While the metaverse is dependent on many cloud technologies to function, the ability for the metaverse to operate at the performance and scale required is firmly rooted in the physical world, not the cloud. Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) is an intrinsic part of the physical infrastructure that will be used to make the metaverse happen. MEC distributes infrastructure closer to the end user, and by moving compute, storage, and data processing functions to the edge enables improved network response times and reduces network bandwidth.
The GSMA identified MEC as a burgeoning metaverse-related opportunity for telcos in a 2022 report entitled “Exploring the metaverse and the digital future.”
“Amid huge excitement about the metaverse from wealthy investors and big tech firms, one opportunity for the telecoms industry is 5G multi-access edge computing (MEC), a technology that serves as both a resource computing platform and a mobile network capability platform,” the GSMA report reads. The report’s authors noted that work is underway to optimize 5G edge telco cloud infrastructure “that could enable interoperable services in the metaverse.”
Making XR work at scale requires mobile edge computing
There isn’t a single metaverse, but Meta has been leading the charge for the infrastructure changes that will need to make it happen at the edge of the telco network. Verizon has aligned itself with Meta in the attempt to build out a MEC infrastructure capable of supporting Meta’s vision.
Rima Qureshi, EVP and chief strategy officer at Verizon, told investors at a 2022 event that Verizon will couple its 5G mmWave and C-band service and edge compute capabilities with Meta “to understand the foundational requirements for the metaverse and its applications.”
The companies’ shared goal is to deploy Extended Reality (XR) cloud-based rendering and low latency streaming – key metaverse-enabling technologies. Meta’s VP of Connectivity, Dan Rabinovitsj, explained more. Meta contends that much needs to happen on the telco side in order for the metaverse to operate at scale, and many of those resources are distributed to the edge of operator’s networks.
“We envision a future where remote rendering over edge cloud, or some form of hybrid between local and remote rendering, plays a greater role in the years to come. And enabling remote rendering will require both fixed and mobile networks to be rearchitected to create compute resources at a continuum of distances to end users,” said Rabinovitsj.
Other requests of Meta include the deployment of symmetrical bandwidth and general alignment around quality of service metrics, spectrum advocacy, and development and advancement of standards focused on delivering optimal end-user experiences.
Ericsson sees 5G, MEC, and metaverse as intrinsically linked. Extended Reality (XR) and VR technologies leverage MEC capabilities to maintain adequate immersive performance, they note.
“Data needs to be sent back and forth between AR/VR devices and the edge cloud within milliseconds, at (almost) bounded latency and at a high data rate. A reliable, secure and low-latency wireless connection to XR devices is thus paramount,” said Ericsson.
Moving metaverse workloads to the edge of the network reduces latency, Ericsson notes, but also helps metaverse-enabled user equipment, such as headsets or XR glasses, to offload processing to the cloud to help conserve battery life. Metaverse imagery can be rendered with higher levels of detail when it’s happening closer to the user as well.
“Edge-cloud support is vital to scale XR and is therefore one of the fundamental technologies to enable the Metaverse by making XR devices economically affordable, lightweight yet powerful, and connected with sufficient battery lifetime,” said Ericsson.
“A challenge with edge-cloud is how much can truly be offloaded to the edge, at the same time maintain the KPIs for the applications, and deliver an acceptable [quality of experience] to the end users regardless of if they are consumers playing games or enterprise users delivering the sophisticated next product in the metaverse,” said Ericsson.
Ericsson’s researchers believe that the telecom industry will deploy more edge-cloud solutions to get content closer to the Radio Access Network (RAN) using a User Plane Function (UPF) with a local breakout.
Ericsson’s researchers also noted the need for the industry to coalesce around standards and standardized interfaces to ensure operability.
“The most important challenge, however, is to ensure interoperability between virtual worlds. This transition from today’s multiple metaverses (a.k.a. multi-verses) to a / the metaverse is akin to the transition from early local area networks (LANs) to today’s internet,” said Ericsson.
Japanese telco SoftBank in May launched 5G MEC services in the Kanto region of Japan and announced nationwide deployment of MEC servers elsewhere. The news was greeted positively by Andrew Schwabecher, CEO of SoftBank-owned Japan Computer Vision Corp., who said the deployment of SoftBank 5G MEC “will fuel the creation of a metaverse platform linking online and offline.”
The industry focus on building foundational metaverse technology is more than just hype, asserts Verizon’s director of edge platforms, Matt Threefoot. In a guest editorial on Enterprise IoT Insights Threefoot asserted that it can only happen at the crossroads of 5G and MEC.
“As we see the concept of the metaverse gain traction in 2022, it’s important to note that these conversations would not be happening without the power of 5G and mobile edge compute. In 2022, 5G and MEC will use that power to deliver the promise of transformative experiences and future proof technologies,” he said.