Companies want to build a virtual realm to copy the real world

CALL THE multiplication of the metaverses. Ever since Mark Zuckerberg, head of Facebook – sorry Meta – in late October laid out his vision for immersive virtual worlds, which he thinks people will spend a lot of time in, new ones are popping up everywhere. An entertainment metavers will delight music fans, influencers will flock to a fashion metavers to brag about digital clothing, and there’s even a shark metavers (it has something to do with cryptocurrencies). For the most part, these are the brainchild of marketers who are putting a new label on the latest craze of technology.

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A new virtual world deserves real attention: the “enterprise metaverse”. Forget rock stars and fancy dresses, this is basically a digital copy of the physical economy. Building vivid, interactive drawings that copy the physical world can, over time, shape it. The vision of what that might mean has become clearer in recent days. Microsoft, the world’s largest software company, put it at the heart of its annual customer service earlier this month, as did Nvidia, a major maker of graphics processors, on November 9th.

The virtual worlds of companies are already more of a reality than Meta’s consumer version, where people will get to hang out with their friends on imaginary coastal mansions. Unlike the metaverse, which is mostly populated by human avatars, the enterprise version is largely a collection of objects. These are “digital twins”, virtual 3D copies of all sorts of physical assets, from single screws to entire factories.

It is crucial that they are connected to their real selves – a change on the store floor, for example, will trigger the corresponding change in its digital twin – and collect data about them. This set-up enables productivity-enhancing operations that are difficult today, such as optimizing how groups of machines work together. Virtual simulation of changes can then be replicated in the real world. And, its boosters hope a path would be laid to automate even more of a company’s internal functions.

Whether the company’s metaverse becomes a reality is not just of interest to corporate information technology aficionados (THAT). Innovations unlocked through insights from digital mirroring worlds can help companies become more adaptable and efficient – for example, helping them reduce carbon emissions. Proponents of the concept even claim that it will bring the old adage, invented by Robert Solow, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, to rest that you can “see the computer age everywhere except in productivity statistics”.

The concept of this “twin world”, as the company’s metaverse can be called (a spiffy moniker will definitely be found), is not new. Some of the necessary technologies have been around for years, including devices with sensors to capture data, known as the “Internet of Things” (IoT) – another field still awaiting a moniker upgrade. Software for designing detailed virtual replicas comes from computer games, the current benchmark for immersive worlds.

But other parts have only recently become good enough, including super-fast wireless links to connect sensors, cloud computing and artificial intelligence, which can predict how a system is likely to behave. “Digital twins bring all these things together,” explains Sam George, who runs the company’s metaverse efforts at Microsoft.

As is usual as a company software manufacturer, Microsoft has developed an entire platform on which other companies can develop applications. This includes tools for building digital twins and analyzing the data they collect. But this “stack”, as such collections of code are known, also provides technology that enables people to collaborate, including Mesh, a service that hosts shared virtual spaces, and HoloLens, a mixed-reality headset, which users can jointly inspect a digital twin.

Nvidia’s roots in computer graphics mean it’s focusing more on collaboration and creating demand for its chips. Its Omniverse is also a platform for shared virtual spaces, but one that allows groups of users to bring items they have built elsewhere and combine them into a digital twin, which they can then work on as a team. . The common technical format needed for such collaboration will similarly come to support digital twins HTML, a standard formatting language that already supports web pages, predicts Richard Kerris, head of Omniverse.

Both platforms have already attracted a number of startups and other companies that base some of their business on this technology. Cosmo Tech, for example, uses Microsoft’s tools to create complex digital twin simulations to predict how they might evolve. And Bentley Systems, which sells engineering software, uses Omniverse to optimize energy infrastructure. Both Microsoft and Nvidia have also teamed up with major companies to showcase their products. GONE InBev, a beer giant, is partnering with Microsoft to create digital twins of some of its more than 200 breweries to better control the fermentation process. In the case of Nvidia is the top partner BMW, which uses Omniverse to make it easier to reconfigure its 30 factories into new cars.

Despite all this activity, it is not a given that the company’s metaverse will pick up speed as fast as its masters expect, if ever. Similar efforts have failed or disappointed, including many IoT projects. “Smart cities”, essentially an attempt to build urban metaphors, turned out to use technology that just wasn’t up to snuff and relied too much on proprietary standards.

However, if the company’s metaverse actually takes shape, it will be an exciting process. Will it be based on proprietary technology or on open standards (there is already a digital twin consortium)? And, asks George Gilbert, a veteran observer of THAT industry, how will software vendors like Microsoft get paid for their products? Since their code will be more embedded than ever in corporate products and services, some may ask for a portion of the revenue instead of licensing or subscription fees.

And then there is the question of how the overall metaverse economy will work. Since most business activities will be digitally copied, economists may have unprecedented insight into what is going on. Digital twins could exchange services with each other and perhaps replace companies as the main analysis unit. If digital twins live on a blockchain, the kind of platform that supports most cryptocurrencies, they can even become independent and own themselves. Expect at least as many possibilities as metavers to unfold.

This Article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the heading “Virtual world, Inc”

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