Why infrastructure needs the metaverse

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For most people, surfing the internet is completely natural, while we work, play, socialize and entertain ourselves with swipes, clicks and voice commands. And while the metaverse is relatively new, its benefits to infrastructure are so compelling that it’s quickly becoming a matter of course to apply it to large construction projects. That’s how it should be with the natural evolution of digital twin technology.

The beautifully blurred boundaries of technology and the human experience

For me, the metaverse is best explained as a mutual interaction between the natural world and the digital world. Two-way traffic means you can enter the digital world (you jump in) for a virtual experience – a bit like gaming – or the digital world can come to you through touch commands, voice, gestures and eye movements. That’s the metaverse (and meta means ‘more extensive’ if you’re curious).

It’s like a virtual time machine. The relevance of the metaverse in infrastructure is that digital twins draw on rich engineering data and multiple sources of information from the natural world, such as ground models and environmental data, to create a realistic, digital representation of a complex infrastructure project, imagined or already built. Digital twins can monitor and visualize real-world conditions through Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices such as drones and sensors that capture detailed, real-time data, allowing you to explore past, current, or even future phases of a project.

Meetings are not boring. Imagine if all the people who have to make crucial decisions about a project, hanging out with their wireless VR or mixed reality headsets, are teleported to a virtual digital twin project. Make decisions and watch ‘what if’ in real time. Welcome to the metaverse – you can do this today. This is where the digital twins of the infrastructure and the metaverse collide.

Creating calm control on the raging white waters of large structures

The benefits of the metaverse are apparent when one considers that traditional construction planning has typically involved 3D computer models (often several) in representing various aspects of construction – that is, construction engineering, soil conditions, slope stability, traffic flow, atmospheric factors, along with separate project plans.

Meeting the schedule with thousands of moving parts, materials management, sequencing, workforce coordination and the knock-on effect of supply chain disruptions meant that even a highly experienced project manager faced a high degree of uncertainty. With this background to the whitewater project, a lot of hope went into the delivery of the project plan.

The 4D element of time is important here. Combining 3D models with the project planning makes 4D construction planning possible. With the metaverse, you can jump ahead to see the impact of your decisions on the long-term sustainability of the project – from planning, through construction, to operation and maintenance.

A case study to validate the metaverse benefits is the: ITER project, based in France, with some 35 countries working together to prove the feasibility of fusion as a utility-scale zero-carbon energy source. The project team using digital twins and their customers are now virtually teleporting to this large-scale fusion power plant under construction.

The virtual experience is powered by SYNCHRO 4D and iTwin, along with NVIDIA Omniverse, Unreal Engine for Oculus Quest 2, and Azure Remote Rendering for Microsoft HoloLens 2. This combination allows technical, micron-accurate digital content to be visualized across multiple devices such as web browsers. , workstations, tablets, and virtual reality and augmented reality headsets from around the world.

Those who have had the experience of digital immersion in the ITER project, and who have had the chance to get their shoes on the floor and walk through the actual facility, are struck by how familiar it is. Why? Because they have already experienced it virtually. The human experience, aside from the awe of being in a cathedral-sized machinery hall, is an extraordinary sense of calm confidence as construction progress is where they knew it would be. Visitors to the site can see large irregularly shaped holes where pre-assembled components are later connected. In digital rehearsals, they know that the components will fit, even with extremely low tolerances, because they have been assembled many times before in the virtual world.

It’s completely natural to walk, look, explore and talk about any major construction project, as it’s completely natural to do this in the digital world. You can see and experience it before you build it. The borders are beautifully blurred.

Now that the metaverse has become part of our human experience, I see it as inevitable that it will become part of our daily activities. We’re already interacting with data in entirely new ways, with gestures and speech, rather than dialing and clicking. Imagine this dimension of an avatar in a digital twin, fully immersed and interactive with the item, not just a spectator looking at it from a distance. You are part of the metaverse.

In infrastructure, digital twins and the metaverse provide the full business benefits of 4D planning, virtual teleportation, and collaboration to solve challenging problems in real time, all for more sustainable outcomes.

It’s an extraordinary evolution of open digital twin technology that feels as natural as walking.

Keith Bentley is CTO of Bentley Systems.

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