The digital landscape is changing day by day. Concepts like virtual reality and the metaverse that once seemed a futuristic fantasy are now coming to fruition and embedding themselves into our daily lives. The thinking might be there, but is our technology really ready to go meta? Domains and hosting provider Fasthosts spoke to the experts to find out.
Metaverse and virtual reality – how it all works
The metaverse is best defined as a virtual 3D universe that combines many virtual places. It allows users to meet, collaborate, play games and interact in virtual environments. It’s usually viewed and accessed from the outside as a mixture of virtual reality (VR) (think of someone in their front room wearing a headset and frantically waving nunchucks around) and augmented reality (AR), but it’s so much more than this.
These technologies are just the external entry points to the metaverse and provide the visuals which allow users to explore and interact with the environment within the metaverse.
This is the ‘front-end’ if you’d like, which is also reinforced by artificial intelligence and 3D reconstruction. These additional technologies help to provide realistic objects into environments, computer-controlled actions and also avatars for games and other metaverse projects.
So what stands in the way of this fantastical 3D universe?
Hurdle one: The tech
But, the most important piece of technology on which the metaverse is based is the blockchain. The blockchain is essentially a chain of blocks (surprisingly) that contain specific information. They’re a combination of computers linked to each other instead of a central server which means that the whole network is decentralised.
This provides the infrastructure for the development of metaverse projects, and storage of data and also allows them the capability to be compatible with Web3. Web3 is an upgraded version of the internet that will allow the integration of virtual and augmented reality into people’s everyday lives.
Sounds like a lot, right? And it involves a great deal of tech that is alien to the vast majority of us. So, is technology a barrier to widespread metaverse adoption?
The tech just isn’t there – yet
Jonothan Hunt, senior creative technologist at Wunderman Thompson, says the tech just isn’t there. Yet. “Technology’s readiness for the mass adoption of the metaverse depends on how you define the metaverse, but if we’re talking about the future vision that the big tech players are sharing, then not yet. The infrastructure that powers the internet and our devices isn’t ready for such experiences.
The best we have right now in terms of shared/simulated spaces are generally very expensive and powered entirely in the cloud, such as big computers like the Nvidia Omniverse, cloud streaming, or games, and these rely heavily on instancing and localised grouping. Consumer hardware, especially XR, is still not ready for casual daily use and still not really democratised.
“The technology for this will look like an evolution of the systems above, meaning more distributed infrastructure, better access and updated hardware. Web3 also presents a challenge in and of itself, and questions remain over to what extent big tech will adopt it going forward.”
Hurdle two: The storage
Blockchain is the ‘back-end’, where the magic happens, if you will. It’s this that will be the key to the development and growth of the metaverse. There are a lot of elements that make up the blockchain and reinforce its benefits and uses such as storage capabilities, data security and smart contracts.
Due to its decentralised nature, the blockchain has far more storage capacity than the centralised storage systems we have in place today. With data on the metaverse being stored in exabytes, the blockchain works by making use of unutilised hard disk space across the network, which prevents users within the metaverse from running out of storage space worldwide.
In terms that might be a bit more relatable, an exabyte is a billion gigabytes. That’s a huge amount of storage, and that doesn’t just exist in the cloud – it’s got to go somewhere – and physical file or storage servers mean land is taken up, and energy is used.
How long is a piece of string?
“How long’s a piece of string? The whole of the metaverse will one day be housed in servers and data centres, but the amount or size needed to house all of this storage will be entirely dependent on just how mass-adopted the metaverse becomes.
Big corporations in the space are starting to build huge data centres – such as Meta purchasing a $1.1 billion campus in Toledo, Spain, to house their new Meta lab and data centre – but the storage space is not the only concern. These energy guzzlers need to stay cool! And what about people and brands who need reliable web hosting for events, gaming or even just meeting up with pals across the world, all that information – albeit virtual – still needs a place to go.
“The current rising cost of electricity worldwide could cause problems for the growth of data centres and the housing of the metaverse as a whole. However, without knowing the true size of its adoption, it is extremely difficult to determine the needed usage truly. Could we one day see an entire island devoted to data centre storage? Purely for the purposes of holding the metaverse? It seems a little ‘1984’, but who knows?”
Hurdle three: Identity
Although the blockchain provides instantaneous verification of transactions with identity through digital wallets, our physical form will be represented by avatars that visually reflect who we are and how we want to be seen.
The founder of Saxo Bank and the chairman of the Concordium Foundation argues, “I think that if you use an underlying blockchain-based solution where ID is required at the entry point, it is actually very simple and automatically available for relevant purposes. It is also very secure and transparent, in that it would link any transactions or interactions where ID is required to a trackable record on the blockchain.”
Once identity is established, it is true that it could potentially become easier to assess the creditworthiness of parties for purchasing and borrowing in the metaverse due to the digital identity and storage of each individual’s data and transactions on the blockchain. However, although it sounds exciting, there must be considerations about how it could impact privacy and how this amount of data will be recorded on the blockchain.
Hurdle four: The security
There are also huge security benefits to this setup. The decentralised blockchain helps to eradicate third-party involvement and data breaches, such as theft and file manipulation, thanks to its powerful data processing and use of validation nodes. Both of these are responsible for verifying and recording transactions on the blockchain. This will be reassuring to many, given the widespread concerns around data privacy and user protection in the metaverse.
To access the blockchain, all we will need is an internet connection and a device, such as a laptop or smartphone; this is what makes it so great as it will be so readily available. However, to support the blockchain, we’re relying on a whole different set of technologies.
Metaverse is not mature
Akash Kayar, CEO of web3-focused software development company Leeway Hertz, had his say on the readiness of the current technology available:
“Metaverse is yet not completely mature in terms of development. Tech experts are researching strategies and testing the various technologies to develop ideas that provide the world with more feasible and intriguing metaverse projects.
“Projects like Decentraland, Axie Infinity, and Sandbox are popular contemporary live metaverse projects. People behind these projects made perfect use of notable metaverse technologies, from blockchain and cryptos to NFTs.
“As envisioned by top tech futurists, many new technologies will empower the metaverse in the future, which will support the development of a range of prolific use cases that will improve the ability of the metaverse towards offering real-life functionalities. In a nutshell, the metaverse is expected to bring extreme opportunities for enterprises and common users. Hence, it will shape the digital future.”
Hurdle five: Currency and payments
Whilst it’s only considered legal tender in two countries, cryptocurrency is currently a reality and there is a strong likelihood that it will eventually be mass adopted. However, the metaverse is arguably not yet at the same maturity level, meaning cryptocurrency may have to wait before it can finally fully take off.
There is no doubt that cryptocurrency and the metaverse will go hand-in-hand as the former will become the tender of the latter (still with us?), with many of the current metaverse platforms each wielding its native currency, for example, Decentraland uses $MANA for payments and purchases. However, with the volatility of cryptocurrencies and the recent collapse of trading platform FTX indicating security lapses, we may not yet be ready for the switch to decentralised payments.
Hurdle six: The cost of energy for businesses
Some of the world’s largest data centres can each contain many tens of thousands of IT devices which require more than 100 megawatts of power capacity – this is enough to power around 80,000 U.S. households (US DOE 2020) and is equivalent to $1,350,000,000 running cost per data centre with the cost of a megawatt hour averaging at $150.
According to Nitin Parekh of Hitachi Energy, the amount of power it takes to process Bitcoin is higher than you might expect. He said, “Bitcoin consumes around 110 Terawatt Hours per year. This is around 0.5% of global electricity generation. This estimate considers combined computational power used to mine bitcoin and process transactions.” With this estimate, we can calculate that the annual energy cost of Bitcoin is around $16,500,000,000.
However, some bigger corporations are slowly moving towards renewable energy to power their projects in this space, with Google signing close to $2 billion worth of wind and solar investments in order to power its data centres in the future and become greener. Amazon has also followed in their footsteps and has become the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy.
However, they may have plenty of time yet to get their green processes in place, with Mark Zuckerberg recently predicting it will take nearly a decade for the metaverse to be created. “I don’t think it’s really going to be huge until the second half of this decade at the earliest.”, Zuckerberg said.
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