Unlike the flat, 2D web pages we're familiar with, the 3D internet offers a spatial experience where users feel a genuine sense of presence. This sensation of being ‘inside’ the digital realm is achieved through virtual reality (VR), exemplified by devices such as the Oculus Quest, which transports users into entirely digital environments. Augmented reality (AR), on the other hand, bridges the digital and the real, overlaying virtual elements onto our physical surroundings, much like the game "Pokémon Go," the smartphone game that allowed users to catch Pokémon in real-world settings. Along with these technologies, essential to the metaverse's functionality is spatial computing, which interprets 3D space by combining real-time mapping of physical and virtual spaces to create natural interactions within digital environments.
Enabling these experiences in the metaverse requires hardware and technology like high-speed internet, advanced 3D graphics and real-time rendering, head-mounted devices, controllers, and haptic devices. Together, these technologies come together to bring the vision of a 3D internet to life. However, the metaverse faces technical obstacles to adoption that must be overcome. Limited accessibility to advanced technology restricts usage, lack of standardization of content creation makes it hard to create experiences across platforms, and data privacy and security concerns are also looming.
Hardware and accessibility
A VR and AR-focused digital space requires the adoption of hardware components to achieve the success that traditional PC and smartphone applications have. Better HMIs (human-machine interfaces), processing power, rendering engines, and display technologies will help achieve the level of immersion and realistic visualizations the metaverse promises.
Here are some hardware components essential to enhance user experience in the 3D internet:
Headsets: Head-mounted VR and AR devices are, in some cases, essential for a fully immersive experience in the metaverse. They track head movements and display 3D virtual environments to the user. Some examples of head-mounted devices include the Oculus Quest (by Meta, formerly Facebook), HTC Vive, and Valve Index.
GPUs (graphics processing units): The metaverse, with its rich graphics and real-time rendering, demands powerful GPUs. These components are responsible for rendering detailed and expansive virtual environments. NVIDIA and AMD are among the leading manufacturers of GPUs suitable for 3D internet applications.
Haptic devices: Haptic devices provide tactile feedback, allowing users to "feel" virtual objects or sensations. These sensations can range from simple vibration feedback in controllers, like those in the Oculus Touch, to more advanced gloves or suits that simulate various physical sensations.
Cost and accessibility barriers
High-end hardware often comes with a hefty price tag. While basic VR and AR headsets can be relatively affordable, top-tier models with better resolution, field of view, and tracking capabilities can cost significantly more. Hardware manufacturers have reduced the price of headsets to approximately $400 from $1,200 over the years; however, they remain out of reach for a significant number of potential users, as noted in a Citi GPS Report. Similarly, powerful GPUs, especially in times of high demand or during global chip shortages, can be expensive and restrict consumers from purchasing devices with better computational power. Haptic devices, especially the more advanced ones, also add to the cost, with some gloves restricted to only industrial use cases, with prices reaching an average of $5,000 to $10,000 per pair. These barriers to entry can limit the accessibility and adoption of the metaverse, making it an exclusive domain for those who can afford the necessary equipment.
Making metaverse hardware more affordable and accessible
Companies are aware of the accessibility barriers and are working to increase access to the metaverse. Meta has been at the forefront of making VR more accessible. The Oculus Quest 2, for example, is a standalone VR headset that offers a high-quality VR experience at a fraction of the cost of other high-end devices. By subsidizing hardware costs and focusing on software and content monetization, Meta aims to get VR devices into as many hands as possible. These devices also don't require a connection to a PC or a separate smartphone.
Companies are also exploring decentralized cloud solutions like edge computing to manage heavy computational requirements at or near the data source. By rendering graphics in the cloud and streaming them to users, the need for high-end local hardware can be reduced, making metaverse experiences accessible and cost-effective through less powerful devices.
Content creation and standards
For the metaverse to realize its full potential, users need to be able to move between different virtual spaces, use assets across platforms, and have a consistent experience. This interoperability demands standards and protocols. Without such standards, the metaverse risks becoming a series of disjointed spaces, limiting the richness of cross-platform experiences.
Here are some challenges of creating, sharing, and interacting with content in the metaverse:
Technical diversity: The metaverse encompasses various devices, from VR and AR headsets to traditional screens and haptic devices. Designing content that works seamlessly across this spectrum is challenging.
Interoperability: As different companies and developers create virtual spaces and tools, ensuring these environments and assets can interact and be used across various platforms becomes a significant challenge.
Content ownership and rights: With the potential for user-generated content, issues related to intellectual property rights, content monetization, and digital asset ownership can arise.
Quality and realism: Achieving high-quality, realistic content requires significant computational resources and expertise, which might not be accessible to all content creators.
Safety and moderation: Ensuring that content is safe, respectful, and free from malicious intent or misinformation is challenging, especially in a vast, user-generated ecosystem.
Several organizations are working towards promoting a unified metaverse ecosystem. Spearheaded by the Khronos Group, OpenXR aims to standardize the development of VR and AR applications. By providing a common interface between apps and devices, OpenXR ensures that applications can run on any hardware that supports the standard. This interface reduces fragmentation in the VR and AR space, making it easier for developers to create content that works across multiple platforms. Another platform, WebXR, provides an API for creating VR and AR experiences on the web. WebXR ensures that immersive content can be accessed and shared easily through web browsers, promoting interoperability and accessibility.
There's also a growing push for industry-wide consortiums to establish best practices, open protocols, and standards for the metaverse. These groups aim to bring together industry players, developers, and stakeholders to create a unified vision for the 3D internet. Virtual Reality Blockchain Alliance (VRBA) is exploring ways to ensure the interoperability of assets, money, identities, and experiences across different virtual worlds. Another consortium of leading Web3 companies, OMA3, or the Open Metaverse Alliance for Web3, announced a project called the Inter-World Portaling System (IWPS) to allow individuals to travel seamlessly between virtual worlds like The Sandbox, Upland, and Alien Worlds. They aim to create a user-owned and controlled metaverse by building standards and infrastructure.
Data privacy and Security
Consumers and governments are wary of the dangers associated with data leaks and misuse in the metaverse. The platform is more prone to malicious attacks since the metaverse relies heavily on the internet and other emerging technologies like blockchain, digital assets, cryptocurrencies, and extended reality (XR).
Here are some data privacy and security challenges the metaverse poses:
Data collection: As users interact within the 3D internet, vast amounts of data, including behavioral patterns, preferences, and interactions, can be collected. For instance, two minutes of using a VR device generates two million data elements, as reported by VentureBeat. This data can be more intimate than traditional online data, potentially revealing insights into a user's emotions and habits. With a lack of regulation around data control and protection, this could be a risk.
Identity theft and fraud: With virtual avatars and assets becoming potentially valuable, there's a risk of identity theft, fraud, and unauthorized access to a user's virtual possessions or spaces.
Malware and hacks: Users of the metaverse connect their crypto wallets to platforms to engage in transactions, posing risks around security. Just as with the traditional internet, the metaverse can be a target for malware, hacks, and other cyber-attacks, potentially compromising user data or resulting in financial losses.
Misinformation: With virtual environments even more challenging to control and police, individuals can exploit the space to spread misinformation or propaganda, potentially having a more profound impact than traditional media.
Technologies are developing to protect users better and ensure safe interactions and transactions within the 3D internet.
Blockchain verification: Blockchain's decentralized and tamper-proof nature makes it a promising technology for securing transactions and authenticating assets in the metaverse. For instance, Matera is a protocol that can be used for asset verification in virtual worlds, as it uses a network of verifiers to ensure an asset is authentic and recorded on-chain at the smart contract level.
Decentralized identity solutions: Instead of relying on centralized authorities, users can control and share their data with different parties based on explicit permissions. This decentralized identity solution can ensure that users' identities are verifiable and secure on a decentralized file-sharing platform without exposing unnecessary personal information.
Zero-knowledge proofs (ZKPs): ZKPs are a cryptographic method that allows one party to prove to another that a statement is true without revealing any specific information about it. It can verify transactions or claims without exposing the details, enhancing privacy.
Private smart contracts: These are self-executing contracts run on the blockchain with the terms of the agreement directly written into code. When combined with privacy technologies, they can ensure the terms are met without revealing the specifics to external parties, ensuring security during transactions.
The metaverse is a transformative digital realm with immense potential, but it faces technical challenges. High-end hardware, including VR headsets and GPUs, is costly, limiting accessibility. Standards for content creation and interoperability are scarce but essential, with initiatives like OpenXR and industry consortiums aiming to address this. Data privacy and security concerns are prominent; however, emerging technologies such as blockchain verification and decentralized identity solutions offer a way forward. Overcoming these obstacles is vital for the metaverse to realize its full potential as a safe and inclusive digital universe. Staying aware of the metaverse’s developments and innovations will be paramount for those who wish to capitalize on its strengths as it evolves.
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