14-09-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, Qualcomm announced that it has signed an agreement with Meta to be the manufacturer for the next-generation of mobile chips for Meta’s upcoming VR hardware. What engineering challenges does the Metaverse face, what will the agreement do, and is the Metaverse something that people really want?
What engineering challenges does the Metaverse face?
Besides the fact that Meta is run by a suspected robot in human skin, the metaverse faces numerous engineering challenges that have prevented it from taking over or even becoming popular to any degree. Before we look at what these challenges are, we first need to understand what the metaverse is supposed to be.
In its simplest terms, the metaverse is the idea of bridging the gap between the real world and the digital realm of the internet. People in the real world can interface with internet-related services through virtual interactions as if they were physically present, while devices and entities in the digital world can potentially interface back with real devices.
For example, two people could meet in the metaverse without being physically next to each other, shake hands, and potentially feel the handshake. Another example would be exploring cloud-based services as if they were small shop stands in a local market. Overall, the metaverse is all about creating an augmented reality that blurs the line between what is real, and what is digital.
While this may sound fascinating, actually trying to realise the metaverse has presented engineers with numerous challenges. By far one of the biggest challenges is trying to create hardware that is capable of creating augmented reality systems that are comfortable to use. VR headsets have existed for a few years now with high-end systems (such as the Steam Valve) creating experiences that are utterly mind-blowing, but such platforms often require high-end GPUs that are far too expensive.
The second challenge faced by engineers is the need for high-bandwidth internet infrastructure. Current internet infrastructure is well capable of low-latency interactions between individuals in online multiplayer games, but trying to create immersive environments is a whole other challenge. As metaverse environments are expected to be highly complex, the amount of data that needs to be streamed in real-time will easily put current network infrastructure under immense pressure.
The third challenge with creating the metaverse is developing environments that provide practical applications. Even though Meta is currently working hard to try and push the metaverse, it has suffered from numerous issues including extremely poor quality graphics and performance. At the same time, some believe that the engineers responsible for the metaverse development do not stem from relevant backgrounds (such as those involved with MMOs and online gaming). Since the metaverse can be thought of as an expensive computer game, it only makes sense that those working on the metaverse should have experience in such areas.
Qualcomm make agreement with Meta to produce next-generation chipsets
Recognising the challenges faced by the metaverse, Meta has recently announced that it has signed an agreement with Qualcomm to get customised chipsets made to power future Meta hardware. By far the biggest requirement in metaverse hardware is portability as users need to be able to navigate the digital world via the real world. As such, the use of mobile technologies in metaverse equipment presents one of the best options to engineers thanks to the low-power consumption and network connectivity options.
But standard off-the-shelf mobile processors may not be suitable for metaverse devices as VR requires the use of powerful GPUs; something that is not typically seen in mainstream mobile devices (sure, smartphones do have decent GPUs, but they are not designed for dual screen 4K 60fps with real-time image overlays). Therefore, Meta will need to turn to custom SoCs (just as Apple did with their M1) to develop metaverse hardware that provides the visual computation needed while minimising energy consumption.
It is these mobile requirements that has seen Meta turn to Qualcomm for these new devices. According to reports, the new devices will be based on the Snapdragon platform. However, the devices being manufactured will not be exclusive to Meta (suggesting that anyone can use the chipset), but will be optimised for the Quest system (developed by Meta).
Is the metaverse something that people really want?
Despite the large amount of money being poured into the metaverse, one has to wonder if the metaverse is something that the general public really want. Current images and advertisements for the metaverse look something akin to the Wii avatars in extremely basic and uninteresting environments. Simultaneously, there is something particularly draconian about having people all kept inside a virtual world controlled by a single company.
But from a practical standpoint, the metaverse currently offers little advantage if any. Current technology does not allow for users to physically interact with each other over great distances, and VR systems are extremely expensive. Combined with the fact that users are restricted to small areas when using VR systems, the metaverse is somewhat of an over-glorified chatroom.
There is no doubt that the engineering behind the metaverse and related hardware is complex, and both AR and VR present numerous possibilities especially in the world of digital twins and dangerous environments, but as things stand, the metaverse has a long way to come.