Over the last several months, the word “metaverse” has blown up across tech-oriented headlines, spurred in no small part by Facebook’s Connect 2021 decision to rebrand as “Meta”. Of course, much of the buzz has targeted the consumer (and the abstract), so many executives may be asking themselves: “What is a metaverse and what does it mean for my business?”
In its simplest form the metaverse is an immersive, interactive medium where digital representations of people interact with each other and digital objects in a virtual space.
A metaverse experience can be almost entirely divorced from the physical world, allowing people from around the globe to engage with each other in fictitious environments, governed by software code rather than laws of nature.
For example, massive multiplayer video games like World of Warcraft and Fortnite represent primitive metaverses – complete with their own variety of activities, social interactions, events, and even economies. With virtual reality (VR) technology, these and other metaverse experiences can become more immersive.
Far richer metaverse instances leverage augmented reality (AR) and Internet of Things (IoT) technology to blur the lines between digital and physical experiences, with digital objects and avatars extending into physical space and vice versa.
“The metaverse brings the physical and digital worlds together, allowing people and things to collaborate more intuitively with complex systems in person or afar,” explains Steve Dertien, Chief Technology Officer of PTC. “The metaverse, as a 3D interface for IoT, will make the physical and digital indistinguishable and therefore augment our human ability to make better-informed decisions with a minimum of mental energy and training.”
For industrial companies, there are both relatively simple and more complex ways to leverage the metaverse that may, in time, offer tremendous opportunities. Here’s how PTC is envisioning the possibilities:
The pandemic accelerated a shift toward hybrid and remote work. Fortunately, tools like Zoom and Microsoft 365 were available at the time to help many businesses preserve adequate productivity and efficiency for knowledge workers. But preserving productivity and efficiency is hardly an aspirational goal of technology. With metaverse-powered collaboration, hybrid working may very well be more effective than traditional work for many functions within a company.
Compare, for example, the difference in collaboration enabled by Zoom versus Onshape, PTC’s cloud-native computer-aided design (CAD) software. The former supports collaboration to the extent it supports communication. It’s simple to illustrate: Of the hours spent in Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings, consider the fragment of that time in which real value was created. For most roles, these meetings help to reflect on performance or align on goals, but actions are performed and goals are achieved separately, often by individuals working in the solitude of their isolated, application-specific software tools.
On the other hand, Onshape enables its users to simultaneously interact with and edit the same digital model. Sharing the same instance, one can see and react to the actions and effects of another, all within a digital environment that equips them with the tools to do their job – designing products. This empowers an agile approach--where changes can be made in parallel, examined, and evaluated as they happen–instead of a sequential process of planning, action, and review, with each step occurring in a different environment.
While Onshape is far from a metaverse application, its ability to generate real collaboration beyond just communication is an example of what a shared digital experience makes possible. By including digital representations of individual collaborators and a shared virtual environment, the metaverse gives more depth to this idea of digital communication and collaboration.
The metaverse promises to transform not just the collaborative process but the very nature of interactions between people, places, and things. Applied correctly, utilizing the metaverse could enhance numerous aspects of hybrid workflow. Consider these examples:
These opportunities are just the tip of the iceberg to offer a sense of the possibilities of metaverse to improve everyday work processes. Watch the video to see how Onshape enables collaboration.
The Onshape example illustrates how the metaverse might improve purely intellectual work processes – such as design – where value is connected to the conceived idea, rather than a physical outcome. But what about processes that are intrinsically physical, like the manufacturing of products or servicing of equipment? In fact, they have just as much (if not more) to gain when communication and collaborative capabilities of the metaverse are extended into the physical world with AR and IoT.
AR and IoT are enormously complementary technologies benefiting manufacturing and service workflows (if you haven’t explored the implications of this synergy, read this article by BCG).
As BCG explains it, “IoT devices capture data from the physical world so that it can be analyzed, and AR devices take that digital data and render it back on the physical world for people to view and interact with.”
The metaverse promises to add layers upon layers of extra context and interactivity into this mix. That context may come from other physical things, people, process, or places (via spatial computing), and it may also come from non-physical sources of relevant information, such as business or financial data. All of this can be done with today’s IoT and AR technology. However, in the same way streaming services stimulated an explosion of video content, the existence of a thriving metaverse will create a market for digital assets, APIs, and apps making the content and information more available and cheaper to integrate.
Further, as more content is created for the metaverse, AR market share will encroach on the market of traditional interfaces for media consumption and interaction. In Meta’s vision, AR along with VR, will outright displace contemporary interfaces like computer monitors, televisions, and smartphones. Michael Campbell, EVP and GM of PTC’s augmented reality business, argues that that AR will prove to be the more practical metaverse medium for the foreseeable future.
“The metaverse is great, but we all still – and I think for some time yet will continue to – live, work, and play in the real, physical world. AR is how relevant digital content from the metaverse can be contextualized in the physical world. It provides the ability to experience metaverse content – data and information, 2D and 3D geometry and relevant insights – in context, where and when people need it most, in the physical space where we all live and do our work.”
The video below illustrates how IoT and AR can combine to create, observer, and interact with a rich digital universe that permeates and impacts the physical. This is an example of spatial computing, a technology that will be necessary to contextualize the metaverse.
While the popularity of the term metaverse is new, the idea of leveraging digital technology to transform how we work and interact with our products, our environment, and each other, is not. The goal of a metaverse will be balancing the limitations and benefits of physical and digital so that the union of both is optimized.
At PTC, this idea is core to our vision: Our technology and solutions are built to help close the loop between physical and digital, empowering industrial organizations with the tools they need to succeed.
See how this massive shift in the computing paradigm will change the way we work.