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

C.ALL THAT Multiplication of the metaverse. Since Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook – sorry, Meta – presented his vision for immersive virtual worlds at the end of October, in which, in his opinion, people want to spend a lot of time, new ones have appeared everywhere. An entertainment metaverse will delight music fans, influencers will flock to a fashion metaverse to flaunt digital clothing, and there is even a shark metaverse (it has something to do with cryptocurrencies). Mostly these are the ideas of marketers who are rebranding the latest technology craze.

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A new virtual world deserves real attention: the “Enterprise Metaverse”. Forget about rock stars and fancy dresses, this is essentially a digital copy of the physical economy. Building vibrant, interactive blueprints that recreate the physical world could shape it over time. The vision of what that could mean has become clearer in the last few days. Microsoft, the world’s largest software company, put it at the center of its annual customer shindig earlier this month, as did Nvidia, a major graphics processor maker, on November 9th.

Virtual corporate worlds are already more real than the consumer version of Meta, where people can hang out with their friends in imaginary coastal villas. In contrast to this metaverse, which is mostly populated by human avatars, the corporate version is largely a collection of objects. These are “digital twins”, virtual ones 3D Replicas of all kinds of physical assets, from individual screws to entire factories.

It is crucial that they are connected to their true selves – a change on the shop floor, for example, will trigger the corresponding change in their digital twin – and collect data about them. This configuration enables difficult productivity-increasing operations today, such as optimizing the collaboration of machine groups. The virtual simulation of changes can then be reproduced in the real world. And, the boosters hope, a way would be paved for automating the inner workings of a company even more.

Whether the Enterprise Metaverse will become a reality is not only of interest to those interested in corporate IT (IT). Innovations that are tapped through knowledge from digital mirror worlds can help companies to become more adaptable and efficient – for example in reducing CO2 emissions. Proponents of the concept even argue that it will undo the old saying by Nobel Prize winner Robert Solow that the computer age can be seen anywhere but productivity statistics.

The concept of this “twin world,” as the Enterprise metaverse might be called (a fancy nickname is sure to be found), is not new. Some of the necessary technologies have been around for years, including devices with sensors to collect data known as the Internet of Things (IoT) – another area that is still waiting to be upgraded. Software for designing detailed virtual replicas comes from computer games, the current benchmark for immersive worlds.

But other bits have only recently become good enough, including superfast wireless connections to connect sensors, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence that can predict how a system is likely to behave. “Digital twins summarize all of these things,” explains Sam George, who heads Microsoft’s Enterprise Metaverse.

As is customary as a manufacturer of business software, Microsoft has developed an entire platform on which other companies can develop applications. This includes tools for creating digital twins and analyzing the data collected. But this “stack,” as such code collections are called, also offers technologies that enable people to work together, including Mesh, a service that hosts shared virtual rooms, and HoloLens, a mixed reality headset, with the user a digital twin.

Nvidia’s roots in computer graphics mean it is more focused on collaborating and creating demand for its chips. His Omniverse is also a platform for shared virtual spaces, but one that allows groups of users to bring elements they’ve built elsewhere and combine them into a digital twin that they can then work on as a team. The common technical format required for such collaboration will underpin digital twins in the same way HTML, a standard formatting language, already underpins websites, predicts Richard Kerris, who is responsible for Omniverse.

Both platforms have already attracted a number of startups and other firms that are building part of their business on this technology. Cosmo Tech, for example, uses Microsoft tools to run complex simulations of digital twins to predict their evolution. And Bentley Systems, which sells engineering software, uses Omniverse to optimize its energy infrastructure. Both Microsoft and Nvidia have also partnered with big companies to showcase their wares. AWAY InBev, a beer giant, is working with Microsoft to create digital twins of some of its 200-plus breweries to better control the fermentation process. In the case of Nvidia, this is the top partner BMWThe Omniverse is using to facilitate the reconfiguration of its 30 factories for new cars.

Despite all of this activity, it doesn’t go without saying that the Enterprise Metaverse will take off as quickly as its champions expect, if at all. Similar efforts have failed or disappointed, including many IoT projects. “Smart Cities”, essentially attempts to build urban metaverses, turned out to be technology that was simply not up to date and relied too much on proprietary standards.

When the enterprise metaverse actually takes shape, however, it will be a fascinating process. Will it be based on proprietary technology or on open standards (there is already a Digital Twin Consortium)? And, asks George Gilbert, an experienced observer of the IT How are software manufacturers like Microsoft paid for their goods? With their code embedded in companies’ products and services more than ever, some may charge a portion of the revenue in lieu of license or subscription fees.

And then the question arises how the entire metaverse economy will work. Since most business activity is replicated digitally, economists can have unprecedented insight into what is happening. Digital twins could exchange services with one another and possibly replace companies as the main analytical unit. If digital twins live on a blockchain, the type of platform that underlies most cryptocurrencies, they could even become independent and own themselves. Expect at least as many opportunities as Metaverse to unfold.

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

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