Core Metaverse Technologies – Innovations That Underpin Virtual Worlds
Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel was the first to mention the idea of a metaverse, an environment that he described as a universe that mimics our own and that exists on the Internet. Users explore it in the guise of avatars, and it’s so realistic that they are able to forget about the ordinary world with all its many difficulties. Since that idea debuted, it’s not only become a science fiction trope that has also been explored in many other novels, it’s increasingly become a matter of science fact. Computing power has now increased to the point where metaverses are not only feasible, but they are also actually happening. Here we explore the metaverse technologies that have made this possible.
Why Has the Metaverse Recently Been Gaining More Attention?
The simple answer is that huge social media multinationals have spotted the potential for the metaverse to become the logical next step on from traditional social media experiences. They see its promise as a new forum in which people can enjoy already tried and tested ideas. As social creatures, we traditionally gather to interact with each other, playing games, buying and selling things, and so on. The metaverse combines these possibilities with the kinds of environments that we see in 3D video games, detailed and immersive worlds that we can almost believe are real.
As more people flock to take part, more technology companies are interested in developing and exploiting them. That’s why we’re seeing NFTs appearing in virtual galleries, and why blockchain is the backbone of the whole experience. Play-to-earn games are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential developments that will draw more people in. What all of the early adopters are anticipating is that the metaverse is going to become the next great leap forward, and the technology giants are eager to stake their claims as early as possible.
The metaverse runs on blockchain technology because it offers a high level of trust and security. In an environment where vendors and customers want to be sure that each transaction is indelibly recorded, blockchain fits the bill perfectly. Its transparency guarantees that ownership of an item is indisputable. It provides a virtual ledger, and the decentralized nature of its records means that they are almost impossible to interfere with and that it’s highly unlikely that they can become corrupted in any way.
If you are unfamiliar with blockchain technology it can seem intimidating, which is justified because it is! But in the simplest terms, a blockchain is a collection of information that is stored across multiple devices and secured using complex algorithms. Information blocks are stored in chronological order which creates a natural timestamp for when new entries are made, and once the block is finished it cannot be changed. When so much money and personal information is flying around between machines out there in the wild, it’s good to know that it’s protected to this degree.
Every country needs its own currency and the metaverse is no different. But since the metaverse is a territory that exists inside networked computers, that’s where its currencies need to reside as well, and since the metaverse uses blockchain technology, it’s only natural to use cryptocurrencies, which are also based on the blockchain.
Facilities exist for metaverse users to convert their fiat currencies into crypto tokens so that they can buy everything from NFTs to virtual real estate. What’s virtual real estate? Exactly as it sounds – it is possible to buy virtual representations of real-world locations, and prime virtual real estate can go for very high prices indeed. Some platforms only accept their own in-house cryptocurrencies, but many are recognizing the need to offer greater flexibility and welcome other cryptocurrencies as well.
You may know that the value of cryptocurrencies tends to be much more volatile than that of fiat, which is one of the reasons why investors are attracted to them. They can be worth buying for their own sake, rather than just for making in-game purchases in a metaverse environment.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
AR and VR experiences are among the most important metaverse technologies because they provide the key differentiator between the metaverse and previous two-dimensional, ‘flat’ experiences. Instead of typing in message boxes and looking at videos on a flat monitor, these key metaverse technologies place the user in a three-dimensional experience that they can access using VR goggles.
It’s worth mentioning that virtual reality is sometimes used interchangeably with the word “metaverse” but there are actually two different things or rather, virtual reality is just one component of the metaverse, albeit an important one which creates a sensation of immersion in a reimagined world.
Augmented reality, as the name suggests, is a way of layering simulated environments over our own real environment. One simple example of this is the wildly successful game Pokémon Go, in which users could point their phone cameras at the world and the app would paint cute characters onto the screen as if they were really there. But metaverse technologies have moved on since this fairly primitive beginning and it’s now possible to add more immersive features to heighten the sense of reality experienced by users.
Artificial Intelligence has inevitably become one of the key metaverse technologies because it is so powerful. AIs are better and faster than the best humans at a wide variety of complex tasks including designing new and better drugs, mapping incredibly complex proteins, and translating human speech into words on a page with lightning-fast accuracy.
As one of the key metaverse technologies, artificial intelligence plays an important role in games. When players interact with artificially generated characters AI can increase the level of realism by having them respond authentically to the actions of players to the point where they could be mistaken for the avatars of other human users.
The technology can produce great-looking avatars by taking aspects of images containing real people and using them to generate facial features, expressions, clothing and hairstyles. This is an incredible time and money saver when you consider how long it takes artists to generate in-game assets.
3D reconstruction has been around for some time, most notably used in the film industry to ‘map’ real-world objects, turning them into data points that can then be reconstructed within computers and inserted into movies. This is another technology that has advanced in recent years and seen greater use due to the limitations placed on travel by the recent pandemic. Several companies have used 3D reconstruction technology to create virtual showrooms and property tours, reproducing real spaces in a virtual environment that customers can explore in a way that a flat screen version cannot replicate.
With the advent of virtual real estate, it was only a matter of time before this became one of the key metaverse technologies, as it makes it easy to recreate buildings accurately, both inside and out. Sophisticated 3D cameras are one of the key methods of capturing buildings and objects so they can be rendered realistically in metaverse environments.
The world is incredibly large and filled with a huge number of buildings and items, and users want to access more and more of them. 3D reconstruction technology makes the onerous task of converting it all into virtual models a much less burdensome task.
Internet of Things (IoT)
The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to Internet-connected devices. Examples include smart speakers, your smart home heating system, pressure sensors installed on an Alaskan oil pipeline, and many more. Because these devices can send and receive information via the Internet they can be made to act independently, responding intelligently to changes in conditions or to user requests.
IoT is one of the key metaverse technologies because it can take real-world data and apply it to virtual worlds in real time. So, if you’re wandering around the Champs Elysee in your metaverse and it starts raining in the real one, that experience could be mapped onto your virtual one to mimic the real-world conditions, thanks to the data collected from French IoT devices.
5G and Edge Computing
One of the biggest changes in recent years and one that has made implementation of the metaverse possible is the intense ramping up of data transfer speeds. 5G masts are appearing in more and more locations bringing data speeds that are as fast as fiber optics. With the huge amounts of data transfer required to implement virtual worlds, 5G has been one of the essential metaverse technologies that keep user experiences smooth.
Lag has always been a problem in shared worlds, and something that gamers obsess over because it can make the experience unbearable. For instance, if you are talking to somebody who is on a slower connection than you are, you will experience unwelcome breaks between your interactions with them and their responses, ruining the effect of a shared and immersive environment. But 5G has raised the speed limits so that lag is virtually eliminated and the illusion is preserved.
Likewise, edge computing has been another boon to metaverse implementation. Edge computing involves moving the data and processing closer to the originator. IBM has defined edge computing as, “…a distributed computing framework that brings enterprise applications closer to data sources such as IoT devices or local edge servers.” You can think of it as, putting the computers and data storage facilities on servers that are closer to the service provider, so information gets processed as close as possible to the individual producing it. This makes it much quicker than having it processed using a traditional cloud or data centre solution, and when coupled with 5G, the speed gains are impressive.
Despite all of the technological advances converging to help make the metaverse a viable environment for users and companies, and despite the influx of capital, this is very much a concept that is in the earliest stages of its development.
There are still many technical hurdles to be overcome, including security. Since cryptocurrencies can be so valuable, keeping scammers at bay will always be a problem, and the same goes for malware gangs. Until the threat of fraud is completely eliminated from metaverse platforms, it will never reach its full potential. It is therefore essential for metaverse providers to raise security standards to ensure public confidence.
On a similar note, the same kinds of guarantees need to be in place for personal data too. Users want to know that their Webcams won’t be compromised, or their identities were stolen. Hackers have previously managed to gain access to such devices to spy on people, and stolen identities have been used to fraudulently secure credit or goods. Again, metaverse technologies must achieve close to 100% watertight security before providers can hope to see the mass uptake of their platforms that they are aiming for.
The metaverse is on the cusp of being the next great leap forward. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s nevertheless growing at a tremendous rate and evolving to meet the challenges as it does so. But for it to truly succeed it needs to reach a tipping point where the key technologies required to attain a level of maturity that instills trust in the general population. It’s the same kind of tipping point that saw the mass adoption of mobile phones. At the point where they became cheap enough to own, practical enough to use, secure enough to use safely, and highly desirable as well, the avalanche of mass adoption began.