Is the Metaverse Even Feasible?

Just to make the network work will require new technologies and vast sums of money

3 min read
A digital rendering of three people and one large red robot sitting around a white table

Meta’s marketing shows friends around a virtual table, but experts say this scene is not as simple as it appears.

Meta

If you ask Meta, or its peers, whether the metaverse is possible, the answer is confident: Yes—it’s just a matter of time. The challenges are vast, but technology will overcome them. This may be true of many problems facing the metaverse: Better displays, more sensitive sensors, and quicker consumer hardware will prove key. But not all problems can be overcome with improvements to existing technology. The metaverse may find itself bound by technical barriers that aren’t easily scaled by piling dollars against them.

The vision of the metaverse pushed by Meta is a fully simulated “embodied internet” experienced through an avatar. This implies a realistic experience where users can move through space at will and pick up objects with ease. But the metaverse, as it exists today, falls far short. Movement is restricted and objects rarely react as expected, if at all.

Louis Rosenberg, CEO of Unanimous AI and someone with a long history in augmented reality work, says the reason is simple: You’re not really there, and you’re not really moving.

“We humans have bodies,” Rosenberg said in an email. “If we were just a pair of eyes on an adjustable neck, VR headsets would work great. But we do have bodies, and it causes a problem I describe as ‘perceptual inconsistency.’ ”

Meta frequently demos an example of this problem—friends surrounding a virtual table. The company’s press materials depict avatars fluidly moving around a table, standing up and sitting at a moment’s notice, interacting with the table and chairs as if it were a real, physical surface.

“That can’t happen. The table is not there,” says Rosenberg. “In fact, if you tried to pretend to lean on the table, to make your avatar look like that, your hand would go right through it.”

Developers can attempt to fix the problem with collision detection that stops your hand from moving through the table. But remember—the table is not there. If your hand stops in the metaverse, but continues to move in reality, you may feel disoriented. It’s a bit like a prankster yanking a chair from beneath you moments before you sit down.

Meta is working on EEG and ECG biosensors which might let you move in the metaverse with a thought. This could improve range of movement and stop unwanted contact with real-world objects while moving in virtual space. However, even this can’t offer full immersion. The table still does not exist, and you still can’t feel its surface.

Rosenberg believes this will limit the potential of a VR metaverse to “short duration activities” like playing a game or shopping. He sees augmented reality as a more comfortable long-term solution. AR, unlike VR, augments the real world instead of creating a simulation, which sidesteps the problem of perceptional inconsistency. With AR, you're interacting with a table that’s really there.

Figuring out how to translate our physical forms to virtual avatars is one hurdle, but even if that's solved, the metaverse will face another issue. Moving data between users thousands of miles apart with very low latency.

“To be truly immersive, the round trip between user action and simulation reaction must be imperceptible to the user,” Jerry Heinz, a member of the Ball Metaverse Index’s expert council, said in an email. “In some cases, ‘imperceptible’ is less than 15 milliseconds.”

Heinz, formerly the head of Nvidia’s enterprise cloud services, has first-hand experience with this problem. Nvidia’s GeForce Now service lets customers play games in real time on hardware located in a data center. This demands high bandwidth and low latency. According to Heinz, GeForce Now averages about 30 megabits per second down and 80 milliseconds round trip, with only a few dropped frames.

Modern cloud services like GeForce Now handle user load through content delivery networks, which host content in data centers close to users. When you connect to a game via GeForce Now, data is not delivered from a central data center used by all players but instead from the closest data center available.

The metaverse throws a wrench in the works. Users may exist anywhere in the world and the path data travels between users may not be under the platform’s control. To solve this, metaverse platforms need more than scale. They need network infrastructure that spans many clusters of servers working together across multiple data centers.

“The interconnects between clusters and servers would need to change versus the loss affinity they have today,” said Heinz. “To further reduce latency, service providers may well need to offer rendering and compute at their edge, while backhauling state data to central servers.”

The problems of perceptional inconsistency and network infrastructure may be solvable but, even so, they'll require many years of work and huge sums of money. Meta’s Reality Labs lost over US $20 billion in the past three years. That, it seems, is just the tip of the iceberg.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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