The metaverse is envisioned by many as the next generation of the internet, a vast, unfettered 3D network of virtual and augmented spaces where people can engage in all the activities they do online -- work, play, learn, explore -- but in ways that feel more like real life.
For this to happen, many layers of technology standards and protocols will need to be established and adopted by metaverse platforms.
Enter the Metaverse Standards Forum (MSF), founded in June 2022 to "foster the development of interoperability standards for an open and inclusive metaverse, and accelerate their development and deployment through pragmatic, action-based projects." Since the vision of the metaverse is still a work in progress, the group also has the stated purpose of bringing some order to the underlying terminology of the metaverse.
What is the Metaverse Standards Forum?
The MSF is an industry-wide effort to harmonize standards and best practices for the metaverse. Its members, which to date number 1,800, include tech titans Google, Meta, Microsoft and Nvidia; standards bodies Khronos Group and Web3D Consortium; multinational software companies Adobe, Autodesk and Epic; and professional technology services firm Accenture.
MSF Chair Neil Trevett, vice president of developer of ecosystems at Nvidia and president of the Khronos Group, billed the forum as a "unique venue for coordination between standards organizations and industry."
At the forum's inaugural "Building the Metaverse" event, sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, who coined the term metaverse in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, emphasized that the process of developing standards for the metaverse needs to be a collaborative effort.
"I'm not a believer in any top-down prescriptive approach to what the metaverse should look like. It should be bottom-up with as few absolute rules as possible," Stephenson said. "Builders need to decide."
Neal StephensonAuthor, 'Snow Crash'
What is the purpose of the Metaverse Standards Forum?
With so many standards organizations in this domain already, it is easy to wonder if the establishment of another standards group just adds to the confusion. But IT executives hope that the new effort will consolidate existing work and suggest areas for further harmonization.
"Whether you subscribe to a single metaverse or multiverse model, users will require interoperability to see value in the metaverse," said Kevin Collins, managing director at Accenture.
Interoperability is needed for platforms to interact with each other, Collins explained, and for users to easily cross between platforms while carrying their identity, assets and communications with them. He believes the Metaverse Standards Forum's efforts will encourage and coordinate the development and adoption of the standards necessary to ensure the creation of a connected and consistent metaverse.
The MSF has itself emphasized that it intends to coordinate the requirements and resources of other standards organizations rather than create new standards. To that end, it is working with a variety of standards organizations in related domains, including the Khronos Group, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Open Geospatial Consortium, Open AR Cloud, Spatial Web Foundation and many others.
This coordination will help participants think through the kinds of standards required for consumer and enterprise use cases, said Frank Palermo, executive vice president and head of technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) at Virtusa, a digital engineering consultancy.
"Having some cooperating bodies to think through standards is important. Otherwise, various companies will build their own variation of the metaverse across a wide variety of technologies that may not easily interoperate," Palermo said.
Key technical areas for standardization
Palermo believes one of the key technical areas to consider for standardization is around data interchange. Virtual worlds may have different ways of representing the size, shape, behaviors, sounds and animations of objects. Standards like the Khronos Group's glTF help ensure the efficient transmission and loading of 3D objects.
Other standards are emerging to describe the physical properties of objects, how to fit objects together and how to animate them. For example, 3D Tiles streams massive 3D data sets in real time. Universal Scene Description organizes a collection of objects into scenes. PhysX shares the physics and behavioral properties of objects. MaterialX describes the texture and look of objects.
A recent MSF poll prioritized the following areas that were expected to have the most industry impact:
- interoperable 3D assets
- privacy, safety, security, inclusion
- user identity
- avatars and apparel
- real/virtual world integration and geospatial
- teaching and education
- payments and economy
- extended reality and UI
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Why is the Metaverse Standards Forum important?
Members of the forum hope the process will help build trust among the builders of the metaverse. This is important as the industry explores new technologies and new business models. Early blockchain and decentralized finance efforts attempted to address trust programmatically, only to discover new vulnerabilities and types of abuse no one had previously imagined.
Better standards could also ensure interoperability across worlds -- the absence of which will lead to complexity for users and developers, said Collins.
"The risk [of not creating standards] is a very underwhelming user experience as users are forced to create new avatars, acquire new assets, sign up for different services and submit to different sets of rules when hopping from one platform to the next," said Collins. "Creators will have to re-code for each instance."
Challenges of the Metaverse Standards Forum
Perhaps the biggest challenge is that interoperability will need to work smoothly across many different levels at the same time. "The seemingly simple goal of metaverse interoperability hides a much more complex reality," Collins said.
Enterprises will need to support common technical standards around infrastructure, devices, interfaces and representations. They will also need to support other layers, such as identity management, digital assets ownership, intellectual property, privacy and security.
And eventually, the metaverse will have to contend with new regulations meant to protect citizens and governments, much like the patchwork of privacy, social media and AI regulation emerging today.
"The complexity and multitude of layers involved make the quest for metaverse interoperability a tall order that only gets trickier when considering the question of regulation," Collins said.
Emmanuelle Rivet, vice chair of U.S. TMT and global technology leader at PwC, predicts that interoperability will raise new challenges for gathering and protecting data. It may also undermine business strategies around keeping users and their data glued to a given platform.
How to participate in the Metaverse Standards Forum
The MSF is free for all participants, including companies, standards organizations, non-profit organizations, industry associations and universities. Any individual that is authorized to sign legal documents on behalf of the company can kickstart the process. They can choose to simply engage in forum discussions and projects, optionally assist in forum oversight or fund forum projects. Individuals can also sign up for a free newsletter to keep abreast of updates here.
As people interviewed for this article pointed out, the massive momentum behind the Metaverse Standards Forum in some ways echoes the enthusiasm of the Interop conferences in the early days of the internet. At the time, the telecom service providers were busy "perfecting" the Open Systems Interconnection stack to address every situation.
Meanwhile, TCP/IP protocols evangelist Dan Lynch organized the first Interop conference in 1986, which required that each vendor's equipment work together. Despite technical flaws, this cooperation helped cement TCP/IP as the foundation that unifies the internet to this day. Proponents hope that the Metaverse Standards Forum will do the same for the metaverse stack.