When speculative fiction writer Neal Stephenson wanted to capture an Internet of the future in his novel Snow crash (1992), imagined it as a network of interconnected 3D worlds. People would walk through them with their avatars and interact with other users and with the software in a much more immersive experience fused with physical reality than that offered by today’s cyberspace. The closest concept to define Stephenson’s idea was “virtual reality”, but the writer didn’t quite fit it. So he used another name for that new network that was to succeed the Internet: “Metaverse.”
The race for an “open chip” for the supercomputer that Spain has in a chapel in Barcelona
Almost thirty years later, the Metaverse has ceased to be a science fiction concept to sneak into the official roadmap of a very important part of the technology industry, which uses Stephenson’s name to refer to the next evolution of the digital world. It has also already appeared in documents of the Spanish Government itself, which in the National Strategy Spain 2050 cites that the “growth of the Metaverse” could lead to the creation of new types of jobs, such as “Minecraft gardener”.
The message from the industry is that this evolution is closer than it seems and that it will be as real as the $ 1 billion that Epic Games, the developer of the popular video game Fortnite, has recently closed to shape the Metaverse. 200 million has put them from Sony.
Fortnite is precisely one of the most helpful examples when it comes to explaining the Metaverse. This video game is no longer just a program to play, but a space where you can also go to other shows such as concerts, which has its own currency and economic activities between users related to their avatars. Tim Sweeny, founder of Epic Games and one of the biggest promoters of the Metaverse, argues that these types of spaces will be increasingly common and will be connected by a virtual universe in which you can have social relationships, but also work. His plan is not to dominate that universe through his company, but to create an “open standard” similar to the world wide web.
Matrix? Rather “Oasis”, the program that appears in the movie Ready Player One (2018). The film follows a young man who escapes from his physical life in a marginal neighborhood thanks to Oasis, a virtual world with streets, squares, shopping centers, museums or nightclubs. To connect, you need virtual reality glasses, a kind of treadmill to move around and different clothes that transfer the person’s sense of touch to their avatar to the avatar.
It is the companies related to the world of videogames that are talking more seriously about the Metaverse. It is not because of the games as a product, but because of the evolution of the technology behind them. They defend that their advances can be considered the first “pieces of the early Metaverse”, as Jensen Huang, CEO of the multinational Nvidia says: “As on the Internet, there will be virtual spaces of all kinds: some will be theme parks, other scientific laboratories, factories, buildings, cities or our entire earth. ”
Nvidia is finalizing development on Omniverse, “a platform for connecting 3D worlds in a shared virtual world. One not unlike the sci-fi Metaverse first described by Neal Stephenson,” Huang boasts. “One of the most important characteristics of the Omniverse is that it obeys the laws of physics. It can simulate particles, fluids, materials, elasticities and cables.”
Nvidia is testing this platform with several companies, who use it to do advanced simulations of the real world. BMW has created an exact virtual replica of one of its factories to experience how they can affect certain logistical changes before implementing them in the real world. Norman Foster’s architectural firm is testing Omniverse to simulate how the passage of time will affect its buildings. Ericcson, to analyze how a busy urban environment will affect 5G coverage.
The looming reality of digital twins
What is behind Omniverse and its ambitious commercial name is actually one of the first industrial applications of digital twins, “an umbrella term that at its heart has the simulation of a space, a plant, a phenomenon …”, explains to elDiario.es Fernando Cucchietti, responsible for Data Analytics and Visualization at the National Supercomputing Center (CNS).
Simulations are the main purpose of supercomputers installed in research centers such as the CNS, as well as a work tool used for decades. “The difference that digital twins bring is that the simulation is fed with real data that is collected through sensors. What you are simulating is sensorized, with which you know in detail what is the state in which it is,” he details Cucchietti.
“All this is already at a relatively advanced level and many prototypes are already in large-scale tests or in pilots very close to being commercial products,” confirms the researcher. The digitization of companies will favor the sensorization of their production processes, a key step to having their own digital twin. Through it they will be able to analyze how to improve their energy efficiency, the flow of people, train artificial intelligence systems before they have real responsibility or, in short, “do tests without breaking anything.” All of this could come “in a couple of years,” explains Cucchietti.
All of this is already at a relatively advanced level and many prototypes are already in large-scale tests or pilots very close to being commercial products at an industrial level.
The CNS (Also known as Barcelona Supercomputing Center) has several projects underway with digital twins, not just infrastructures. He is also involved in a European project that seeks to create a digital twin for each citizen to be able to do preventive medicine.
According to the industry, digital twins are the primal spaces that, with a little more development and connected to each other, will give rise to the Metaverse. “Metaverse? I had not heard that word in my life,” laughs the CNS expert. “It is true that it is a confluence of technologies with which we have worked separately and sometimes together, although not under this name.”
Create the space? Easy. Get in? Not so much
In addition to the generation of virtual space, for a technology such as the Metaverse to be viable, notable advances will be necessary in the devices that must connect the user with it. It is in this field where corporations such as Facebook, Google, Apple or Microsoft are investing significant sums to develop devices that make current screens and mice obsolete.
Facebook is one of those that has made a more determined bet, with an evident shift towards new ways of relating to cyberspace. Its virtual reality and augmented reality department already employs up to 20% of the company’s total workforce (about 10,000 workers), according to internal reports revealed by The Information . When it launched that division in 2017, it started with just over 1,000 workers, who then represented 5% of all Facebook workers.
Yes, Mark Zuckerberg is another one of the tech moguls who is openly talking about the Metaverse. “In our approach to virtual reality, instead of building a device and trying to sell it at a high price as a premium service, what we want to do is build a great experience and make it possible for as many people as possible to experience it and be part of that Metaverse, “he stated in a recent interview with CNET.
We want to build a great experience and make sure that as many people as possible can experience it and be part of that Metaverse
– Founder of Facebook
The network may be new, but Zuckerberg’s plan to shape it is exactly the same that has led his company to be one of the dominators of the Internet: free or highly accessible service in exchange for personal data and absolute control of the platform. . At the moment Facebook is developing a virtual space called Horizon, another proto-Metaverse halfway between a video game and a social network. It has already released a beta version accessible by invitation.
Facebook has also been researching its own virtual reality goggles and controllers for several years. “I think that innovation on the sensor side, to make sure that we can build devices that can be widely available to everyone, is a big part of what we are going to be focused on in the next five years,” Zuckerberg said.
Although virtual reality is the best known technology involved in the Metaverse, its evolution is one of the aspects that generates more doubts among experts. “30 years ago it was already predicted that virtual reality was going to be a near success and it still is not,” recalls Cucchietti, from the CSN. “It has to do with the physiology of the human being, it is very difficult to correct certain imperfections that lead to dizziness. They have improved remarkably, but it is not yet a technology that you can use for several hours at a time,” he explains.
“What we need are front-facing interior and exterior cameras that scan your body. That’s what we’re missing,” agreed Tim Sweeny, founder of Epic Games, in 2017. So the great defender of the Metaverse predicted that the technology that would make it possible would arrive in about three years. Sadly, 2020 brought many changes to humanity, but that new futuristic network was not among them. Companies like yours, like Facebook or like Nvidia are going to keep trying.