When Facebook renamed itself last week in a full-scale embrace of the metaverse, it drew criticism that the concept was either unrealistic or downright dystopian.
The company, now called Meta Platforms, argues that millions of users are ready to adopt virtual reality technology — like its own headset — and live their lives in immersive online environments. That could mean attending a work meeting in a virtual boardroom, touring a digital factory or hanging out with far-flung friends in a simulated saloon. “The metaverse is the next frontier,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared.
For now, few people even have VR gear, and the metaverse concept would have to overcome concerns about privacy and — for some — a certain creepiness. But it has a big believer in one key corner: the largest maker of videogame chips, which says the metaverse is closer than we think and potentially the next gold mine for technology.
The videogame boom set Nvidia on a path to become the world’s most richly valued chip company — overtaking the likes of Intel — and now it’s ready to remake the Internet as a 3D place. Rather than using the Web to look at electronic pages, there will be a set of connected virtual worlds, according to Richard Kerris, an executive at the chip maker whose career has included stints at Apple and Lucasfilm.
“You might not think you’ll be in the metaverse, but I promise in the next five years all of us will be in one way or another,” he said.
Of course, Nvidia has a strong interest in the metaverse concept working out. It’s been seeking growth opportunities that go beyond its roots in graphics cards for videogames. One big one is artificial intelligence, which relies on its chips to handle increasingly demanding tasks — including helping render the worlds needed for the metaverse. Nvidia also has a software platform, Omniverse, for creating virtual spaces.
ARM is key
At the same time, Nvidia is attempting to acquire ARM from SoftBank Group in what would be the largest deal in chip industry history. That would bring it the much-prized semiconductor designs used in most smartphones and a range of other devices. That includes sensors and cameras that will be a crucial part of the infrastructure of the new worlds.
For years, company co-founder and CEO Jensen Huang has been an evangelist for AI and the virtual spaces it could help create. There are billions of dollars at stake, and — to hear Nvidia describe it — the upheaval could recast the world’s biggest tech companies.
Switching to a more graphically intensive Internet plays into Nvidia’s strengths. Providing a photo-realistic experience — one where users struggle to tell the difference between the virtual and real — will require massive amounts of data and computers that can manipulate it very quickly. That means more computers with graphics and artificial intelligence processors, markets that Nvidia is already leading.
In its current state, the metaverse is territory that Nvidia knows well: videogames
In its current state, the metaverse is territory that Nvidia knows well: videogames. Every day millions of gamers immerse themselves in realistic virtual worlds sharing experiences with people they’ve never met. The computing behind that relies heavily on Nvidia’s products in either PCs or server farms. That’s a multibillion-dollar market not only for Nvidia but for PC makers, game-console makers and game publishers.
The gamer metaverse is the one that’s most familiar to the public, fuelled by movies such as Ready Player One that show dystopian worlds where humanity spends most of its time hooked up to a machine.
That dark vision is something Zuckerberg and Nvidia have to overcome in pitching the metaverse as a friendly, mainstream idea. The concept also needs to reach a critical mass before less-plugged-in people even want to try it. It will take at least three years for Meta VR headsets to gain an installed base of 15 million to 20 million users, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Mandeep Singh. The products cost hundreds of dollars, so they’re not something consumers buy on a whim.
“A lack of content and higher price points could limit its near-term adoption,” Singh said. “The top companies in the next few years are going to be based on connected worlds.”
There are other key barriers, including a lack of standards — something that also plagued the early Internet. The Web used to be a mishmash of incompatible browsers and file formats. The widespread use of hypertext markup language, or HTML, changed all of that, providing the relatively hassle-free web experience that we all take for granted.
The metaverse will need standards that describe the physics of the virtual world. If you drop something in one world does it shatter, while in another it bounces off the floor? Standards also will help alleviate the network traffic caused by sending massive 3D files.
And VR headsets themselves will need to improve. Truly experiencing a virtual world will require haptic devices to add more realistic sensations.
Expand the metaverse
The goal is to expand the metaverse well beyond entertainment and gaming, weaving it into everyday life. According to Nvidia’s Kerris, it will transform many aspects of how work is done. An existing example is a new BMW factory that has a twin 3D version rendered digitally. By working in the virtual world, the car maker is able to retool production of a new model more quickly and cheaply than it can in real life.
Virtual worlds are also part of the push to train cars to drive themselves. The fleets of test vehicles driving around major cities such as San Francisco are only able to learn from situations they encounter. Training them in virtual scenarios — totally realistic versions of real cities — is much faster and safer, Nvidia says.
Design is another opportunity. Seeing what a piece of furniture looks like in a virtual version of their living room will help shoppers decide if they want to buy it. Kerris argues that most design and shopping will eventually head to the virtual world. Health care also will be transformed, with telemedicine becoming more like a real-life doctor’s visit.
Nvidia is touting its Omniverse software as the operating system for the new version of the Internet
Nvidia is touting its Omniverse software as the operating system for the new version of the Internet. It’s also pushing USD, or universal scene description, which was originally developed by Pixar. That standard unifies the rules of physics for virtual worlds and enables compatibility, regardless of the device or software.
Even companies such as Apple, which doesn’t use Nvidia chips, have embraced USD, Kerris said. That means, in theory, someone experiencing a virtual world on an iPhone could “teleport” into another world created on another type of computing device without any glitches. While at Apple, Kerris was involved in persuading developers to make software for its then-new operating system, OS X.
To show just how close we are to the metaverse, Nvidia’s CEO made an appearance at the company’s online technology conference in August. He was pitching Omniverse from his kitchen, a setting he used throughout the pandemic lockdown for such appearances. The company later revealed that it used a digital “clone” of Huang in front of a virtual version of his kitchen.
All of this energy and optimism is comparable to the early days of the web, Kerris said.
“Fifty years ago, who would have thought that the top companies in the world financially would have been based on the Internet?” he said. “The top companies in the next few years are going to be based on connected worlds.” — (c) 2021 Bloomberg LP