Imagine making your way through a crowd, thousands of people donning anything from casual wear to the most over-the-top dresses. Even though the place is absolutely packed, you don’t have to use your elbows to shrug past. Like a ghost, you pass through anyone you encounter, and they go through one another as well, turning the regular Brownian dynamics of the crowd into something truly phantasmagorical.
That’s how crowds worked in “Snow Crash,” the 1992 novel by Neal Stephenson that introduced the world to the metaverse. But how will Meta’s version handle them?
This question is not nearly as trivial as early impressions might suggest. Even though we are yet to witness this all-encompassing digital reality, pundits are already breaking spears over just how amazing or dystopian it can be. Ironically, the answer in both cases greatly depends on the code and the data infrastructure that will power every interaction in the realm.
When you make your way through the proverbial crowd in a metaverse, your VR headset has to render every other avatar next to you according to your perspective and spatial location. When you bump into someone, the back-end servers have to calculate the physics of your interaction, ideally with a full account of the vector and momentum of your movement.
Then, optionally, they must send the appropriate signal to your haptic gloves, suit or any other device you’re wearing, which would translate into the actual impact you feel.
The metaverse that today’s data infrastructure can handle is a very segregated one — a network of small digital spaces for tight groups.
Our example here requires a lot of computation, even when it involves just two avatars running into one another. The task of processing a multitude of such interactions in a crowd of even a few hundred avatars is probably enough to send a weak back-end server into a meltdown.
And let’s not forget that inputs guiding the motion of every avatar are beamed in through optic cables, with different latencies, with lags, which makes running the entire thing without shattering the suspension of disbelief that much more challenging.
From a stage dive at a virtual rave to a digital beach volleyball game, this holds true for any other interaction involving many digital personas operating through precise motion controls.
The idea of bringing thousands of people together in a virtual space is not exactly new: Online multiplayer games have been doing that for a long time already. In fact, Fortnite has already hosted metaverse-style concerts with as many as 27 million people tuning in. So surely it should be a piece of cake for Meta to do as much?
Well, not really. As always, the devil lurks in the details.
Divide and render
While the gaming industry can indeed teach Meta a thing or two about online interactions, even the vastest and most ambitious multiplayer realms rely on clever tricks to avoid back-end overload. The general rule of thumb here is to actually avoid cluttering too many users together in one digital location at the same time.
In other words, they avoid the very thing the metaverse, with its live event ambitions, wants to achieve.