Someone once told me that anything we can buy off the shelf seems a lot less exciting when you’re working in an innovation lab. There is a lot of truth in this sentence. Take Barco, for example. Anticipating and creating the future possibilities of our current markets is the best way to stay one step ahead. That’s why we meticulously follow emerging trends and technologies, trying to envision possible roadmaps for the next 10-20 years. One of the concepts on our list is the “metaverse”: the virtual environment that should become the future of the Internet. A technology ecosystem that will mimic virtually everything in the real world. While many people are focusing on the social and business aspects, this will also accelerate innovation for many professional markets – including control rooms.
When Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook), laid out his vision for a metaverse, it didn’t exactly shock tech and sci-fi buffs like me. It was the familiar surroundings we know from films like “Ready Player One”, the Dark Mirror episode “San Junipero” or parts of the “Hyperion Cantos” novel series – to name a few. -ones. “It’s like a new version of The Sims” was another phrase I heard. And while the planned Metaverse is much more than a computer game, it shows that people easily understand the concept and much of the technology is already available – but not able to do so on a global scale.
Nonetheless, it has been met with excitement to see a major company touting this as the only real way forward. Many technology companies were particularly interested in this vision, immediately starting to look for future opportunities in this metaverse.
How close is the near future?
You’re probably eager to start exploring this hyper-realistic metaverse. But we will have to be patient: it will take time for this concept to materialize. There are still great challenges to overcome, as the processing power is not yet up to the task of creating an eternal digital and virtual 3D world. And we haven’t even started talking about connectivity: how will you tap into this virtual world? In sci-fi settings, this is often done with a brain tap, but it can also be done with VR goggles, large video walls, or personal immersive spaces. The expected evolution is no different from the transformation of the Internet: from the first concepts in the laboratories of the 1980s to the global Web that we know today. The Metaverse will need a similar roadmap that may span decades.
Digital Twins: Metaverse Islands Today
That doesn’t mean we have to sit in a corner and hibernate for the next few years. There are already applications that can be considered metaverses. We are talking about digital twins – digital environments that perfectly mimic the real world. Contrary to Mark Zuckerberg’s future vision, these are not connected to each other and act as “metaverse islands”, creating a universe within a single application.
An example of such digital twins can be found in the world of manufacturing. Complete factories are available digitally. This is often not even such a huge effort, as today’s advanced processing plants are built using 3D CAD tools. Much of the work is already done. With the 3D representations available, designers can take the next step and simulate real-time processes within the required limits.
The connection with real-time external data is then used to perfect the digital twin, for example to a changing context of temperature, humidity, quality of the starting components, etc. In this way, a perfect digital twin of the complete factory is achieved, a “digital environment” that you can navigate and acts exactly like its real “physical” counterpart.
Operational digital twins
Digital twins already exist – both in the lab and in practice. Barco participated in a research project at Ghent University in 2019 (see video below). The resulting digital 3D model could be considered a “metaverse island”. Another example is the collaboration between Siemens and NVIDIA, in which the pipes of an entire plant are simulated in a digital twin, so engineers can accurately predict maintenance needs.
This opens up a world of opportunities. First, designers can easily simulate the effect of certain process changes, before implementing them in real life. Exploring safety and honing efficiency from the start, avoids costly changes in the operational plant. Second, digital twins are also a great training environment, teaching new employees all the ins and outs of the plant, without disrupting operations.
Metaverse opportunities for control rooms?
What does the metaverse mean for control rooms? What opportunities do we see to “see better, share faster, and resolve faster”? The answer is: a lot. And we probably can’t even imagine the opportunities that will materialize once the Metaverse is truly fully operational.
Let’s list a few topics to get the conversation started:
Simulation and training
Operator training is quite difficult today. Usually, newcomers sit with an experienced colleague for a few weeks and learn by watching. The basics of crisis management are explained, but more often than not, no calamity occurs during this training period. When a crisis actually occurs, the operators are only theoretically trained and must improvise most of the actions to be carried out.
Simulated operator training – much like the flight simulators used to train pilots – would undoubtedly contribute greatly to better prepared operators who manage to stay calm under pressure. The problem, however, is that all cockpits of a certain type of aircraft look the same, but most control rooms are unique. Building a physical simulator is therefore not possible, but a virtual simulator in the metaverse is a great option. The creation of such an immersive training environment would be a major asset in optimizing operator training.
Another great benefit of a metaverse is to allow operators to explore the digital twin of the environment. In a plant, for example, it is often not possible to truly know the plant in a safe and secure way, and walk through all aspects of the critical infrastructure. Having the time and ability to literally walk or even fly through the factory digital twin to create a mind map is a big plus for making the right decisions later in the “physical” control room. Operators who have mental models of operations make faster connections through what needs to be done when something goes wrong, or can even see ways to improve the process. In all of the above circumstances, it often makes more sense to first test a solution in the virtual environment, seeing how the system reacts, than to do it directly in the real factory.
The data in a control room, represented in dashboards on large or small video walls, is quite abstract. It is not always easy to assess the situation on the ground by looking at the numbers, graphs and parameters displayed. Entering a live virtual representation of the situation would help operators grasp the details more easily.
Just think of it as a step into a virtual, dynamic version of Google Street View.
At the same time, they can also step back and get a helicopter view, creating a truly comprehensive overview of the situation. Just think of it as a step into a virtual, dynamic version of Google Street View. Because there is so much data available, this numerical representation can be extremely accurate. Different senses, even smell, can be represented in the metaverse digitally.
Collaborative problem solving
The metaverse is a social environment – much like a control room. This opens up many additional opportunities to consult external stakeholders when making important decisions. Imagine how effective it would be to assess a certain situation with experts, while virtually being “together as a team” and also “together on site”! This is exactly the kind of collaboration that would become possible.
When will you take your first steps?
If you think the metaverse is suddenly going to exist and you see a pop-up screen that says “updating to metaverse”, you’ll be disappointed. It will be a long and winding road, with many detours. Some attempts will explode for a while and then fade away completely to make way for another hype of the day. Expect a lot of swings in the market (hint: invest in the attempt that provides the best user experience, not the best graphics).
Another thing to consider is that not all users will have the same interaction with the metaverse. Just as there are different types of browsers today, there will also be different ways to browse the metaverse. This will heavily depend on the user’s preferences – and probably their budget as well. The same goes for professional use cases. Some companies will be able to afford to build a realistic digital representation of their assets, others will have to settle for much less. But the opportunities will still be huge and we are really excited to be part of this evolution!
If you would like to continue the conversation, please do not hesitate to contact me.
About the Author
Guy Van Wijmeersch
Guy Van Wijmeersch is Barco’s Director of Innovation & Design Thinking. He started at Barco in 1992 and held positions as an industrial designer and design director in Belgium, Germany and the United States. Guy holds a Masters in Product Design (Artesis University College Antwerp) and a Postgraduate Diploma in Product Design from the University of Irvine, California, USA. He also holds a master’s degree in B2B marketing and is known for his innovation-centric thinking.