Game Plan: Why the Metaverse is an Opportunity for Digital Transformation

The ‘build it and they will come’ mantra sets an unrealistic expectation, but the reality is that there is a big future in engineering through virtual worlds.

First things first. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO at Meta, is not the oracle on what the metaverse is and how it will work. If anything, he is confusing the issue. The metaverse will not be one platform from one company. It’s a concept, an ecosystem-driven way of thinking and organizing life and work that is more immersive and interactive. And, according to McKinsey, it’s going to be massive. Last year, well over $120 billion in private equity and venture capital funding went into metaverse-related businesses, according to McKinsey’s Value Creation in the Metaverse report, which also claimed the metaverse will generate $5 trillion in value by 2030.

For industry, the metaverse will almost certainly be transformational. As Corey Sanders, corporate VP for Microsoft Cloud for Industry put it in a February 2023 blog post, the industrial metaverse is “redefining how people and machines collaborate.” Corey points to the idea that this new way of working will enable teams to design, build, operate and optimize physical systems by using immersive technologies in the cloud. This, he adds, will lead to improvements in sustainability and efficiency.

Nothing wrong with that. In fact, thanks largely to digital twins, elements of this are already in motion. BMW’s teaming-up with Nvidia, for example, has seen the German car maker create a digital twin of its Bavaria factory. This has enabled BMW to run full simulations of its manufacturing facility, to optimize processes and procedures. In particular, it is using the twin to test its robots’ abilities to perform complex maneuvers.

The city of Singapore has also embarked on a digital twin project to develop a 3D replica of the city based on topographical and real-time data. It aims to use the twin to test solutions to urban planning problems. It’s not alone. Las Vegas and Shanghai, to name just two, are also running digital twins.

The point here is that real-time digital modelling and increasingly immersive experiences are being recognized as a transformational approach to how projects are planned, run and managed. By its very nature, this process is one step in the camp of what we expect a metaverse to be. As Peter Korte, chief technology and strategy officer at Siemens, speaking from the company’s Siemensstadt industrial complex in Berlin last year, said: “We believe digital twins are the building blocks for the metaverse.”

On the virtual road

This is a view supported by analyst Forrester. Its September 2022 report ’The Future Of Manufacturing’ claims that digital twins could be key to any future development of a metaverse within industry. This is important because when it comes to required skills, infrastructure and manufacturing, engineers in particular have an opportunity to cement a future in what is expected to be the next big iteration of the web. This will, of course, make a number of demands on both organizations and employees. Data flow and management is going to be absolutely crucial, and that means organizations taking a forward-looking approach to key technology facilitators such as cloud computing infrastructures, IoT deployment and 5G.

The concept is understandably a difficult one to get your head around. The metaverse seems so far away and yet, as history often shows, it’s usually a gradual development and rarely a big bang moment. However, by embracing and enabling the so-called building blocks of the metaverse, organizations are positioning themselves strategically, with surprisingly little risk. That’s because, as we have said, digital twins are an increasingly key component in the design and build armory, regardless of whether or not a metaverse does or will exist.

For every organization though, it does drive home the importance of getting the digital house in order. Transformations are, or at least should be, ongoing. Such is the nature of technology; few businesses can afford to stand too still. Fluidity will be key but it will also be tempting, probably from a cost-conscious position, to take a few shortcuts. That’s fine, to a point. Few can afford a rip and replace strategy when it comes to technology investment, but it’s about setting priorities. Even if a business is not even remotely interested in the metaverse, quick and reliable data access and flow is a game changer.

Playing people games

What is interesting is how industries and technologies are colliding. Bentley Systems, for example, is already working with the Unreal gaming engine to deliver immersive experiences for its digital twins. The company has struck a deal with Siemens to simulate its proposed revamp of the Siemensstadt industrial complex in Berlin, which is expected to be completed by 2035. The gaming element is going to be a difficult one to ignore. The likes of Unreal and Unity are potentially key players here. Unity is already running a series of metaverse workshops aimed at industry.

The point is that with Gen Z, the first truly digital generation emerging into the workplace, the expectations change. Traditional job profiles are no longer clear cut. Technology is blurring the lines and engineering will need to compete for skills, something which increased game-driven immersive experiences could help resolve. To a point.

Organizations will need to evolve themselves into technology businesses, developing cultures, workflows and experiences that embrace these technologies as core to the organization. It’s a sea change. As Accenture’s 2022 report “Meet Me in the Metaverse” suggests, “businesses are racing toward a future that is very different from the one they were designed to operate in—as technologies, such as extended reality, blockchain, digital twins and edge computing are converging to reshape human experiences.”

Those experiences work both internally to employees as well as externally to customers. As Marc Petit, vice president pf Epic Games’ Unreal Engine Ecosystem says, “if we want a creator economy—if we want our kids to have jobs that we could not even dream of ourselves—how do we think about those platforms as citizens, companies, and regulators?”

That’s what immersive experiences enable: the ability to walk in others’ shoes, to understand problems and develop tools and methods for overcoming those problems. That’s powerful for any organization, but it comes down to return on investment. New technologies come at a cost, but this feels like a great opportunity for change and growth. As Cap Gemini revealed last year, “60 percent of organizations across major sectors are leaning on digital twins as a catalyst to not only improve operational performance, but also to fulfil their sustainability agenda.”

OK, so it’s not quite the metaverse yet, but it’s a start. Pessimistically, Gartner suggests in its 2022 hype-cycle for emerging technologies report that the metaverse is more than 10 years away from being really useful. That doesn’t matter. Ultimately business leaders will need to make a choice. Not necessarily about whether or not the metaverse is going to be a great place for the business to live and operate, at least not yet, but whether or not the business needs to embrace immersive technologies and solutions for customers. At the moment, that means digital twins and extended realities with AR and VR as key components. Tomorrow those components could change. No one can really plan for that. What organizations can plan for is what customers and employees want and need now, knowing that if they get it right, they can future-proof the organization and skills base to be metaverse-ready. Honestly, there are worse places to be.