GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse 3 will be held February 1-2. Register here.
Engineers combine creativity and practical thinking. When you give them a problem like the metaverse to work on, they’re going ponder it in a different way.
Hollywood creators and science fiction writers have done an excellent job of describing the vision of the metaverse. Engineers are responsible for thinking about how to build it. Thomas Coughlin (president of Coughlin Associates) and president-elect IEEE engineering society gave me a taste of the practical side to engineering the metaverse.
Coughlin, an IEEE Life Fellow, has been providing market analysis and technology consulting services for more 40 years. He is the holder of six patents, and has been working in data storage for over 40 years. He has been a consultant for the past 20 year.
Coughlin served in senior leadership roles at SyQuest and Micropolis before starting his own business. Coughlin is also the author of Digital Storage in Consumer Electronics – The Essential GuideThe second edition of this book is available at www.digitalstorage.com. He is a frequent contributor to digital storage for Forbes and other news outlets.
GamesBeat Summit – Into the Metaverse 3
Join the GamesBeat team Online February 1 and 2, to view the emerging trends and the findings from the metaverse.
I’ve gone to many of the same events with Coughlin for years, and we talked a bit about the upcoming CES, but most of our conversation focused on how to build the metaverse.
Below is an edited transcript from our interview.
GamesBeat: A real-time internet is required to create the metaverse. We’re not where we need to be for that. When I think of where the internet needs to be, the best thing that comes to mind is the Comcast announcement that they’re going to have two-way 10G, and latency should be better as well. This latency is what can really kill online games. But on that front I’m curious whether you see that kind of infrastructure coming into place in time for what everybody wants so they can deploy a real-time metaverse.
Tom Coughlin It’s affordable for everyone. It’s going to take a while to get that kind of experience. There are limitations in networking. Many metaverse concepts are based on wearable technology, such as watches and other similar devices. Battery life is limited. For most headsets, you only get one to three hours of charge. Unless you want to wear a backpack — people have offered those backpacks. But it’s inconvenient. It makes you look strange. You could pretend it’s your ammo pack for a game, I guess.
This is possible because a lot of technology is coming together. One thing that IEEE does is asks if we can get down to the lower stack of technology, are we able to agree on a common terminology? Are there any open standards that can be used to describe how this stuff is done? Facilitate the building of infrastructure that will make extended reality experiences more real.
GamesBeat: There’s progress that needs to be made on so many fronts. The internet infrastructure needs to be upgraded. There’s this problem that people pointed out about — in some ways people suggest that a metaverse experience, getting lots of people together in the same space, like a concert — if you did an all-digital concert and people were individually interacting with each other and they could hear each other with 3D audio and see that there were 10,000 people in there with them in a stadium, then that is a metaverse experience.
I saw the demo by Improbable as well as Yuga Labs’ Bored Ape people. They also have an Otherside. They were able to hold an experience similar to this with over 4,500 people in one place. It’s interesting that there’s some technology out there that could get us beyond just 100 people in a space, which is what Fortnite does.
Coughlin: If you’re going to get any kind of resolution, anything that acts like people would act, especially with a social element, your networking will be very important. You’re going to need awesome networking capability if you’re going to get hundreds or thousands of people together and have it act like real life.
GamesBeat: Where is the barrier? Is it somebody’s law?
Coughlin: You have speed-of-light issues. If you’re further away, you’re going to have built-in latency. If you’re on Earth, that’s generally not that bad. Your local connectivity is often the biggest problem. You should be able to connect to the internet via your local connection. Unfortunately, many people still have bad internet connections. It can be difficult to get a good internet connection even in Silicon Valley.
GamesBeatMany people who speak about the metaverse believe that you must include them. Not only VR headsets are necessary, but also laptops, desktops, and smartphones must be included. You should be able for anyone to access the metaverse via any of these things.
Coughlin: Which means you’re going to have to do some kind of compression. If you don’t want to have horrible latency you’ll have to do an awful lot to make it easier for people with limited 3G versus 6G connections, you know? It is necessary to compress. To get everyone to agree, you have to make compromises. There are many technological factors. This is possible to a certain extent because of the technology available. The ability to do that has a lot of growth ahead, especially — the metaverse is supposed to be a social thing. To get that social element, you’re going to have to handle a lot of different people coming in with a lot of different connectivity and make that somehow work.
It creates constraints. If a lot of things move to the metaverse, from entertainment to education even, then that’s another one of those; the people that have money can get the connectivity that they need. The people who don’t have that money probably won’t. They’re going to be dealing with whatever they can. What can you do to make the modern economy more fair and allow more people to participate in it?
GamesBeat: Currently, 100-150 people can play a game in one environment. They can also interact with each other. If we take that leap to where we want 1,000 people, what’s involved in making that possible?
Coughlin: Interacting with all. The more people involved in simultaneous exchanges, the better. It almost goes up — complexity probably goes up to something like the square of the number of participants. It’s at least that. It might even be a higher power. There might be more communication going on if you have more people. The infrastructure needed to support this complexity is under immense pressure.
GamesBeat: There’s a reason we’ve been stuck at this limit for many years now.
Coughlin: I think that’s part of it.
GamesBeat: The other way the Epic Games people were good at expressing this was something they called “the sniper and the metaverse.” You put a sniper in a stadium filled with people, or just up on a mountain or something, and they could scope in on one individual and take a shot. But you don’t know who they’re going to target.
Coughlin: Only the sniper can know.
GamesBeat: The sniper might see 10,000 people. [like in a Hitman game]However, only the sniper can predict where they will end up. That must be done instantly. It must be coordinated. What they’re saying is that crosses server lines. Usually you have a grid, a play space that’s handled by one server. But if you have this distance where you can see for a mile, then that’s probably going to cross multiple (servers).
Coughlin: Distance in virtual space may not be the same as distance in real space.
GamesBeat: I was told that you would cross server lines when you had such a large viewing distance. Servers were usually limited in their ability to show only a specific geography.
Coughlin: It all depends on how they break down the computation.
GamesBeat: You would lose the real time nature of things if you crossed the line.
Coughlin: If you’re going between one server and another, there’s going to be latency built into that. As soon as you get communication out of one box, there’s built-in latencies around that. Now, there’s a lot of technology coming into play within data centers that may help a lot in the future. The transfer of data between memory and compute is one of our biggest energy and time consuming activities. This includes rendering and other such things.
There are new technologies that could allow you (to do that) at data centers — CXL is one of these. It’s an interface that allows you to switch network and memory. I can pool memory. I can pool memory, create virtual machines, and share it between devices. I also have the ability to create multiple servers or servers with different resources. You can have direct connect memory. I then have a bit more latency with shared memories.
That also includes the idea of “can I compute closer than memory?” This will reduce the time and energy required to move data around. In the equipment, at least in one data center, there are things going on that people are developing, especially what they call computational accelerators–these are located closer to the memory, where the data lives, and they can do certain functions and offload the CPUs. These technologies should help to reduce some latencies. It could also have an impact on things like metaverse performance and games.
GamesBeat: It was encouraging to hear Intel talk at IEDM about how they don’t think Moore’s Law is dead.
Coughlin: They’re doing all kinds of stuff. Chiplets. It is becoming more difficult to obtain finer lithographies. The most expensive lithographic equipment, also known as the ultra-violet stuff, can cost hundreds of millions of US dollars. The next generations will be even more expensive. They don’t want to use that in everything. Chiplets is an example of this. It means that I can only use it where I have to, which gives me an advantage. This is part of the disaggregation and creation of composable infrastructure. I can build whatever I need.
In this case, they’re deconstructing the chip — this is not programmable, but they’re deconstructing the chip into little pieces. These pieces are then connected to the substrate. You can have some memory apart from your computation, but close enough to give you good performance. It allows me to have more options. It allows me to scale up more. Also it’s more cost-effective than trying to do everything with the high lithographic nodes. Many of this stuff could have an impact on embedded devices. That’s where we’re getting into things that could be on the network edge, or in the wearable devices.
GamesBeat: I was thinking that it would be a tragedy if Moore’s Law came to an end right when we got to the metaverse.
Coughlin: Yeah. All of a sudden we can’t do anything for years. But no, I think we’ll be able to address a lot of this stuff in a number of different ways. The other thing is metadata, which is information about the stuff you’re moving around, that you’re doing stuff with. This could be a valuable source of information to optimize network performance.
If I know something about how far something is, could I cache stuff up and do things so that the latencies don’t appear to be as bad? If I’m playing a game, can I have the game seem realistic and not pause? Even if it doesn’t have the information yet, it does something that is in line with the nature of the game because it understands the game. Are you able to do such things, so that even when you have connectivity problems, it can still build smarts into your system, your game, so that it addresses that issue effectively and so that it has minimal impact on the players. They still feel like they’re engaged. Things may not respond as fast if you’re in Antarctica playing somebody in Greenland, but you can still get a reasonable gameplay experience.
Physical limitations limit what we can do. Technology limits what we can do. But there are also ways to mitigate that, things that could continue to let us have good experiences with whatever infrastructure you’ve got, while we’re improving and making the infrastructure better. We’re continuing with something like Moore’s Law, only it’s not Moore’s Law anymore. We need to see more performance over time. This includes faster responses, and all the other stuff. A lot of technologies are in use right now. They include everything from computing to networking to storage to computer architectures and memory.
GamesBeat: Do you feel optimistic about the future of the metaverse?
Coughlin: Well, I’m optimistic about the concept of creating immersive realities that extend what human beings can do. Neal Stephenson invented the metaverse in Snow Crash. It is a dystopian novel. Facebook grabbed Meta metadata and other things. I think we’ll be having these kinds of experiences, whatever you want to call it. There are new ways to expand reality. If it ends up being called the metaverse or something else, I think that’s something that will be very important.
That’s going to be involved in things like telepresence. I could remotely seem like I’m somewhere else. This could be even with tiny robots that roll about. It is common to see it in convention centers. It is possible to save some space on a tablet, or similar. There may be more advanced versions down the line. Could you make a human-like robot that could be somebody else for a while in some other location so you don’t have to travel? Make it possible to have sensory experiences that range from the mundane to the extraordinary. All these are possibilities. It takes time to develop the necessary capabilities.
It will also be easier if there are standards that underpin it, especially if these can be open-source. It will allow people to create things that work together. This will not be possible for one company. It can only be done as an industry. That’s where standards come in. IEEE has activities that address these issues.
GamesBeat: As far as CES goes, it looks like we’ll hear a lot about the metaverse there.
Coughlin: Yes, I believe so. CES is always exciting. There are things that make sense and things that don’t make sense. Eureka Park is one place I like. It’s sort of the cheap seats. It’s easy to find entrepreneurs and people like them. You will find everything from the absurd to the extraordinary.
GamesBeat: I don’t know where we are on the semiconductor or electronics content in cars now.
Coughlin: It’s over 50% of the cost of the car, I think, at this point. You can even get in the electric cars.
GamesBeatKPMG has stated that the automotive market will be driving semiconductor revenues over the next year. The potential for wireless communications with smartphones seems enormous. I didn’t realize that automotive had any chance of surpassing it.
Coughlin: The chip shortages really hurt automotive. When they started to order stuff again they found out that–the thing about automotive is they go through this really rigorous qualification. They want to keep ordering chips for the next decade after they’ve qualified them. The problem is that technology like semiconductors doesn’t stand still. Ten years — it’s more like mayfly years, the life of the technology. These nodes become obsolete and are difficult to obtain. When they decommit it and they want to get it again, some of the sources aren’t available anymore.
Automotive is responding. I think they’re trying to get more modern technologies where they can. They have all the safety equipment they need. This limits your ability to do certain things. There are many semiconductors in development. Some of this will be used to support automotive. Automotive is certainly not the biggest driver, but it’s going to be a significant driver for the next few years.
GamesBeat: I don’t know if you’ve listened to a lot of Jensen Huang’s talks, but there’s an interesting bridge that I see between enterprise and games through something like the Omniverse. He was saying that they’re going to use the Omniverse to build the digital twin of the earth, the Earth 2 simulation, so that they can really predict climate change for decades to come. They would apply all the world’s supercomputers to this problem and try to simulate the earth with meter-level accuracy, so they could have the most accurate forecasting possible. And then I asked him, “Does that mean you get the metaverse for free?” And he says, “Yes, you get the metaverse for free.”
It should theoretically be reusable after being designed in the Omniverse. If some video game people out there want to create a planet-size world and auto-generate a lot of it, they couldn’t come up with enough artists in the world to create these things that they want to create. They’d rely heavily on generative AI to do a lot of this. But if they’re getting this handed to them for free and it’s reusable, then that makes the metaverse so much easier to implement.
Coughlin: It’s really a commoditization of technology, which is a long-term trend. A lot of new tech is first implemented in data centers, places that can spend higher amounts of money that’s brand new. It can bring economic benefits. It gets less expensive as the technology matures and is used more often. That’s the general trend. Technology becomes commoditized.
If you look back, some of the stuff we’re calling the metaverse, these technologies like heads-up displays and virtual reality, they’ve been around for decades, but they’ve been extremely expensive. The Air Force uses it for pilot training, for pilots to be able to know what’s going on. If it costs a few million dollars, it’s still a fraction of the cost of a fighter plane, and it makes it work better. The cost of this stuff will drop if you do more. It then becomes more commoditized. It is now more accessible.
It’s the other Moore, Geoff Moore, his statement. It’s possible to get enough niche applications for it to be able to go into high volumes. It becomes more affordable and more common. There’s a very good chance that all the things that come together to make what we might call a metaverse or some kind of extended reality are going to go down. It’s going to become a part of everyday life in the not too distant future. What will it look like in ten years?
GamesBeat: Some parts of this starts to feel a lot like the space program. We have Tang. Velcro was our choice.
Coughlin: Freeze-dried food!
GamesBeatThese unanticipated benefits may be available through the metaverse
Coughlin: That’s true. Another thing is, as others have stated, that new jobs will be created and economic opportunities will exist. We are constantly changing what people do. This is only the beginning. Data is like the new oil, all these things that people glibly say, but it’s really true. These tools allow us to communicate with each other and the rest of the world. It’s going to be part of our economy. They’ll be important drivers.
GamesBeat: So you’re not in the camp of the curmudgeonly engineers who think this is never going to happen?
Coughlin: Oh, it’s going to happen. It will probably be able to do more than what we think it could, in ways which we can’t think of how it would do that. There will be many ways to use it. The Bored Ape Yacht Club was mentioned. It’s amazing that this would even be possible. It’s amazing that people would pay this much money to buy stupid avatars of apes wearing yachting hats. There will be things we can’t anticipate. I guarantee that’s going to happen.
GamesBeat: When do you think that we will be able to make great AR (and even virtual reality) headsets that look like regular glasses?
Coughlin: AR/VR headsets can be made almost identical to regular glasses in terms of size and shape.
However, the real question in terms of practicality and usefulness is how soon can we get AR/VR headsets that look like — and hopefully weigh about — what modern glasses do, with 4K resolution or higher, at high enough frame rate and that can operate for several hours on a single charge while being affordable.
Based on the latest developments in battery technology, processing and memory and materials, I believe it will take between 5 and 7 years to create a viable product (in large volume production).
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