Chances are you have been in a metaverse already! Minecraft, anybody? Or, Fortnite? What about Pokémon Go or Roblox? The real metaverse afficionados reading this blog post will have been frequenting Decentraland, maybe even hosting their own NFT art exhibition there.
That’s a lot of new terminology in our opening paragraph. Let’s dive in and try to understand what this all means and – most importantly – how it relates to another emerging technology: 5G. Indeed, we believe that 5G is a critical enabler for the metaverse and its device and application developer ecosystem.
What is the metaverse?
The term metaverse was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash”. It remained buried deep under the snow for several decades, until Facebook announced a virtual reality (VR) powered metaverse to be the next big thing. So big, that this once trillion-dollar company rebranded to Meta. The internet, device and connectivity ecosystems have been in frenzy ever since.
The concept of metaverse does not belong to Meta, of course. It thus means different things depending on who you ask. We could share formal definitions here, but would rather concentrate on the three important elements each of these definitions embrace.
First, and most importantly, the metaverse embraces a social element. It is not only a virtual space where users spend time (and money) on their own or with a selected few. Rather, the metaverse is intended to resonate with the very social fabric which underpins human society. Once in the metaverse, you and/or your avatar are able to interact humanly by looking into each other’s eyes, perceive body language and maybe even shake hands or hug each other.
Second, it has a strong virtual narrative. For some, the metaverse exists in a purely virtual world which can be consumed by us through VR headsets; an example here is the game Fortnite played with metaverse VR interaction using such headsets. For others, it has a strong foundation in the physical world but with digital overlays experienced through augmented reality (AR) or the more interactive mixed reality (MR). An example here is Pokémon Go played through a mobile phone or AR glasses. Either way, our experiences and ways of social interaction are significantly augmented with persistent virtual content. Access to the virtual world of the metaverse and haptic interaction therein is enabled by any of these 3D eXtended Reality (XR) devices, and in the interim via today’s 2D screens leveraging WebXR technologies.
Third, it is accelerated through novel technologies, like Web 3.0, blockchains, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), 5G, digital twins, artificial intelligence and XR devices, just to name a few. It is important to understand that the metaverse could probably exist without most of these tech ingredients, but uptake and scale would be seriously hampered. We will give a few examples further down, once we have discussed the building blocks of the metaverse in more detail.
The metaverse and the emerging Web 3.0
Let’s deep dive into a technology which is frequently cited in the context of the metaverse: Web 3.0. The term is heavily overloaded/ overused but in essence symbolizes the emergence of a new decentralized web leveraging blockchain technologies.
Why is that important? It is a question of ownership. Current internet applications, such as social media platforms, are centrally owned. Any financial transactions or any code upgrades or any decisions to close it down are thus under the total control of the owning company.
Web 3.0, on the other hand, will have a decentralized ownership structure thanks to the decentralized properties of blockchains. This new modus operandi poses serious challenges in terms of operational and energy efficiencies but offers unique opportunities by making users a central part of this new internet and its economy. As will be exemplified below, it also offers interoperability between applications in the same way as IP offers interoperability between networks and devices.
Decentralized Web 3.0 equivalents to the centralized Web 2.0 are emerging quickly: Filecoin or IFPS are equivalents to Dropbox; Brave to Chrome; Metamask to Paypal; DTube to YouTube, and so on. While Web 2.0 apps are powered by operating systems like Windows or macOS, the Web 3.0 apps run on decentralized operating systems like Ethereum.
A Web 3.0 operating system is also known as the infrastructure layer. It enables distributed applications, or dApps. Ethereum is the most popular but not the only one; other such blockchains are Solana, Polygon, Tron, Cardano and EOS.
These infrastructure blockchains can run one or several value tokens. For instance, the Bitcoin blockchain would only support one value token, the Bitcoin itself. Ethereum, however, allows several tokens to run on top, each with its own value ecosystem. Examples of metaverse-related value tokens running on Ethereum are SAND, MANA, AXS and GALA, all of which allow you to buy/sell items in the virtual world at a perceived value. This layer is often referred to as the token layer.
Moving into the metaverse, these tokens allow you to buy and sell fixed as well as dynamic assets, which is why we refer to this layer as the asset layer. For instance, in the metaverse platform Decentraland you can use the MANA token to buy, sell or rent land. Or you can bring digital art which you purchased on the platform OpenSea into your land owned in Decentraland; this is possible because both Decentraland and Opensea are interoperable since they are running on the same operating system, Ethereum.
Putting the above Web 3.0 constituents together, we observe that a new OSI-equivalent layer is emerging which runs on top of our traditional networking technologies. To enable an efficient execution of this emerging OSI stack, the underlying networking technologies must operate seamlessly – which is why the emergence of limitless connectivity via 5G is so timely!
Metaverse VR and AR devices
Before talking about 5G and networks, let’s discuss devices. Think of them as proxies or portals between the physical world and the metaverse. Today we have keyboards and touchscreens that all require interactions that need to be learned at some point. From a user experience point of view, however, the emerging metaverse devices yield a unique opportunity for more intuitive interactions and consumption of digital content and information.
As proxies, these devices need to translate information from the physical world into the virtual, but also back from the virtual world into the physical.
The former – sensing the physical environment – is done through an exploding ecosystem of sensors which in their entirety form the Internet of Things (IoT). In the context of the metaverse, the IoT relies on Lidar sensors, cameras, volumetric capture devices, haptic suits and gloves, neural wristbands, or even Neuralink-like devices.
The latter – the ability for us to consume the virtual metaverse content – is enabled by an exploding ecosystem of VR, AR, MR (which, together with haptics and other sensory interaction, is sometimes grouped into XR) as well as holographic projection devices.