continued to advance the concept, and is mentioned in metaverse commentary often, is Ready Player One, by Ernest Kline. The setting of this book mostly takes place in a metaverse-like environment called OASIS.
A notable trope through both stories? The main characters are escaping their misery-filled real lives, into a virtual environment where opportunity, adventure, and pleasure are easily accessible.
The Metaverse Must…
Many scholarly and research-oriented efforts have sprung up to study the topic of what the metaverse would look like, how it would come to life, and what types of technologies would power it.
Among the notable researchers and authors is Matthew Ball, the managing partner of EpyllionCo (an early-stage venture fund), and a venture partner at Makers Fund (a gaming venture fund). Ball is also the co-founder of Ball Metaverse Research Partners. Ball's interest in the metaverse is clear; he writes so often about it that he has collated his research papers into an index page on his site called The Metaverse Primer.
In January 2020, Ball published The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find It, Who Will Build It, and Fortnite. In it, he lists seven properties:
- Persistence. The metaverse doesn’t turn off, pause, or end. It just exists indefinitely.
- Synchronicity. Just like a person might attend a concert in real life, recorded to be watched later, the metaverse is synchronous and live, in real-time. A person might attend a concert in the metaverse, and watch a recording later, too.
- Uncapped. An unlimited number of users can participate as individuals in the metaverse. Obviously, the ability to connect is crucial for the metaverse to thrive.
- Economic reality. The metaverse allows people, organizations, and businesses to create, own, sell, invest, and perform all of the other functions of a real economy.
- Digital and physical existence. The metaverse spans both the digital and physical worlds, and it includes public and private spaces, and open and closed platforms.
- Interoperability. A user can take items from one virtual world to another, give digital goods as gifts, or even design products virtually in one area, then take them to another.
- Collaboration. Content and experiences in the metaverse are created by contributors from big business, individuals, groups, and on and on. The metaverse includes input from a vast range of contributors from different places and different backgrounds.
Owning the Metaverse
Current iterations of platforms that may eventually become part of the metaverse are mostly closed systems, although there are open source projects. Some examples of closed platforms include Roblox, Fortnite, Facebook’s Horizon, and Nvidia’s Omniverse.
Those systems are all owned and operated by individual commercial interests. These companies have a vested interest in keeping people within their walled gardens, spending on micro or macro-transactions resulting in company revenue. For a true metaverse to emerge, those worlds need to be connected. Right now, a user can’t create an avatar on one platform and take it to any another. That’s going to require open platforms and interoperability. While protocols and development standards exist today to possibly stitch one or many closed environments together, tangible examples are harder to find.
As pleasant as the dream of the metaverse may be, technology has some catching up to do before it can be realized. In addition, there has to be political will and collaboration between competing organizations in order to break down the walled garden environments. Tech companies aren’t known for being open or for collaborating with one another, especially if they’re in competition for a vision this grand. An article in IEEE Spectrum sums up the problem:
It’s a problem that those who are working to realize the metaverse understand and are trying to solve. Right now, a lack of infrastructure and network power are two barriers to the kind of interoperability that would allow the metaverse to grow.
Creating the Metaverse
Many commercial organizations, individuals, and groups are creating the metaverse now, but in this post, we highlight three: Facebook, Microsoft, and Nvidia. Each of these companies has invested deeply in programs aimed at creating the metaverse, and they are each taking different approaches.
In June 2021, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, announced to his employees that Facebook would be a metaverse company. In an interview with Casey Newton of The Verge, Zuckerberg noted that the metaverse wouldn’t be built by a single entity, and that cooperation between many companies, developers, and creators would be necessary. He went on to describe his vision of the metaverse, saying, “You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content -- you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.”
The Facebook version of the metaverse involves both virtual reality, accessed through a headset, and augmented reality, accessed through “normal-looking glasses.” In the interview, Zuckerberg talks about the virtual “perfect workstation,” which could be pulled up anywhere and the setup saved to be precisely the way the user wants it. In addition to the work that requires a workstation, Zuckerberg foresees new jobs that can only be performed in the emerging metaverse.
Rather than VR and AR, Microsoft predicts “Digital twins, mixed reality, and autonomous systems are at the core of a massive wave of innovation.” The company says their customers already benefit from those innovations. By connecting the physical world to the digital one, Microsoft suggests the metaverse will change everything from concert-going to manufacturing.
“The key takeaway here is that by creating live, data-bound digital replicas of physical environments, we can apply modern software techniques -- analytics, simulation, autonomous control, and interactions -- in the mixed reality to achieve previously impossible benefits,” writes Sam George, corporate vice president of Azure IoT. George says to imagine a digital store, optimized in real-time, with a physical twin in the real world, or a supply chain that can track and reduce carbon emissions.
In this vision of the metaverse, digital models of the physical world are built, then bound together through IoT connections. Analytics can predict what will happen in the digital model; simulations can answer “what if” questions, autonomous systems can handle routine tasks.
Microsoft is working toward its vision of the metaverse. “There’s a new layer of the infrastructure stack that’s getting created as the digital and physical worlds converge: the enterprise metaverse. This platform layer brings together IoT, digital twins, and mixed reality. With our metaverse stack, you can start with the digital twin to build a rich digital model of anything physical or logical, whether it’s assets, products, or complex environments spanning people, places, things, and their interactions,” Satya Nadell, chairman, and CEO at Microsoft, said during a speech at Microsoft Inspire on July 14.
In December, Nvidia opened its platform, Omniverse, and it’s been dubbed “the metaverse for engineers.” As of August, it had more than 50,000 users from more than 500 companies, including SHoP Architects, Lockheed Martin, the animated show South Park, and many individual users. Now Nvidia is working on expanding the user-base from mostly engineers who are designing products to anyone who creates 3D images by inviting users of Blender, a 3D animation tool.
In a step towards the interoperability crucial to building the metaverse, Blender is now supporting Universal Scene Description (USD), which allows users to access the production pipelines in Omniverse.
USD is an open-source software first introduced by Pixar. “USD is a scene description: a set of data structures and APIs to create, represent and modify virtual worlds. The representation is rich,” writes Michael Kass, distinguished senior engineer at Nvidia. USD is being used across multiple industries, including architecture and manufacturing. It makes building a digital twin far more accessible. Omniverse uses USD as the foundation of its collaboration and simulation platform. Large teams can work together simultaneously on the same thing, even if they are using different software.
What Does the Metaverse Mean for Engineers and Devs?
Industry professionals need to think big when it comes to the metaverse. Developers will need to be ready to create experiences in multiple arenas to find success in the metaverse. There’s also no dominant player. Open source and commercial projects are both going to make exciting contributions to building the metaverse.
Monitoring, learning, and experimenting with new standards and protocols can provide an essential headstart in understanding trends. Both the digital twin approach embraced by Nvidia and Microsoft and the VR/AR approach from Facebook and Roblox are interesting.
One of the most critical aspects of building the metaverse, or even a small section, is making sure a robust underlying network supports the work. Immersive, real-time apps need a reliable, consistent, speedy network.
At Subspace, we believe that the metaverse requires 100% uptime and the kind of latency that exists in real-world interactions (none). We also believe that the metaverse presents unimagined opportunities for economic growth, creative collaboration, human connections, and more.
But to realize those lofty goals, a platform with high stability, low latency, and far-reaching coverage must be part of the foundation. At Subspace, we believe we could help power that future metaverse.