About the author
Tommaso Di Bartolo is a serial entrepreneur and faculty member at UC Berkeley where he teaches about Web3 and the Metaverse.
We hear it all the time: The metaverse is going to take a decade to build. But why do we assume this will be the case?
First, consider what an ideal metaverse would look like: Millions of people on a single map just like in the real world, but where every action taken is irrevocable and true for everyone—for example, if you break a statue in the metaverse it’ll stay broken for everyone until someone fixes it. And finally, a player has complete autonomy over their actions and can perform any act anywhere so long as its legal by the rules of the metaverse.
To achieve this, such a metaverse would requires the power of 5G, AI, next-gen processors, Quantum Computing, Edge Computing, AR, and VR all combined together. Right now, however, these technologies are not advanced enough to scale en masse at an affordable price. As a result, an all-encompassing immersive metaverse is a faraway target.
The Blockchain Trilemma
To understand the scalability problem, we first need to dig deeper into another issue, “the blockchain trilemma.” Vitalik Buterin, the co-founder of Ethereum, first used the term in explaining the transaction delays and high gas prices in the Ethereum blockchain.
Buterin’s trilemma posits that there are three aspects of a Web3 solution—decentralization, scalability, and security—but that projects must sacrifice one to retain the other two. In Ethereum’s case, they had to trade off scalability to keep the integrity of the blockchain. One result is that, in a congested blockchain network like Ethereum, validators prioritize high-gas-fee transactions over lower ones.
Blockchains are trying to solve this problem with solutions like POS (Proof-of-Stake), sharding, rollups, etc. Many L2 solutions are overcoming this constraint and for a massive blockchain like Ethereum to transition to a POS mechanism, it’ll take a fair bit of time and work, but eventually, it’ll work out.
The scaling solution for metaverse platforms will be harder, though, since a metaverse simply doesn’t end at transactions. The components of a metaverse platform also include in-character interactions, detailed maps, numerous character traits, in-platform features, and tons of other things.
For the metaverse to work smoothly, it will require a behemoth of a blockchain that has several sidechains and L2s, has extremely high TPS (transactions per second), low gas fees, and robust IPFS integration for NFTs, and cross-chain operability. And for now, no such technology exists.
Centralized metaverses and scalability
But what if a metaverse chooses to sacrifice one side of the blockchain trilemma—decentralization—in order to scale faster? While a centralized metaverse won’t have to worry about consensus and shared information ledgers, it’ll still face plenty of obstacles.
Consider a centralized platform like Fortnite or Roblox. Sure, they can do something like host a virtual reality concert, but they also must limit characters’ functions to only moving and watching, not letting players actively participate (like dancing) in the event.
The reason is the game servers both local and central are unable to relay or receive this much information in real-time for characters to interact live. For example, in the Fortnite Travis Scott concert, Fortnite released an update before the show where they preloaded all the visuals used in the concert. So essentially, it was more like watching a semi-recorded live presentation.
For us to actually attend a metaverse concert with hundreds of other attendees, we’ll need to fix a few bottlenecks—bandwidth and latency being the most important. (Matthew Ball, in his Metaverse Primer, explained the problem with bandwidth and latency and how it’s preventing mass scaling for the metaverse).
Bandwidth, in layman’s terms, is the amount of data being released or processed over a unit of time. The ideal scenario with bandwidth will be to have infinite bandwidth to process any amount of data in the shortest time window possible. For example, in a metaverse, you would like to look over the horizon in any direction and see every single graphic detail IRL in picture-perfect form.
But what happens is, in a metaverse like Fortnite or even Roblox, the amount of information we perceive and interact with is preloaded in the local device with some being released on an as-needed basis. That is because we don’t have the infrastructure to handle this much bandwidth.
Similarly, latency is the time difference between you pressing a key and the command being executed on your screen. If you’re playing a multi-player shooting game, you would want your latency to be almost zero so you can perform the action instantly.
Now imagine, your action being relayed back to the central server across the globe and coming back before you can shoot a bullet, you’re already dead. That’s why most games pre-load these functions in the device to prevent delays. But for similar spontaneous action to be taken in real-time in the metaverse, you either have to load all the possible actions in a certain scenario (which is virtually impossible) or rely on cloud-streaming information.
So even without the hassles of keeping the platform decentralized, a centralized metaverse platform has countless issues that won’t be solved unless we develop newer, better technologies.
But even with all of these obstacles and bottlenecks, there’s little doubt the metaverse is the next evolution of the internet, because Web3 is a response to needs such as transparency and traceability. So now the question is how to solve these problems.
The decentralized sector is heavily investing in the functions of simpler forms of graphics to avoid causing congestion in the network. Similarly, many projects are cutting down on real-time participation as a way to manage traffic.
Most of these approaches will let us make do for a time, but the ultimate solution is to harness the power of 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and edge computing to increase bandwidth limits and decrease latency. As a result, we’re looking at a timeframe of a decade or more to achieve the ideal metaverse experience.
In this process, we'll innovate and eliminate loads of new ideas that fit the narrative for the time. However, with a global concentrated force working toward one goal, which has rarely taken place in the history of technology, I can confidently say the journey is getting better.