Article by Greg Demchak, Director, Bentley’s iTwin Innovation Lab
Collaborating on infrastructure design in the metaverse is not a concept based far in the future. In fact, thanks to game engine technology, it is happening right now and it is building momentum.
Design teams are working openly using a range of devices with technology from Unreal Engine, Omniverse, and Unity, among others. These game engines are not only boosting the computational power needed to take a 3D model to a seamless 4D spatial experience, they are working toward interoperability for real-time exchange of assets between products or platforms, without loss of fidelity or function. This open exchange leads to innovation, problem-solving, and an overall new sense of teamwork culture in construction design and delivery.
You could say that gaming tech is leveling up productivity, efficiency, and even profitability for the built environment.
Last April, Epic Games – maker of Unreal Engine – announced that it had raised $2 billion to invest in developing a kid-friendly metaverse. The partnership with Epic and Lego aims to create a safe space for children in the metaverse where physical and digital worlds connect for limitless creative possibilities (TechCrunch). But Epic’s influence on creating in the real world doesn’t stop at plastic bricks. With its 2022 money equity valuation of $31.5 billion, Epic is investing millions in designing compatible solutions for architects, engineers, and construction managers to build real, life-sized infrastructure using the metaverse.
In a mixed reality experience, using digital twin technology, organizations take advantage of gaming engines to redesign cities, tour factories, or, in the case of the ITER project, build the largest fusion experiment of all time. All while operating on a variety of platforms, virtually, from locations around the world.
It starts with having a digital twin plug-in that links construction design models to a metaverse experience.
A digital twin, in simple terms, is a digital representation of the real environment that is updated continuously with live data. An open platform like iTwin brings in all the engineering data of a 3D model, then adds 4D digital context with reality and spatial modeling. It is the game engine technology that turns that data and complex modeling into an immersive world with lighting, textures, and depth in the metaverse.
Compared to other uses of the metaverse, what makes the infrastructure industry so unique is there is already a 3D model behind every structure. With engineers building models every day, there is never a shortage of content for the metaverse.
Designing and building in the virtual environment is proving to save time and money on some very large-scale projects. When an engineer or construction manager steps onto the virtual job site, the experience is seamless, with data updating in real time via strategically placed sensors at the physical job site. They can see what has changed, track progress, and can click on an object to retrieve specifications and other information much more quickly than scanning a standard spec sheet.
And people don’t need to be “technical” to use this technology. Gaming platforms make access to data so versatile, that a project engineer working out of trailer and surrounded by 200-foot cranes and 50-ton bulldozers can go from using a tablet to run daily analysis at the physical job site to wearing a HoloLens to see into the future of the project lifecycle in 4D. Experiencing the long-term effects of design decisions, before they happen – perhaps a concrete pillar begins to crack – let’s builders make changes in the present to mitigate risk.
The open platform, collaborative environment of the infrastructure metaverse also addresses productivity challenges and the negative effects of isolation faced by remote workers. Conducting a walk-through of a power grid becomes a lot more interesting and effective when remote participants can see and hear each other in the metaverse.
Virtual and augmented reality experiences connect colleagues in a way that ignites creativity and knowledge-sharing, and inspires them to bring a higher level of engagement to the project. In one recent study out of UCLA, scientists noted how virtual reality creates a stronger “theta rhythm” brain wave that may positively affect how the brain learns and retains sensory information (Neuroscience News). A higher level of engagement results in better engineering decisions that can lead to increased safety and efficiency on the physical build. The metaverse even lends itself to networking among peers to deepen relationships for future projects.
Avoiding Metaverse Pitfalls
Is there a downside to building infrastructure in the metaverse? Not really. Sure, not everyone is able to afford a TESLASUIT (nor will they need one). And, for everyday use, wearable devices have sometimes received low marks for comfort: clunky wired headsets and vision-induced motion sickness have been a problem. It is true that these pitfalls have challenged adoption.
But now headsets are wireless, more comfortable and affordable, and smaller, which also makes them more portable. As far as motion sickness is concerned, applications are now dialing in the right frame rates – the number of frames per second that the human eye sees – to help create that realistic, but sensory-friendly experience.
Sometimes the effects of depth perception in an application is so realistic, it can be a bit jarring. Like when engineers and planners go about their day inside the 3D model of the ITER Tokomak – considered one of the most ambitious scientific endeavors in size and scope – a walk around the top of the 60-metre-tall structure can make them feel like they should watch their step.
In the last year, interest in the metaverse, its challenges and benefits, has grown exponentially. Gaming engine technology is paving the way to limitless opportunity, and we can count on the fact that organisations are opting in to the metaverse to build the future of infrastructure, with tools that they can carry around in a backpack.
About the Author
Greg Demchak is an MIT graduate in architecture and design technology (SMArchS) with a 20-year career in software development. He leads Bentley’s iTwin Innovation Lab, which is dedicated to prototyping how digital twin technologies shape how infrastructure is designed, constructed, and operated.