During our recent research into the metaverse and extended reality, we quickly detected a heated debate about what actually constitutes a digital twin, as well as whether it was appropriate for this innovation to fall under the broadening umbrella of ‘metaverse’ or not. You can find many detractors in the Twittersphere (and its more polite LinkedIn cousin) who have approached this debate by classifying anything overhyped as within the purview of ‘metaverse’ and anything with legitimate use cases as outside it. On the other hand, some metaverse evangelists believe ‘metaverse’ comprises anything so long as somebody says so. It seems most impartial observers fall somewhere in between. One anecdote that highlights both the comparisons and contrasts between digital twins and the metaverse is SwivelMeta’s pivot from one to the other in early-2022. Similarities between metaverse and digital twins made the pivot feasible, but differences meant significant changes to their workforce.
The entrepreneur’s perspective
On the opposite side of the pond from SwivelMeta, Bright Spaces’ Founder and CEO Bogdan Nicoara has kept an eye on the intersection between virtual worlds and digital twins. Nicoara differentiates two schools of thought when it comes to the metaverse: (i) those who embrace an entirely virtual reality largely separate from our physical world, and (ii) those who embrace mixed reality — a digitally enhanced version of our physical world. He identifies himself with the second group, and cites Dr Mark van Rijmenam’s argument that digital twins can be considered one of the building blocks for augmenting the physical world. In other words, augmenting our physical world requires some kind of underlying structure. When asked what sort of enabling technologies could facilitate this, Nicoara points to low-latency internet and a revolutionary approach to internet of things (IoT) where a change in a physical space (such as moving a desk within an office space) can be reflected in the digital twin in real-time.
Example use cases during construction
What good is a digital twin which enables remote immersion within its physical counterpart? Immersive digital twins are able to help buyers or occupiers visualise their space as completed, as well as informing them of changes to operational variables when changes are made to design and material use. Given the cost of showrooms, display suites and premium sales commissions, immersive digital twins also offer builders, property developers and sales agents a significant reduction in the costs of marketing unbuilt and distant properties. Aside from marketing, Zara Riahi, Founder and CEO of Contilio, identifies a large part of extended reality’s application in the built environment to date largely focusing on streamlining, visualising, and navigating BIM (building information modeling) data during the design phase. Into the future, Zara envisions stakeholders virtually or physically walking a construction site in real-time with augmented insights into risk, quality, progress, etc. This could involve bringing together the worksite and the office in ways this has never been achieved, enabling stakeholders to collaborate and resolve issues together.
Example use cases during operation
Given the data-intensive nature of digital twins in real estate and beyond, a key area of opportunity is in the efficient operation and upkeep of buildings. Recent Pi Labs research led by ESG Venture Partner, Jimmy Jia shed light on the fact that buildings are often adjusted as occupiers and facilities teams are turned over. With each of these changes, the building’s performance may be compromised due to configurations being adjusted beyond the building’s initial design. Mike Darby, CEO and Co-Founder of Demand Logic, highlighted one case in the United Kingdom where a building was consuming over 600 homes’ worth of energy in unnecessary heating due to heating and cooling systems erroneously running at the same time. How can digital twins be an improvement on existing dashboards offering insights into these variables? Another challenge when buildings are adjusted is when this involves floor plans. Wouter Merkestein, CEO and Co-Founder of Laiout, states that the back-and-forth an architect often has to do between stakeholders can waste 20 weeks and six-figure sums of expenditure on determining the correct layout of a floor or building.
Example use cases during sale and purchase
Metaverse and Web 3.0 are often mentioned in the same sentence, with the latter pertaining to a read-write-own iteration of the web. The ‘own’ part of Web 3.0 is largely inspired by blockchain and distributed ledger technology, itself given life by the 2008 Bitcoin white paper. The Ethereum blockchain, discussed in last week’s article on decentralisation, was the next step in facilitating blockchain-based innovation. It is the distributed ledger that tracks ownership and transactions of many non-fungible tokens, and therefore in the sights of innovators trying to apply this to real estate (a non-fungible asset). Opportunities in this area are abundant, if only the ducks would line up in a row. Many real estate firms, lawyers and academics highlight inefficient and costly transactions as one of the industry’s most vexing pain points.
Outlook for adoption
Speaking to the significant overlap between digital twins and the metaverse is the ambitious collaboration between BNP Paribas Real Estate and Unity 3D (a leading video game and metaverse building engine) called WIRED (wearable immersive real estate dataroom). According to BNP Paribas Real Estate Head of Immersive Lab, Florian Couret, “WIRED is a pioneering digital twin technology combining convenience with experience and analysis. Its strength lies in allowing the user to be immersed in a city, its neighbourhoods and its buildings. It provides access to the best real estate, socio-economic and environmental information, thanks to exceptional data quality…” Not to be outdone, Unity 3D’s competitor, Unreal Engine, was used by 51World to create a digital twin of Shanghai — utilising data from sensors, drones and satellites.
Although some have made the choice to rigorously debate whether digital twins constitute part of the metaverse or not, it seems like they’ll likely be left behind by those taking action in this area — integrating internet of things, gaming engines, extended reality and Web 3.0 innovations to facilitate immersive, data-driven virtual and augmented interactions with the built world (and perhaps even trading assets on a distributed ledger). If you’re interested in reading more of our research into digital twins, extended reality and the metaverse, be sure to download our latest white paper: Unreal estate: metaverse, extended reality and the future of our physical world.
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