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Industrial metaverse heralds commercial transformations

Despite the best of intentions, sometimes rebrands just don’t work. Yet while the adoption issues of the metaverse in the consumer market are real, in the industrial world, the metaverse’s payoffs are tangible

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The metaverse for entertainment and human interaction has been in the limelight ever since Mark Zuckerberg decided to rename Facebook as Meta. It is a vision of “a single, shared, immersive, persistent, 3D virtual space where humans experience life in ways they could not in the physical world”, aiming to deliver a host of benefits in the industrial and corporate world.

In the words of Thierry Klein, president of Bell Labs Solutions Research at Nokia, a new picture in the computing environment is emerging. “The industrial metaverse combines physical-digital fusion and human augmentation for industrial applications, and contains digital representations of physical industrial environments, systems, assets and spaces that people can control, communicate and interact with,” he said.

The industrial metaverse is not coming out of nowhere. Computer-aided design and manufacturing reach back to the end of the 1950s, and the industrial internet of things (IIoT) has been a major key word in industrial applications for two decades by now. What the industrial metaverse provides is a platform that conveniently combines the various developments in one platform, creates real-time visibility of processes and status of machinery and equipment, and offers an intuitive way to analyse, even operate, factories and activities.

Many companies are already working with the industrial metaverse to see how the marriage of virtual and real can improve planning, design, operations, maintenance and logistics – some companies already make use of related applications, and practically all large corporations are investigating the concept to prepare for a future that tightly connects physical and digital worlds.

Research and educational institutions also look at the use of this computing environment and support corporate use. At the end of 2021, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) inaugurated the Metaverse Factory Experience Center for Manufacturing AI at the KAIST Bigdata Center for Manufacturing AI.

“The centre allows users to experience the collection, analysis and utilisation process of manufacturing data equivalent to that of real manufacturing sites,” says Klein. The centre features a virtual replica of a screw factory. The simulation accounts for parameters such as temperature and pressure, and enables detection of causes for defects, offers analytics, and improves productivity and quality of the products.

An industrial metaverse provides tools to virtually work on professional tasks such as design, engineering, planning of medical procedures, or creating training modules for construction workers or field professionals, for instance. Virtual representations do not have to represent existing objects or processes in all details as long as crucial aspects of reality find use.

Future products

Designers and engineers can create blueprints of future products or components that naturally need to account for real-world use but allow focusing on aesthetics first. Training modules should naturally address situations that professionals will encounter in their physical work environments but can focus on particular aspects or movements to let users practice selective operational tasks.

Related, digital twins are accurate and precise virtualisations of functioning parts that enable simulations of entire processes, mirror existing and working machines or facilities, and ideally even reflect real-time changes of the system by feeding sensor data into the virtual representation.

Another consideration focuses on the intended market arena. Nokia believes there is a distinction between consumer and commercial applications. “So much of the hype surrounding the metaverse has focused on its potential for interactive and immersive consumer experiences,” says Klein. “What can be said about the promise of this vast, virtual space for manufacturing, transportation, logistics and other industries?”

In fact, related industrial applications will become important enablers of consumer experiences and boosters of the economy as a whole, similar to the way the internet has greased business-to-business and business-to-consumer operations alike over the past quarter-century. “The metaverse empowers industries to shift expensive, time-intensive activities into a fully virtual world. Activities such as prototyping and testing are far more flexible and accessible in a digital format, allowing industries to iterate, experiment and validate like never before.”

Similarly, VTT notes that the “Industrial metaverse brings the physical and virtual work environments together and enables collaborative use of novel tools and shared practices between employees.” VTT is a Finnish technology centre for applied research, advancing “the utilisation and commercialisation of research and technology in commerce and society”.

What’s interesting – and noteworthy – VTT adds, is that: “The precondition for a metaverse – or any new technology, for that matter – to become more common is that people are willing, not forced, to widely adopt such solutions in both their private lives and at work.”

Such a consideration is missing from practically all discussions I have seen so far. In fact, usually the emergence of the industrial metaverse is described as a natural force rather than a choice that should let developers and users account for the different needs of corporations, employees and other users – or any stakeholders that might be affected more generally, for that matter.

Read more about the metaverse

Technological challenges obviously exist. According to Klein, the networking and computing needs of the metaverse “will be pretty immense in terms of the data and video consumption”. “Fast data transfer speeds across wired and wireless networks are a must, with 5G investments being essential to enable the low latency and precise data exchange the metaverse demands,” he says.

More challenges exist than simply putting a lot of data through pipes quickly. Many applications – similarly to gaming – will require extremely low latency. For industrial applications, low latency can be the feature that prevents accidents. Near-zero latency is not only an engineering challenge; depending on the location of the server and the setup of the network, near-zero latency can quickly run against the laws of physics – after all, there is a finite maximum speed for transmissions, and delays of data that have to move around the planet will be noticeable from a user’s perspective.

Edge computing will be crucial. Processing a lot of data close to the user, perhaps in the user’s device or factory’s equipment, can reduce data transmission needs – but then division of data-processing tasks becomes a consideration. No doubt, artificial intelligence and machine learning will become an increasingly integral part of extended-reality (XR) applications, including the industrial metaverse. After all, the point is to not only make data available, but also to put such data in context, visualise them, and highlight the dynamics of interactions between systems and applications.

An industrial metaverse can find use for design and planning, but its true strength will emerge when it connects to physical elements – components, equipment and systems. Therefore, the IoT, – or, more precisely, the IIoT – will become an important enabler for maintenance, repair, operation and simulation.

The ability to extract sensor information from physical assets and then feed the information into virtual representation will enable corporations to access information in real time. Such an environment also can allow managers to quickly respond to system changes or even environmental changes such as floodings or earthquakes.

More, a tight connection between digital and real-world landscapes will enable managers to intuitively access complex data landscapes and then make decisions and take actions in the metaverse that directly affect the physical assets. The industrial metaverse becomes the control room. Once such a tight interconnection is established, a digital twin emerges – a true representation of physical assets in the digital world. The distinction between virtual and physical will cease to exist for all managerial intents and purposes.

Wide range of technologies

The emerging metaverse will require a wide range of technologies. These technologies are advancing for many purposes and applications. The metaverse will offer a convenient platform to bundle and conveniently package applications and technologies. The combinations of advances “in software, semiconductors, the IoT, blockchain, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), digital twins, artificial intelligence and machine learning … will trigger the creation of a transformative digital space”.

In particular, the industrial metaverse has ready use cases to increase productivity and improve efficiency across commercial sectors, including the consumer market.

Nokia also noted trends that drive the development of the metaverse: “Human augmentation and the fusion of digital and physical.” Human augmentation will advance because of ongoing improvements in human-machine interfaces; visual interfaces are part of such developments.

Also, haptics, brain-machine interfaces and experimentation in increasingly immersive interface technologies will over time play a role in such environments. Digital-physical fusion, meanwhile, will create virtual representations of real-world facilities, objects, dynamics and logistics – the creation of increasingly accurate digital twins.

Challenges exist to make this vision a reality. Nokia points to “developing the appropriate hardware and software, ensuring interoperability, standardisation, pre-empting legal and commercial bottlenecks and the most vital aspect, deploying a robust and powerful network that will power the metaverse”.

Additional considerations that will affect the trajectory of related developments in the coming years include navigating potential legal minefields, and legislation and certification of XR applications with challenges to adoption and diffusion.

Martin Schwirn is the author of Small data, big disruptions: How to spot signals of change and manage uncertainty. He is also senior advisor for strategic foresight at Business Finland, helping startups and incumbents to find their position in tomorrow’s marketplace.

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