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The Metaverse - Matthew Ball ****

Reluctantly, I have to admit this is an interesting and worthwhile book. My starting position was a sceptic of the claims for the metaverse, but I tried to approach it with an open mind. I'm still sceptical about many aspects, but Matthew Ball convincingly puts across a bigger picture that encompasses far more that the demos we've seen so far.

My initial scepticism was based on experience with Second Life, the 3D virtual environment started in 2003. In its early days, lots of people over-hyped this - big companies set up a presence in it, we were told we would be attending lectures, concerts and meetings this way... but it simply couldn't deliver. My mental picture of the metaverse was primarily an enhanced Second Life, and I think a lot of people see it that way (including some of the big online companies) - but Ball's vision is of something distictly different.

He gives us a picture of a metaverse that, like the internet is universal, not the property of a single company. Everything within it shares standards (again, like the internet) so, for example, an avatar from one company's part of the metaverse can be transferred to another, just as we can move a JPEG picture from, say, Facebook to a Microsoft app. He also envisages having good, real-time rendered 3D worlds that are synchronous (i.e. everyone sees the same things happening at the same time without buffering), persistent (so things are still there when you leave and come back) and have what he calls 'continuity of data' - so things like payments, identity and more are shared throughout.

What he's describing is something more like a three-dimensional visual internet. I say visual, but just as quite a lot of the current internet is not visual, even though we tend to think of elements like web pages and streaming video, similarly Ball's metaverse would have plenty of non-visual components - it's just the 3D visual environment is a key aspect of what makes it next generation. One of my biggest bugbears with virtual reality (VR) is the need for clumsy headsets - I'm not convinced they will ever become mainstream outside of gaming. Apart from anything else, when I sit at my desk with a couple of conventional screens in front of me, or use my phone, I'm also interfacing with the real world - I can see the birds outside the window, the delivery van arriving and pick up my coffee without spilling it down my shirt because I can't see it. Ball thinks a lot will use VR goggles, but points out the metaverse will also work with ordinary screens - and that many may prefer these or augmented reality glasses as and when the tech is up to it.

That 'as and when' is a big proviso that Ball makes. He points out the huge advances required over the current internet. This is partly because the internet is not a real-time system. It uses a packet switched protocol, breaking data up into chunks that are routed separately before reassembling them at their destination. Streaming companies can use this to deliver video because they can buffer information and, in the end, it doesn't matter if you lose continuity for a second or two. But if one member of metaverse situation drops in and out, or falls behind a couple of seconds, the whole thing is ruined. There are also the problems that many still don't have access to fibre optic internet connections, especially outside of the US (this is a very US-oriented book), which are necessary for fast enough data transfer - and even our best servers simply can't store and deliver the sheer quantity of data required at fast enough speeds to make the metaverse feel synchronous and persistent. It would require a huge amount of effort and money - and there is little evidence that the current big internet companies play well enough together to even consider making it happen.

I like the way Ball gives us insights into a lot of the technical issues and the technical solutions (mostly) games manufacturers use to get around those issues (sadly, in ways that probably won’t work for the metaverse). But there is far too much focus in the book on games, other than as the engines that will provide some of the key enabling metaverse technology. Just as the internet is not mostly used for games - and most adults only play non-immersive games like Candy Crush - so the majority of the big picture metaverse would not be about gaming. Ball tells us about millions of new gamers joining the fold, but seems to forget that a lot of us who were gamers grow out of it.

This is not the only fault here. Ball has a tendency to lay out detail ploddingly - he's not a great writer. And his physics can be dodgy. He tells us light's speed is constant, as opposed to constant in a particular medium, and he thinks light changes direction in optical fibres by refraction rather than reflection. The whole metaverse thing still comes across as over-hyped. In his introduction, emphasising our moves forward in tech, Ball writes 'Throughout [the summer of 2021], competing efforts from billionaires Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos were under way to bring civilian travel to lower orbit and usher in an era of space elevators and interplanetary colonisation' - unless intended ironically, given the trivial nature of that civilian travel, the mention of space elevators rings alarm bells for promising far more than can actually physically be delivered.

The other big problem is that although Ball recognises some of the drawbacks and limitations of the metaverse, he doesn't really address these, but rather dismisses them pretty much out of hand. For instance, having mentioned the benefits of video calls during the pandemic, he claims without any evidence that a virtual meeting in the metaverse is more effective. But for me, the huge benefit of a video meeting over a phone call is seeing people's faces and body language. A set of metaverse avatars around a virtual meeting table gives no more real visual feedback than the phone call. Admittedly Ball suggests that in the future they might fully reflect your actual facial expressions, but is that likely in any reasonable timescale? And if it is, it would surely also be possible for the avatar to be AI controlled to fake facial expressions - you have no idea if what you see is real. Ball lets his enthusiasm overcome sensible logic sometimes.

By the end of the book, I could see how different Ball's vision of the metaverse as a revolutionary next-generation internet was from silly little virtual reality meetings or kids' games like Minecraft. But I also understand the vast issues that need to be overcome, which Ball outlines so well. What was missing for me was a cost/benefit analysis showing me what would be gained from making the dramatic investment and effort necessary for Ball's real metaverse to come true. I suspect we're more like to see more silo-based mini-metagalaxies that entirely miss the point.

Even so, the book was an eye-opener, as Ball's picture was so different from the demos we've seen and existing environments, and it is decidedly impressive technically. As such, it's well worth a read.

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Review by Brian Clegg - See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here


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