How Can the Metaverse Help the AEC Industry?
While most of the attention has been focused on gaming, Mark Zuckerberg and crypto, there is actually real potential for the architecture, engineering and construction industry.
If you’ve spent even a few hours on social media over the past year, it would have been impossible for you to avoid seeing stories, conversations and fierce debates about the future of the Internet and a bold new world known simply as the “metaverse.” If you believe the loudest voices in the room, the metaverse will redefine virtually every single activity that humans currently engage in. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta (formerly known as Facebook), has staked the entire future of his company on this new world. Silicon Valley investors are pumping cash into what they’re calling Web 3.0—a decentralized, user-driven version of the Internet—at a dizzying pace, with millions of dollars changing hands daily as the latest cryptocurrency projects boom and bust.
To the skeptics, the metaverse is nothing more than a silly buzzword being pushed by the earliest adopters who have made its success a disproportionate part of their identity and have the most to lose if it fails. The CEO of the company formerly known as Facebook is said to be desperate to strike a chord with a younger generation that has largely ignored his company’s core product and whose primary business has shifted to selling ads and collecting user data. Facebook came under intense pressure and scrutiny as users lost interest, competitors gained advertising market share, and governments sought to increase regulation. Cryptocurrency detractors cite its massive energy demand; dubious regulation, which can lead to opportunities for money laundering and criminal activity; and its somewhat dubious reputation. For the time being, cryptocurrency and the metaverse are joined at the hip, but with a potential for decoupling.
What Can Metaverse Do for Us?
Most average Internet users’ understanding of the metaverse comes from the company formerly known as Facebook rebranded as Meta Platforms. Under its new branding, Zuckerberg’s company is attempting to move on from Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to tackle the virtual world. The move comes as revenues have begun to dry up in the face of a crackdown by Apple on targeted advertising, distrust from users and increased competition from rivals like Snapchat and TikTok—services favored by younger generations.
Introducing users to the metaverse has been slow going so far, but Meta Platforms has seen an uptick in the sales of its Oculus device, which allows users to play games in virtual reality and interact with other Oculus users. Projections on future revenue and profitability in the metaverse do not paint a rosy picture for the company, whose market cap peaked at over $1 trillion in September 2021 but has since suffered its largest one-day drop in value ever after its latest quarterly earnings report.
If you only associate the metaverse with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook and scammy NFT and crypto projects, you might be inclined to think that it is only a playground for grifters, unpopular CEOs and charlatans, but there is real potential to be tapped if you overlook the seedier aspects. The metaverse has the potential to be much more than a place to play games and immerse yourself in an imaginary world. Engineers and contractors whose work focuses on the built environment can benefit greatly by being able to see digital representations of their work that can be manipulated, shared with key collaborators and updated in real time on a daily basis.
Think of the older versions of the Internet as two-dimensional. The metaverse aims to build on that experience by becoming fully three-dimensional and multisensory. There is a sense of being able to touch and interact with objects and environments using virtual reality headsets. Workers can bring all their project management tools, models, drawings and data visualization into a virtual office. Build a bridge or a full-scale working model of a factory floor right on your desk—that’s the metaverse when it’s been developed to its full potential.
What Can You Do in the Metaverse?
As a fully fleshed-out concept, the metaverse is less than a year old, so its use cases are still being developed. Engineers and designers who are interested can get in on the ground floor and help to develop the applications and programs that may be widely used by the industry in the future. It’s helpful to continue thinking about the more ambiguous “metaverse” and think in terms of virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR)—terms that have been used much more commonly even if the technology has not been widely used in professional settings.
So, what exactly can engineers and designers use the metaverse for?
Engineers, designers and architects who need to collaborate will benefit the most from the metaverse. Augmented and virtual reality can be ultra-useful in our transition from traditional office-based work, such as we have had over the past two years of the pandemic. Engineers can use VR and AR to interface with their clients, display models remotely, and eliminate the need to travel. Collaborating in VR is much more powerful and valuable than a Zoom call.
The Wild and IrisVR have built a software platform that taps into the potential of the new Meta Quest 2 headset. Architecture firm LEO A DALY has been using The Wild’s collaboration tools and had plenty of good things to say about them.
“The challenge for us in working from home was that we love to roll up our sleeves and make drawings, bleed all over the paper, use different types of pens, all different colors, and then bring in computers and iterate. And so, we had the challenge of not being able to get together and hear each other, see each other, and take visual cues from one another. Not being able to hear people’s voices, see their reactions, and experience things visually together was a huge challenge. But with The Wild, we were able to enter an environment where we had a lot of content. We had the model at our disposal, whether we were looking at it as a scale model or getting inside the model; we weren’t limited by the platform. We could do SketchUp, Revit, AutoCAD sketches, or even our own massing. Being able to throw things on the wall like we do in a charrette type of scenario, and then respond to it graphically, and hear one another agree or disagree; those are the things we were able to navigate with The Wild better than other platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Webex,” said Ryan Martin, director of Design.
Hyundai and Unity have teamed up to create a digital twin of a cutting-edge automotive manufacturing plant. (Picture courtesy of Hyundai.)
Working through the design process of a new product, building or bridge becomes a lot easier when you’re able to physically feel it in your hands without spending the time, money or materials on actually building a physical mockup.
Volkswagen developed a subcompact SUV for the Latin American market called the Nivus entirely using virtual prototypes. The company’s team of designers was able to work safely during the pandemic, prototype more quickly, complete the design in under a year, and drastically cut costs without sacrificing quality.
Building information modeling (BIM) is essentially an upgrade on older CAD methods. VR takes it a step further with robust digital twins that replicate a physical asset and can add an incredible level of detail.
This is perhaps the space of the VR world with the greatest amount of activity for the engineering and construction industry. Digital twins are the next logical step in the CAD/plan evolution and provide a means to develop a more complete picture of existing bridges, buildings and even cityscapes. Unity Software, Bentley Systems and Cupix are leaders in the development of digital twin applications. Unity and Hyundai partnered to develop a digital twin of a major car factory. Bentley, a leader in software for the infrastructure industry, has deployed its digital twin technology to create virtual models of large, complex bridges to help accelerate the inspection, maintenance and repair process. Meanwhile, Cupix focuses its technology on deployments on construction sites to monitor real-time progress, update BIM models and track work progress.
You can present clients with different finishing options for their buildings like architectural treatments, types of glass and facade designs. This is a great way to help clients understand how their project will appear upon completion and ensure that the finished product aligns with their vision without costly rework, delays and change orders.
Matterport works in the digital twins space as well, but its product is visually appealing and is loaded with tools geared toward creating immersive environments that can be manipulated by real estate agents, photographers, event planners and homeowners to showcase how a space will look when a project is completed.
Virtual reality is far preferable to a PowerPoint presentation. A fully immersive virtual presentation brings viewers right into the middle of the project. Using virtual reality in presentations is a surefire way to capture an audience’s attention.
What’s Next for Engineers in the Metaverse?
Separate yourself from the hyperbole used by the tech and crypto crowd about the metaverse and it’s obvious that there is tremendous potential for engineers and designers to use virtual and augmented reality to improve their workflows and teamwork, serve clients more effectively, and design better finished products. Engineers who make the commitment to learn the ins and outs of virtual reality and a nascent technology still in development will position themselves to be leaders within their field and firms. As with all new technology, there are still advances that will need to be made before the metaverse is something that engineers can use on a daily basis, but engineers should be aware of its capacity and begin taking baby steps to understand its potential and slowly introduce it into their work environments.