Let's stop the next cliche before it even starts.
knowledgeable people now roll their eyes in derision whenever they hear
the words 5G and autonomous driving (or robotic surgery) mentioned in
the same sentence. But the mobile industry's hypesters are always
casting around for some new trope - and especially the mythical "killer
app" that could help to justify the costs and complexity.
if on cue, the Metaverse - essentially a buzzword meaning a hybrid of
AR/VR with the social web, collaboration and gaming - has captured the
growing noise around Metaverse technologies - and especially Facebook's
recent rebrand to Meta - is attracting a whole slew of
bandwagon-jumpers. The cryptocurrency community has been the first to
trumpet its assumed future role - perhaps unsurprisingly, since they
tend to be even more fervent and boosterish than the mobile sector. But
we're also seeing the online shopping, advertising and gaming worlds
hail the 'Verse as the next big thing.
Next up - I can pretty much
guarantee it - will be the 5G industry talking about millisecond
latency and buying a "Metaverse network slice". We'll probably get the
edge-computing crowd popping up shortly afterwards too. I've already
seen a few posts hailing the Metaverse as the possible next big thing
for MNOs (mobile network operators).
The elephant in the room
you've found this article without knowing my normal coverage themes,
you might be surprised to read that the single biggest issue for
connecting Metaverse devices and users will be real, physical walls.
If you go through Mark Zuckerberg's lengthy video intro
to Meta and his view of future technologies, you'll notice that a high %
of scenarios and use-cases are indoors. Gaming from your sofa. Virtual
living rooms. Hybrid work environments blending WFH with in-person
meetings, and so on.
This shouldn't be a huge surprise. The more
immersive a technology is - and especially if it's VR rather than AR
based - the more likely people will take part while seated, or at least
not while walking around an outdoor environment with obstacles and
dangers. Most gaming, and most business collaboration takes places
And indoor environments tend to have particular ways
that connectivity is delivered to devices. Generally, Wi-Fi tends to be
used a lot, as the access points are themselves indoors, at the end of
broadband connection or office local area network.
wireless signals at frequencies above 2-3GHz don't get inside buildings
very well from outside, and the higher the performance, the worse that
propagation tends to be. Put simply, 5G-connected headsets and other
devices will generally not work reliably indoors, especially if they
have to deliver consistent high data speeds and low latencies which need
higher frequencies. We can also expect the massive push for Net Zero in
coming years to mean ever-better insulated buildings, which will make
matters even worse for wireless signals as a side-effect.
For sure, certain locations will have well-engineered indoor 5G systems that will
work effectively - but software developers generally won't be able to
assume this. Airports, big sports venues, shopping malls and some
industrial sites like factories will be at the top of the list for these
types of solutions. For those locations, 5G Metaverse connections may
well be widely used and effective. However, those are the exceptions -
and it will take many years to deploy new in-building systems, or
upgrade existing infrastructure anyway.
In particular, most homes
and offices will have patchy or sometimes no 5G coverage, especially in
internal rooms, elevators or basements. (There might be a 5G signal or logo
displayed on the device, but that doesn't mean that the
famously-promised gigabit speeds or millisecond latencies will actually
In those locations, expect Metaverse devices to
use Wi-Fi as a baseline - and increasingly the Wi-Fi 6/6E/7 generations
with better capabilities than previous versions.
What the Meta video tells us
I'm aware that the Metaverse is more than just Facebook / Meta, but the 1h17 video from Zuck (link)
is not a bad overview of what to expect in terms of experiences,
devices and business models. Obviously there will be different views
from Epic Games, Microsoft's various initiatives around Hololens and
Mesh, plus whatever Apple is quietly cooking up, but this is a decent
place to start.
The first thing to note is the various Horizon
visions that Meta is pitching - Home, Worlds and Workrooms. These are
(broadly) for close social interaction, gaming/larger-scale social and
business collaboration - especially hybrid work.
demos and visions are expected to take place from the participant's
home, office, school or similar venue. There's a couple of outdoor
examples of enhanced sports, or outdoor art/advertising as well. Virtual
desktops, avatars that mimic eye and facial movements and so on.
terms of devices, there's a large emphasis on headsets (obviously the
Oculus Quest, and also the new high-end Cambria device promised for
2022) as well as discussions of AR glasses, from the RayBan Stories
recently launched, to a forthcoming project called Nazare.
technology discussion is all around the functional elements, not the
connectivity. Optics, sensors, batteries, displays, speakers, cameras
and so on. There are developer tools for hand and voice interaction, and
presence / placement of objects in the virtual realm. There's lots of
discussion around creators, advertising and the ability to own (and
interoperate) virtual avatars, costumes and furniture. There are also
nods to privacy, as would be expected.
There's no mention of
connectivity, apart from noting that Cambria will have radios of some
sort. The section on the "Dozen major technological breakthroughs for
next-gen metaverse" doesn't mention wireless, 5G or anything else.
worth noting that Oculus devices and the RayBan glasses today use
Wi-Fi. We can also expect the gesture-control in future will likely lean
on UWB sensors. Outside of Facebook / Meta essentially all of today's
dedicated AR/VR headsets connect with Wi-Fi or a cable, to a local
network or broadband line. (That might be 5G fixed-wireless to the
building for a few % of homes, but that will still use Wi-Fi on the
Where cellular 4G/5G takes a role in XR is where the device is tethered to a phone or modem, or is experienced actually on the smartphone itself - think Pokemon Go, or the IKEA app that lets you design a room with virtual furniture.
can expect the same with the Metaverse. If you're using a smartphone to
access it, then obviously 5G will play a role, just as it will for all
mobile apps in 3-4 years time when penetration has increased.
Cambria and future iterations feature 5G built-in? Maybe but I doubt
it, not least because of the extra cost and engineering involved, as
well as multiple versions to support different regional frequency
options. Would a future Apple AR/Metaverse headset feature cellular,
like some versions of the Watch? Again, that's possible but I wouldn't
bet on it.
In the second half of the decade, later versions of 5G
(Release 17 & 18) will have useful new features like
centimetre-accuracy positioning that could be useful for Metaverse
purposes - but again, that's reliant on having decent coverage in the
first place. There will likely be some useful aspects outdoors though -
for instance accurate measurement of vehicles on roadways.
Facebook Connectivity becomes Meta too
One other thing I noticed is a reference on LinkedIn to Facebook's often-overlooked Connectivity division,
which does all sorts of interesting programmes and initiatives like TIP
(which does OpenRAN and other projects), Terragraph 60GHz mesh, Express
Wi-Fi and the low-end Basics "FB-lite" platform for developing markets
with limited network infrastructure.
it's now being renamed Meta Connectivity - partly I guess because of
the reorganisation and rebranding of the group overall, but also as a
longterm part of the Metaverse landscape.
To me, that also
indicates that the Metaverse is going to use multiple wireless (and
wired) technologies - which aligns with Zuckerberg's view that it's more
of a reinvention of the Internet/Web overall, rather than a particular
app or experience.
Bandwidth-heavy? Or perhaps not....
other thing needs to be considered around the Metaverse and
connectivity. The immediate assumption is that such a "rich"
environment, either full-virtual or overlaid onto a view of the real
world, will need lots of data - and therefore the types of bandwidths
promised by 5G. If we all use Metaverse devices to project "virtual TV
screens" onto virtual surfaces, it will use lots of capacity,
But it strikes me that avatars (even photo-realistic ones) & 3D reconstructions of real-world scenes will likely need less bandwidth
than actual video. Realtime rendering will likely be done on-device in
most cases, just sending the motion/sensor data or metadata about
objects over the network.
Clearly this will depend on the exact context and application, but if your PC or phone or headset has a model
of your friend's virtual house, or your virtual conference room - and
all the objects and people/avatars in it - then it doesn't actually need
realtime 4K video feeds to show different views.
In addition, the integration of eye-tracking allows pre-emptive downloads or actions, so "pseudo-latency" can seem
very low, irrespective of the network's actual performance. If the
headset sees you looking at a football, it can start working on the
trajectory of a kick 10's or even 100's of milliseconds before you move
your virtual leg.
That said, the sensor data uplink & motion
control downlink will need low latency, but I suspect that will be more
about driving localised breakout and peering rather than genuine
localised compute. If you're in a hybrid conference with distant
colleagues, the main role for edge-computing is to offload your data to
the nearest Internet exchange with as few hops as possible.
of the outdoor scenes in the Meta video from Connect seem rather
unrealistic. They show groups of people playing table tennis and a
virtual basketball match with "friends on the other side of the world",
which would involve some interesting issues with the speed of light and
how that would impact latency.)
In a nutshell - no, the Metaverse isn't the killer app for 5G.
timelines align between the two, so where 'Verse apps are used on
smartphones they'll increasingly use 5G if it's available and the user
is out-and-about. But that's correlation, not causation. Those
smartphones will typically be connected via Wi-Fi when at home, school
or work. I suspect the main impact on smartphones will be on the need
for better 3D graphics capability and enhanced sensors and cameras,
rather than the network side.
Will we see some headsets or glasses
with built-in cellular radios, some with 5G support? Sure, there will
certainly be a few emerging in coming years, especially for enterprise /
private network use. I'd expect field-workers, military, or industrial
employees to exploit various forms of AR and VR in demanding situations
well-suited to cellular, although many will tether a headset or glasses
to a separate modem / module to reduce weight.
Many devices will also include various other wireless technologies too - Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, maybe Thread/Matter, UWB and so on.
if anything, I suspect that the Metaverse may turn out to be the killer
app for WiFi7, especially for home and office usage. That doesn't mean
that 5G won't benefit as well - but I don't see it as a central enabler,
given the probable heavy indoor bias of the main applications. (I don't
think that cryptocurrency or edge-computing are key enablers either,
but those are debates for another day)
(This article was initially published on my LinkedIn Newsletter - click here to see the original, plus comment thread. And please subscribe!)
#Metaverse #Facebook #Meta
#AugmentedReality #VirtualReality #5G #WiFi #MixedReality #Mobile
#Wireless #Devices #Gaming #Collaboration #HybridWorking