I. The emerging metaverse
In 2021, the concept of the metaverse took the world by storm.
In April 2021, ByteDance invested 100 million Chinese yuan (approx. US$13.7 million) in Code Qiankun, a metaverse-related company. In October 2021, at Facebook Connect, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would be renamed Meta and would prioritize the metaverse in its future business. In November 2021, Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella announced that the company would launch the Mesh for Teams virtual platform in 2022, and build a virtual planet where virtuality is embedded into the physical world.
Why is the industry so enthusiastic about the metaverse?
Because it has the potential to define next-generation Internet in terms of experience, functionality, and content production, which will in turn profoundly impact the development of the ICT industry.
Figure 1: The metaverse may define next-gen Internet
Tech research and consulting firm Gartner predicts that by 2026, 25% of people will spend at least one hour a day working, shopping, studying, socializing, or being entertained through the metaverse. In addition, it expects that 30% of companies and organizations worldwide will have metaverse products and services. By shifting from digital services to metaverse services, companies will be able to expand and strengthen their business models in new ways and improve how their employees work. Bloomberg analysts predict that the metaverse market will be worth nearly US$800 billion by 2024, while PwC estimates that it could hit US$1.5 trillion by 2030.
To date, the definition of the metaverse remains a matter of opinion. In our view, the metaverse must, at the very minimum, possess the following characteristics:
1. Decentralized: A shared, open-source protocol is necessary to ensure that metaverse operations are stable, efficient, and transparent. For example, only decentralized systems for clearing and settlement and for transferring goods, services, and assets can guarantee that value ownership is secure and verifiable.
2. Permanent: The metaverse must be a permantent platform. While features such as its users and rules may change, it should remain unaffected by external factors such as company bankcrupties.
3. Connected with the physical world: The metaverse will make the virtual world more realistic while bringing virtual experiences to the real world. The metaverse should serve as a bridge between the real and virtual worlds, bringing immersive realism to the virtual world and virtual experiences to the real world.
4. An OS-level open architecture and capacity: A new ecosystem can only grow out of an operating-system-level program, as opposed to an application that can be installed and uninstalled.
5. Unified and open underlying protocols that underpin data interoperability: Metaverse applications developed by any company must comply with the underlying protocols to ensure that user data remains intact. Each application is like a small world that can be connected to the metaverse, which then helps them communicate with each other through its open application program interfaces (APIs).
6. Innovative interaction models that usher in a new Internet era: Thanks to new interaction technologies such as gesture- and language-based interactions, as well as brain-computer interfaces, interaction models are being expanded from two-dimensional to multi-dimensional. These new interaction models, along with the new immersive experiences they enable, are set to usher in a new era of the Internet.
7. Inclusive and efficient content creation based on user generated content (UGC): Metaverse content must be easy to create in order to attract creators. This helps break the monopoly of professional generated content (PGC) and enables anyone to participate, expanding the user base and boosting service adoption. Fully AI-based, automated content creation will be required to make this possible.
8. Dramatically improving efficiency and enabling online virtualized industries: A combination of abundant factors of production, sufficient productivity, and greatly increased consumption frequency in the metaverse can bring marginal costs close to zero. These low marginal costs, coupled with high marginal benefits, can significantly improve social productivity, achieving Pareto optimality.
The above characteristics are why many tech leaders regard the metaverse as the key to next-generation Internet and operators around the world are embracing it.
II. Metaverse conjecture: Requirements for ICT infrastructure
We are still uncertain how the metaverse will look in the future, but we can imagine it.
To function correctly, the metaverse will rely on a range of factors, including large numbers of users continuously being online, immersion, high levels of simulation, efficient content production, decentralized information storage, and effective authentication. Key technologies that support these factors include network and computing technologies, simulation interactions, artificial intelligence, authoring/interactive platforms, and blockchain.
What new requirements will the metaverse have for ICT infrastructure? We can only speculate.
1. Network requirements: Interactive and high-bit-stream videos significantly increase network latency and bandwidth.
In pursuit of a higher-level, truly-immersive metaverse experience, each user may have multiple terminals (e.g., metaverse headsets, gloves, and outfits) to provide high-speed and low-latency access. In addition, more realistic interactions have much higher requirements for low network latency and jitter. This information indicates that the metaverse's requirements for future networks will be characterized by four new trends.
First, indoor spaces (homes and offices) will become the main sites for metaverse applications, and the rollout of 50G PON, 200G PON, and millimeter wave FWA may be come around two or three years faster than the industry predicted.
Early-stage metaverse applications are expected to require terminal devices like headsets, meaning most application scenarios will be enclosed environments like homes and offices. A 16K 6DOF 120-fps VR headset runs with a bit rate of 0.8 to 1 Gbit/s, and the corresponding network bandwidth requirement is 1.6 to 2 Gbit/s. This is far higher than what average home broadband currently provides. If several family members are simultaneously using the metaverse, for example, children using it to study or play orparents using it to work from home, a home network bandwidth of at least 10 Gbit/s would be required to provide a satisfactory experience for all users. Based on this service requirement model, we expect the explosion in highly immersive metaverse applications to accelerate the rollout of 50G PON, 200G PON, and millimeter wave FWA by at least two or three years faster than industry expectations.
Second, fiber-to-the-room (FTTR) will become mainstream, meaning metaverse application experiences will be consistent in every corner of a house, no matter how large.
With the increasing adoption of metaverse applications, users will not merely be content to enjoy highly immersive metaverse applications in the living room. Higher bandwidth requires more spectrum resources, but Wi-Fi signals at higher frequencies suffer from greater loss when penetrating walls. Even in a one-bedroom apartment, a single router in the living room is not capable of ensuring that signal quality throughout the apartment is sufficient to support metaverse applications. Therefore, FTTR is set to become mainstream in the future.
Third, network latency of less than 10 ms (excluding application computing time) will be required for the ultimate visual and sensory interactive service experiences will require, driving optical 3D mesh networks to be deployed to base stations/central offices (COs).
Fully-immersive multi-sensory experiences and, in particular, interactive service experiences require extremely low latency to ensure synchronization between what users see and what they actually feel. In a metaverse application scenario, if a user has touched an object physically that is not well-represented visually, this creates a bad experience and can potentially even lead to an operating accident. For example, for a complex, cloud-based XR service where users interact with the environment through voice, gestures, and eye movement, total latency must be less than 10 ms. Therefore, end-to-end network latency must be less than 10 ms, which requires optical 3D mesh networks to be deployed to base stations/COs, which is the general latency requirement of metaverse applications.
Fourth, networks collaborate with devices and sensors to sense location, displacement, and vibration, facilitating better integrated sensing and communication services, and bringing operators back to the center of value creation.
As 5G/5.5G enhances and evolves the integrated communication and sensing capabilities of networks through protocols and standards, networks will become more effective in terms of the precise, real-time sensing of location, displacement, and vibration. This will allow them to better support applications in scenarios where close coordination is required between the metaverse and the physical world. Real-time, integrated communication and sensing will become a unique advantage of operator networks, helping operators achieve new growth and return to the center of value creation.
Figure 2: The metaverse poses new challenges to the integrated communication and sensing of telecommunications networks
2. Computing requirements: Decentralization and high perceived rates drive booming edge services
Cloud services are the best way to deliver computing power. To minimize the power consumption of terminal devices, the real-time processing, analysis, and rendering of massive amounts of data in the metaverse will run on the cloud. Huawei's Intelligent World 2030 report predicts that by 2030, the global general computing power will reach 3.3 ZFLOPS, a 10-fold increase over 2020. Meanwhile, AI computing power is expected to reach 105 ZFLOPS, a 500-fold increase over 2020.
Edge computing is the key to immersive experience in the metaverse. Massive metaverse applications will lead to an explosion in data. Centralized data processing and analysis cannot meet all service needs and can cause partial network congestion, making it necessary to process metaverse services at the edge. Real-time communication (RTC), cloud rendering, virtual spaces, and AI/IoT services provided by edge cloud are key to the metaverse. One organization predicts that by 2025, 75% of data will be generated on the edge. Edge computing capacity is expected to reach three times that of centralized computing capacity, which will promote the development of edge infrastructure.
Carrier networks and infrastructure are distributed and, in most cases, deploying edge computing equipment simply means adding to existing infrastructure, requiring much shorter times and lower costs. Carriers clearly have more advantages on the edge side. Edge data centers (DCs) and networks are competitive tools for carriers. By seizing the opportunities presented by edge computing and edge networks, carriers will be able to harvest new business growth.
3. Storage requirements: Expected boom in demand for storage
Data is one of the most crucial elements for the digital economy. By 2030, over 1 yottabyte of data will be generated worldwide each year. Computing power and data volume will enhance each other, and processing and analyzing massive amounts of data will require massive storage capacity.
The metaverse will create more data through videos, images, transactions, and digital twins than any existing application. For example, the blog and vlog posts and reposts of a KOL with more than a million followers may occupy 300 terabytes of online data storage. The metaverse will be characterized by decentralization, and everyone will have the potential to become a KOL or super KOL. It is predicted that a typical super KOL in the metaverse will require about 1 exabyte of storage, meaning that one person (i.e., one connection) in the metaverse will generate around 1 exabyte, or 1,024 petabytes, of data, requiring enormous storage capacity. With a global population of 8 billion, the metaverse could potentially be a huge space of 8 billion connections, generating a truly astonishing amount of data.
The permanence of the metaverse means that data will be continuously generated and stored, driving exponential growth in IT storage over the next decade.
Figure 3: Boom in metaverse storage needs
4. Device requirements: Driving the emergence and development of devices in various forms
Due to limited content and hardware technology, the metaverse devices of today mainly take the form of XR, which are far from delivering fully immersive experiences and multi-dimensional interactions. Achieving such experiences and interactions will require metaverse devices that can meet more needs.
Wearing a headset is only a transitional method for accessing the metaverse, which will become obsolete in the long run. Wearable metaverse devices must be both lightweight and comfortable, and there are two main options for the future: light VR glasses that are more convenient than mobile phones, or VR glasses that work with mobile phones and smart watches.
In the early stages of the metaverse, there may not be many applications that can deliver immersive experiences, so compatibility with existing devices and applications will be critical. As the metaverse evolves and multi-dimensional interactions become more common, device form factors will expand beyond headsets to other different wearable devices. For example, metaverse gloves will provide deeply immersive touch and manipulation experiences, and metaverse outfits will enable detailed sensory experiences that match those of the physical world. Future metaverse devices will take diverse shapes and forms, such as glasses, gloves, clothes, and shoes. These metaverse devices will provide us with immersive experiences that are almost identical to those in the real-world.
Imagination has no limits, and nor does the metaverse. To fulfill the metaverse's key function of enhancing the physical world, the support of key technologies will be essential. The continuous evolution of ICT will facilitate bold imagination and its realization. In addition, the bold ambition of the metaverse coupled with technological evolution may inspire carriers worldwide with useful references for future service planning and network evolution.