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The Metaverse: Can 5G Overcome Infrastructure Challenges?

In part one of this three-part series on the metaverse, we look at how the metaverse is likely to shape up, the challenges facing current infrastructure in delivering a truly immersive experience, and the role of 5G in overcoming these challenges.

By Abhinav Purohit,Chief Expert, Middle East Region, Business & Strategy Consulting
Dec 2022

In part one of this three-part series on the metaverse, we look at how the metaverse is likely to shape up, the challenges facing current infrastructure in delivering a truly immersive experience, and the role of 5G in overcoming these challenges.

Most people would have watched (or heard about) the movie Ready Player One. Set in 2045 and based on Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name, a group of contestants goes on a virtual treasure hunt to find Easter eggs that will give them control over OASIS – a virtual world.

This is the very essence of metaverse, a world where users can carry out their daily activities in a virtual world with a pinch of reality.

What is the metaverse?

Metaverse is made up of two words – ‘Meta’ and ‘Verse’. ‘Meta’ means ‘beyond’ while ‘verse’ is derived from the word ‘universe’.

Technically, a metaverse is a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical and digital reality. For simplicity’s sake, think of a metaverse as the next iteration of the Internet, which started as individual bulletin boards and independent online destinations. Eventually these destinations became sites on a virtual shared space, similar to how a metaverse will develop1.

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A metaverse is not device-independent, nor is it owned by a single vendor. It is an independent virtual economy, enabled by digital currencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

As a combinatorial innovation, metaverses require multiple technologies and trends to function. Contributing trends include virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), flexible work styles, head-mounted displays (HMDs), an AR cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), and spatial computing.

The metaverse value chain

His conceptual framework of the Metaverse value chain consists of seven tiers that describe the value-chain of the metaverse market. These include opportunities, technological innovations, and solutions to our current problems.

The Core Enablers for the Metaverse: 5G is at the Very Base

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Source: Masai School

The most fundamental of these layers is infrastructure.

Infrastructure is the base layer, meaning that without an adequate framework, none of the other developments are possible. This is why technological processes are at the heart of the metaverse. The other tiers include experience, discovery, creator economy, spatial computing, decentralization, and human interface2.

The infrastructure layer includes the technologies that enables devices, connects them to the network, and delivers content.

5G networks will dramatically improve bandwidth while reducing network contention and latency, while 6G will increase speeds by yet another order of magnitude.

Enabling the untethered functionality, high performance, and miniaturization required by the next generation of mobile devices, smart-glasses, and wearables will require increasingly powerful and smaller hardware: semiconductors that are imminently dropping to 3-nm processes and beyond; microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) that enable tiny sensors; and compact, long-lasting batteries3.

Building metaverse-ready networks

The metaverse will allow geographically distant participants to enjoy realistic, spatially-aware experiences that seamlessly blend virtual content in a user’s physical world and empower users to feel more connected with each other.

Delivering such an experience will require innovations in fields like hybrid local and remote real-time rendering, video compression, edge computing, and cross-layer visibility, as well as spectrum advocacy, work on metaverse readiness of future connectivity and cellular standards, network optimizations, improved latency between devices and within radio access networks (RANs), and more.

Various connectivity challenges lie ahead4, but 5G offers a robust solution to solve such current and future issues.

1. Latency. For an experience of truly “being there,” it’s very important that the graphical elements of immersive mixed reality worlds update rapidly in response to how people are interacting with them. Today’s latency-sensitive applications, like video calling and cloud games, have to meet a round-trip time latency of 75-150 ms, which can drop to sub 30 ms in the case of multi-player, complex games. But on a head-mounted mixed reality display, where graphics will have to be rendered on screen in response to where someone is focusing their eyes, things will need to move an order of magnitude faster – from single to low double digit ms – which is possible in the 5G era. 

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Current Internet infrastructure is unsuitable for building a fully-immersive content-streaming metaverse environment that enables users to move seamlessly from one experience to another. To make the vision of the metaverse a reality, significant investment is expected to be made towards a confluence of technology.

Low latency — the time it takes a data signal to travel from one point on the Internet to another point and then come back — is critical to building a more realistic user experience.

For the Metaverse to succeed, latency needs to improve and faster connectivity speeds are needed. With only 25% of the global population expected to have access to 5G by 2025, network bandwidth needs to be increased and delivered. The lags, packet drops, and network unreliability witnessed in today’s 4G world makes the current state of the infrastructure unsuitable for building an envisioned metaverse experience. 5G will be the answer here.

2. Symmetric Bandwidth. Local real-time rendering could make it possible to meet tight latency constraints. But local rendering requires the entire virtual world, with all its effects and avatars, to be downloaded up front before the experience can be consumed. For complex scenes with many avatars, this could take several hours to download over current networks. In the future, remote rendering over edge cloud, or some form of hybrid between local and remote rendering, will play a greater role in the years to come. For this, users will need to be able to send as much information as they receive – symmetric bandwidth – which is possible in the 5G era.

3. Quality of Experience (QoS). Immersive video streaming is another place where the gaps are clear. Streaming a 720p video on a standard smartphone screen requires upwards of 5-10 M/bits of downlink throughput and on a smartphone held at arm’s length, 720p resolution is sufficient to achieve human retinal resolution. But on a head-mounted display sitting just centimeters from the eyes, retina grade resolutions will need to be many orders of magnitude larger, even beyond 4K resolutions. Solving this problem will require improvements in network throughput to deliver a consistent quality of experience (QoS), which is possible in the 5G era.

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In part two of this series, we take a look at current virtual platforms, what they offer, and opportunities now and in the future.

Part Two

Part Three