Wacky as Facebook’s metaverse sounds, enterprises will have to deal with it

Like it or not, as workers come to expect metaverse communications, enterprises networks will have to support it, so IT pros need to start planning now to fight its biggest enemy: latency.

A virtual human figure renders within a digital environment.
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In our modern world, “metaverse” is the term applied to an artificial reality, a virtual world inhabited by avatars that represent real people and perhaps other AI virtual beings, too.

What makes the concept relevant to enterprises are the Facebook decision to embrace metaverse as the future, the fact that others like Microsoft are following along, and the promise that it could redefine meetings, sales calls, support, and even work overall. Network planners would then have to consider its impact on traffic and connectivity.

One big get-it-approved problem with the metaverse for enterprise is likely to be security. Facebook has had a lot of recent bad press for favoring profit over the welfare of its users, and that sort of thing sets compliance officers a-tingle, so self-hosting might be a solution. Executing that is partly a software issue and partly a network issue.The former, we can assume, would be handled by open-source development arising out of the interest Facebook has created. The latter isn’t as easy to dismiss.

In his keynote at Connect, CEO Mark Zuckerberg indicated that he wanted the metaverse to be an immersive experience, which means that it can’t be based on awkward, artificial behaviors. Suppose you, as a metaverse-sales-type, wanted to shake (virtual) hands with a (virtual avatar) prospect. Add in a nice dose of latency and you either end up playing patty-cake or boxing. You could rightfully argue that latency is the death of a realistic interaction in the metaverse, and latency is largely determined by the way the metaverse is connected—the network.

Edge networking falls short

The big problem for a metaverse is network QoS, and latency in particular. There will have to be a server that keeps track of who’s in it, what they’re doing, and so forth. Every inhabitant will then have to connect to that server, and those connections could be subject to latency levels as small as a worker next to the server would generate and as large as one half-way around the world. How does the network accommodate that to produce Facebook’s immersive experience?

Edge computing would solve it, so many say, but that’s too pat an answer. Going back to our workers next to the server and on the other side of the world, where exactly is their edge? Distributed metaverses would require that there be distributed edges, each mesh-connected with all the others. You can look up the formulas yourself, but trust me when I say that the number of direct mesh connections rise exponentially with the number of edge locations.  How many “edges” are there globally? Thousands and thousands, even if we were to confine ourselves to major metro areas. That’s millions of direct, low-latency, connections in the mesh.

The truth is that enterprises can’t expect the metaverse to deliver a true representation of an in-person experience across global distances, because you just can’t push synchronization faster than the speed of light. That means that an enterprise metaverse will have to make some compromises with regard to creating a realistic virtual reality. Forget about shaking hands or doing anything else that requires a high degree of correlation of action between distant parties.

Scale back the metaverse for business

One possible way of getting around global latency issues is to forget global-scale metaverses. Most organizations with a global presence already know that once you have to cross five or more time zones, it’s difficult to get any sort of real-time collaboration going.  If we envisioned “local metaverses” limited to perhaps three or four time zones, we could probably expect to control latency enough to create a credible virtual interaction among a group of virtual workers, customers, and partners. If we had such a group, and we needed to “metaverse-in” a remote participant, they could be admitted with the understanding that they couldn’t interact as richly as the locals could. Think “dial into a zoom call”.

Another possible strategy is to dumb down the metaverse interactions. If you can’t shake hands without punching out your contact, then don’t allow or encourage it.  The problem with this is that it limits the immersive potential of the metaverse, and nobody really knows how effective the metaverse would be absent that critical feature. If your alternate reality isn’t believable, it’s not a reality at all

Hosted metaverse? Nope.

If all of this makes enterprises wonder whether having someone host their metaverse rather than building it themselves would solve these problems, you can forget that, too. Nobody pushes photons or electrons any faster than you can. The problems I’ve cited here would hit Facebook and others just as hard. This, in part, is why there’s a lot of skepticism about Facebook’s plans.

Before you turn your enterprise back on metaverse, though, consider that social media got just as negative a reception from enterprises when it emerged. Looking back at my surveys of the time, only about 5% of enterprises thought it would impact them. Today, 100% say social media has a “significant” impact on the way they do business.

A metaverse may not be the thing that comes to mind for corporate communications, but as it’s socialized among workers, it sets expectations just as social media has. Study after study showed that there was no value to video in coordinating pairwise interactions, yet people became accustomed to two-party video in casual interactions, and today three out of four workers under 40 say they want video rather than voice for two-party communications. How long will it take before your own workers expect to interact in a metaverse?

But it’s customer expectations that may decide the metaverse issue. If your sales and support interactions are with inhabitants of Facebook’s metaverse, or those of competitors, how long will it take before one of your competitors decides to sell and support in a metaverse? You don’t really have to shake hands or play soccer in customer interactions, either, so strict latency control isn’t as critical. In short, people will learn to play by metaverse rules, including your own people.

What should network planners do, then? The answer is to pay a lot more attention to latency.  You’ll want to limit latency in all your network connections, which starts by knowing what latency you’re experiencing. You will need to decide where to host a sales/support metaverse to minimize latency; headquarters, regional office, or metro, so you’ll have to check internet latency to each of those points, and explore when to hop on the company VPN versus connect directly. You’ll want to know what ISP and private VPN combination gets everyone into the metaverse with minimal latency. Finally you’ll want to know how to minimize latency in traffic handling at any intermediate points.  Don’t think this is all a bet on a future metaverse, either; IoT will require the same low-latency handling.

This whole metaverse thing sounds silly to many, but there’s a good chance that it will end up being a requirement, in some form, within five years. Plan for it now and your team won’t be virtually boxing with customers, partners, and each other. And you won’t be boxing for real with your executives for blowing it.

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