Why the Metaverse Is Not Going Anywhere Without 5G
While the metaverse may seem like a new concept to some, the idea was first mooted 30 years ago. And yet, despite the boom in online gaming and the corresponding development of highly detailed, immersive and rich digital environments, it's only now that we are entering the early stage of development.
That's a point analysts from professional services firm PwC made in late 2021 as they took a look at the hype surrounding the metaverse and what it means for business.
The metaverse is the hypothesized next iteration of the internet that will be supported by decentralized, persistent online 3D virtual environments. This virtual space will be accessible through virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, smartphones, PCs and game consoles. In the metaverse, people can interact with one another, visit far-flung locations and buy and sell goods or services. In theory, businesses can conduct meetings with employees, interact with customers, and find, hire and onboard workers, no matter their physical location. And unlike current 3D environments, the metaverse will remain in place even when users exit.
The business applications are large, and while some of the hype is warranted, the PwC analysts noted, the fully realized vision is still years away. That should be no real surprise. To enable the workplace metaverse envisaged by the likes of Microsoft or Facebook parent company Meta, there are a number of emerging technologies that will be key in building effective environments. Those are still only in development themselves.
The Data Problem Underlying the Metaverse
To build virtual environments around VR requires enormous amounts of data and a network that can carry that data. In fact, when discussing the metaverse it's important to keep in mind that this is really about networking through VR. That has only really become effective in recent years with the emergence of 5G and close-to-immediate data transfer.
According to the PwC report "Demystifying the Metaverse," computing power, headsets, software protocols and networking capacity aren’t yet ready to support a truly immersive and shared metaverse, even though the crucial technology is now readily available.
While not directly related to the problems of 5G, there are a number of conclusions in the report that are worth keeping in mind when discussing the metaverse:
- The metaverse is an evolution, not a revolution in technology.
- It may profoundly change how businesses and consumers interact with products, services and each other.
- Key concepts, including digital economy innovations such as cryptocurrencies, are relevant to businesses already.
- The risks of inaction are real: New technologies require new strategies and methods to build trust.
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5G Will Drive the Evolution
5G is what is driving all this and enabling this new digital reality. Todd Richmond, director of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Pardee RAND Tech + Narrative Lab, pointed out that the metaverse is not just about AR and VR, though much of the current hype concerns these types of immersive engagements.
In fact, he argued, we already have the metaverse built on various internet and cell capabilities. Those include a variety of persistent digital worlds, fed by a variety of sensors and devices, that humans interact with. And current less immersive experiences, such as texting or scrolling through various visual feeds, have often been designed and optimized to work with limited bandwidth.
However, VR and, to a lesser extent AR, do require fatter pipelines to provide the necessary data required by current headsets. 5G provides the amount of bandwidth that these next-generation experiences require.
The stronger backbone isn't just required for user interaction. There is also a need for a vast array of physical-world sensor platforms that will need to feed into the metaverse. Many of these sensors will be mobile and hence require untethered network access. While each sensor may not require massive bandwidth, the ever-increasing number and types of sensors will in total require orders of magnitude more megabits.
In short, the metaverse can exist without 5G, but the end-user experience will not live up to expectations. “Immersion requires lots of data, and as other senses come into play (e.g., haptics), the need for even more packets will increase, at least until there is a breakthrough in compression and/or computation,” Richmond said.
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5G and Quality of Experience
Offering 5G connections is not enough, though. The quality of the connections will also determine how well the metaverse is going to work. According to Vikram Chopra, co-founder and CEO of Canada-based Shabodi, a developer of tech for 5G networks, 5G will enable the quality of experience (QoE) that is needed to unlock its full, scalable potential.
Though much of what we hear about 5G is that it's super-fast and has massive bandwidth, he said, there is much more than meets the eye. To fully understand its potential impact, it's important to understand what makes 5G technology different from earlier generations of mobile networks.
With 5G, for the first time, application developers can program the network. In other words, instead of applications, such as mobile games, being totally dependent on available bandwidth and speed, the applications can specify what quality of service they want and when they want it. That completely changes the relationship between the network and the application, Chopra said.
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"This ability to develop enhanced network-aware applications will lead to new use cases, games and applications that have not yet been thought of,” he said. “The QoE enabled by 5G will make your metaverse experience lifelike with no jitter, no lag and incredible speed. It will not feel realistic because the network is faster, but because the network can be made to work smarter, with guidance from application developers.”
The 3GPP, a global consortium that develops protocols for advanced mobile telecommunications like 5G, specified the basic mechanisms for QoE management in their Release 17. This much-anticipated release gives application developers guidance on QoE implementation. And the 3GPP Release 18 will enhance the QoE framework to support new types of 5G services, such as extended reality (XR), cloud gaming, and multicast and broadcast Services (MBS).
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Fully Immersive Content with Minimal Lag
What this means, said Maryam Rofougaran, CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based wireless technology company Movandi, is not just a question of the need to be constantly connected without glitches. It's about fully immersive content streaming seamlessly in 4K and 8K with low latency and minimal lag.
To do this, users will need the highest speed 5G using mmWave spectrum, she said. 5G mmWave is a cellular technology that provides access to bandwidth and capacity available in frequency bands above 24 GHz. That access will start to open up possibilities like VR experiences that include the sense of touch, and AR experiences that let visitors have in-depth conversations.
“Users will need, and want to be able to go from one experience to another without being disconnected by limited bandwidth, network latency that lags, network congestion, or anything else that is not the highest speed 5G mmWave,” Rofougaran said. “The metaverse with 5G mmWave transformation is global. It will impact us all.”
Tech Advances Will Make the Promise a Reality
The metaverse concept has been around for decades, but to many it still sounds like science fiction: a parallel, virtual universe where we live our lives as if we were in a video game.
However, as we continue to see advances in technology, this fiction is quickly becoming a reality. The convergence of technological maturity and society's readiness to accept digital alternatives was accelerated by COVID-19 and the advancement of 5G networks, which in turn, drives new digital experiences for businesses and consumers.
In 2022, we will see metaverse opportunities take shape, with companies launching virtual content and services from education to entertainment, from medicine to fashion. While some companies like Meta might be early movers is the race to build the dominant platform, the opportunity is still developing and businesses should, if they haven't already, think about where in the services spectrum they would like to position themselves.
Edge computing, network slicing and enterprise ecosystems all currently touch communication service providers, said Ken Kennedy, chief operating officer and head of revenue management and digital monetization at CSG, a Greenwood Village, Colo.-based provider of customer engagement services.
"But it is 5G with its mobility, superior speed and throughput benefits, that will lay the foundation of the metaverse,” he said.