Ever since Facebook changed its name to Meta in
2009, there has been much buzz about the Metaverse. There is also renewed
interest in virtual worlds. While the concept of virtual reality (VR) has been
around for a long time, the technology is only now really starting to take off.
Metaverse and Virtual Reality
The first is the metaverse, a concept that has
been a regular feature of science fiction since 1984 when William Gibson wrote
his novel Neuromancer.
VR has been a part of popular culture for
decades, appearing in movies like The Matrix, Tron, and Ready Player One.
Following the (sometimes unsuccessful) launches of consumer devices like the
Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, Valve Index, HoloLens, and even Google Glass, the
technology has steadily moved out of science fiction and into commercial
reality. But there is still a long way to go.
This article discusses virtual reality and
augmented reality as a group consisting of three main categories. Fully
immersive virtual reality at one end, augmented reality (AR) at the other, and
so-called "fused reality" (MR) in between.
This spectrum can be thought of as a broad
category called "Augmented Reality (XR)". It includes the three
categories defined above as well as enabling technologies such as haptics and
In the future, XR augmented reality may include
brain-computer interfaces, smell and temperature response, and possibly even
taste. These futuristic ideas have yet to materialize for a variety of reasons.
But mostly because the device still needs a lot of R&D work It is not clear
how the data on the sensitive interface is. But we have devices and data for
AR/VR, haptics, and spatial audio at this stage, so they're moving forward.
We're often asked, "Why hasn't augmented
reality taken off? Why isn't XR everywhere?" limitations
of Extended Reality
For AR, glasses are heavy and unwieldy and come
in basically one style. Remember Google Glass or Snapchat Glasses? Great if you
like this style. Otherwise, you probably won't wear them, no matter how cool
the technology is. People want a variety of stylistic options, so to be truly
versatile, technology must be compatible with a variety of options.
As for VR headsets, the simple truth is that most
people don't want to wear them for long periods of time. They are heavy and
hot, so you get hot and sweaty, which makes you uncomfortable.
But they're good for short periods of time, like
jumping out of a plane or free diving with great white sharks. But these aren't
devices most people use to watch feature films or play three-hour video games.
When talking about AR or mixed reality devices, they can be big. For example,
you'll never see most people wearing HoloLens in public. But that may change as
devices get smaller and more comfortable.
Future mixed reality/converged reality devices
will require a wider area for display with more features and more advanced
viewing for AR applications. Achieving this will require better cameras,
infrared (IR) cameras, or other sensors to accurately map space, improving the
overall quality of the experience. Device manufacturers are aware of these
challenges and are already working on solutions
Creating virtual worlds requires removing data
processing from hardware devices
What does the virtual/augmented/merged reality
world actually look like, no matter what device the user is using? Is it AR,
overlaying different skins in real-world environments, making modern cities
look medieval, or changing people's clothing? Or are we talking about a virtual
representation of the actual real world, like a digital twin of your city?
And even more fantastic: fully immersive virtual
environments that don't exist in the real world. There's a lot of computing
going on, and the devices themselves are too small to hold all the processing
power needed to render these experiences.
To be able to handle the functions required to
make glasses and headsets smaller, lighter, and more portable, mobile networks
must improve. To make devices smaller, extend battery life, and generate less
heat, we need to offload processing power to the edge of the network. This has
to be done so that the latency is at or below the 20ms threshold because in VR
people feel sick beyond 20ms latency. Some advanced AR applications where the
device tracks and recognizes fast-moving objects will require low latency, up
to the 5 ms range.
Over time, we'll see more computing being done in
the headset itself. To move devices, we need 5G (and 6G) networks with network
throughput, edge computing, and the ability to handle latency. We need low
latency, low jitter, high bandwidth, and an ultra-reliable transport network
without packet loss. We're getting there, but the web can't do it yet.
graphics processing and rendering techniques
We need more powerful networks, not only because
the need to shrink devices increases edge computing requirements, but virtual
worlds require a lot of graphics processing and rendering. This rendering needs
to be done at the edge, the rendered world is passed back to the device and
worn in near real-time.
Moving graphics processing and rendering to the
edge opens the door for devices to become smaller and lighter. But it lays the
groundwork for new innovations in complex rendering that can be done remotely
and back to the device. It's one thing to remotely render a relatively linear
virtual world like a video game, but quite another to deliver a live experience
in real time.
Some devices have experimented with different
models of offloaded computing power. The Valve Index is a VR device that
connects to a high-powered computer via a wired connection, primarily for
Then there's a company called Nreal that offers a
set of AR glasses that use a wired connection to harness the processing power
of a smartphone. Although both of these examples use wired connections, they
are both pushing us toward applications, devices, and virtual worlds that can
be accessed, processed, and rendered over wireless networks.
There is also a technology called SideLink. It is
being standardized in 3GPP to allow certain cellular devices to communicate
with each other without going through the core network. This has the potential
to be very useful for VR and AR rendering. These innovations gave rise to the
possibility of glasses-like devices that would one day replace cell phones.
Will Facebook/Meta "Own" the Metaverse?
They would have a virtual world, they might call it a metaverse, but they
wouldn't have all of the metaverses like today's internet. A metaverse is a
collection of virtual worlds that we can see. It's much like the Internet, with
an infinite number of sites available for every imaginable purpose. Some parts
of the metaverse may be digital twins of the real world, some parts may be a
unified version of the real world and the virtual world, and other parts may
remain entirely virtual.
Metaverse will eventually become decentralized
and device independent. And, like the Internet, it needs a set of standards,
protocols, and common APIs to function properly and be highly interoperable.
Once that's done, users will be able to access Facebook's Metaverse over a 5G
(or 6G) network using smart devices like phones, just like you can access
Google's virtual world through a Sony device over AT&T's network.
If devices and the world remain largely
proprietary as they are today, growth potential will be limited.
Interoperability standards will be as essential to Metaverse as they are to
MPEG video compression and 3GPP for cellular communications. In the virtual
world, you can enter different areas regardless of the provider you use to
access it. And each business will have its own brand-specific experience in the
virtual world, just as they do in the real world.
To provide the highest quality experience to the
greatest number of users, device and network interoperability is critical and
must be standardized. Once such a standard is created, no one company owns it,
just as no one company owns 3GPP or MPEG.
the metaverse look like?
So, once we get there, how will the augmented
reality be used? We expect gaming to remain an important driver, as it is
today. But there are many other ways that we can see this technology take
If we could design a virtual sports bar go from
the cockpit to the pit lane or to the stands. What if you could simulate diving
with sharks, go skydiving, or visit a world-class museum? The possibilities of
the metaverse seem limitless.
We're probably 15 to 20 years or more away from a
truly standardized, open metaverse. Meanwhile, we'll see many companies
experimenting with their own metaverse, such as Facebook's big-M metaverse. But
will Facebook/Meta last? Of course not. Facebook may have a "branded"
metaverse, but there will be many metaverses to explore and enjoy.
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