Companies want to build a virtual kingdom to copy the real world
VSALL OF THIS multiplication of metaverse. Since Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook – sorry, Meta – presented at the end of October his vision of the immersive virtual worlds in which he thinks people will want to spend a lot of time, new ones are popping up everywhere. An entertainment metaverse will thrill music fans, influencers will flock to a fashion metaverse to display digital clothing, and there’s even a shark metaverse (it has something to do with cryptocurrencies). Most of the time, it’s the ideas of marketers that slap a new label on the latest tech craze.
A new virtual world deserves real attention: the “business metaverse”. Forget about rock stars and fancy dresses, this is essentially a digital carbon copy of the physical economy. Building living interactive blueprints that mimic the physical world could, over time, shape it. The vision of what that might mean has become clearer in recent days. Microsoft, the world’s largest software publisher, placed it earlier this month at the center of its annual customer relationship, as did Nvidia, a major graphics processor maker, on November 9.
Virtual corporate worlds are already more of a reality than the mainstream version of Meta, where people can hang out with their friends in imaginary coastal mansions. Unlike this metaverse, which is mostly populated with human avatars, the corporate version is largely a collection of items. They are “digital twins”, virtual 3d from replicas of all kinds of physical assets, from single screws to entire factories.
Basically, they are connected to themselves – a change in the workshop, for example, will trigger the equivalent change in its digital twin – and collect data about them. This configuration enables productivity improvement operations which are difficult today, for example optimizing the way groups of machines work together. The virtual simulation of changes can then be reproduced in the real world. And, its promoters hope, a path would be mapped out to further automate the internal workings of a company.
Whether the corporate metaverse becomes a reality is not simply of interest to enterprise IT aficionados (THIS). The innovations unlocked through information gleaned from digital mirror worlds can help businesses become more adaptable and efficient, helping them reduce carbon emissions, for example. Proponents of the concept even argue that it will end the old adage, coined by Robert Solow, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, that you can “see the computer age everywhere except in productivity statistics.”
The concept of this “twin world”, as the company’s metaverse might be called (one will surely come up with a fancy nickname), is nothing 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 area awaiting a nickname upgrade. Software for designing detailed virtual replicas from computer games, the current benchmark for immersive worlds.
But other bits have only become good enough recently, including super-fast wireless links for connecting sensors, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence, which can predict the likely behavior of a system. “Digital twins bring all of these things together,” says Sam George, who leads the corporate metaverse effort at Microsoft.
As is customary as a manufacturer of enterprise software, Microsoft has developed a comprehensive platform on which other companies can develop applications. This includes tools for creating digital twins and analyzing the data they collect. But this “stack,” as such collections of code are called, also provides technology that allows people to collaborate, including Mesh, a service that hosts shared virtual spaces, and HoloLens, a mixed reality headset, with which people can collaborate. users can jointly inspect a Digital Double.
Nvidia’s roots in computer graphics mean it focuses more on collaboration and creating demand for its chips. Its Omniverse is also a platform of shared virtual spaces, but which allows groups of users to bring in things they have built elsewhere and combine them into a digital twin that they can then work on as a team. . The common technical format needed for such collaboration will underpin digital twins in the same way. Html, a standard formatting language, already underpins web pages, predicts Richard Kerris, head of Omniverse.
Both platforms have already attracted a large number of startups and other companies that base part of their business on this technology. Cosmo Tech, for example, uses tools from Microsoft to perform complex simulations of digital twins to predict how they might evolve. And Bentley Systems, which sells engineering software, uses Omniverse to optimize energy infrastructure. Microsoft and Nvidia have also teamed up with big companies to show off their products. A B Beer giant InBev is working 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, the first partner is Bmw, which uses Omniverse to facilitate the reconfiguration of its 30 factories for new cars.
Despite all this activity, it is not certain that the company’s metaverse will take off as quickly as its champions expect, if ever. Similar efforts have failed or disappointed, including many IoT projects. “Smart cities,” essentially attempts to build urban metavers, turned out to use technology that just wasn’t up to par and relied too much on proprietary standards.
If the corporate metaverse does take shape, it will be an intriguing process. Will it be based on proprietary technology or on open standards (there is already a Digital Twin Consortium)? And, asks George Gilbert, a seasoned observer of the THIS industry, how will software makers like Microsoft be paid for their products? Since their code will be integrated into companies’ products and services more than ever before, some may request a slice of revenue instead of license or subscription fees.
And then there’s the question of how the overall economy of the Metaverse will work. Since most business activity will be reproduced digitally, economists can have an unprecedented view of what is going on. Digital twins could exchange services with each other and perhaps replace businesses as the primary unit of analysis. If digital twins live on a blockchain, the kind of platform that underpins most cryptocurrencies, they could even become independent and own themselves. Expect at least as many possibilities as there are Metaverse to unfold.■
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the title “Virtual world, Inc”