Ever since Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, announced that the company would change its name to Meta and become a so-called “metaverse company”, the buzzword on everyone’s lips for the last year has been the Metaverse. Many of you will start off by asking yourselves - What is the metaverse? Well, as Drew Barrymore once said, “Guess what, Gary is going to help explain it to us…” (at least I’m going to try)
There is no universal definition of what the metaverse is, however the Cambridge Dictionary provides a broad definition that can serve a good starting point for this discussion: “The metaverse is a virtual world where humans, as avatars, interact with each other in a three-dimensional space that mimics reality.” Those of us with younger children will be familiar with games like Roblox and Minecraft, which provide some insight into the early stages of the metaverse as an immersive social platform.
Beyond the social application, industries are looking at ways they can leverage this technology, and the construction and design spaces are no different. Like it or not, the metaverse will change the way projects are developed and this article will touch on just some of the ways this will happen.
Using digital tools for physical application is not something new to construction. It started with CAD, and then transformed into BIM, which itself has been around for years and has allowed owners, designers, and construction professionals to collaborate by creating and managing information for a built asset, in real time, through cloud-based software. The purpose of BIM is to produce a digital representation of an asset across its lifecycle, from planning and design to construction and operations.
BIM already incorporates many metaverse characteristics, but it has one drawback - BIM is static in nature, as it requires constant user input to update the model. The construction industry is using the metaverse to take the next step, by creating what is known as a “digital twin”. Digital Twins utilize elements of BIM and integrate it with the Internet of Things, sensors, and algorithms to create a dynamic model that can be updated without user input and is able to run simulations to show how external stimuli will potentially impact the Physical asset.
The data that is collected from sensors can be used in conjunction historical data or simulations to optimize the performance of the assets by monitoring and diagnosing the asset’s condition. One such application is to forecast the construction schedule and then monitor the as-built progress. Imagine a system of cameras and sensors that automatically update the as-built model with construction progress, allowing an owner or contractor to monitor efficiency of the workforce to record and simulate delays or acceleration.
In a society that ever increasingly values privacy, the constant monitoring required to accurately update a digital twin potentially raises some ethical or privacy issues. For example, a work force can be monitored around the clock to determine their efficiency and progress, potentially identifying weak links or unproductive workers. On the one hand it can reward trades and individuals for “beating” the simulation to release an incentive payment, but on the other hand it provides extraneous and unbiased data to show exactly who has been inefficient. We all know that perfect efficiency is a myth, it is something many strive towards, but never achieve. A certain margin of error must be built into a simulation, but that raises a further question – what is reasonable? – 80% efficiency… 70%. Efficiency that could be monitored empirically, could potentially be used as a bargaining chip when bidding or pricing work.
The most significant difference between BIM and digital twinning is the three-dimensional nature of the model. While BIM appears three dimensional, it is always depicted in two dimensions on a flat screen. A digital twin on the other hand is immersive in three-dimensional space. Using VR goggles, users can enter the virtual space as they would any other building and virtually walk around the structure. This can provide a better understanding or visualization of how spaces and rooms can interact with each other, or to consider possible finishes within the context of the surrounding environment.
Architects will be at the forefront of adopting the metaverse and digital twinning. It will likely start with use digital twins as immersive models to present their concepts to developers or owners. Interior designers can show how colour and texture will work in a three-dimensional space. Clients will be able to walk through a virtual replica of a space to get a better understanding of the eventual physical asset, before the ground is broken. This will potentially mitigate later changes and tweaks to the design.
Utilizing digital tools in the development of physical assets barely scratches the surface of what is possible for talented designers. Architects will be at the forefront of the industry’s acceptance and application of digital twins, but the metaverse will open new doors and possibilities for the industry.
With the emergence of new digital worlds, a new type of architect is beginning to emerge – the meta-architect. Certain computer-generated realms allow people to purchase their own virtual real estate, in many instances, for significant sums of real money. These digital lots naturally need to be developed, and just as in the real world, architects are retained to design one-of-a-kind dream homes, offices or even sports stadiums.
Meta-architects are unconstrained by the limitations of the physical world, principles of engineering or construction budgets, which allows them to push the boundaries of what is imaginable. Their only limitation is amount of digital real estate that has been assigned to them. Just as in the real world, scarcity drives demand and price.
In the construction industry, authors have identified a number of benefits a digital twin can provide: increased transparency of information; real-time monitoring, analysis, and feedback; better stakeholder collaboration; advanced preventive measures; advanced what-if scenario analysis and simulations; real-time tracking; and higher accuracy.
Although we are only at the initial stages of harnessing the metaverse, it is already clear that it will significantly impact the way physical assets are designed and constructed in the future.