March 14, 2023
Despite the hype and confusion of the present, the world – firstly the business world – is moving towards the metaverse. But what is the metaverse? What is XR’s role in the metaverse, and what does 5G, edge computing, and AI have to do with it?
Though the word has come to encompass pretty much any XR experience, the metaverse can be understood as an emerging business model and social sphere bridging the physical and digital worlds. The metaverse is a lot of things – an extension of our work and social lives, a new frontier or marketplace for corporations to compete and target consumers, an ideal space for experimental or predictive simulation using digital twins, etc. – but one thing it is not is real.
Instead, we have many different virtual worlds and immersive experiences requiring different devices, apps, profiles or avatars, and digital currencies to access. Moreover, the unified metaverse envisioned by futurists like Mark Zuckerberg might never come to fruition as it would require a level of cooperation and interoperability that’s hard to imagine in Big Tech as we know it today.
So, why all the talk about “the Metaverse?” Many people refer to the metaverse today in much the same we do “the Internet” or “the Web.” When we say “the internet” we often mean an abstract entity made up of over a billion websites. The web is the single collection of all those websites. Similarly, when we say the metaverse, we mean the whole ecosystem of existing and future miniverses, including self-contained virtual worlds like Decentraland and individual immersive experiences.
XR and the Metaverse
Although the metaverse has become synonymous with XR, extended reality is just one group of technologies underpinning the metaverse. Other key ingredients of the metaverse include 5G, edge computing, and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
We use XR-capable devices including smartphones, glasses, and headsets to enter and interact with virtual environments, have immersive experiences, and view digital content superimposed onto the physical world. Those virtual worlds, experiences, and layer(s) of digital information collectively make up the current “metaverse.” You can view 5G, edge computing, and AI as additional enabling technologies for building the metaverse and ensuring a seamless user experience. Here’s a highly simplified explanation of all three technologies:
While 4G enabled a big leap in mobility, the 5th generation mobile network or 5G promises even more powerful and accessible wireless connectivity, with considerably more bandwidth than 4G, lower latency (less than 1ms), faster speeds (up to 20 gigabits per second), higher network capacity, and increased reliability.
Why is 5G important for the metaverse? High-quality XR apps are incredibly compute-intensive. The more photorealistic, immersive, and interactive, the more intensive. We’re talking about real-time data streaming and 3D rendering. Only 5G (and probably 6G) can meet the demanding requirements of a boundless, responsive metaverse, including high bandwidth, ultra-fast speeds, and ultra-low latency. 5G also makes it possible to offload some of the XR processing to the network, allowing for smaller, more affordable XR hardware.
Status: Despite challenges like infrastructure, security, and spectrum availability, 5G is expected to surpass 2 billion connections by 2025. In the meantime, some companies are turning to private 5G networks to power XR experiences such as digital twins and immersive training.
In simple terms, edge computing brings data processing and storage closer to the user or source of the data. So, instead of sending data to the cloud or a centralized data center, most of the processing and analyzing is done “at the edge” by a device or local server near where the data is being generated. Edge computing is ideal for data-intensive apps and real-time analytics.
Edge computing has implications for the metaverse, of course: Like 5G, edge computing reduces latency and bandwidth demands (thus reducing costs), allowing for faster response times and more seamless interaction in virtual worlds. The combination of 5G and edge computing will enable cutting-edge, low-latency XR use cases and greatly contribute to creating a sense of presence in the metaverse.
Status: According to Gartner, 75% of enterprise-generated data will be “created and processed outside a traditional centralized data center or cloud” by 2025. That figure is currently at 10%.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
AI is a technology concerned with training machines to mimic human intelligence to perform tasks, especially repetitive, data-intensive tasks and complex problem solving.
AI systems learn to simulate human cognitive functions like object and speech recognition by ingesting and analyzing massive amounts of (ideally unbiased) data, looking for patterns and creating rules or algorithms for their decision making. A chatbot like ChatGPT, for example, is fed billions of examples of text chats and other written content in a range of formats, continually refining its algorithms through real interactions with users.
ChatGPT is an example of conversational AI, one of several different overlapping branches of AI. Each branch or subfield like machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) can be used to solve different types of problems. For companies, the appeal of AI lies in its potential to drive efficiency and innovation, boost productivity, and create new business opportunities. There are significant challenges, however, including data availability and quality and the high costs of AI programming and deployment.
Particularly relevant to the metaverse is generative AI, a type of machine learning that can produce or generate new content, including images, text, audio, and code. The most popular example is (again) ChatGPT, which is already selling cars in the metaverse. Generative AI promises to accelerate the creation of virtual worlds, assisting developers in quickly creating 3D content without painstaking coding and design and even enabling users to speak 3D content into existence.
Status: AI is rapidly evolving. According to a 2022 report by Deloitte, 79% of enterprises have “deployed three or more types of AI.” Although business leaders are enthusiastic, consumers are worried about AI replacing human jobs, AI bias, and other ethical issues.
It’s true that immersive technologies are already providing business value in the form of faster training, reduced downtime, new customer experiences, and more. But investment in 5G, edge computing, and AI will be critical for taking enterprise XR applications like remote support, virtual meetings, and training to the next level. The time to build out the common infrastructure, thereby becoming metaverse-ready, is now.
Image source: Vecteezy