Is AI the driving force behind the metaverse?

The metaverse is expected to become the next big breakthrough in the Internet’s evolution, with seemingly endless potential to transform how we live, transact, learn, and even benefit from government services.

Most current definitions for the metaverse include a long list of technologies and principles.

One definition tech experts seem to agree on is “an online 3D virtual world in which real people interact in real time to do an unlimited variety of virtual activities such as work, travel and play, all supported by its own digital economy.”

But making the metaverse a functional – albeit virtual – reality still requires significant advances in many different underlying technologies.

In some cases, these essential innovations are already underway. Meta (previously Facebook), for instance, introduced an AI supercomputer in January 2022, claiming a range of uses from ultrafast gaming to instant, accurate and simultaneous translation of large amounts of text, images and videos. The computer will also be key in developing next-generation AI models and become a foundation which future metaverse technologies can look to and build upon.

At the same time, consumer devices such as virtual reality (VR) headsets or smart glasses still fail to capture or transmit the full metaverse experience despite being available on the market today. New devices will need to be designed to provide a truly seamless experience for metaverse users. Another Meta invention, the haptic glove, is designed to enable users to touch and feel virtual objects in the metaverse.

Experts predict that the metaverse will be based on seven essential technologies: 5G communication, extended reality, brain-computer interfaces, cloud computing, blockchain, digital twins, and artificial intelligence.

Of these emerging technologies, AI may be the most crucial piece of the metaverse puzzle thanks to its potential to enable the metaverse to scale.

Deep learning-based software will likely power most interactions autonomously, with chatbots along with other types of natural language processing (NLP) technologies supporting all kinds of exchanges in this new extended reality space.

AI will also enable machines behind the metaverse to not only understand user inputs, from text to images and even videos, but also to respond correctly regardless of the user’s input language. However, this will require huge amounts of data and training such advanced NLP models is likely to take years.

In metaverse development, AI is not only a necessary technology in the areas of computer vision and natural language processing, but also in VR and augmented reality (AR). For example, in AR technology AI is used in camera calibration, detection, tracking, camera pose estimation, immerse rendering, real-world object detection, virtual object detection, and 3D object reconstruction, helping to guarantee the variety and usability of AR applications.

Eventually, most 3D images, animations, and speech in the metaverse will likely be generated by AI. Machine learning models could also be used to automate smart contracts, distributed ledgers and support other blockchain technologies to allow virtual transactions.

AI technology is also expected to help expand the metaverse by supporting object detection, improving rendering, and enabling cybersickness control and measurement. However, despite its promise and potential, the metaverse still has many challenges to overcome such as security risks and online abuse. Still, AI is likely to be among the technological tools that could be instrumental in overcoming those challenges.

To find out how current research is making the metaverse a reality, join ITU’s fourteenth academic conference: Kaleidoscope 2022: Extended reality – How to boost quality of experience and interoperability, taking place in Accra, Ghana, from 7 to 9 December at the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT.


One thought on “Is AI the driving force behind the metaverse?

  1. The Metaverse Is Quickly Turning Into the Meh-taverse- Disney and Microsoft both closed projects tied to the digital realm this month

    The metaverse was a hot thing in tech less than two years ago, but is now facing a harsher reality. Slow user adoption, driven in part by expensive hardware requirements and glitchy tech, and deteriorating economic conditions have put a damper on expectations the metaverse will drive meaningful revenue soon. Recently:
    -Walt Disney Co. has shut down the division that was developing its metaverse strategies,
    -Microsoft Corp. recently shut down a social virtual-reality platform it acquired in 2017.
    -Meta Platforms Inc. (formerly Facebook) is focused more on artificial intelligence, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on an earnings call last month.

    Meanwhile, the price for virtual real estate in some online worlds, where users can hang out as avatars, has cratered. The median sale price for land in Decentraland has declined almost 90% from a year ago, according to WeMeta, a site that tracks land sales in the metaverse.

    “What many people are coming to realize is that this transformation is farther away,” said Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist and author of a book about the metaverse.

    Tech companies have been slashing jobs and abandoning projects deemed nonessential. Mr. Zuckerberg, who championed the metaverse as the next iteration of the mobile internet a mere 18 months ago, dubbed 2023 “the year of efficiency.” His company laid off 11,000 employees in the fall and said this month that it would cut a further 10,000 positions and various projects, including some that are based in its metaverse division, the Journal previously reported.

    “A lot of companies and businesses understandably feel like if they need to reduce head count or spending overall, this kind of category would seem to be a pretty easy target,” said Scott Kessler, a tech-sector analyst at research firm Third Bridge Group. Investments in artificial intelligence promise returns in the nearer term, he added.

    “All these things that are going on, related to AI, seem to be able to be used and leveraged now,” he said. With the metaverse, “no one knows when you’re going to reach critical mass.”

    Even at the height of the metaverse craze, some tech executives were less enamored with online realms. “I want to try and work on technologies that bring people’s heads up—get them to enjoy the real world,” David Limp, senior vice president of devices and services at Inc., said at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival last year.

    Meta has spent billions of dollars trying to build out the metaverse since changing its name. But its flagship app, Horizon Worlds, struggled to gain and retain users within the first year after the renaming, according to internal documents viewed by the Journal. Sales of its Quest 2 virtual-reality headsets, which are used to access Horizon Worlds and other virtual-reality apps, were also down in the most recent quarter, the company said.

    Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t walking away from the metaverse, signaling that it remains a long-term focus for the company after AI. “The two major technological waves driving our road map are AI today and, over the longer term, the metaverse,” he said last month.

    On that call, “AI” was mentioned 28 times. The word “metaverse” was mentioned on seven occasions. Meta didn’t respond to a request for comment.

    The pivot at Disney comes amid its recent leadership change and restructuring. Chief Executive Robert Iger returned to the company in November and has started slashing costs. The company last month said it plans to cut 7,000 jobs and reduce costs by $5.5 billion.

    Microsoft also bet big on the idea of online digital realms, though struggled with implementing that vision. In addition to shutting down AltSpaceVR, the company’s work on augmented-reality headsets was plagued by problems, the Journal reported last year. The company has since restructured the HoloLens team and trimmed its budget, the Journal has reported. Microsoft said it “remains committed to the metaverse” with both hardware and software tools.

    Smaller companies such as Decentraland and the Sandbox where users have been able to buy virtual land and build their own worlds have seen some of the most success so far. But even so, land sales are down. The median price per square meter in Decentraland has dropped from about $45 a year ago to $5, according to data from WeMeta, the firm that tracks the sales.

    A spokesperson for the Decentraland Foundation, which oversees the platform, said land sales aren’t indicative of user growth. A spokesperson for the Sandbox said all of the new land they have put up for sale over the past six months has sold out.

    Despite a broad reduction in metaverse engagement, the online realms can still draw eyeballs. Decentraland, which saw a 25% decline in active users from November to January, is seeing an uptick this week from Metaverse Fashion Week, an event where brands such as Dolce & Gabbana and Tommy Hilfiger are participating, according to DCL Metrics, a site that tracks users in the digital realm.

    “It is obvious that hype around the metaverse has receded. But we should not mistake this for a lack of progress,” said Mr. Ball, the venture capitalist who is bullish on the metaverse. “Change isn’t that fast.”

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