Since Facebook rebranded to Meta late last year, every industry seems to have attached itself to the metaverse. However, the language around different ‘metaverses’ in various industries gets confusing. We do not yet have a shared imagination for the metaverse and the technology required to build it.
Virtual worlds that could be considered metaverses have existed in gaming for some time. The computer game Second Life, for example, has built “an enduring community of millions who are ‘living’ together in virtual spaces.” Clearly, the idea is not new. The current metaverse hype cycle has revolved around marketing from big tech players. Each of these companies wants to steer the conversation toward its technology. Meta owns VR headset developer Oculus, so it makes sense that its buzz around the metaverse will push its customers to buy more headsets.
In other words, companies want to keep users reliant on their tech within a closed, commercialized ecosystem. Despite their rhetoric, big tech has presented a rather narrow view of the metaverse. Simulation technology has the power to be so much more. I envision an open virtual world that supports thousands of simultaneous players and offers valuable, immersive use cases. The scope of this vision requires an open cloud architecture with native support for cloud scalability.
By prioritizing cloud development and clear goal-setting, military organizations have taken significant leaps toward building an actual realization of this metaverse.
Advancements in the military
In terms of industry progress towards the cloud-supported, scalable metaverse, no organization has come further than the U.S. Army. Their Synthetic Training Environment (STE) has been in development since 2017. The STE aims to replace all legacy simulation programs and integrate different systems into a single, connected system for combined arms and joint training.
The STE fundamentally differs from traditional, server-based approaches. For example, it will host a 1:1 digital twin of the Earth on a cloud architecture that will stream high fidelity (photo-realistic) terrain data to connected simulations. New terrain management platforms such as Mantle ETM will ensure that all connected systems operate on exactly the same terrain data. For example, trainees in a tank simulator will see the same trees, bushes and buildings as the pilot in a connected flight simulator, facilitating combined arms operations.
Cloud scalability (that is, scaling with available computational power) will allow for a better real-world representation of essential details such as population density and terrain complexity that traditional servers could not support. The ambition of STE is to automatically pull from available data resources to render millions of simulated entities, such as AI-based vehicles or pedestrians, all at once.
A unified image?
Despite its advanced terrain rendering, large scale and ease of use, the STE won’t precisely represent the popular conception of the metaverse. This is because the Army designed it in light of specific goals. STE focuses allows soldiers to better train, experiment with systems and rehearse missions. Accurate representations of large sections of the earth are needed to accomplish these goals. Therefore, developers are creating a high-fidelity, digital twin of the entire planet.
Commercial metaverses created for entertainment or commercial uses may not require an accurate representation of the earth. They will likely be more aesthetic, fantasy worlds that allow users to perform actions, such as flying or teleportation, that don’t represent real life. Training metaverses designed for industries that do not require the full extent of the planet (like healthcare) could look different as well. In the future, there may not be a metaverse at all because enterprises will create different digital environments for specialized purposes.
Still, the military metaverse could be a microcosm of what may soon be a large-scale, open-source digital world that is not controlled or dominated by a few commercial entities. I believe the STE will be used in daily training by 2030, a relatively short timeframe compared to the level of needed innovation. STE success will pave the way for any cloud-based, open-source worlds that come after it, and will help prove that the metaverse’s value extends far beyond that of a marketing gimmick.
Pete Morrison is CCO at Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim) and TerraSim Inc.