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December 16, 2022
The metaverse is the next evolution of the internet, a tangible outcome of a Web 3.0 environment that will be a continuum of rapidly emerging capabilities such as multi-party systems and extended reality. New digital business assets in the metaverse will emerge as a new way to create revenue streams and value exchanges.
Despite its tremendous potential, the metaverse is still at a nascent stage and organizations are still trying to figure out its relevance to their respective industries.
A common misconception is that the metaverse is only for gaming, sports and entertainment. However, the ‘Industrial Metaverse’ has tremendous potential to revolutionize industry across multiple sectors in discrete and process manufacturing.
Many large-cap organizations have already made investments to pre-position themselves as the metaverse begins to transform industry. This is evident in branding, recruitment, technology and R&D investment.
The sooner organizations can develop metaverse-related strategies and begin investing resources, the sooner they can discover new solutions that lead to new outcomes.
Metaverse sprang into public consciousness in 2021
The metaverse is an emerging technological megatrend that will alter business models and functions. The term metaverse was first used in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopian novel ‘Snow Crash.’ However, recent interest can be pinned to the publication in June 2021 of Matthew Ball’s ‘Metaverse Primer.’ That expounded on the concept — an immersive, virtual reality-based internet experience — that he covered in essays from January 2020 onwards.
Facebook ensured mass awareness of this vision for the next developmental phase of virtual life when it embraced the concept fully by changing its name to Meta Platforms in October 2021, with Oculus becoming Meta.
Along the way, the concept became entwined with another hot topic that appeared to have the potential as an enabling mechanism for decentralized ownership within these virtual worlds — non-fungible tokens (NFTs). While mass attention (notably much of which comes from China) has recently turned elsewhere as understanding proliferated and external events overshadowed it, the work is just beginning to turn hype into real utility.
Global tech companies have faced a barrage of questions regarding their metaverse strategies. To some extent, those strategies were largely already in place, although perhaps without the metaverse label being explicitly attached.
Defining the Industrial Metaverse
The metaverse can be defined as a virtual shared space and a persistent, immersive, three-dimensional front-end to online services that altogether allows you to do anything you can in the real world.
The existing online world exists as web sites accessible through a browser. Those websites utilize a common set of standards to ensure that they work with browsers and deliver an acceptable user experience.
The metaverse will consist of many 3D online ‘worlds’ offering their own combinations of services and aesthetics within the broader experience.
Similarly, standards-based services, which may include decentralized NFT technologies, will support interoperability between devices and the portability of assets. Many of the main players developing the metaverse see this as not just encompassing fully virtual worlds; augmented reality (AR) supports the placing of digital objects into the real world and ‘digital twins’ of the real world, providing information and control to both remote and collocated users.
The Industrial Metaverse is an immersive virtual environment that brings together the physical and virtual worlds. It has three core pillars that produce this immersive experience.
Interactions: These include collaboration between business units, customers or marketing. It may mean connecting to an external metaverse or allowing access to an organization’s metaverse.
Transactions: This relates to actions such as payments, material transactions, information exchange, validation or virtual commissioning for the ‘Industrial Metaverse’ to be functional.
Experiences: This may be activities facilitated through device connectivity to produce simulations or virtual training with employees or virtual meetings with customers.
Industrial Metaverse considerations
Cybersecurity is a major concern in North America. According to IBM, manufacturing was the most targeted sector for cyberattacks in 2021, validating the importance of security of new technology.
Because the metaverse is a virtual world, data from every conversation, interaction, and action could be collected and misused. Regulating the metaverse has not yet been defined and as such respondents from differing organizations are cautious. They ranked cybersecurity high as a consideration due to associated risks that range from their brand reputation and legal implications to financial or social repercussions.
Cost to implement
In the European market, the cost of implementation is a key factor. Europe is entering a recession fueled by an energy crisis whilst Asia and North America are more insulated.
Enterprise and consumer readiness also play a crucial role. For organizations, entering the metaverse requires a hefty amount of resources, and this includes investing in hiring and training of employees, buying new tools, appointing new vendors, as well as spending time to educate stakeholders.
One vendor's opinion was many customers are not close to digitalization and most of the work implementing software solutions are still to be done on the shop floor. Moreover, the industry is still transitioning to the cloud and this might be influencing the view that the cost of implementation is very important to organizations across each region.
VR vs. AR use cases
In conversations with solution vendors, VR adoption is ahead of AR because use cases are more immediately viable and provide a value proposition that gives a higher return on capital expenditures. Examples of these use cases include VR for Process Training, Service Repairs or Sales Training.
Generating sales is currently easier to achieve with VR. For vendors, showcasing a VR scene is much quicker, cheaper and easier to develop and can be done in days, while an AR scene could take weeks to build.
A VR scene consists of data such as CAD of equipment, location imaging and scenarios. As an example, a VR scene to replicate an oil and gas rig for safety training of employees will immediately reduce potential dangers and the possible loss of life by conducting this remotely.
Key software players that vendors are using to create VR scenes are Unity Technologies and Autodesk. Unity’s application is used to build a lot of games and its platform is also the cheaper of the two.
As for devices, headsets currently are not driving adoption, but the key leading headsets are Meta’s Oculus (for VR) and Microsoft’s HoloLens (for AR). The Oculus is far cheaper and also caters to safety, having external cameras to prevent bumping into your surroundings, a longer battery life but it weighs more.
However, solution vendors said the Industrial Metaverse will be driven by mobile and tablet devices rather than headsets, as these carry the same or better technologies and, more importantly, are better suited to industrial environments.
5G’s importance to the metaverse
Real-time interaction with digital items and human holograms requires high bandwidth and ultra-low latency to make them responsive and realistic. Also, zero latency is essential for addressing motion sickness – particularly in VR environments.
A 5G network has the capacity to simultaneously support a high volume of users and devices that interact in real-time with the same virtual object from different locations. 5G can support high download and upload speeds to handle large data files, including video or sound content. 5G (and potentially 6G) is a key technology for allowing metaverse applications to reach a large scale and offer more intelligent capabilities.
The metaverse is an evolution that business leaders cannot ignore. The metaverse may profoundly change how businesses and consumers interact with products, services and each other. Key metaverse concepts, including digital economy innovations such as cryptocurrencies, are business-relevant today. Measured actions can allow business leaders to familiarize themselves with important metaverse concepts and explore lower-risk use cases.
The metaverse promises a stunningly realistic 3D digital world where you can purchase and sell goods and services, sign and enforce contracts, recruit and train talent, and interact with customers and communities. As some technology visionaries imagine the metaverse, this world will not primarily run on platforms whose owners control data, governance and transactions. Instead, customers (and businesses) will be able to take their identities, currencies, experiences and assets anywhere they wish. Unlike today’s web experiences, much of this digital world will persist even when no one is in it.
Anthony Mukoro is the senior research analyst for manufacturing software at Omdia.
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