Businesses want to build a virtual realm to replicate the real world

CALL THAT multiplication of the metaverses. Ever since Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook – sorry, Meta – posted his vision at the end of October for immersive virtual worlds he thinks people will want to spend a lot of time in, new ones are popping up everywhere. An entertainment metaverse will delight music fans, influencers will flock to a fashion metaverse to showcase digital clothing, and there̵[ads1]7;s even a shark metaverse (it has something to do with cryptocurrencies). For the most part, these are the brainchild of marketers who are hitting a new label on the latest craze for technology.

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

Virtual business worlds are already more of a reality than Meta’s consumer version, where people will be able to hang out with their friends in imaginary coastal mansions. In contrast to the meta-verse, which is mainly populated by human avatars, the enterprise version is largely a collection of objects. These are “digital twins”, virtual 3D copies of all kinds of physical assets, from single screws to entire factories.

It is crucial that they are connected to their true selves – for example, a change on the store floor will trigger a corresponding change in the digital twin – and collect data about them. This setup 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 way will be laid to automate even more of a company’s inner workings.

Whether the company’s metaverse becomes a reality is not only of interest to supporters of the company’s information technology (IT). Innovations unlocked through insights gained from digital mirror worlds can help companies become more adaptable and efficient – for example, helping them reduce carbon emissions. Promoters of the concept even claim that it will calm down with the old saying, 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 business meta verse can be called (a spiffy moniker will surely be found), is not new. Some of the necessary technologies have been around for years, including devices with sensors for capturing data, known as the “Internet of Things” (IoT) – another field still awaiting a moniker upgrade. Software for designing detailed virtual replicas has its origins in computer games, the current benchmark for immersive worlds.

But other pieces have only recently become good enough, including super-fast wireless connections 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 business metaverse work at Microsoft.

As is common as a business 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 allows people to collaborate, including Mesh, a service that hosts shared virtual rooms, and HoloLens, a mixed-reality headset, that users can jointly inspect a digital twin.

Nvidia’s roots in computer graphics mean that it focuses more on collaboration and creating demand for the chips. Its Omniverse is also a platform for shared virtual spaces, but one that allows groups of users to take items they have built elsewhere and combine them into a digital twin they can then work with as a team. The common technical format needed for such a collaboration will support digital twins in the same way HTML, a standard formatting language, 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 make 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. When it comes to Nvidia, it is the top partner BMW, which uses Omniverse to make it easier to reconfigure its 30 new car factories.

Despite all this activity, it is not a given that the company’s metaverse will take off as fast as the proponents expect, if ever. Similar efforts have failed or disappointed, including many IoT projects. “Smart cities”, mainly attempts to build urban metavers, proved to use technology that was simply not 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 IT industry, how will software vendors like Microsoft get paid for their goods? Since their code will be more embedded than ever in corporate products and services, some may request a portion of the revenue instead of license or subscription fees.

And then there is the question of how the total metaverse economy will work. Since most of the business will be replicated digitally, economists can have unparalleled insight into what is going on. Digital twins can exchange services with each other and perhaps replace companies as the main unit of analysis. If digital twins live on a blockchain, the type of platform on which most cryptocurrencies are based, they can even become independent and own themselves. Expect at least as many possibilities as metaverses to unfold.

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

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