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Cathy Hackl
Cathy Hackl
Futurist and Chief Metaverse Officer
Futures Intelligence Group

Cathy Hackl is an Emmy-nominated communicator turned virtual reality & augmented reality global speaker, producer, and futurist. Linkedin recently named her the #4 Top Voice in Technology globally on the platform in 2018. She's a Lead Futurist at You Are Here Immersive Labs, one of the Southeast's most prominent XR labs. Prior to that, Hackl worked as an HTC VIVE VR Evangelist during the launch of their latest headset, the VIVE Pro, and during the company’s partnership with Warner Brothers’ blockbuster, Ready Player One. She's the author of Marketing New Realities: An Introduction to VR & AR Marketing, Branding & Communications.

This article is by Featured Blogger Cathy Hackl from her Blog Page. Republished with the author’s permission.  

The term Metaverse originally comes from Neal Stephenson's 1992 Cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash”. It was used to describe a 3D virtual reality successor to the Internet where human controlled avatars interact with each other and “software agents”. While Stephenson’s core idea of a singular 3D world to replace the Internet is unlikely to come to pass, much of his concepts and that of Cyberpunk fiction in general, has come true already. Fast forward to 2020 and the term Metaverse is used to describe the collective of individual 3D, Virtual Reality, Virtual Worlds, Augmented and Extended Reality experiences.  

5G is the fifth generation of wireless communications, starting with 1G analog voice, 2G enabling digital voice and texting, 3G bringing basic wireless internet and low-definition video. The current ubiquitous 4G network can support mobile web access, gaming, high-definition video and video conferencing. 5G enables much higher data rates, reduced latency, higher system capacity and numerous device connectivity - exactly what the Metaverse needs. 

“It’s hard to overestimate just how much 5G will change everything from interactive entertainment to international supply chains,” AT&T Business’ Mo Katibeh told me recently. “It’s this brand new infrastructure layer that makes all kinds of amazing experiences possible-- it’s not just another tool, it’s an entire construction site. I think we’re just scratching the surface right now, and even in the early days we can clearly see the potential.” 

Here are four ways 5G technology will enable the future Metaverse. 

  1. Connect to the Metaverse from anywhere 

While you can have an interesting, augmented reality or virtual reality experience alone, the Metaverse is more than just about you. The Metaverse is a persistent, digital reality comprised of vast amounts of information and activity that stays anchored where you place, even when you aren’t there.  

Right now, you need either a wired connection or fast Wi-Fi to connect to the Metaverse. 4G just does not have the kind of bandwidth required to support connecting directly to a rich Metaverse experience. Therefore, we need to download the bulk of an experience locally before getting into it. In order to connect to the Metaverse directly you will need to expect 100s of Mbps that only 5G can deliver. 

     2. Smaller hardware form factor 

One of the goals of a future Metaverse is not just the experience you get being connected to it but the reality of the hardware you need to connect to it. Currently, AR and VR headsets are large and bulky, often connected via a cable to a high-end gaming machine. The objective is a headset with the form factor of a pair of normal looking wireless glasses you can wear all day. However, even the arguably best standalone consumer VR headset, the Oculus Quest 2, is over a pound of hardware attached to your face.  

While the trend of miniaturization has served us well, what if we could remove some of the hardware altogether? With the current model you need to download an entire experience and run it all locally. With a 5G connection you could connect to an experience running in the edge and stream it to your headset to experience it immediately. This removes the need for much of current headsets' heat-generating components and bring down the cooling and power needs.  

     3. Remote rendering 

One of the biggest gains with 5G and the Metaverse is remote rendering. By doing all the “heavy lifting” of rendering on the edge, the experience can be streamed much like streaming a movie. Currently, a user normally needs a high-end gaming computer to run VR games and 4G networks are a bottleneck to implementing fast access to VR/AR experiences.  

Another advantage of 5G over 4G is reduced latency. Latency is the amount of time it takes for data to be transferred between its source and its destination, generally measured in milliseconds (ms). This latency is directly connected with how many frames per second (FPS) can be streamed to a headset. At slow frame rates, 15-30 FPS, just turning your head might make you sick in virtual reality and is considered the bare minimum for most video games. 60 FPS is considered more ideal for videogames and a bare minimum for VR, with 90 FPS being the current more comfortable standard.  

While most Augmented Reality with a slow frame rate is not going to make you sick, as you are mostly looking at the real world, it doesn’t look right and will take you out an immersive experience. The average latency of 4G is around 50ms, resulting in a frame rate of around 20FPS, far too slow for a comfortable Metaverse experience. With 5G’s latency of less than 10ms, comfortable frame rates of 90FPS, and even more in the future, remote rendering can be maintained. 

   4. Extending our Reality  

While Virtual Reality has a great ability to take you out of the real world and Augmented Reality can show the virtual over the real world, the holy grail of the Metaverse is combining the two with extended reality. In order to enable a realistic extended reality, you need to digitally map the real world. This map is used to provide context to the extended reality allowing virtual objects to be persistently anchored to a location in the real world and experienced by many, and not just displayed temporarily for a single user.  

For simple experiences you may only need to do this locally. But to enable this on a city wide or global scale you need a much larger shared map. This digital twin of the world is referred to as the spatial internet. This spatial internet would not only contain the mapped shape of the world and the virtual objects it contains, but would also link to meta information. See a virtual sculpture in a park, connect to information about the artist that made it. Again, 5G enables the connection to information from every device using it to see this worldwide Metaverse while their view is being used to update the map in real time.  

A Starting Point 

A great example and a future glimpse of this extended reality in action today can be seen in this video  

Looney Tunes 5G Experience launched by AT&T. In it, iconic Looney Tunes characters, powered by artificial intelligence, interact with people thru wall-mounted screens or mobile devices. This kind of real-time shared interactive experience would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Even this is just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible with the Metaverse powered by 5G.  

Earlier this year, AT&T Business invited me to complete Cornell's 5G Strategy Certificate Program and learn more about 5G. This post stems from what I learned during this program and my observations about how 5G will enable the convergence of the physical and digital worlds. This post was sponsored by AT&T Business, but the opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent AT&T Business’s positions or strategies.