By Carrie Gan, Mouser Electronics
What exactly is the Metaverse? According to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, it can be a virtual ‘home’. In the Horizon Worlds virtual platform created by Meta, through VR equipment, users can experience an immersive gaming experience alongside social, exercise, shopping, and workspaces, all within the virtual world. This is one example of a metaverse for consumers. For Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, it is about building a ‘metaverse for engineers’ – a revolutionary new productivity tool. At this year’s Nvidia GTC Spring Conference, he demonstrated the use of Nvidia Omniverse to create synthetic data from training factory robots in scenarios such as building a BMW electric car factory, all entirely within the virtual world.
Whether we are discussing the metaverse of consumers or engineers, the focus is on creating a parallel world that is equally interactive, immersive, and collaborative as the real world – a new reality. Today, the metaverse has transcended the realm of science fiction and emerged as something much more tangible.
A Deep Dive into the Metaverse
While the metaverse is not a new concept, historically, the industry’s definition of the metaverse has not been clear. The concept first appeared in the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash by American writer Neal Stephenson. The novel depicts a virtual digital world parallel to the real world, called ‘The Metaverse’. Everyone in the real world has a virtual metaverse avatar, and people compete to improve their status by controlling this virtual avatar.
The science fiction movie ‘Ready Player One’, released in 2018, based on Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name, also imagined a similar virtual world. In the film adaptation, director Spielberg brought to life a version of a future in which people can freely shuttle between the virtual and real worlds. Characters used a combination of VR equipment and sensor-equipped clothes to enter the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS).
In reality, we already have large-scale social games, including Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) like ‘World of Warcraft’ and ‘FINAL FANTASY XIV,’ as well as vast user-created virtual worlds, such as ‘Minecraft’ and procedurally generated infinite space-exploration game ‘No Man’s Sky’. Games already have the potential to offer interactive content and drive traffic aggregation for the metaverse, serving as one of its major gateways. Nevertheless, considering the metaverse as a mere large 3D virtual game is limited in perspective.
Metaverse Growth and Trends
After years of in-depth discussions and research from industry and academia alike, as well as the continuous investment and development of technical solutions from leaders like Meta and NVIDIA, the technology, application scenarios, and related concepts of the metaverse have gradually become clearer.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) latest global Survey, ‘The Impact of Technology in 2023 and Beyond’ shows that cloud computing (40%), 5G (38%), the metaverse (37%), electric vehicles (35%), and industrial Internet of Things (33%) have become the most important technologies according to their members. Wireless communications (40%), automobiles and transportation (39%), energy (33%), and financial services (33%) are the sectors that will be most profoundly affected by these technological developments.
IEEE invited 350 industry and technology leaders, including CTOs, CIOs, and IT directors from various sectors and countries around the world, such as the United States, United Kingdom, China, India, and Brazil, to collaborate and share their professional insights on future technological development trends, looking forward from 2023 and beyond.
Regarding the development trend of the metaverse, the experts surveyed by IEEE believe that with the development of multiple technologies, such as 5G technology (71%) that can realise interconnection anytime and anywhere, Virtual Reality (VR) headsets equipment (58%), and Augmented Reality (AR) glasses (58%) that the metaverse will achieve leapfrog development from 2023.
Defining the Metaverse
Defining the metaverse is quite the challenge due to its variation in application, scope, and theoretical nature. Dr. Yu Yuan, the elected president of the IEEE Standards Association, gives this description for the definition of the metaverse “The metaverse may refer to a kind of experiences in which the users perceive the outside world as being a universe that is actually built upon digital technologies as a different universe (VR), a digital extension of our current universe (AR or Mixed Reality/MR), or a digital counterpart of our current universe (digital twin).”
At the 2023 metaverse industry conference, held in Kunshan, China, academics and experts from across the globe gathered to analyse the core principle of ‘what is the metaverse?’. Chenghu Zhou, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a researcher at the Institute of Geography of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, believes, “The metaverse is the reproduction of a scene and the sum of a series of technological innovations that ‘connect dots to form a line.’ The real metaverse is a new digital civilization that integrates virtual and reality and is created by integrating multiple new technologies.”
While Fuji Ren, an academic at the Japanese Academy of Engineering and professor at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, stated that “The metaverse is a combination of 5G communications, AI, robots, the internet, and regional. It is a new digital ecosystem formed by the aggregation of many advanced technologies”.
Just like our physical world, which is ‘a series of spatially interconnected worlds,’ the Metaverse can also be viewed as a collection of many worlds.
Digital Parallel World Generation: What is the Engineer’s Metaverse?
Compared with the ‘consumer metaverse’ that Meta hopes to build, NVIDIA is targeting productivity tools. In December 2020, NVIDIA released the public beta version of Omniverse, with Omniverse Enterprise seeing release in April 2021. Simplistically, Omniverse is a platform for connecting the physical world to a shared virtual world, promising to merge reality with virtual reality. It is now being used in a growing number of industries for projects such as design collaboration and the creation of digital twins – simulating real buildings and factory designs. This brings us to an engineer’s version of the Metaverse.
At Nvidia’s spring GTC conference this year, Jen-Hsun Huang announced that Nvidia and Microsoft will connect hundreds of millions of Microsoft 365 and Azure users to a platform for building and operating hyper-realistic virtual worlds.
BMW Group uses NVIDIA’s Omniverse to build the factory of the future. As a group, BMW produces over 2 million cars every year, with, on average, a car rolling off the assembly line every minute in its highly advanced and often unique factories. Through digital twin technology, it can connect to the enterprise resource planning system, simulate the factory’s throughput, assess the new factory layout, and even become a virtual control panel for factory employees. Jen-Hsun Huang said that through this method, BMW had actually built a completely new electric vehicle factory in Omniverse two years before the actual opening of the new factory.
In addition, Lotus uses Omniverse to assemble welding stations virtually, whereas Mercedes-Benz uses it to build, optimise and plan assembly lines for new models. The RIMAC and Lucid Motors create digital stores in Omniverse, using real design data to achieve realistic depictions of a possible showroom.
Moreover, the virtual environment of the metaverse will also be an ideal environment for engineers to train robots. Allowing users to create a virtual world in which a robot can be trained (powered by an AI brain that can continuously learn) and then load the trained robot brain algorithms into the real robot. The AI and software that runs virtual factories are the exact same as those that can operate physical factories.
Key Technologies for Entering and Exiting the Metaverse
Long before the development of modern advanced technology, humans have always been exploring how we perceive the world for thousands of years – breaking through common perception with methods such as music, art, and literature, which in a sense, also build their own virtual realities. But what are the key technologies for ‘entering and exiting’ the Metaverse? And how can we make interactions more realistic?
According to Rev Lebaredian, Vice President of Omniverse and simulation technology at Nvidia, the focus is on increasing interactivity and collaboration capabilities. Higher-quality screens, improved mixed reality hardware, and more seamless transmission capabilities are all key technologies for a comprehensive immersive experience.
In a research report, Deloitte, a British multinational professional services network, summarised the key technologies of the Metaverse as follows:
The Metaverse is the gathering point of multiple rapidly developing independent technologies, including hardware devices (AR/VR/MR, mobile phones, and PCs), Internet of Things (IoT) technology, communication networks (5G/Wi-Fi 6/6E), computing capabilities (edge computing, cloud computing), blockchain technology, artificial intelligence and 3D real-time technology (3D engine/real-time rendering/space rendering), and other enabling technologies.
In addition to VR/AR headsets that enable an immersive experience in the Metaverse, recent technological innovations in smartphones and PCs can also provide Metaverse interactive functionalities. Deloitte pointed out that ease of use and cost implications will affect the breadth and depth of people’s experience with the Metaverse.
Based on prevailing industry trends, it is evident that IoT technology and equipment play a pivotal role in optimising the utilisation of applications like digital twins and virtual factories in forthcoming times.
Deloitte forecasts that by 2030, there is a potential for the widespread commercialization of metaverse-related applications and equipment (VR/AR and IoT devices). However, addressing several challenges, including cost considerations, enhanced data processing and analytical capabilities, and robust information security measures, is imperative before achieving large-scale implementation and adoption.
Communication and Computing Progress
In evaluating current technology, it becomes evident that challenges related to scale, fidelity, and latency require further resolution and refinement. Our supporting infrastructure’s peak computing power and network bandwidth are critical to overcoming these problems.
There are many ways to improve computing capabilities, such as strengthening cloud computing, establishing edge computing infrastructure, building more powerful consumer electronics devices, and even utilising distributed computing resources. Deloitte predicts that these combined measures are expected to increase computing power by 1,000 times, allowing for better large-scale data synchronisation and persistence. In relation to this specific concern, it is noteworthy that the awaited breakthrough may not be far off, as Nvidia has enhanced and improved AI processing power over a millionfold within the last decade.
Any calculated and processed data needs to be transmitted to consumers through fibre optic connections, Wi-Fi, or mobile networks, with the bandwidth, latency, and reliability of these communications networks impacting the end-user experience. The performance of these systems relies heavily on infrastructure investment, especially the last runs to the end consumer.
As computing power and input bandwidth continue to advance, incorporating additional experiential dimensions becomes increasingly feasible. Beyond the visual level, there is a growing likelihood of introducing dimensions like touch and smell, enhancing interaction with greater credibility and reality.
Blockchain and AI
Blockchain technology, an example of distributed ledger technology, will form the basis of the value transmission layer of the Metaverse, thereby enabling the exchange of digital assets. However, addressing challenges, including speed, throughput, data storage costs, and regulatory considerations, is imperative before realizing widespread adoption at scale.
AI technology is conducive to enhancing the Metaverse by facilitating improved interaction among individuals, between humans and machines, and among various machines themselves. It is undoubtedly a great boost to the construction of the metaverse, but it’s still early days for AI’s problem-solving, creativity, social, and emotional aspects. Experts predict that the possibility of achieving general artificial intelligence is 25% by 2030 and 50% by 2040.
3D Real-time Rendering
Deloitte stated that once 3D content creation can open up in the same way as YouTube opened up video creation and sharing for everyone, the adoption of the Metaverse will accelerate, but there is still a way to go. In fact, neither the concept of the metaverse nor related technologies such as AR/VR and artificial intelligence are new topics, so why has its popularity suddenly increased?
According to Xiaoyi Ma, Senior Vice President of Tencent, the world’s largest video game vendor, and Honorary Dean of the Tencent Institute of Games, the heightened popularity of these technologies can be attributed to notable technological advancements and shifts in market application levels that have occurred in recent years when compared to the past.
First, the entire computing power has reached a critical point. Reflecting on the VR wave of 2016, Xiaoyi Ma notes that the technology required was considerably less mature then and was incapable of delivering a genuinely satisfying VR experience on devices or enabling large-scale applications. At that time, mobile computing chips could not support high-resolution displays, this coupled with the limitations of batteries and display devices, resulted in poor VR experiences .
Furthermore, some key new technologies, especially many upstream key devices, have made some breakthrough developments in the past few years. Additionally, the internet’s penetration rate has reached a crucial juncture, particularly following the global pandemic of the last two years. During this period, remote work has gained prominence, and many online applications, including online shopping, purchasing services, entertainment, and more, have grown increasingly abundant. Consequently, individuals are now more inclined to spend a substantial portion of their lives on online activities.
Based on the above series of comprehensive factors, it may be time to regard the Metaverse as a possible integration method for new technologies and new applications in the future.
The Next Trillion-Dollar Market?
Judging from the forecast data from multiple research institutions, including Deloitte, Strategy Analytics, and IDC, it appears that both the consumer-oriented Metaverse, focusing on entertainment consumption and the engineer’s metaverse, focusing on industrial manufacturing and productivity, are expected to open up the next trillion-dollar market.
In a research report on the development of the Asian Metaverse, Deloitte estimated that in Asia alone, the potential contribution of the Metaverse to GDP by 2035 is expected to reach between 0.8 trillion USD to US 1.4 trillion USD, accounting for approximately 1.3% to 2.4% of Asia’s total GDP.
Report data released by Strategy Analytics shows that as investment in the Metaverse increases, the ownership of dedicated Metaverse devices (VR and AR headsets) will surge. By 2024, the market stock of metaverse equipment should double from the current 50 million to 100 million.
The ‘Top Ten Predictions for China’s Manufacturing Industry in 2023’ released by IDC pointed out that by 2026, 20% of China’s leading manufacturers will incorporate the industrial metaverse into their digital transformation route to solve advanced simulation, cross-domain collaboration, and security questions.
In October last year, Shanghai announced the ‘Shanghai Municipal Implementation Plan for the Digital Transformation of the Manufacturing Industry’, including a detailed breakdown table to speed up the innovative application of the industrial metaverse and accelerate 5G, AI, AR/VR/MR, blockchain, digital twins and further relevant technology. According to the plan, the next step will focus on sectors such as aviation, automobiles, nuclear power, biomedicine, and consumer goods. It will aim to grow a number of metaverse-related applications, including borderless collaborative design, virtual R&D optimisation, multi-dimensional simulation manufacturing, remote operation and maintenance, and asset management. This is on top of plans to build at least five industrial innovation centres, as well as outlined plans to support the construction of intelligent digital twin platforms and metaverse implementations for a wide range of industries.
In the field of Metaverse terminal development, Nikkei Asia (business news) and the Japan Cybersecurity Innovation Committee recently investigated the number of VR and AR-related patents filed in Japan, the United States, Europe, and other key territories since 2016. Their results showed that LG Electronics and Samsung Electronics ranked first and second, Meta third, and Huawei ranked fourth, with other prominent players in the electronics industry, such as Intel, Sony, Microsoft, and Apple, all in the top ten.
The Metaverse is opening more possibilities, but many technical, application, and regulatory challenges still need to be solved. The global industry is currently in relative agreement that developing more authentic human-computer and human-human interactions through technological advancements and applications is a vital issue to address before the expected popularity rise of the metaverse. It requires comprehensive support from several key technological innovations, including VR/AR technology, display technology, sensing technology, and human-computer interfaces, to provide more tools to create more credible experiences within the metaverse.
In the past two decades, the internet’s contribution to human society, economy, and technology has been evident to all. In the next twenty years, will there be a better integrated and innovative internet experience with the Metaverse as the core? Let us wait and see.