Virtually every corner of life will be impacted by the metaverse in the years ahead
Part of what makes the metaverse exciting is also what makes it a puzzle. Its potential is so vast, with so many applications, that envisioning its future is a challenge. David Chen, co-founder and CTO of Orbbec, shares his take on the metaverse at our doorstep and the state of supporting hardware considering the high expectations from this hyped-up new reality.
Mark Zuckerberg has staked his company’s future on the promise of the metaverse, seeing it as the successor to the mobile internet. Epic Games recently announced spending over $1 billion on metaverse development. Decentraland, one of the first companies to originate in the metaverse, has over 500,000 active monthly users and is attracting participation by JP Morgan, Samsung and Coca-Cola.
Most experts see the metaverse operating on two levels – the first as an enhancement or augmentation to the real world. Pokémon Go, the smartphone game that enabled Pokémon avatars to be placed amid real-world settings, is an early example. The second level is as an immersive, alternative reality. In this virtual world, typically experienced through headsets, users are represented by avatars – digital reconstructs created via 3D scanning.
With applications in entertainment, communications, gaming, education, retail, work-related activity and hundreds more, virtually every corner of life will be impacted by the metaverse in the years ahead. However, the question for those invested in metaverse creation is whether the necessary hardware is ready.
Many technologies used to create or support the metaverse have been around for years – and yet have demonstrated real limitations. At best, Google Glass and Snap Spectacles have had mixed success due to cost, functionality, and privacy concerns. VR headsets, even the most advanced, have only narrow applications; while popular with gamers and for specialized uses, they shut the wearer off from their real-world settings, making it difficult to interact with others.
Yet remarkable hardware stepping stones are appearing on the road to full metaverse development. Google Starline is a mesmerizing experimental 3D chat booth that allows a caller to see and interact with a real-time 3D construct of the person they’re calling. Matterport focuses on building virtual digital reconstructs of real-world environments, with applications in real estate, hotels, retail, construction and other industries.
The Hard Problem of Hardware
From a hardware standpoint, the fulfillment of the metaverse will require three forms of technology. First, wholly accurate and digital duplication, via scanning or digital construction, will need to take place. Next, networks will need to render those physical environments in the cloud or on devices in real-time, making them easy to visit. The third and most challenging will be display technologies that provide a convincing real-world experience.
The devices and systems that enable this new era are well underway and, within a few years, will allow the metaverse to flourish. Processing power, rendering engines, display technologies, cellular networks and virtual content are all reaching new levels. The price of scanning technology, for instance, is a fraction of what it was just a few years ago. At the time, building a 3D model once required equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today, that same equipment costs around $3,500.
HMIs (human-machine interfaces) will soon undergo an incredible transformation. Last November, Meta’s Reality Labs division showcased a prototype haptic glove with ridged plastic pads that let the wearer “feel” surfaces. Displays will also experience a phase of innovation. Combiner optics overlay the real world with virtual images using a transparent lens, which will help make AR glasses more practical. Surface relief waveguide technology enables see-through waveguides on high-refractive-index glass, which will support imaging applications in VR/MR displays, 3D sensing, and automotive heads-up displays.
Justifying many of these breakthroughs will be 3D scanning and facial and body scanning for avatar creation. 3D imaging leverages several supporting technologies – structured light, for example, “reads’ a projected light pattern on an object, which is then re-created by scanning cameras that detect distortions caused by differences in distance. Another technique called Time of Flight (ToF) emits light pulses into a scene which are then reflected and read by a sensor, enabling moving objects to be identified and digitally integrated into a scene.
The following years will be critical for metaverse development. As meta-hardware reaches the market, two concerns need to be addressed:
- Performance: HMIs, data rates and rendering, among others, will need to create seamless interaction with the metaverse. For displays, in particular, most experts agree that 60 pixels-per-degree of the field of view is a minimum essential for video rendering that matches real-world conditions.
- Ergonomics: As even the largest tech makers have found, comfort and capability are vital to customer acceptance. VR/AR wearables will need to be light enough to wear all day, attractive enough to be appealing, and capable of delivering a dazzling user experience – all at affordable price points.
Around the Corner
The metaverse is on its way, but its arrival will occur in stages. Some are here already. Others may be years, even decades away. Even the best content will fail if users cannot enjoy it. The world has grown accustomed to digital hardware that performs flawlessly. Anything less will delay, if not doom, metaverse growth.
Practitioners and technologies need to look at metaverse development as a series of small steps, each a win in itself that enables the next breakthrough to stand on the shoulders of the last. The metaverse of today is a puzzle, to be sure – but each device and system, reliably realized, will be one more piece that brings this exciting, virtual future to its powerful realization.