Avatars, navigation, security, the transportability of purchases and wallets, and what you can view with your VR headsets–it’s all completely dependent on which metaverse you visit. This is a real problem.
Today’s metaverse is a hodgepodge of nation-states, rather than the unified immersive experience promised by most metaverse visionaries. Everything from how an avatar is created, to how a scene is rendered, to how you navigate, how you manage your security and personal information, the transportability of your digital purchases and wallets, the agonizing onboarding process, and what you can view with your VR headsets–it’s all completely dependent on which metaverse you visit. If interoperable worlds are really supposed to be a central tenet of life in the incipient metaverse, this is a real problem.
Who cares? Well, if you believe the revenue forecasts, everyone should care. A white paper produced for Meta by the economic consultancy Analysis Group has estimated the global metaverse economy could be worth more than $3 trillion globally in a decade. Citibank goes further, predicting we’re looking at a $13 trillion dollar industry by 2030. And Bloomberg Intelligence more soberly predicts an $800 billion market by 2024–still a gigantic number. No matter whose numbers you believe, they’re large. But these are just blurry crystal balls if things remain as fragmented as they are today.
The Tower of MetaBabel
The problem is that, unlike standards in other areas, say PDF (for sharing and printing documents), SQL (for databases) and HTML (to define a webpage) the metaverse is a chimera of standards. To make it real will require a disparate combination of technologies including cloud, AI, AR/VR, blockchain, spatial graphics, and more. All those will need to be pieced together like Lego bricks in order to build an operational metaverse.
Khronos is not exactly a household name (it’s not a string quartet either). In fact it’s a twenty-plus-year-old gatekeeper of metaverse-related open standards. The nonprofit consortium of now over 150 different companies has years of experience hashing out some pretty esoteric but foundational open-source, royalty-free standards: for Virtual and Augmented Reality, 3D graphics, parallel computing, machine learning, vision processing, and more. This week Khronos might have waded into the biggest quagmire of all. It’s hosting the Metaverse Standards Forum and hoping it can emerge with the mother of all standards. I guess you’d call it a metastandard.
By day, Neil Trevett is the VP of Development Ecosystems at NVIDIA (NVIDIA’s Omniverse impressive platform for “true-to-reality simulation” has a vested stake in the interoperability of metaverses.) His side hustle is as President of Khronos. Trevett recognizes the dynamic tension between open standards and proprietary innovation. Still, he’s a firm believer that standards are necessary to, as he says, “refine, not define, a working system.”
“The interesting thing about the metaverse is that it’s going to bring together lots of stuff in novel ways,” says Trevett, emphasizing the word “stuff”. “There’s the connectivity of the web, immersive spatial computing, and the financial aspects of the blockchain and all the Web 3 components. Which means that lots of stuff is going to be working together, and that raises the need and the visibility of interoperability standards.” An ardent believer in a “Darwinian bottom-up approach to resolving standardization issues,” Trevett is hoping that gathering all stakeholders in one room will create a more robust ecosystem. Sort of like when the Founding Fathers were hammering out the U.S. Constitution, it could get contentious.
Announced on June 21st, the Forum came out of the gate with a solid number of participating companies. They include Meta, Microsoft, Alibaba, Huawei, Nvidia, Unity, Epic Games, Adobe, and Sony, along with retailers like Ikea and Wayfair. Other members include standards organizations like the Academy Software Foundation, ASWF, OpenAR Cloud, the Open Geospatial Consortium, and the Web3D Consortium. And Trevett says the list is growing daily.
Notably absent are some of the biggest players in today’s Web 3.0 metaverse, like Decentraland, Sandbox, and Roblox. Apple, never a lover of shared standards, is also missing. And none of the blockchain organizations like Ethereum or digital wallets like MetaMask are yet involved. The initial group seems to have deep roots in existing open standards, spatial graphics, and hardware. At the moment it feels sort of like a party where the cake hasn’t arrived yet. It costs members nothing to participate, though some companies like Meta have volunteered to fund the initiative. And Khronos will license the right to use the standard’s logo, generating revenue.
What does this intriguing group hope to accomplish? Trevett admits that they won’t know for sure until July 6th, when the first cohort of members assembles to start fleshing out which mission-critical areas need standards right away. “There’s definitely a need to align on goals and objectives before standards are tackled,” he says.
“Ultimately,” says Trevett, “working groups will be created to focus on the most pressing problems that standards can solve.” He sees committee activities including prototyping, hackathons, plugfests (plugging things in to make sure they’re compatible), and open-source tooling as important parts of a process to accelerate the testing and adoption of metaverse standards.
Some, including my colleague Shelly Palmer, are already betting that the effort will fail. Palmer, not a fan of standards working groups, prefers a kind of natural Darwinism where the best ideas win. Others argue that working groups and committees slow innovation by looking for consensus. And still others, mostly in chatrooms, are saying Web 3.0 does not need central regulation or organization, since the whole purpose of Web 3.0 is decentralization.
My hunch is that Khronos seems to have relied on members of its previous committees as its first salvo. Now they’ve got to win over the Web 3.0 natives who are already entrenched in their myriad tokens, wallets, and immersive experiences. It’s hairy out in metaverse land, as VentureBeat said when discussing the need for metaverse standards way back in February. “Today,” says the article, “device manufacturers and platforms each have their own proprietary data for each piece of the process.” As an example it cites spatial mapping and simultaneous localization – tools that will be required to create the complex mix of physical and digital augmented realities that could make up the future metaverse.
“The plain fact,” the article goes on to say “ is that unless the devices talk to and interact with one another, unless all these rendered worlds use the same standards and data sharing techniques, and unless the networks can deliver the capacity and connectivity at an affordable and sustainable price, the metaverse will stall — or fall short of delivering on its full potential as quickly as it could.”
Khronos (actually Kronos) was the god of time in Greek mythology. He most often appeared in situations where time was viewed as a destructive force. It’s an appropriate association for this fragile but much-hyped metaverse moment.