No, the Metaverse is not the killer app for 5G

Let’s stop the next cliche before it even starts

Most 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.

And as if on cue, the Metaverse – essentially a buzzword meaning a hybrid of AR/VR with the social web, collaboration and gaming – has captured the headlines.

Facebook metaverse presentation

The Metaverse and How We’ll Build It Together – Facebook Connect 2021

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).

They’re wrong.

The elephant in the room

If 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 indoors too.

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.

Basically, 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 be deliverable).

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.

Mostly, the 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.

In 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.

The 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.

The Metaverse and How We’ll Build It Together – Facebook Connect 2021

It’s 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 inside).

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.

We 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.

Will 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.

Faceboook connectivity solutions

Facebook Connectivity

Apparently 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….

One 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, supposedly.

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.

(Some 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.)

Conclusion

In a nutshell – no, the Metaverse isn’t the killer app for 5G.

The 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.

But 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)

 

Reproduced article from Dean Bubley, Disruptive Analysis and Associate Director, STL Partners