Creating an immersive digital future with adaptive networks

Today, there is a great amount of excitement and buzz about the potential use of new immersive digital environments like the metaverse, and how they can help improve the way we live, work, and play. According to Deloitte, the potential impact of the metaverse on GDP in Asia could be anywhere from US$0.8 trillion to US$1.4 trillion per year by 2035 – roughly 1.3-2.4% of overall annual GDP then.

Several governments in the region, including South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia, are banking on this trend and adding metaverse programmes to their economic plans. For example, the Indonesian government recently launched the Indonesia Metaverse Collaboration Initiative with the goal to accelerate the development of the metaverse ecosystem in the country. The group believes this will help boost economic growth, education, and innovation, and promote Indonesia as a leader in the digital world.

There is no doubt that these new, immersive digital environments have the potential to offer new ways to support remote work, socialisation, entertainment, education, and commerce. But this can only happen if it is supported by a reliable, low-latency underlying communication network. More importantly, the network needs to rapidly scale, self-configure, and self-optimise to address changing network pressures and demands.

Laying the foundation for an immersive digital world

Indeed, the road to an immersive future is paved with challenges – and opportunities – that we will still need to tackle head-on.

As with all new technologies, there first needs to be consensus on its definition and standards of use. When it comes to immersive technologies, this is well underway. Through its P2048 working group, the IEEE Standards Association is looking to standardise metaverse terminology, definitions, and taxonomy to provide a basis for clarification for metaverse users and a roadmap for metaverse developers.

Concurrently, developers need to ensure that their VR and AR technology can encompass the full expression of immersive applications. A truly immersive digital experience engages all of our senses through spatial audio, haptic feedback, scents, tastes, and even chemically induced sensations. To that end, immersive applications need to possess contextual comprehension and intuitive interaction capabilities to enable seamless engagement with users.

Developers may also need to lean on artificial intelligence (AI) to push virtual reality to new heights. AI is already transforming other industries like retail and real estate through the emergence of immersive shopping experiences and virtual tours for prospective buyers. AI can also supercharge immersive experiences, such as through the integration of natural language processing to provide users with smarter, more responsive, and more intuitive virtual environments to interact with.

Key network requirements

Once immersive applications are refined and potentially perfected, the next step is to ensure that they are powered by underlying networks that are reliable, adaptable, and self-healing. This will require improvements in three main areas:

  • Faster and larger networks to support huge amounts of bandwidth demands with little to no latency.
  • Networks that put massive amounts of computation and storage closer to the end users and applications that rely on them.
  • Smarter networks that utilise software automation and AI and machine learning to manage resources in a closed-loop manner with the ability to heal or reorganise the network quickly.

Let’s explore each of these requirements in greater detail.

Firstly, the rich, dynamic, and interactive nature of virtual environments means that there is no room for buffering. They need to be powered by a combination of both fibre and wireless networks, with the ability to deliver as much information through a given communications channel as is physically possible. These networks must have zero to little latency, with the ability to deliver high-bandwidth experiences without so much as a second’s delay. Otherwise, users might find applications too glitchy or laggy to adopt for critical use cases such as medical tech, smart manufacturing, or even high-stakes business meetings.

Secondly, fast and low-latency connectivity alone isn’t enough to realise the potential of immersive applications; these platforms also need to be inclusive. This means putting computing power closer to the hands of the end user. For example, the metaverse has the potential to engage and immerse remote workers, even when they are not physically present in the office. But to successfully implement this, organisations will need to turn to options such as multi-access edge computing (MEC), which involves relocating data processing to the network edge. This means placing resources in closer proximity to where they are required, such as employees who work remotely or in non-metropolitan areas. By shifting computing and storage functions closer to metaverse end users, MEC can improve performance and reduce latency for those working from home.

Finally, to ensure that these immersive spaces are not just seamless and inclusive but safe for users, underlying networks need to be secure. The emergence of new technologies has expanded the network attack surface, providing cybercriminals with more significant opportunities to exploit gaps in the network and launch attacks on organisations, including through loopholes within immersive technologies. To prevent this, underlying networks need to be secure and self-healing, with little to no downtime. This means that the network’s fence has no holes through which cybercriminals could potentially attack and steal data. Or that, in the event that this does unfortunately happen, networks can instantly repair themselves and lock cybercriminals out before more damage can be done.

Opportunity for network providers 

Cognisant of the networking requirements required to enable a future with immersive applications, many telcos around the globe have already been making moves to prepare their networks. A recent report by Kearney found that 72% of telco leaders in APAC are positive about the prospects of new applications like the metaverse. And 84% believe that the metaverse will have a substantial impact on their operations and customer experience by the year 2030, with APAC leaders particularly seeing an even greater proportion of influence.

Many telcos have even been rolling out new immersive platforms themselves, to showcase their robust infrastructure and network readiness. One example is South Korean telecommunications company SK Telecom, whose 5G-based metaverse platform ifland has launched in over 49 countries and seen rapid growth, from 3 million users at the beginning of 2022 to 12.8 million in October of that same year.

The new virtual environments represent a massive opportunity for network providers. Considering cost implications, as well as the core tenets needed to power these spaces, network providers that are ready and willing to bolster their capabilities and services stand to benefit greatly.