Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse dream is give investors nightmares. His $10 billion annual bet on an “embodied Internet” preceded a plunge in Meta’s value, a first-ever quarterly revenue decline and grim forecasts for growth. Horizon Worlds, his first foray into space, has only added to the concerns. The social platform is regularly mocked for slow recording, persistent bugsand ridiculous avatars. Despite mounting criticism, Zuckerberg remains optimistic about turning Facebook into a “metaverse company.” But for Herman Narula, the CEO of UK unicorn UnlikelyMeta’s view overlooks a fundamental problem.
“The problem is VR,” Narula said last week at Stanford University. “The hardware bet is so precious, so interfaces with the metaverse’s core value proposition, and [it’s] so hard to see how they are recovering that investment.”
Narula has his own metaverse plans. His company has spent a decade building immersive virtual worlds, from wargaming US military simulations until an interactive party for 1,450 K-pop fans. He has also written a book, virtual society, which outlines a theoretical framework for the metaverse. According to Narula, this includes a network of digital experiences that people can traverse — without putting on a headset. Instead, they can be entered using just a phone or PC.
Narula admits that VR offers impressive immersion. But he says the metaverse needs something more important: presence.
He describes immersion as ‘feeling that the world is real’. Presence, on the other hand, is “the feeling that the world is thinking” you are real.” To create this sensation, user actions must trigger reactions and ripples in the virtual world.
Narula claims that presence doesn’t need VR. As proof, he points to the “proto-metaverses” Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite. Despite quite rudimentary graphics, the games evoke a presence that makes them some of the most popular in the world.
According to Narula, Zuckerberg’s VR-based metaverse has several issues. One is the cost: The new Quest Pro VR headset costs a whopping $1,500. Tech improvements – including eye-tracking and mixed reality capabilities – offer significant upgrades, but the price tag makes them out of reach for most customers.
Zuckerberg has recognized this barrier. He describes the new headset as a “prosumer” device, and plans to launch a consumer version next year. Research suggests the public will not flock out to buy one.
Meta has also taken tentative steps to integrate mainstream devices. The company plans to launch both web and mobile versions from Horizon Worlds, which would allow access without a VR headset. Yet this risks creating a two-level experience.
Running virtual engines
Of course Narula has plans of his own to produce presence. He pitches Improbable as an unparalleled platform for a crucial part of the metaverse: capacity. To back up this claim, Narula refers to a metric called communication operations (ops) per second.
“It’s the horsepower of the metaverse.”
The number of ops per second indicates how many different things can happen in the metaverse at the same time. Improbable co-founder Rob Whitehead describes it as “the ‘horsepower’ of a virtual world.”
Whitehead describes the rough formula for ops per second as follows: # players in a room x player density X Update frequency. To demonstrate how it works, he refers to the arena shooter Counterstrike: Global Offensive. If the game has 10 players who can all see each other, and the server sends player updates 64 times per second, the calculation would be 10 x 10 x 64 = 6,400 ops per second.
As the players, density, and fidelity all scale up, this number can rise dramatically. For example, a battle of 8,000 players from EVE Online sending player updates only 0.1 times per second would yield 6.4 million ops per second.
Unlikely meanwhile claims that it can now process 2 billion operations per second.
Operations per second is a critical stat to compare virtual worlds – you’ll hear it @HermanNarula , @MSquared_io and I use it often. You can think of it as the “horsepower” of a virtual world – the raw connection power it has. pic.twitter.com/nGLXWfKziH
— Rob Witkop (@RJFWhite) September 10, 2022
To explain the computational complexity of virtual worlds, Whitehead raises a dilemma called the “Metaverse Sniper Problem.”
“If you zoom through the range of a sniper rifle, you need to be able to see a part of the world far away in high fidelity to get an accurate shot,” he said.
“This is difficult in traditional 60-100 player games, as the architecture’s network requirements scale quadratically: a 200-player game has 4x the network requirements of a 100-player game. Therefore to strengthen metaverse experiences with [tens of thousands] of players, you need a fundamental incremental change of technology.”
VR’s dominance isn’t Narula’s only problem with Meta. Like many critics, he’s concerned about the company – or indeed any individual company – that controls the metaverse. To avoid this horrific future, Narula wants to integrate another controversial technology: blockchain.
Proponents of a blockchain-based metaverse point to two key benefits: decentralization and interoperability. The first is derived from storing data in a distributed ledger, which is not managed by a single company. Interoperability, meanwhile, is achieved by cryptographically securing data exchanges. For example, your avatar’s clothing can be safely ported between different virtual worlds.
That makes it more than a game.
Blockchain is not the only means of providing this portability. Alternatively, companies can agree on rules and systems to facilitate digital transfers across platforms. However, Web3 proponents warn that doing so would tighten Big Tech’s stranglehold on our data.
Still, this is just one argument they should win. Blockchain boosters should also allay concerns about technology scalability, environmental impact and propensity to seize cryptocurrency. Nevertheless, Narula seems convinced that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
The 34-year-old imagines that blockchain will enable transfers between worlds. Companies would build metaverse businesses by sharing customers, while users would enjoy meaningful experiences across platforms. According to Narula, VR and AR are only tangential for all of these interactions.
“They can fully contribute to building more engaging experiences, but they are not the disruption,” he said. “The disruption is that the events – the things that happen in these worlds – can suddenly become much more important. That’s what creates a different relationship between us and these experiences. That makes it more than a game.”