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For most people, using the internet is completely natural, as we work, play, socialize and entertain ourselves with swipes, clicks, and voice commands. And while the metaverse is relatively new, its benefits for infrastructure are so compelling that it is quickly becoming natural to apply it to big 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 two-way interaction between the natural world and the digital world. Two-way means that 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 by using touch commands, voice, gestures, and eye movements. That’s the metaverse (and meta means ‘more comprehensive’ if you are curious).

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

Meetings aren’t boring. Imagine all the people who need to make crucial decisions on a project, sitting around with their wireless VR or mixed reality headsets, being teleported inside of a virtual digital twin project. Making decisions and looking at “what ifs” in real time. Welcome to the metaverse — you can do this today. This is where infrastructure digital twins and the metaverse collide.

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Creating calm control on the raging white water of big construction

The benefits of the metaverse are evident when considering that traditional construction planning typically involved 3D computer models (often several) in representing different aspects of the build — that is, structural engineering, ground conditions, slope stability, traffic flow, atmospheric factors, along with separate project schedules.

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 vastly experienced project manager dealt with a large degree of uncertainty. With this background of project white-water, 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 schedule enables 4D construction planning. The metaverse lets you jump forward to see the consequences of your decisions on the project’s long-term sustainability — from planning, through construction, to operations and maintenance.

Experiencing full immersion in the metaverse

A case study to validate the metaverse benefits is the ITER project, based in France, which involves some 35 countries collaborating to prove the feasibility of fusion as a utility-scale, carbon-free source of energy. The project team leveraging digital twins and their clients are now virtually teleporting into this large-scale nuclear fusion electricity generation facility under construction.

The virtual experience is enabled 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 engineering-grade, micron-accurate digital content to be visualized on multiple devices like web browsers, workstations, tablets, and virtual reality and augmented reality headsets from anywhere in the world.

Digital twins and the metaverse: Comparing the virtual world to the real world

Those who have had the experience of digital immersion in the ITER project, and who have had the opportunity to get their boots on the ground and walk through the actual facility are struck by how familiar it is. Why? Because they have already experienced it virtually. The human experience, apart from awe at being in a cathedral-sized machine hall, is an extraordinary sense of calm confidence as the construction progress is where they knew it would be. Site visitors can observe large irregularly shaped gaps where pre-assembled components are scheduled to be connected later. With digital rehearsals, they know the components will fit, even with extremely low tolerances, because they have been fitted numerous times before in the virtual world.

It is a perfectly natural thing to walk, look, explore, and converse on any big construction project, as it is perfectly natural to do this in the digital world. You can see and experience it before you build it. The boundaries are beautifully blurred.

And the metaverse evolution continues

With the metaverse becoming part of our human experience, I see it as inevitable that it will be part of our everyday activities. We are already interacting with data in totally new ways with gestures and voice, rather than picks-and-clicks. Imagine this dimension of being an avatar inside a digital twin, completely immersed and interacting with the asset, not just an onlooker, viewing it from a distance. You are part of the metaverse.

In infrastructure, digital twins and the metaverse offer the full business benefits of 4D planning, virtual teleporting, and collaboration to solve challenging problems in real time, all with a view to more sustainable outcomes.

It is an extraordinary evolution of open digital twin technology that feels as natural as going for a walk.

Keith Bentley is CTO of Bentley Systems.

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