If you follow technology news, you’re aware of the buzz about the metaverse. Even if you do not follow technology news, you have likely heard that Facebook has rebranded itself as “Meta” to align with its focus on the metaverse, and you may be wondering what the metaverse is all about and how it applies to manufacturing.
Why is there a metaverse?
In recent years, many interactions have moved online. The limitations on physical interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the shift to the virtual world for shopping, entertainment, and business collaboration. We have now reached a point where many everyday experiences include a mix of physical and virtual interaction and the boundaries between the physical and virtual worlds are increasingly blurred.
However, it is not always a seamless transition. If you have ever been on a Zoom call and heard someone say, “We can see you talking, but you’re on mute,” then you know what I mean. Today’s virtual worlds are not always connected and are not quite immersive.
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is envisioned as the next-generation internet platform where a virtual, simulated environment is linked to the physical environment, enabling meaningful interactions that bridge and synchronize between the two worlds. In manufacturing speak, think of the metaverse as the digital twin of the entire physical world. Pretty straightforward, right?
Not exactly. Since the metaverse is still in a very early stage, there is a lot of hype around the topic that isn’t backed by actual capabilities. New technology, infrastructure, and ways of interacting online need to be developed, and companies are still exploring the markets emerging from this new technology and social paradigm. Imagine that you asked someone about the future of the mobile internet before the iPhone came out—you would likely get a very different answer than you would today. That’s about where we are currently with the metaverse.
Amid the hype, we don’t know exactly what the metaverse will become, but we do know some of the characteristics of an immersive, connected, ubiquitous virtual world:
Mixed reality experience: The virtual world can be accessed through various devices. Virtual reality and augmented reality are emerging technologies that can provide new ways of merging the physical and virtual environment, but web browsers, tablets, and televisions can connect you to the digital realm as well. With ubiquity in mind, metaverse applications will provide different ways to experience the virtual environment using various platforms.
Digital twin importance: The metaverse aims to be a parallel reality to the physical world. To accomplish this, every object in the environment must have a persistent digital copy in the virtual world. This digital twin is synchronized with the state of the physical object and rendered in the virtual world, available for simulation and optimization.
IoT data: To maintain connectivity with the physical world, the metaverse needs a constant stream of information about the status of the real world. IoT devices will monitor the state of the physical world and provide the metaverse with the detail necessary to maintain the virtual digital twin environment.
How does this impact manufacturing?
Manufacturing is one of the more compelling use cases for the metaverse. Beyond the new commercial opportunities in marketing and service offerings, there are a few key industrial opportunities that use the metaverse to optimize the manufacturing process.
With a parallel world existing in the metaverse, the entire layout of the factory can be virtualized. The status and location of each machine, product, person, and tool are kept up to date with a continuous feed from IoT devices tracking every object in the physical world. The interactions between every object in the environment can be investigated remotely through mixed-reality devices. Virtual walkthroughs can be performed to identify problems or waste in the manufacturing line.
Figure 1: Data and objects are persistent across different devices including augmented reality and virtual reality.
One key capability of the metaverse will be the simulation of objects in the environment. With a detailed model of the interactions between objects and a stream of data from IoT, the metaverse provides a platform to simulate how things will work together. The impact of changes in equipment, materials, or human behaviors can be evaluated virtually before any changes occur in the physical world.
The metaverse provides the perfect collaboration environment, supporting capabilities like planning, training, and remote assistance. Products, services, and manufacturing lines can be tested and debugged remotely between cross-functional teams including engineering, operations, and possibly the end-user of the product being manufactured.
What’s next for manufacturers?
The next five to 10 years should usher in numerous technology changes related to how manufacturers and product owners use and consume services offered by the metaverse. It will be important to remain aligned with the technological advancements without getting caught up in the hype. Likewise, it will be crucial to identify suppliers that can span the breadth of technology in order to cultivate a solid ecosystem of partners.
Zac Elliott is technical marketing engineer for Siemens Digital Industries Software.
Additional content from Siemens Digital Industries Software: