Why 5G and the edge could be the keys to the metaverse
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Since Facebook’s rebrand to Meta last year, the hype around the ‘metaverse’ has been full steam ahead. Countless articles about what it is, what it isn’t, might be, or could be, have touched all corners of the internet. It was also a prominent buzzword at the recent Mobile World Congress (MWC) show in Barcelona, the largest industry gathering for those concerned about connectivity. The term may be new to many, but the concepts and technologies involved in augmenting or replacing our day-to-day reality with a digitally enabled virtual world have been around for years.
Anything that can enhance our lives, if properly scaled and monetized, also has the potential to be very lucrative. While much of the attention is focused on the cloud aspects of a ‘metaverse,’ let’s not forget that it will not get off the ground until underlying telecoms networks can support it — not just for a few of us, but on a national and global scale. Access networks allow us to connect to the cloud, bringing the metaverse to wherever we are. Long-haul networks form the underlying fabric of interconnections that creates the cloud in the first place.
The metaverse market
In 2021, it was estimated that the global metaverse market size stood at $39 billion and in 2022, this is expected to rise to $47 billion, before surging to $679 billion by 2030.
The metaverse is the coming together largely from two main concepts. Accessed through augmented reality (AR) tools and VR headsets, Web3 is ushering in a new level of experience where websites and apps will be able to process information in a smart, human-like way in real-time using machine learning. The required sensing, processing and display technologies are currently being developed, and companies like Meta, Google, Microsoft, Snap, HTC and Apple all have an interest in creating the required devices to make the metaverse accessible. HTC’s VIVE VR system is one example of the required technology. Meta’s Oculus Quest gaming headset is another. But VR is not just for gaming.
Metaverse in the workplace
Throughout the pandemic, we became accustomed to Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams and other communication tools to provide us with virtual communication. It might sound like science fiction, but VR and AR are well on their way to creating an office environment where colleagues can collaborate in a wholly immersive way. In many circumstances, these tools will ultimately be able to offer improved accessibility and inclusivity for those workers who may be disadvantaged in the ‘real’ world.
Some real benefits of VR and AR are that they let those with disabilities or impaired mobility telecommute into the office and may enhance face-to-face interactions for workers who are sight or hearing impaired. Everyone can be equal in the metaverse because they will be represented by their avatar or digital twin —which can, but doesn’t always have to, look like them in real life. AR will start to play a much bigger role for businesses that are making remote working a long-term fixture. Commuting costs can become a thing of the past as carbon footprints are reduced through reductions in travel. There’s no need to worry about colleagues’ vaccination status, either.
The connectivity cornerstone
As MWC highlighted at its event in Barcelona, it is the connectivity piece that’s the key cornerstone to any conversation about the metaverse, and it needs to be more clearly explained. Any ‘advanced’ use cases — self-driving cars, remote surgery or the type of AR and VR tools that have now been rebranded as ‘metaverse apps’ — will rely on next-generation connectivity to come to fruition.
Next-generation connectivity means 5G, yet a 2021 survey revealed that a massive 81% of U.S. professionals don’t fully understand the benefits of 5G, and 8% of working professionals have never heard of 5G at all. Today, the main benefit that U.S. professionals associate with 5G is faster access speeds, with only 6% of respondents considering reduced latency (lag) to be a major benefit.
This is where a greater emphasis needs to be placed because it is higher bandwidth and lower latency in tandem that are crucial to any concept of a metaverse. The big question is whether our current network infrastructure can offer the high bandwidth and low latency required, at scale.
First, on bandwidth. Currently, VR and AR are dependent on powerful computers and specialized equipment that largely rely on data stored on the user’s side. To achieve the more sophisticated level of a truly immersive metaverse and make it accessible to more people than a select few, fast streaming technology and low latency will be necessary.
5G should be able to offer this bandwidth, with average download speeds in the hundreds of megabits per second range and average latency in single-digit milliseconds. However, current real-world data shows that even in major cities in the developed world, those promises are yet to materialize and the overall rollout of the technology has been slow. That bandwidth needs to be widespread and affordable, to better support underserved and under-connected communities.
Bandwidth is one thing, but if the avatar you’re talking to takes several seconds to respond, then meta life is not so great. This is where the importance of low latency comes to the fore. Edge computing — or the concept of moving processing and compute closer to where it is being consumed—can reduce network latency and improve reliability.
This will become increasingly important in networks that require a real-time reaction. Edge computing extends the traditional cloud model of an interconnected collection of large data centers to also utilize smaller and physically closer data centers. This distributes the cloud processing even more efficiently, with latency-sensitive workloads placed closer to the end-user while other workloads are placed farther away from where costs and utilization may be further optimized. Ultimately, reducing the time it takes to get to the cloud improves end users’ metaverse experience.
The continued evolution of the ‘edge,’ and the convergence of mobile 5G networks with residential and business networks, will be the ultimate enablers of metaverse use cases. Bringing computing power closer to the end-user — aka to the edge of the network — reduces latency (the distance the data has to travel to be processed). The network edge can also allocate more network resources to deliver more capacity and higher-bandwidth connectivity for metaverse applications.
The network edge also provides an opportunity to inject more software and intelligence into the network, allowing it to understand the demands being placed on it and respond in real-time. This will be achieved through investment in more ‘micro’ data centers at the edge of the network and by improving the interconnections between them. Some have estimated that a fully built-out edge cloud could result in at least five times as many data centers at the network edge as exist today by 2025. These scaled-down centers, located in closer proximity to end-users, will be the beating heart of the metaverse, but high-capacity connectivity for these edge compute locations must be prioritized if it is to have any chance of success.
Metaverse technology’s business transformation
It’s too early to fully appreciate how metaverse technology will transform business processes. The rapid adoption of digital applications during the pandemic was just an early example of what’s possible. Over the next few years, we will no doubt hear a lot of talk about the metaverse, but it won’t happen without investments in the required network innovations and infrastructure.
One thing we know for sure is that a network that adapts to user requirements and provides software-controlled, high-capacity, low-latency connectivity — all the way from the core to the edge — will be one of the critical foundations for our future metaverse.
Steve Alexander is the senior vice president and chief technology officer of Ciena
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