What do Microsoft, Epic Games, Adobe, Nvidia, and Ikea all have in common? According to nonprofit standards organization the Khronos Group, it's the metaverse. Despite there being no clear definition of what “the metaverse” even means, these companies and more are cooperating to make it interoperable. So what are they actually doing?
If you've never heard of the Khronos Group, that's almost by design. The nonprofit and its 150-plus member companies manage and develop open standards that exist under a lot of technology you use today, like OpenGL, Vulkan, and a bunch of other tools that the videogames you play use in the background.
“A truly successful standard become so ubiquitous, you forget that it's actually a standard at all,” Khronos president Neil Trevett tells WIRED. That's been the goal for standards that the group has developed in gaming, as well as those in other fields like extended reality (or XR), machine learning, and 3D design.
So it makes sense that the organization would want to get involved in the metaverse. Khronos announced a new collaborative body called the Metaverse Standards Forum (or MSF)—not a new standards organization, but a “venue for cooperation” between existing standards organizations and companies—to help develop new tools for the metaverse. Even if we haven't figured out what, if anything, the term even means.
What Is the Metaverse, Again?
According to tech companies and evangelists, the metaverse is going to be a futuristic virtual world that we all spend our lives in, shopping, playing, and socializing. Have you seen Ready Player One? It's like that! Or so they say. It's a fanciful idea and makes for a good narrative, but software isn't built on narratives. Someone has to actually make the thing.
“I think Ready Player One is exactly not how the metaverse is going to happen,” Trevett says. In the book-then-movie that's constantly referenced when discussing this topic, “not only was it one company that created the whole metaverse in one big bright flash—the OASIS—it was one person! One coder solved every single problem that was possibly needed, all in one go. And that is exactly not how it's going to happen.”
“I also hope that having an open inclusive metaverse will mean we don't end up in a dystopian nightmare,” Trevett adds, showing that he's actually read the book.
Instead, the Metaverse Standards Forum is aimed at what Trevett refers to as “connectivity and spatial computing”: essentially, the connection and interaction between real world objects and virtual worlds. This can include everything from technology like digital twins—virtual, industrial environments that mirror the real world, used to study or test things that would be impractical to test in real life—to, well, videogames.
Whether a videogame like Fortnite counts as the metaverse is a debate that will never be settled. What's more tangible is that videogames need to work with complex data like 3D models, animations, and physics simulations, which can't be transferred from one app to another as easily as, say, a simple image can. And videogame worlds are increasingly used for more than just games.
Rather than focusing on what the metaverse means in a future-prediction sort of way, the Metaverse Standards Forum is designed to focus on the building blocks of what developers need today. Other people (like me) can bicker about the nomenclature.
What Virtual Worlds Need
When designing virtual worlds—and especially those worlds that are meant to interact with the real one—dealing with huge amounts of data is inevitable. Every object or character in a videogame is made up of geometry data (that is, the shape of the object), textures, physics traits like weight and mass, behaviors, animations, sounds, and so much more.
Khronos hopes that MSF's standards will make much of that data as easily interoperable as, say, a JPEG is today. Famously, JPEGs are so easily transferrable and so widely supported that no amount of cryptography can stop someone from right-clicking and saving one. For comparison, 3D objects often don't even know which way is up. Move an object from one game engine to another and—if you can import it at all—it may come in broken.
This is where one Khronos project, glTF, aims to help. This open standard, initially released in 2015, competes with other 3D formats like OBJ and FBX files. Allegorically, you can think of OBJ as a bit like old BMP files: They're technically pictures, but the format is extremely limited, inefficient, and clunky. Meanwhile, FBX is a bit like PSDs. They're more powerful, but it's a proprietary format owned by a single company.
In this painfully strained metaphor, glTF would be a bit like the JPEG of the 3D world. Or at least Khronos hopes it will be. Part of what made the JPEG format so crucial is that it was an open standard that was lightweight and useful enough to gain widespread adoption. glTF may become just as popular, or it could end up just another item in the long list of file types you can import into Blender, but never use.
But the need for interoperable standards will always exist, if only as a check on proprietary technology. “If there's a big lag between the technology becoming available and the standard that makes it openly available,” Trevett explains, “then there's a danger that proprietary technologies are going to get baked into the infrastructure of the metaverse, and I don't think anyone really wants that.”
“But if there's no standard available, you don't have a choice.”
Selling the Boring Stuff
If it's difficult to wrap your head around the idea of developing standards for a virtual world that might not ever exist, don't worry. You're not alone. Despite Khronos calling it the Metaverse Standards Forum—which, as Khronos is careful to note, it's helping to bootstrap but will not be running in the future—the MSF isn't overly concerned with defining what the metaverse means. Or even whether the term continues to be used at all.
“And that texturing, ‘metaverse,’ might get replaced. I don't think that matters actually. You know, it might go the way of ‘information superhighway.’ We don't use that texturing much more anymore,” Trevett says. Indeed, while no one uses the word “cyberspace” anymore, we still use the internet that it once described.
But the idea of a fantasy virtual world, no matter how impractical or even undesirable, is more exciting than sitting people down and explaining the importance of interoperable, nonproprietary data exchange formats. And in the meantime, a wide array of exciting tech, from virtual film productions to photogrammetry to augmented reality, is changing how we interact with the internet.
Will that manifest as Ready Player One? Or will it be just a collection of disparate industries doing a lot of really cool stuff, but not necessarily coalescing into a singular fantasy world? Hard to say. Well, maybe not that hard. But no matter what the future ends up being, someone's gotta build it.