Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Metaverse: What Will 2022 Bring? 

The term “metaverse” certainly got more attention in October when social media company Facebook changed its corporate name to Meta. The renaming was done, the company said, to focus its work on bringing the metaverse to life so it can help people connect, find communities and grow businesses.

“The metaverse will feel like a hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world,” the company wrote in an Oct. 28 announcement. “It will let you share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together — and do things together you couldn’t do in the physical world. It’s the next evolution in a long line of social technologies, and it’s ushering in a new chapter for our company.”

While the metaverse is still years from being ready for everyday use, the company said in a separate blog post, “parts of it are already here — and even more are on the horizon” to combine virtual and augmented reality as we know them today with the internet and other technologies “to help realize the full social potential of the metaverse in the future.”

And Meta is not alone with its interest in the metaverse. Other large companies have also been talking more about it recently, including Microsoft and Epic Games.

Raja Koduri of Intel

Even chipmaker Intel has been raising the discussion, including through a Dec. 14 opinion piece on “Powering the Metaverse” by Raja Koduri, Intel’s senior vice president and general manager of the company’s accelerated computing systems and graphics group, on the Intel blog.

“The term ‘metaverse’ was coined by Neal Stephenson in a science fiction novel [“Snow Crash”] almost 30 years ago,” wrote Koduri. “In recent years, metaverse has come to represent a utopian convergence of digital experiences fueled by Moore’s Law – an aspiration to enable rich, real-time, globally-interconnected virtual- and augmented-reality environments that will enable billions of people to work, play, collaborate and socialize in entirely new ways.”

For Intel, the metaverse is seen as a huge challenge, wrote, Koduri, because it “may be the next major platform in computing after the world wide web and mobile,” and requires massive amounts of compute and technology capabilities, which the company and others are working to develop.

“There are reasons to believe that we are on the cusp of the next major transition in computing,” he wrote.” “A transition that will enable persistent and immersive computing at scale: computer-generated animation in movies today is almost indistinguishable from live-action footage; gaming today provides highly realistic graphical experiences; and VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) displays have progressed rapidly in recent years, creating incredibly rich and immersive experiences.”

And as often occurs in life, world events over the last two years have provided some significant lessons about technology, Koduri continued. “The once-in-a-lifetime pandemic has forced many to rely on digital technology as the only way to communicate, collaborate, learn and sustain our lives. The explosion of decentralized digital finance technologies inspires business models that encourage everyone to play a role in creating these metaverses.”

Meanwhile, for many of us, we may not know what to think about it all. Metaverses conjure up memories of Second Life, which was a virtual community back in the early 2000s where participants could create virtual lives for themselves and participate in virtual activities. You don’t hear much about it today because it really did not go anywhere, despite big backing from IBM and other corporate believers in the technology at the time.

Metaverse: The Bottom Line

So, what does this metaverse thing really mean? Is it a distraction filled with buzzwords and marketing-speak that excites companies but leaves business leaders and consumers wondering what in the world it is? Or is it something that can help consumers and enterprises in their work, their lives and in their communities?

With all these questions in mind, EnterpriseAI asked a sampling of IT analysts for their thoughts and opinions on metaverses and where this idea may go in 2022. Here are their impressions.

A Positive Technology

R. Ray Wang, analyst

To R. Ray Wang, the principal analyst at Constellation Research, the continuing emergence of the metaverse is “the next phase of where digital meets physical,” he told EnterpriseAI. “Businesses can see this as a new way to transact, sell goods, conduct training, improve customer experiences and build out new services and offerings.”

Still, said Wang, this all depends on how one defines the metaverse. “We see the metaverse economy as changing how we conduct business. The bottom line is that the metaverse economy will be the next advancement of the digital world and the connection back to the physical world. The interfaces are headsets, VR, AR and Mixed Reality today, but they will evolve into human APIs.”

Metaverses are worlds of their own, said Wang. “Today we see [gaming platforms] Roblox, Unity and Epic Games building out worlds. Every gaming platform, movie studio, sports league and more will have their own worlds. Decentralized Autonomous Organizations [DAOs] are the governing principles that will form the backbone of the new worlds and may even be the ‘GoFundMe’ mechanisms for startups. Value exchange will be conducted by blockchain, and cryptocurrencies will bring the elements of the dark web to the new world.”

In addition, Web 3.0 principles such as decentralized models, self-sovereign identity and zero-knowledge proofs will change how users conduct transactions, giving buyers more power and control and sellers more transparency, said Wang.

Another analyst, Karl Freund, the founder and principal analyst at Cambrian AI Research, agreed.

“If one considers Nvidia Omniverse digital twins as a ‘metaverse,’ then yes, they are absolutely useful,” said Freund. “I am convinced that Nvidia Omniverse and the digital twin concept is compelling and will transform how engineering and design teams collaborate around the world. Meta/Facebook could [also] be fun and as an entertainment platform it will be worth watching but will not deliver the business value that digital twins can.”

There could be other valued uses as well, said Freund. “Metaverses that just enable communications through avatars will be attractive to some, especially in the gaming space. I could see how people might use a metaverse communications platform to replace or augment Zoom, Teams and others. So, if that is the tool people begin to prefer, then yes, metaverses can be useful.”

Rob Enderle, analyst

Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group, said that metaverses are already being used for simulation and emulation to more safely and economically advance architectural projects, autonomy robots and vehicles, while reducing expensive mistakes that have historically emerged at the end of complex projects.

This technology will be important and essential to enterprises because when it is used correctly it will save money, time and lives, said Enderle.

“It is viable for some things today, but it is being overhyped, creating the impression it is more advanced than it currently is, which will cause many to lose money and faith in the technology,” he said. “You may recall the same thing happened early on with the internet, with many incorrectly calling it a fraud or a fad. But the internet eventually emerged as broadly viable, and the metaverse will eventually reach similar capabilities. Still, it will have several hills and valleys of met and unmet expectations before fully maturing, which will likely happen after 2030.”

Not As Optimistic

Charles King, analyst

Charles King, principal of Pund-IT, Inc., said that in the short term, he does not see this as something that will be valuable for enterprises.

“For one thing, the necessary tech and infrastructure is still in development,” said King. “Plus, enough people are still around who worked for or with companies that were burned by the hype around Second Life in the early 2000s that I expect organizations to be more cautious than enthusiastic. It is worth remembering that Second Life's failures as a business environment were at least partly due to [its parent company] Linden Labs' inability to manage or control bad actors. Given the similarly poor performance of Meta/Facebook in those regards, the company's ambitions for the metaverse seem misguided.”

And while Meta CEO and chairman Mark Zuckerberg believes in the technology enough to have renamed Facebook to pursue this new strategy, King said he is not so sure.

“I do not recall anyone claiming that metaverse environments were commercially valuable or viable” until Meta’s name change, said King. “Zuckerberg claimed that metaverses are a natural progression of VR/AR development. There is some truth to that, but metaverses are just one of many potential destinations for VR/AR.”

So is this all a sham for enterprises?

“The tech industry is always open to and looking for the next big commercial opportunity, so it is not surprising to hear infrastructure vendors and VR/AR firms voicing support” for metaverses, said King. “The real test will come over the next 12 to 24 months to see whether potential customers are interested enough to buy in. If so, development should accelerate. If not, metaverses are likely to be remembered as the 3D TVs of the 2020s.”

Dan Olds, analyst

Dan Olds, the chief research officer at Intersect360 Research, goes even further.

“I have seen this movie before, and back then, it was called Second Life,” said Olds. “Tech companies from far and wide proclaimed that it was the next big thing and that it was going to revolutionize business in ways we could not even imagine. It did not.”

And with other useful applications already here today to communicate with others online, Olds said that metaverses are not needed.

“Why would we need the metaverse when we have virtually latency-free face-to-face and screen sharing with tools like Zoom?” he said. “It is notable because it is a big stupid thing and worth watching to see how it will crash and burn. We are going to travel up the hype curve for maybe a year or two, then we will see actual products and be hugely disappointed.”

At that point, said Olds, “the companies involved in pushing the metaverse will quietly fold their tents, declare victory and never speak of it again.”

Marc Staimer, principal analyst at Dragon Slayer Consulting, said he views the metaverse as “a solution looking for a problem to solve.”

Staimer said he continues to struggle to see viable enterprise use cases for the technology, but that this could include customer service or online technology troubleshooting.

“It is not a sham, but it is not compelling either,” said Staimer.

Taking A Middle Ground

Other analysts said they are neither huge fans or serious enemies of metaverse possibilities.

Maribel Lopez, analyst

Maribel Lopez, principal analyst with Lopez Research, said the hype of the metaverse is already here, but that under the hood, it just might someday offer something new and useful.

“Saying it is the next internet may be a stretch, but the metaverse will gain more traction than the last run,” said Lopez. “While the metaverse might not be as big as vendors necessarily claim it to be, there are technological breakthroughs that make this more feasible. The latest chips can render items more realistically.”

It could be useful to enterprises and to people because society as a whole today is more online than in the past and many people like to participate in online activities, she said. “But having said all this, the metaverse will take years to play out.”

Another analyst, Jack Gold, the president and principal analyst of J. Gold Associates, LLC, told EnterpriseAI that the challenge for the metaverse is that at its core it is not comprised of just one definition or idea.

Jack Gold, analyst

“It is a little like saying ‘computing,’” he said. “It is really more of a concept than an architecture – a whole series of components are needed to make it work, and a variety of problems that need solving will be done differently than others. The metaverse will be driven in the next several years by solutions to particular problems, and not so much a blanket, horizontal capability.”

The big question in all of this, said Gold, is whether latencies can be reduced enough to make metaverses truly feasible and workable on a large scale for users.

“That is really the key to metaverse connectivity,” he said. “Anything beyond a millisecond or two will make it untenable. The other issue with the Metaverse is that it requires a totally redesigned user interface. And that UI will not be created quickly. Look how long it took us to get to Windows 10 and 11 from CP/M and DOS, and you will have some idea of the amount of work the UI will take – although obviously it will not take us decades. And there will not just be one UI – there will be several, optimized for different things including gaming, collaboration, AI-assisted VR/AR and more.”

With all these challenges, Gold said he agrees that a realistic timeframe cannot be estimated for when metaverses will be a workable reality. “It will be at least four to five years and maybe more to get a large number of solutions,” he said. “There will be components that come online sooner, like AR/VR gaming, digital twins and some level of collaboration systems, but fully AI-driven metaverse capabilities will take a fair number of breakthroughs that we do not even know about yet, and that will take time.”

It will also take additional breakthrough technologies from startups, many of which are not even out of stealth yet, said Gold. “I know all the big guys are pushing metaverse, such as Meta, Google, Microsoft, Intel and Nvidia, but I expect that if these big players are going to be a part of the new world, they will be acquiring startups that have cornered a niche technology they need. I expect to see a lot of M&A activity in metaverses over the next three to five years – not all of it successful.”

The fully-realized metaverse will probably take at least a decade to happen, with subsets of its technology arriving sooner, said Gold. “As with any new technology area, arguing hype versus facing reality is an interesting challenge, and most people are better at signing on to the hype than understanding the difficulty in creating the reality.”