Yu Yuan on Building A Persistent Virtual World
Despite tech giants including Meta, Microsoft, and Nvidia investing billions of dollars in the development of the metaverse, it is still little more than a fantasy. Making it a reality is likely to require breakthroughs in a range of sectors such as storage, modeling, and communication.
To spur progress in the advancement of those technologies, the IEEE Standards Association has launched the Persistent Computing for Metaverse initiative. As part of the IEEE’s Industry Connections Program, it will bring together experts from both industry and academia to help map out the innovations that will be needed to make the metaverse a reality.
Although disparate virtual-reality experiences exist today, the metaverse represents a vision of an interconnected and always-on virtual world that can host thousands, if not millions, of people simultaneously. The ultimate goal is for the virtual world to become so realistic that it is almost indistinguishable from the real one.
Today’s technology is a long way from making that possible, says Yu Yuan, president of the IEEE Standards Association. The Institute spoke with Yuan to find out more about the initiative and the key challenges that need to be overcome. His answers have been edited for clarity.
The Institute: What is persistent computing?
Yu Yuan: I have been working in virtual reality and multimedia for more than 20 years, I just didn’t call my work metaverse. After metaverse became a buzzword, I asked myself, ‘What’s the difference between metaverse and VR?’ My answer is: persistence, or the ability to leave traces in a virtual world.
Persistent computing refers to the combination of all the technologies needed to support the development and operation of a persistent virtual world. In other words, a metaverse. There are different kinds of VR experiences, but many of them are one-time events. Similar to how video games work, every time a user logs in, the entire virtual world resets. But users in the metaverse can leave traces. For example, they can permanently change the virtual world by destroying a wall or building a new house. Those changes have to be long-lasting so there will be a meaningful virtual society or meaningful economy in that virtual world.
What are the key components that are required to make persistent computing possible?
Yuan: The first is storage. In most of today’s video games, users can destroy a building, only for it to be restored the next time the user logs in to the game. But in a persistent virtual world the current status of the virtual world needs to be stored constantly. Users can create or destroy something in that world and the next time they log in, those changes will still be there. These kinds of things have to be properly stored—which means a very large amount of data needs to be stored.
It’s also important to support persistence from a modeling perspective because, as we can imagine, people will demand higher and higher quality experiences. To do this we need a larger scale in the future as well as finer granularity, or more detail, to make those virtual objects and environments more realistic.
“The metaverse is a truly long-term vision. We may need another 15 to 20 years, or even longer, to make it happen.”
That also requires technology to support upgrading the virtual world on the fly. For example, let’s say the building block of your virtual world would be at the brick level, but later, along with the advancement of technologies, we may be able to bring that detail level to grains of sand.
Along with that upgrade the buildings that users created before will have to be maintained. So that raises some challenges, like: How can we support modeling and operation of virtual worlds without interruption, providing continuous experiences for the users?
You say you need a lot more storage to maintain all the information. But does that just mean more powerful memory technologies, or is it more complicated than that?
Yuan: Larger storage capacity and low power consumption will be necessary. This may also be an important factor, because some people are concerned that the metaverse will consume lots of energy, making the entire thing not sustainable. But we also need to address some other issues.
Let’s say the ultimate goal for the metaverse is to be able to create virtual universes that are indistinguishable from a real physical universe. In order to simulate and store, for example, a million virtual atoms, how many physical atoms do we need? That is ultimately one of the questions we need to answer in terms of connecting the universe of atoms to the universe of bits. We will hit a wall in terms of how many physical atoms we need to create an equal or larger number of virtual atoms. That requires not only innovations in storage, computation, and communications technology in general but also some special innovations in modeling, and engines dedicated for the metaverse. It could be some data-compression technology, but that’s just one of the directions we need to explore.
I think communications are equally important. Most people believe the metaverse means lots of users—which means we will definitely need innovations in communications to support real-time, massive user experiences. If we are talking about supporting a million users in a virtual city, we definitely need some disruptive innovations from the communications perspective. That’s also an integral component of persistent computing.
How will the issues that you’ve identified be solved?
Yuan: That’s part of the mission for the Persistent Computing for Metaverse Initiative. It serves as a platform for information exchange and discussions on the gaps in today’s existing technologies.
Maybe we already have most of the technologies in place, but we just need to find a way to integrate them together. Or maybe there are gaps where we need to do R&D on some particular subarea of technology. With this gap analysis, we will know what other innovations are needed—which could provide some direction for academia and industry.
The initiative plans to host events, publish white papers with its findings, and propose new standards.
A lot of the development in the space is happening internally in companies. Is there an appetite to collaborate, or is there a danger that everyone is racing to set up walled gardens?
Yuan: I wouldn’t say that it’s a danger, but I don’t think it’s efficient. That’s why I think standards will play a leading role to help pave the way for the metaverse. We need to develop standards to identify gaps and set up road maps for the industry. The industry will then have some basis for discussion and how we can work together to make this happen. Working together is also important so that companies aren’t reinventing wheels in different silos.
I think the metaverse will have a profound impact on all industries.
Is a lot of this kind of pie-in-the sky at the moment? Are we still a long way from persistent virtual worlds?
Yuan: The metaverse is a truly long-term vision. We may need another 15 to 20 years, or even longer, to make it happen. I believe the metaverse should be indistinguishable from our current universe, and to do that we need to address many grand challenges. Some of these include how to create a persistent virtual universe and how to make our perception realistic enough. Currently we are using XR [extended reality] devices, but eventually we may need innovations in brain-machine interface or neural interface technologies to be able to comprehensively take over the interface between our consciousness and the virtual world. But along with this long-term development there are also preliminary embodiments of the metaverse that can be useful and generate value for industry and for consumers.