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The metaverse will make its biggest impact on industry. Here's why

The metaverse is likely to have a substantial impact in urban planning, with planners able to test their proposed changes in the virtual world

The metaverse is likely to have a substantial impact in urban planning, with planners able to test their proposed changes in the virtual world. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Nishant Batra
Chief Strategy and Technology Officer, Nokia
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The metaverse will have its biggest immediate impact not in the consumer sector, but on industry and business.
  • Digital twin technology is already in widespread use across industry, in fields including shipping and aerospace.
  • We will develop many technologies for the industrial metaverse that will make their way into the consumer metaverse.

When the metaverse is fully realized, how will it change our lives? Will it transcend today’s notions of social media? Will it transform commerce? Will it revolutionize entertainment, creating elaborate virtual worlds for us to interact with? Perhaps the metaverse will do all of these things over time. But I would argue that the metaverse will have its biggest immediate impact on another facet of our lives: it will change the way we work.

The metaverse will have a deep and lasting influence on industry and business before it reaches its full potential in the consumer realm. It’s already happening. While social media and gaming companies are taking their first strides into the metaverse, major industries from auto manufacturing to shipping to mining have already taken several laps around the metaverse track.

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Specifically, these industries have turned their attention to one crucial aspect of the metaverse: the digital twin, which fuses digital and physical realities. Ports have begun using digital twins to track every container on their docks, no matter how deeply they are buried in stacks. Aerospace companies are building engines and fuselages in the digital world to simulate exactly how an aircraft will fly – long before they tool its first mechanical part. Many new factories exist just as much in the digital world as they do in the physical, allowing operators to visualize operations down to the smallest detail.

Welcome to the industrial metaverse

We are witnessing the rapid emergence of a metaverse focused solely on industry. This industrial metaverse may still be in its formative stages, but its early adoption of digital twinning is already showing results, increasing productivity and efficiency, boosting safety and enabling new levels of flexibility to industrial sectors hardly known for their agility. So far, digital twins have been used mainly for monitoring and analysis, but the full potential of the industrial metaverse is far greater. As edge and cloud processing capabilities, private 5G wireless networks, and new sensing, interface and AI technologies are added to the mix, we’ll move from a state of awareness to a state of control.

The early adoption of digital twinning is already showing results
The early adoption of digital twinning is already showing results Image: ABI Research

Instead of merely digitally monitoring the factory floor, we’ll be able to virtually manipulate it. Workers will perform augmented maintenance, with detailed schematics and step-by-step visual instructions projected into their field of view over the machinery they are repairing. Eventually, some of those same maintenance workers will work from the safety of their desks, taking virtual control of repair robots they can command remotely. Automated robots will operate within both physical and digital realities, gaining awareness of every person, machine and process on the factory floor so they can orchestrate their tasks in the most efficient way possible. We’ll see a complete fusion of operational technologies (OT) with the metaverse, allowing industry to reconfigure their operations to constantly changing supply and demand.

Just as the metaverse will fuse with OT, we’ll witness a similar merging of digital and physical realities in the IT world. We are already seeing the metaverse-powered collaboration and communication tools so crucial in the pandemic era. Next, we’ll see the metaverse injected into the core productivity tools that make businesses function, eventually merging the OT of the factory floor or warehouse with the IT of HQ.

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Take the example of urban planning. Freed from the drafting room, city engineers could roam the streets with extended reality (XR) glasses. Looking at intersections through this metaverse lens, they would immediately see how moving a bus stop or adding a traffic light would impact traffic. Proposed changes would then be aggregated and uploaded into a city-wide digital twin, which central planners could interact with in virtual reality.

They would view the collective impact of thousands of small projects on the transportation patterns of the entire metro area. Once construction is authorized, building crews would return to the metaverse, using XR to guide them in the exact placement of stoplights and crosswalks. In essence, the metaverse will give planners endless freedom to make changes in the virtual world, and then immediately see how those changes would impact the real world. And they can do so without ever putting down a traffic cone.

Business will build it, but consumers will come

I am certainly not arguing that the consumer metaverse will never blossom. The consumer metaverse will find its footing, aided by efforts like the WEF’s initiatives to recommend governance frameworks and spur economic and social value creation in global metaverse development. But while the consumer metaverse is still discovering its identity, the industrial metaverse has already begun proving its utility. The fates of the two are closely intertwined.

We will develop many technologies for the industrial metaverse that will make their way into the consumer metaverse – from micro-optics and advanced haptic interfaces to AI sensing awareness. Meanwhile, networks will provide the critical underlying connectivity for all these metaverses. 5G-Advanced and 6G will enable true XR mobility, while edge and cloud processing capabilities will optimize the performance of metaverse applications not just in industry, but also for consumers and enterprises.

And as the consumer metaverse evolves, new innovations in user interfaces and design will most certainly make their way into the industrial and enterprise realms. We’ve witnessed this complex interplay of business and consumer invention since the dawn of the transistor.

Each metaverse will impel the other metaverses to be even better. I would argue, however, that in these still-early days of the metaverse, we must shift our focus. Instead of spending too much energy pursuing a consumer metaverse in its nascency, we should focus our vision on the metaverse directly in front of us, which is firmly grounded in the places we work.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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