While the metaverse caught the public attention with the renaming of Facebook earlier this year, the phrase first appeared back in 1996 in Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash, in which the science fiction author described an immersive version of the internet that was accessed via virtual reality.
We’re still largely waiting for such an immersive world to take hold, despite much-hyped initiatives, such as Second Life, perhaps underlines the difficulties the technology has had in keeping pace with such a vision.
Digital twins have been a growing factor in the manufacturing world in recent years. These virtual environments are designed to be exact digital replicas of physical assets and allow organizations to rapidly test changes in the virtual world without having to undergo costly and resource-intensive changes in the physical realm.
It’s a market that is already worth $3.1 billion and is estimated to be worth $48 billion by 2026. The growth in digital twins has been driven by technological improvements in areas such as the internet of things and wireless connectivity. The advent of 5G and continued improvements in artificial intelligence promise to make the technology even more powerful.
“With 5G, you get fast upload speeds, up to 100Gbsp on many public networks. But in industrial deployments, think 5G powered ports, mines, and factories, operations can reconfigure the signal to support even faster upload speeds,” Brian Chamberlin, Executive Advisor, Huawei Carrier Marketing, says. “There are cases with upload speeds of over 1Gbps. You simply cannot do that with 4G or with Wi-Fi. This is why 5G will be important as we make our machines smarter and more reliable using digital twins.”
While these immersive environments have been most widely adopted in the manufacturing space, they are beginning to take hold in other sectors too. One of the more interesting applications has been “StockCity”, which was developed by Fidelity International to allow traders and investors to traverse a fully 3D virtual city, with buildings representing each stock and complete with pertinent data about that company.
While Facebook has garnered a lot of publicity after their rebirth as Meta, the enterprise metaverse is a concept that is in the crosshairs of many tech firms. For instance, Nvidia is particularly bullish and believes that the economy of the metaverse will ultimately be bigger than the economy of the physical world.
At the heart of their approach is their Omniverse platform, which is an open-source tool that allows people to actively build their own virtual worlds and they foresee most applications in the short-term being driven by and for businesses. Digital twins have been at the forefront of this move, with Ericsson developing a digital version of cities to explore how 5G networks might best be rolled out.
This intersection between the physical and virtual worlds is likely to be key, with the company highlighting the potential for robots and hardware to learn in the virtual world before taking that knowledge into the physical world. Autonomous vehicles are an obvious example of such a scenario, with researchers from MIT providing an illustration of how this might unfold.
Changing knowledge work
Industry figures are not just working on changes to the physical/virtual interface, however, as Microsoft’s Mesh platform is looking squarely at knowledge workers. As research from the University of Southern California illustrates, as we pivoted to remote work during the pandemic, we were able to be just as productive as we were on-premise, but our social interactions suffered.
Mesh is designed to integrate with Microsoft’s Teams platform and combines the productivity tools of Teams with the mixed-reality functionality of Mesh. The company highlights its work with Accenture, with the onboarding of new hires something that has especially vexed companies during the pandemic as the tacit interactions that are so important to have during the early months of a new hire’s tenure is so hard to have in a virtual environment.
New recruits at Accenture were instead told to create an avatar that they used to navigate One Accenture Park, which is a shared virtual space that aims to make onboarding more immersive.
“Microsoft will be the leader on the enterprise side of things, especially for the metaverse because enterprise customers prefer using Teams and other tools from the Microsoft suite,” Pankaj Agrawal, Partner at Capitel, says. “If that’s the case in the existing enterprise space then it’s likely to be the case in the metaverse too as things like security and ease of use will be there.”
While virtual worlds may enable us to change some aspects of our behavior for the better, they are also likely to introduce challenges of their own. For instance, Stanford researchers found that virtual worlds can increase our empathy towards others, while research from the University of Canterbury showed that it can be an effective medium for leadership development, especially when using role-playing scenarios.
Research from the University of British Columbia shows, however, that behaviors in virtual worlds can be different from those in the physical world, and so it’s important that we don’t fall into the trap of assuming that virtual worlds will simply replicate that which we enjoyed in physical workplaces.
“Using VR to examine how people think and behave in real life may very well lead to conclusions that are fundamentally wrong. This has profound implications for people who hope to use VR to make accurate projections regarding future behaviors,” the researchers explain. “For example, predicting how pedestrians will behave when walking amongst driverless cars, or the decisions that pilots will make in an emergency situation. Experiences in VR may be a poor proxy for real life.”
Is it worth paying attention to?
We have had a form of a metaverse before, with the similarly touted Second Life, which was launched to much fanfare in 2003 and after user numbers grew rapidly it was expected that businesses would create a lasting presence on the platform, conduct business and even do job interviews in the virtual sphere.
Suffice to say, this didn’t really materialize and user activity on the platform has been flatlining for several years. Will the metaverse fare better? You sense that for it to be considered a success it needs to attract somewhere closer to the 3 billion or so that log in to Facebook each month than the 900,000 that currently hunt for signs of life on Second Life.
“The main challenge will be with the hardware interface, so the main proponents are all looking for different forms of goggles as having the goggles on for 6–8 hours will be a major issue,” Agrawal continues. “It will be like the evolution of the smartphone and take a number of cycles before it will get to a stage where it’s usable for prolonged periods and will ultimately be like a regular pair of glasses.”
Aside from the practicalities of the technology, however, it’s going to be crucial that a useful use case is developed for the metaverse that encourages people to utilize the platform.
The late Clay Christensen famously argued that we tend to hire products and services to help us get jobs done, and the key is to understand whether a new technology helps do that or not. While there are certainly challenges involved in the hybrid workplaces that many believe will form a greater part of knowledge work in the post-pandemic world, it’s still pretty unclear both what the metaverse aims to do to solve that or if it will be effective in doing so.
There is to date no use case that is as compelling as that for digital twins in manufacturing and other spheres where being able to effectively replicate the built environment has so many benefits. Whether that will emerge and employers will be able to use the metaverse to overcome the social and cultural factors that make remote work a challenge is still very much up for debate.