The Building Blocks of the Metaverse
Long before mainstream media latched onto the metaverse, companies like Magic LEAP, Invidia, and Huawei were already trying to build it. In fact, it could have been called the Magicverse, the Omniverse, or the Cyberverse. Others conceptualized it as Planet-Scale AR, the AR Cloud, and the Mirrorworld. Mark Zuckerberg, the name now most closely associated with the metaverse, characterized it as "the embodied internet."
The ideas dovetail with spatial computing, aka the 3D Web, or the merger of computer-generated 3D VR with AR as envisioned by VFX pioneers like John Gaeta. Cultural historians and sci-fi buffs will point out that the term metaverse was coined in 1992 by Neal Stephenson in the novel Snow Crash before being given its popular makeover in the book and movie Ready Player One.
All of these ideas describe essentially the same evolution of the internet from flat-screened text and image webpages to one in which the physical world is augmented by the digital and is experienced in (at least) three dimensions.
Ori Inbar, the founder of Augmented World Expo, for example, explained the AR Cloud as "a persistent 3D digital copy of the real world to enable sharing of AR experiences across multiple users and devices." That was in 2017, but recent descriptions haven't deviated.
Here's how Rodric David, president of Infinite Reality, describes the metaverse in an article in NAB Amplify: "The Metaverse is … the total convergence of streaming, interactivity, and social media. Content, communication, and interaction are presented spatially as deep, evocative experiences that drive consumer behavior and ultimately brand value."
Craig Donato, chief business officer of online game-building site Roblox, tells Protocol, "What the internet is for information, the metaverse is going to do for social connections. I'm no longer bound by physical distance or all these constraints in terms of who I interact with or how I represent who I am. … It's insanely disruptive."
No one puts a time frame on its completion, but proponents are positively evangelical about the profound impact that the next-gen internet will have on pretty much everything. It will become the dominant global platform for creating and watching live content, says David, "with features like interactivity, real time transactional functionality, branded promotion and integration, game mechanics and functionality, integrated socialization, blockchain and NFT [non-fungible token] capability, and … gamification tools."
This article is not going to debate whether much of the activity around the metaverse today is merely an extension of Big Tech's capitalist drive to own more of our data, our money, and our souls (there, I said it). We do, though, need to acknowledge that there is a battle being fought right now for the framework of the internet's second coming.
Open or Closed (or Both?)
The battle is summed up by Epic Games' CEO Tim Sweeney who charges that the current walled gardens of Facebook and Google need to be knocked down if the value of the metaverse (monetary, creative, and social) is to be realized. "Now we're in a closed platform wave, and Apple and Google are surfing that wave too," Sweeney tells The Washington Post. "As we get out of this, everybody is going to realize, ‘Okay, we spent the last decade being taken advantage of.'"
Leaving aside the extent to which Epic Games' own applications, like Fortnite, are also walled gardens, there is wide acknowledgment that for the metaverse's potential to be fulfilled, it requires cross-industry alignment "on a constellation of standards, guidelines and best practices to enable the consistent creation and distribution of scalable cross-platform 3D and XR content," according to the abstract for a presentation that Neil Trevett, Nvidia's VP of developer ecosystems, gave at the RealTime Conference 2021.
Standardization Task Force
Sweeney thinks a collaboration is needed, similar to how the Internet Engineering Task Force formed to develop and promote internet standards in 1986. "You need an entire suite of standards, and the web is based on several [like HTML]," he says. "The metaverse will require a lot of them, file formats for describing a 3-D scene, networking protocols for describing how players are interacting in real time. Every multiplayer game has a networking protocol of some sort. They don't all agree, but eventually they ought to be lined up and made to communicate."
Interchange standards and tools—protocols, formats, and services that enable persistent and ubiquitous virtual simulations—are perhaps the most important aspect of the entire metaverse framework. "Without them, there will be no Metaverse—only a more virtual and immersive version of today's mobile internet and app stores," write Matthew Ball, managing partner of EpyllionCo, and Jacob Navok, CEO of Genvid Technologies, on Ball's website. "What's more, this pale imitation will be far less lucrative, dynamic, and healthy. … This, in turn, will make it harder for new platforms to emerge—and, frankly, for the metaverse to be built."
While most writing on the subject assumes that the metaverse will be singular, it will more accurately be a multiverse. Much like the internet today, with hundreds of millions of individual homepages or applications as access points, the primary entry point to the metaverse will be via a browser-based URL and a personalized avatar. "People will be able to use [those] to navigate a virtual metaverse environment with a mobile device using typical game engine mechanics," says David. "Our endlessly customizable avatars will be virtual versions of ourselves that hold our keys, wallet, and identity."
Billions of Metaverses
There could be billions of such metaverses, one for each of the planet's population of digital IDs. But the intent is that they will all be able to synchronize and interact. Our avatars should be able to travel from one metaverse to another and from one hardware device (VR headset, AR mobile) to another, with our movements, creations, data, and wallets tracked on the blockchain without being locked or hindered by a walled garden.
"[Blockchain is] an indisputably neutral, distributed way of expressing individual ownership" and "the most plausible path towards an ultimate long-term open framework where everyone's in control of their own presence, free of gatekeeping," says Sweeney in an article in The Business of Business.
Getting to this point requires the ingenuity of privately funded and therefore proprietary endeavors—the closed metaverse—as well as the more open standards and mass scalable approach of an open metaverse. There is a debate about the ethics of the closed versus the open approach, which tends to divide along the lines of capitalist monopoly versus socialist (democratic) utopia. Inevitably, the reality is more nuanced.
"A closed metaverse is only accessible through a download of a proprietary source IP which users are required to sign an end user license agreement to access," says David. "Fortnite, Roblox, Call of Duty, Minecraft, and League of Legends are all examples of closed metaverses. Open metaverses are accessible by anyone who creates an avatar and enters it via a browser and a URL on a PC or mobile device. In the next few years, every brand in the world will need to invest in an open metaverse first strategy."
If the goal is to integrate as much of the world into the metaverse as possible, this means interconnecting the many devices and platforms around us, such as our cars, home-security cameras, VR and AR headsets, projection cameras and screens, wearables, and more. Ball and Navok say that such development "will require, or at least benefit from, the use of proprietary standards. … All of this creates a burden on developers, and potentially a vicious circle, whereby no platform has enough users to develop for, and no platform has enough content to attract users. … There's a reason you can't export an experience from Roblox to Minecraft or Fortnite, … just as you can't easily import all your Instagram photos and likes into Twitter or TikTok or Snapchat."
The Components of an Open Metaverse
Nvidia is championing Pixar's open source Universal Scene Description (USD). Kass says, "USD evolved from Pixar's need to represent film-quality virtual assets, scenes and animation in a way conducive to effective teamwork among artists and interchange among tools. Its features for teamwork are exactly what's needed for the collaborative and social aspects of the metaverse. Its standardization for interchange is exactly what's needed to stitch the open metaverse together."
Nvidia uses USD as a core part of its Omniverse—a business-to-business platform for companies across industries to build applications for the metaverse. Kass says that Nvidia's augmentation of USD with an ability to render applications "wherever the relevant rendering process lives" enables the extensibility of the metaverse.
Kass explains that "the web already has a variety of replication mechanisms. They include distributed databases, CDNs and caches of various kinds. But replicating a very complex 3D virtual world has its own special challenges. If the HTML for a web page changes, it's possible to resend the whole modified HTML. For a virtual world described by hundreds of megabytes, this is simply not practical. So any viable open Metaverse must have the ability to replicate by sending incremental updates that specify only what changes."
By building an effective replication system on top of USD, Nvidia believes it is able to synchronize the virtual experiences of multiple participants. In another article, Ball writes, "What's key to Omniverse is that it can do this irrespective of the file formats and engine/simulation technologies being used. In other words, everything doesn't have to be on Unity, or Unreal, or AutoCAD. And while Omniverse is, today, intended for design and testing, one can imagine Nvidia using this technology, plus its own industrial computing power, to operate much of the overall mirrorworld live."
Nvidia describes the Omniverse as an end-to-end platform for building and simulating virtual worlds. (Image courtesy of Nvidia)
Mass 3D Asset Creation
Nvidia is also one of the backers of Khronos Group, an industry consortium (including Huawei, Epic Games, Google, and Valve) that's focused on creating open application programming interfaces (APIs) and royalty-free standards for graphics, compute, and vision acceleration. Khronos Group governs specifications such as Vulkan, OpenXR, OpenGL ES, WebGL, and glTF.
According to Khronos Group, the WebGL API has become ubiquitous, allowing users to observe, manipulate, and modify 3D objects without the installation of any browser plugins. It says VR and AR are also now supported in the browser by WebXR, and the creation and exchange of 3D models is enabled by the glTF 3D file format designed for efficient downloading and rendering.
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