Connectivity and Networks: Building the metaverse

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As talk of the ‘metaverse’ continues at pace, Natalie Bannerman speaks to industry experts on what this new age of the internet will mean for the infrastructure and networks of the telecoms space

The metaverse. A term first coined by American author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash in which humans interact with each other in a virtual reality based world, the next internet.

The origins

A ‘street’ in this imagined metaverse, is described in the novel as “a computer-graphics protocol written down on a piece of paper somewhere – none of these things is being physically built. They are, rather, pieces of software, made available to the public over the worldwide fibre-optics network”.

For those of us outside of the world of science fiction, this term remained unknown until October 2021 saw Facebook, Inc rebrand as Meta Platforms and announce its new long-term focus on building the metaverse. Since then, the metaverse has been catapulted into the forefront of media debate.

David Hutton, chief engineer at the Telecom Infra Project, says that in order “to deliver the promise of the metaverse, all industry stakeholders need to work together to understand the necessary service requirements and their impact on network infrastructure and management”.

While most of the conversation has centred on the applications and top-layer technologies, such as gaming, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality and extended reality, it is the infrastructure and network layer technologies that have to be figured out.

During Mobile World Congress 2022, Meta’s co-founder, chairman and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said that “as we build for the metaverse… creating a true sense of presence in virtual worlds delivered to smart glasses and VR headsets will require massive advances in connectivity”, adding “things like remote rendering over edge compute cloud and wide-scale immersive video streaming will take entirely new types of networks”.

In response to these comments and the growing idea of the metaverse as a certain future, Capacity asks the question: who will build these networks?

The demands of the network

In order for telcos to meet the demands of the metaverse, we first have to know the network requirements. The unsurprising fact is, no one seems to know yet.

According to Raja Koduri, senior vice president and general manager of the accelerated computing systems and graphics group at Intel, “truly persistent and immersive computing, at scale and accessible by billions of humans in real time, will require… a 1,000-times increase in computational efficiency from today’s state of the art”.

But exactly what that is or what that will mean in terms of bandwidth, speed and latency, fibre penetration and which infrastructure ecosystem will be impacted most – subsea, mobile and towers, data centres – has yet to be seen.

“The potential of the metaverse is extraordinary, however as an industry, we are still in the early stages of development,” says Paul Williamson, senior vice president and general manager of Arm’s client line of business.

“There are several compute elements that need to come together for us to see the metaverse’s true potential and these include portable device form factors, edge data centres, and the cloud.”

Williamson goes on to say that connectivity will play a huge role as metaverse-based VR applications will require a “massive increase in throughput as well as extremely low latency compared to current video applications”.

In his opinion, “changes to throughput and latency will impact the network infrastructure and we will need orders of magnitude improvement in compute efficiency and performance if high-bandwidth connectivity is going to keep up with end-user demands”.

“For the metaverse to exist, an adaptive infrastructure that integrates hardware and software is critical,” explaines Liu Jun, vice president and general manager of AI and high-performance computing Inspur Information. Inspur recently launched MetaEngine, an NVIDIA-certified system designed to power large-scale digital twin simulations [virtual environments].

“The hardware must provide computing power suitable for a wide array of compute-intensive scenarios. The software must function as a platform for connecting different tools and algorithms,” says Jun.

The closest estimate of the metaverse’s requirements came from Moussa Zaghdoud, executive vice-president of the cloud communication business division at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise. Zaghdoud estimates that to “make worlds come alive virtually we’d need to see broadband speeds of well above 1Gb because of the huge chunks of data to be processed. Latency plays a crucial role as well since response times need to be 10 milliseconds or less for all of it to pan out as intended”.

With all the work that has gone into 5G networks, and with 6G already progressing, one could assume that the metaverse will just be an extension of this.

Robert Shore, senior vice president of marketing at Infinera says that while enhanced broadband connectivity, such as 5G, will be a “critical part of enabling the metaverse”, the industry must think differently about how to build networks, as “traditional network architectures are not well suited to support the kinds of capacity, latency and traffic patterns that will arise as the metaverse grows”.

In Shore’s opinion, the new architecture will be based on “new concepts, such as edge compute, pushing the application hosting devices closer to the end user and building connectivity infrastructures that are optimised for edge compute-based networks that can support rapidly growing access connectivity demands”.

Applications and monetisation

Technology aside, and learning from the lessons of 5G, questions remain on how the metaverse will be monetised, how much its networks will cost, and, most importantly, where will all these funds ultimately come from.

Ivan Liljeqvist, co-founder and CEO of Moralis Web3, a global web3 development platform, believes that the monetisation will come from various sources, with hyperscalers leading the charge.

“There won’t be just one avenue for monetisation in the metaverse, and I think it helps to think about it in much the same way we do traditional e-commerce, with a whole host of products and services made available to users. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs also promise to open up new commercial opportunities for companies and creators alike,” explains Liljeqvist.

Using Microsoft as an example, he says that its pending acquisition of Activision Blizzard earlier this year “gives us a clear idea of its metaverse strategy”.

Microsoft’s acquisition is effectively on hold, due to an ongining investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission. But should the regulator approve the deal, Liljeqvist says, that “by acquiring the company, Microsoft [will buy] content, such as Call of Duty and Candy Crush, and the communities and revenue stream attached to those games”.

“Microsoft’s strategy is clear for all to see: purchase the content, acquire the communities and break down barriers between different devices. I fully expect the rest of Big Tech to take a very similar line,” he adds.

Shen Ye, global head of hardware at HTC, agrees that every entity in the metaverse will generate revenue in a different way.

“Every organisation has a different approach to monetisation,” he says. “There’s no single approach which suits everyone. It’ll be everything covering hardware, software, content bundles, in-app purchases etc. VR and XR will open up new experiences, and there will be new experiments with monetisation.”

Marcin Bała, CEO of telecoms networks specialist Salumanus, thinks the metaverse’s revenue streams will come from data monetisation or “‘selling ourselves’, like we do today with Facebook and LinkedIn etc”.

“With [selling ourselves] we don’t pay using money but instead we pay with our time, time spent on the platform,” says Bała. “I think this will be mirrored with Meta, especially with the idea that we’d basically ‘live’ in the metaverse, giving Meta data on everything about us that it can monetise.”

Once the infrastructure is in place, in order to deliver the level of network performance required, the metaverse will have to be layered with a number of additional technologies.

“To build a truly believable and immersive metaverse, it’s absolutely critical to eliminate any performance issues that risk creating delays or glitches that shatter the user experience,” says Ian Waters, senior director at Cisco’s ThousandEyes. “To deliver the fully integrated experience, there will be a heavy reliance on the performance of APIs, alongside technologies like blockchain and payment processing, as well as edge computing to take processing power closer to the user.”

Waters adds this will include end-to-end visibility across the entire digital supply chain and cloud and internet networks that deliver the “digital experience” of the metaverse, as it “will be crucial to see, detect, and optimise any performance issues before they cause users to experience abrupt outages or glitchy interactions”.

AI and quantum technology will also have roles “as the more we connect the more we will have to process data with the best possible rendering”, adds Zaghdoud, and in making the metaverse safe.

“Quantum and AI will be paramount in the creation of realism within the metaverse, but also for protecting that space. Quantum is often labelled as a security threat, but arguably its power will need to be harnessed to provide adequate cybersecurity in the metaverse,” he adds. Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise’s EVP also warns that “inhomogeneous availability of connectivity” will affect the success of the metaverse, because it will need to widely available for interest in it to grow.

The roadmap

While experts are predicting it will take five to 10 years before the metaverse starts to become real, the consensus is it “will develop gradually, rather than launch all at once”, in the words of Liljeqvist.

While he acknowledges that while there will be one metaverse, he predicts “there will be multiple different virtual worlds within it, some of which will be the exclusive environments of companies, such as Meta and Microsoft”.

With major projects in both Spain and Canada recently announced, Meta is investing in both infrastructure, global innovation labs and hubs, and a talent pool of people it needs to build the metaverse. But by its own admission, Meta does not know what the exact demands the metaverse will place on telecoms networks.

“We continue to invest in foundational infrastructure to keep up with the demand and build for the future of the metaverse,” a Meta spokesperson told Capacity.

“We know bringing the metaverse to life will require major advancements in the underlying connectivity infrastructure to support future immersive experiences. We’re actively assessing those requirements.”

Whatever these requirements will be, it will happen as all technological advances do: slowly and together. As Infinera’s Shore puts it: “Building the metaverse is a journey, not a destination.”