Prof Herman Engelbrecht helps build systems for virtual worlds

Prof Herman Engelbrecht helps build systems for virtual worlds

Prof Herman Engelbrecht from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University delivered his inaugural lecture on Thursday 9 November 2023. The title of his lecture was “Building the metaverse”.

Engelbrecht spoke to the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division about how he builds software and systems that are used to distribute the hosting of virtual worlds over many servers.

Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.

I’ve been fascinated by computer games since I was a child and was first introduced to the Sinclair ZX Spectrum 8-bit home computer that used magnetic cassette tapes to load programmes and had a grand total of 48 kilobytes of memory! For comparison, a modern cellphone has about 130 000 times more memory. I wanted to know how components of electronic circuits such as resistors, capacitors, inductors and transistors could be used to create these amazing virtual worlds and virtual realities, and thus I decided to study electronic engineering. I was also fortunate that the start of my academic career coincided with the appearance of Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). The quest to understand how MMOGs function eventually resulted in my interest in distributed systems and building systems for virtual worlds. Systems that can scale to thousands and millions of users simultaneously interacting in the same virtual world. I’m specifically interested in building software and systems that distribute the hosting of virtual worlds over many servers in such a manner that a person participating in the virtual world is completely unaware of the underlying system and simply interacts in a completely seamless manner.

How would you describe the relevance of your work?

I think 2020 taught us the value of building technology that allows us to instantaneously communicate and collaborate despite the vast distances separating us. To me, the metaverse is the next step of the journey that started when the first letter was written and sent to another person. I thus see the relevance of my work as developing technology that allows people to more easily and naturally communicate and collaborate.

Which aspects of your research excite you the most?

Building systems that work! When I started reading about systems for building MMOGs, many of the papers I read proposed novel architectures and systems. The issue that I noticed was that most of these ideas were only being evaluated on paper or tested using simulation. Being an engineer, I saw that there was a gap between the proposed systems and the ideas being verified using a real game. My focus has thus always been to do research that is applied to and verified using a real virtual world. The first system we built in 2012 was tested using Ultima Online, a popular MMOG (which was also the origin of the term “shards”). We soon switched to using Minecraft as it has about 30 million users, and we could write software modules that integrate and change how Minecraft fundamentally functions. So, we currently have a single Minecraft virtual world that is being hosted by a server cluster of 120 Raspberry Pi’s (small single-board computers developed in the United Kingdom by the Raspberry Pi Foundation), and players can move around in the world without being aware that they are being migrated between servers. More recently, one of the bigger MMOG developers became interested in our work. The thing that would excite me the most is to see our work being used in an actual commercial virtual world!

Looking ahead, what major developments do you foresee in the building of virtual worlds and the metaverse?

I think the hardware will incrementally improve to allow for a more immersive experience. As my research focuses on the computer and network infrastructure used for hosting the virtual worlds, this is less interesting to me. I think the announcement on 23 October by Chris Roberts from Cloud Imperium Games is a major development in the building of virtual worlds and the metaverse. He announced that Star Citizen: Squadron 42 is feature-complete (all planned elements and functionalities have been implemented) after being in development for more than a decade. The Server Meshing, Persistent Entity Streaming and Replication Layer technology being developed by Cloud Imperium Games has the potential of significantly changing how virtual worlds are hosted on distributed servers. The other major development that is required is very low-latency wireless communication, i.e. less than 1 millisecond.

You have already spent many years in the challenging environment of higher education. What keeps you motivated when things get tough?

Three things keep me motivated:

  • Support at home. I have a wonderful family who has always supported me, especially when things got tough (thinking back to 2020 here). Special mention to my wife Marian. And my Sony noise-cancelling earphones.
  • Since 2019, I have had the privilege to lead the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. The department is a group of amazing people that is always striving to give their best and willing to go the extra mile to help each other. Tough times can be more easily faced when you are part of a great team who support each other. Special mention to our departmental manager, Johan Booysen and to my mentor, Prof Petrie Meyer.
  • ​I really enjoy it when I see the understanding dawn in the eyes of my students (both postgraduate and in my undergraduate teaching). I still get excited when my students and I develop and build something that works!

​Tell us something exciting about yourself that people would not expect.

I’m not sure that what I find exciting is what other people would necessarily find exciting. I was part of a performance in front of a live audience at the WUK (Workshop and Cultural House) Theatre in Vienna. I did not know I would be appearing in front of the audience until a week before the performance.

How do you spend your free time?

Since our student days, a group of us get together once a week to play boardgames, and this has been going on continuously for the past twenty-odd years. Not even Covid-19 managed to stop us getting together once a week – though ironically, we had to shift to playing on online boardgame platforms. My other hobby is tabletop wargames, specifically Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000, as well as some of the other more specialised tabletop games developed by Games Workshop (a UK-based company). As a result of this hobby, I spend (too) much of my free time painting squads of small plastic miniatures.

Photo: (f.l.t.r) Prof Deresh Ramjugernath, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching, Prof Herman Engelbrecht and Prof Wikus van Niekerk, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering.

📷- Ignus Dreyer (Stellenbosch Centre for Photographic Services)
​(Article by the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division)