This article was originally published by the Center for Data Innovation on 18 January 2023.
The Center for Data Innovation spoke with William Webb, chief technology officer at Access Partnership, a technology policy firm headquartered in London. Webb discussed Access Partnership’s Metaverse Policy Lab, how to define the metaverse, the role of interoperability in its development, and the role of governments and civil society in supporting metaverse infrastructure.
Patrick Grady: How did Access Partnership’s Metaverse Policy Lab get started, and how do you see it evolving?
William Webb: As a company, we were working on several metaverse-related issues. It seemed sensible to gather internally and talk about that. As we started doing that, we thought it’d be nice to bring in some external speakers now and again to discuss these issues. Then we thought, ”well hang on, this is a useful thing! Why don’t we open it up more widely?” We’ve had good participation in all of our various events, so the plan is to keep going. We covered four specific topics in the last season. In the next season, we’ll do the same, covering topics that we haven’t quite done yet, including the issue of financial payment systems in the metaverse. We’ll keep doing it while it’s useful and see where it takes us.
Grady: How do you define the metaverse? And to what extent does it already exist?
Webb: I’ve got a clear definition in my mind, but the question is how useful it is. I would go along with the vision that people like Matthew Ball and others have come up with. It’s a virtual world that is very immersive and persistent—when you go into it, it’s the same as you left it, like the real world—and there’s effectively unlimited participation (no restrictions on the number of people that are in there). I know that the metaverse proponents dislike this, but it’s effectively a VR form of Second Life. Second Life achieved many of these conditions—a persistent and effectively unlimited virtual world—but it’s not particularly immersive. You can do Second Life with VR headsets, but most people don’t.
That’s not the definition that most are adopting. We’ve got to the point where if it involves any kind of virtual reality or augmented reality, then people will often label that as the metaverse regardless of whether it’s a constrained world. For example, a surgeon doing remote surgery with a VR headset on. That’s clearly a very constrained world. You don’t want to let everyone else be part of that! That’s been described as the metaverse. And because there are plenty of VR applications out there, there’s no end to the number of games and apps you can put a headset on and go play. If you take the purest definition, we are still quite somewhere away from it. In particular, because there are tight limits at the moment on the number of people that you can have in one room or environment within these virtual world platforms. 10 to 100 in most realistic cases. 10s of 1,000s is some way off.
Grady: What role should governments and civil society play in supporting metaverse infrastructure?
Webb: There are certainly proponents of the metaverse that say that until we have incredibly high bandwidth, super low latency, and some edge computing scattered liberally around the neighborhood, then it’s impossible to deliver the metaverse. Equally, I’ve got a pair of VR headsets here, and I’ve got a standard fiber set up, and Horizon Worlds works just fine! You can clearly do an awful lot with what you already have today.
The super high bandwidth requirements are a very specific situation where you do all the computing processing outside of the headset to be able to deliver a super high definition experience. But all of our national infrastructures would need to get bumped up, and it’s not clear that we really need it. It’s nice to have but at the moment, there really is no case yet made for government intervention to deliver this kind of utopia, and the costs will be incredibly high to do something like that.
Grady: You’ve said previously that interoperability is not critical to the success of the metaverse. Why not?
Webb: It’s certainly nice to have, but I don’t see it as being critical. When I think to myself, “shall I go visit Horizon Worlds tonight?” I don’t think I won’t because I can’t take my avatar from elsewhere with me. Looking at prior experience across gaming platforms, for example, I can’t think of any platform where people have said, “Oh, well, we won’t bother with that gaming system because we can’t take the virtual car that we’ve defined in this one to that one.” If it’s a good game, people will do it. I’m sure it’s slightly annoying, but not hugely annoying. For the most part, it’s fine.
There’s always a trade-off between standardization and innovation. While you take something down through a standard, the less room you’ve got to innovate. And right now, it feels like we need lots of innovation rather than lots of standardization.
Grady: You have previously predicted that new forms of AR/VR entertainment will struggle to find mass-market adoption. What do you see as the major obstacles?
Webb: That applies to things like headsets that you have to wear. History has shown we don’t really like that very much! 3D TV was meant to be a big thing but didn’t go down very well. VR headsets are starting to do better, but have been around for a long time, and we’re still a long way from the mass market. It’s just a human thing: We just don’t like sticking stuff in front of our eyes.
Now, if you’ve got an application that’s so compelling that it’s worth doing, then it’ll draw you through. But until we get there, there are plenty of issues. Even if headsets become more comfortable and experience more compelling, there’s still this fundamental challenge around getting VR and AR headsets that we actually want to wear. You need some capability in the headsets before you get to the point where they become something that perhaps you almost forgot that you were wearing. And that could be quite a few years away.