The Metaverse is coming — it just needed 5G
The kind of digital worlds that we’ve only seen in sci-fi films or in a VR experience snippet — it’s called the Metaverse, and the technology has finally arrived to make it more than an idea.
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We’ve caught glimpses of Hollywood’s version of the Metaverse — a heroine walking down a busy street with digital ads swirling in the air while CGI villains lurk in shadows. In real life it could be you, sitting at home, using a watch or glasses to turn your living room into a virtual version of our actual world. Or you could choose to create a fantasy world, putting yourself in a world like something straight out of an anime movie.
In either version of your virtual world, you could do exactly what you might do in the real world — meet a client for a quick chat or go to your favorite Korean grocery store down the block. But you could also stop and talk with a half Smurf/half man on the street. Or attend your sister’s birthday party as a hologram and dance with guests who live on different coasts.
This is the Metaverse, the next generation of digital experiences. It’s a far cry from the limits of today’s internet or gaming apps that require a headset and only allow you to exist within a single story. In the Metaverse, you can own a business or rent an apartment and be required to abide by rules and regulations just like you would in the real world. But there would be no limit to the things you could see or do – if the digital infrastructure supports it.
As I know from my own work at RLab in Brooklyn — the nation’s first city-funded center for research, education and entrepreneurship in AR and VR — one of the basic building blocks for any Metaverse has to be the 5G network.
What is the Metaverse?
It’s a term coined by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction book Snow Crash, where humans represented as avatars interact in a 3D world. The concept is evolving. Today, Wikipedia defines it as “a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.” Essentially, the Metaverse will be a bridge of sorts between the physical world, a digital mirror of the physical world and a digital world built by human imagination.
The Metaverse will be a digital infrastructure much like the internet, requiring different types of software, enterprising developers and a huge pool of users to beta-test it. It might be one body or it might be many individual Metaverses, or many Metaverses connected. It could be created by a large tech company, an independent entity or someone in a lab on the other side of the world. The race is on, and Facebook has already signaled it is interested by launching Facebook Horizon, “an ever-expanding VR world to explore, play and create.”
What exists today?
There are a few real-world destinations that are developers’ dreams of what the Metaverse could at least start to look like. A prime example is Meow Wolf, which creates immersive and interactive experiences that include art installations, video and music production, and extended reality content. Their first permanent installation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, lets you dip through fireplaces into new worlds and has a multidimensional mystery house. Visitors experience walls that move, fluorescent forests, characters powered by AI and audio shells that react to movement. It’s incredibly popular, and the collective is opening installations in Denver and Las Vegas in 2021.
There are also musical iterations of the Metaverse. Some are virtual pop-up concerts, like the digital performance that Zoan, a Finnish startup I’ve worked with closely, built last year. It was a bright and dynamic virtual world where one of the country’s most famous bands performed live during a national holiday, attracting a whopping 12% of the entire population of Finland. Over 150 thousand of them tuned in with VR headsets, clapping along with the in-person audience from their own homes.
Experiences like this are limited now by how far they can push VR and AR experiences. They need faster networks with lower latency that can allow huge amounts of data to zip between cloud servers and their devices, whether those are VR headsets or AI-powered bots. 5G, especially 5G using mmWave spectrum, 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 with AI hosts.
Constructing fully interactive 3D Metaverses, replete with textured media from video and immersive sound, relies on heavy digital files far denser than file types required for video or other content. With peak upload and download speeds significantly faster than 4G, 5G can handle these bigger files. Growing access to 5G can support the ongoing development of the Metaverse by providing the speed and power that make it possible for digital worlds to function. Mobile hardware companies are developing 5G-ready devices capable of running software beyond that which we have now — devices that can support the Metaverse.
What will you do in the Metaverse?
The billion-dollar gaming industry has long relied on world-building in games, as have others developing online virtual worlds, like Second Life, where a human can live in the digital world with a job, hobbies, relationships and a place to live.
The Metaverse (or Metaverses) can build upon this by creating full worlds that do not stop when you are in them or out of them. This allows for more realistic versions of what we now think of as VR experiences. For example, visiting space in a VR experience is usually static. It is built, then never changes. That experience in a Metaverse could be constantly evolving, reacting minute by minute with real-world data like that from NASA satellites. It would even allow researchers to create realistic dark holes to study them better.
Across industries right now, teams of technologists are collaborating with subject matter experts and experimenting with new concepts and applications for AR, VR and the Metaverse. Some of the largest consumer and media brands, such as sneakers, cosmetics and furniture retailers, are providing AR apps so you can try on shoes with your smartphone or try out a new sink in your guest bathroom. These experiences will translate into immersive Metaverse stores where users might race to buy one-of-a-kind feathered sneakers or kayaks that can float above streets (with a kayaking street permit purchased from the Metaverse).
This is just the beginning. What if, for example, Meow Wolf collaborated with a Metaverse to bring specially curated art festivals to their citizens once a year? And offer special Metaverse experiences to in-person visitors at one of their physical locations?
And maybe Zoan could create a series of stadiums, music halls and stages within one music-centered Metaverse that hosted live acts of the world's most famous performers — and attendees could sell or buy merchandise the same way they would at the Madison Square Garden or Bonnaroo.
Many fitness and health practitioners are excited about the possibilities in the Metaverse too. Moving far beyond the biking and video platforms provided today, trainers could push their clients or patients to hike trails in national parks as an animal cheers them on, or set up personalized walking routes to rehabilitate an injured hip.
How the Metaverse Could Evolve
The Metaverse is not just about commercial opportunities. As we evolve toward living in both the real world and the digital one, the Metaverse offers a key advantage: accessibility. People unable to travel will be able to engage virtually. The Metaverse could make it possible for them to “go” where they might not have gone and access communities they never could have reached.
How the possibilities unfold depends on 5G. The Metaverse will need the speed and capabilities of the faster network to fully optimize futuristic applications and keep pushing progress. It is critical to pay attention to these mind-bending and evolving applications. The Metaverse transformation is global. It will impact us all.