The web-based metaverse: Arguments and challenges
The metaverse might accelerate its growth via a web-based infrastructure, rather than dedicated applications.
No one wants to attend a party with no attendees. Few trends have made as much noise as the metaverse, with so much potential – yet user acquisition lags behind other trends. We know that VRChat has around 20,000 daily users based on Steam’s own data, but that does not include users that go via the Meta store. We also know that tens of millions use Fortnite or Roblox, but it is stark to say that both platforms are comparable (unless we focus on the share of attention for younger people). If we equate adoption to hardware sales, then we could expect a frosty 2023 as headset sales are primed to dip, sparked by a high cost of living. The band of potential feels wide, yet the pace of adoption feels muted.
Compare this to another technology trend that has drastically usurped our daily workload: generative AI. UBS estimates that over 100 million people use ChatGPT each month, just two months after it launched. It took TikTok nine months to reach the same milestone, and Instagram two and a half years. The figure is not an official one from OpenAI; even then, we can all see how generative AI has impacted every part of our lives. Work is more streamlined, creativity is accelerated, and tools have proliferated across the internet. The metaverse promises to have the same kind of societal change and upheaval, but its growth lags far behind AI tools like ChatGPT.
A part of me believes that generative AI and the metaverse converge into the same theme. The internet is constantly changing, and both trends are part of a larger whole when it comes to human creativity and innovation. But let’s also take a step back, and assume that the metaverse has a spatial component supported by AI. Even then, not as many users tread across virtual landscapes or pop to events, and active participants are vital for growth.
Still, aspirations are high for metaverse explorers. In February 2023, Mark Zuckerberg said that he wants a billion people in the metaverse by the second half of the 2020s. I firmly believe that, to meet this goal, the metaverse needs to embrace the web-based principles that its precursor was built upon – once the high processing limitations are addressed.
Unfulfilled promise: While the metaverse is the next evolution of the internet, its growth has lagged behind other disruptive trends, most notably generative AI.
Ease of access and sharability: A web-based metaverse would be able to have the same benefits as today’s internet, with easy-to-share links and speed of access.
Technical challenges: We are many years away from the computing power to host immersive experiences. That said, early innovations – such as from RP1 – show hints of potential in the future.
Cloud advantage: Cloud vendor companies stand to benefit the most from a web-based metaverse, as few companies can match the scale or computing power required to grow the area.
We may see a web-based metaverse come soon. Photo credit: Midjourney.
How big is the metaverse, anyway?
Let’s get one thing straight before we dive in: we don't know how many people are in the metaverse today, whichever way you slice it.
The actual number depends on how we define the metaverse itself – which is still a challenge. If we include gamers who play Fortnite, then we can say hundreds of millions play in the metaverse. Roblox alone has over fifty million daily active users, adopting pets or hopping through horror games. Compare this to Decentraland, which records less than 100 people on certain days. Granted, Decentraland also hosts Metaverse Fashion Week, which had over 100,000 attendees in 2022 – though I do not wish to count events for something as consistent as the metaverse might be.
If we widen it to VR headsets, then we can say that over ten million people are in the metaverse playing titles like Beat Saber or Gorilla Tag. If we widen it further to include web3, then we can count millions of crypto wallets – though it is difficult to parse through them and identify between active participants and malicious actors. And we could include AR glasses as well, which have few users today.
I find bundling them together unhelpful and unsatisfactory. It feels like baking a cake with a flurry of distinct ingredients, each with its own flavour and taste, and mashing them together into the mixing bowl of media discourse. We are left with a cake that is spicy, sweet and sour all at once, and audiences are both confused by its textures and baffled by its value. The approach is unhelpful.
The confusion stems from discussing the metaverse early, without a cohesive vision. We are talking about tiny shards of the metaverse, debating their weights and how they connect together. We are seeing the components of the metaverse coming together, but it is not fully realised today. Compare it to the internet, where parts came together in the 1960s to 1990s, coming together to form the version we see today. It birthed from the roots of scientific and military applications, widened via the access of early browsers like Mosaic, and blossomed when it was indexed by Google. We may see web3 principles interconnect with virtual components in a potential metaverse – but that is a long way off, and the weighting of these ingredients is hard to say today.
Whatever its form, I reckon that the metaverse will be the natural extension of our interconnected web today. Despite its origins, the internet dove into the heart of our world and brought us together (and further apart, in a way). We can message each other instantly, buy items internationally, and even play video games ineptly. The internet brought us closer together, and I believe the metaverse will continue that trans-human evolution that we have seen since the 1990s.
We don’t quite know how many people are ‘in’ the metaverse. Photo credit: Midjourney.
Enter the web-based metaverse
What will it take to accelerate the change? What would it take to reach 100 million people in the metaverse – perhaps not in a matter of months, but in the next few years? And what will be the spark that accelerates growth, spreading the fires of innovation like some expected in the 2010s? I believe it goes down to web-based principles. The open, accessible, and frictionless web offers the best chance for metaverse-like applications to spread further and faster than before, opening the floodgates for new types of users to play and create.
Take accessibility as one example. Users value site and app speed above most factors, wanting to jump straight into the action. We demand a seamless experience, even if the ends justify the wait times. TikTok has optimised its video delivery system so that it instantly plays the next one when swiping upwards. Google recommends that websites load in under two seconds, to ensure that users do not bounce out of the site when they click on a link. A web-based metaverse could benefit from the same perks, where it is easier to access (via a dedicated URL of sorts) and hop into the space. A metaverse based on an app lacks the same capacity for growth.
We can also assume that these virtual worlds would need some sort of ‘indexing’ for the sake of discoverability. The metaverse might have a range of virtual worlds, where users would browse from place to place. That would mean virtual worlds would need a cohesive system for labelling themselves and their contents, similar to how Google categorises a website. We are a long way from having a large and interoperable library of places; when Google arrived in 1998, it listed 26 million web pages initially. The first index will fall far short of 26 million. Still, we will still see a systemised approach arrive from the woodwork.
Part of this comes down to large steps in cloud computing. Both Google Cloud and AWS offer solutions that integrate immersive technologies with the cloud, handling clients with high workloads to function on server-based architecture. Joshua Burns, lead strategic spatial computing architect at AWS, argues that customers must use open standards and interoperability from the get-go, to lower the potential for future risks and prep them for future hardware innovations. He also offers tips on how to get started: “You should start with the Visual Asset Management System (VAMS). Upload your 3D models and build automated pipelines for your artistic, machine learning, or other 3D workflows. Then you can integrate with browser-based rendering tools such as Three.js or Babylon.js to get started quickly to reach your destination.”
Similarly, Google Cloud offers solutions which lessen the burden for the end user, streaming XR assets from servicers. The company offers Immersive Stream for XR, which brings people in without using an app.
Ease of access: The web is accessible by a diversity of devices, making it truly accessible for all. That includes smartphones, the key gateway into it for the 2020s (and likely beyond, judging by the current rate of adoption).
Ready to index: If the right system of tags is used, a web-based metaverse could also be as easy to categorise or index as the current internet today. This opens the potential for virtual worlds to be more easily browsable, opening the doors for organic traffic.
Flexibility of development: A web-based experience is usable across multiple devices, regardless of the type of device being used or will come in the future.
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The biggest issue is computing power. Today, we simply lack the power needed to run higher-end metaverse experiences at a massive scale, whichever way you cut it. Raja Koduri, VP of Intel’s accelerated computing systems and graphics group, suggests we need a 1000-fold improvement in processing power compared to today’s chips. We’re making progress on computing, too; take mobile edge computing, which assists with the running of immersive experiences. But are not close to proper power levels today, let alone have a solid or stable internet connection. Many homes can barely handle internet speeds, held back by the rollout of fibre optic networks in countries like the UK, or a complete lack of infrastructure elsewhere.
The hardware challenges alone are substantial. Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, told The Verge that we need a ‘new science’ to build an AR platform. “It’s not clear to me whether that’s coming in 10 years or in 30 years,” he said. “I hope we’ll see it in my lifetime, but I’m actually not sure about that.” The same problems seep into the framework of the internet today, which is not built for high-fidelity experiences with low latency. We lack the fundamental network infrastructure for the metaverse.
Some have suggested solutions. Matthew Ball suggests GPU sharing, where compute devices share processing power over a global network. Think of it as cycles which are ‘auctioned’ to nearby devices, or perhaps draw processing power between one another. Separately, one company directly targeting the issue is RP1. The company has tweaked the net code and can host over four thousand people in the metaverse. The Immersive Wire exclusively revealed that over 100,000 people are possible as well, using the same system – though it’s a tad difficult to find 100,000 people to test it with. That scale is perfect for companies who want to run gigs and events in virtual spaces, as Lewis Capaldi or Tiësto takes the virtual stage. But even at 100,000 people, it lacks the capacity and scale to handle more people within the same instance.
Interoperability: For this to work, we must agree on interoperable standards for data, content, and interactions. That will take time, agreement, and industry-wide collaboration.
Computing power: We lack the power to run immersive experiences at scale, and the time scale for innovation is opaque.
The computing power required for the metaverse is a huge barrier. Photo credit: Midjourney.
A web-based future
The web has its limitations. It lacks the fidelity of applications, and the loading times for key platforms can be incredibly slow. But circumvent these problems, and the potential for the metaverse is massive. The perks of a web-based approach could outweigh the cons, as the graphical issues are surmounted over time.
If cloud companies are well-positioned for the web-based metaverse, then AWS, Microsoft, and Google (among others) stand to gain the most in the next iteration of the internet. These companies hold the power, server capacity, and scale to run immersive worlds for millions of users. Even then, the technical challenges are exceedingly high.
I believe that the metaverse will be the next evolution of how we interact, whatever form this takes. I suspect the principles of a web-based metaverse would accelerate growth and adoption, causing a virtuous cycle of good content and ease of access leading to new users, and so on. We have seen the same with Facebook, Instagram, and now TikTok. A high-quality app could dominate the space, while offering a great experience. Yet the internet thrived via open standards and a shared space for work, play and innovation. I suspect the metaverse will be built on the same principles.
Tom Ffiske is the editor of the Immersive Wire. The views represented in the piece are his own, and are not representative of any other organisation.