In association withNokia
In association with:Content from MIT Technology Review Insights
The industrial metaverse:
A game-changer for operational technology
How enterprises can unlock the full potential of the industrial metaverse.
Even as technologists are trying to envision what the metaverse will bring for businesses and consumers, the industrial metaverse is already transforming how people design, manufacture, and interact with physical entities across industries.“The industrial metaverse combines physical-digital fusion and human augmentation for industrial applications and contains digital representations of physical industrial environments, systems, assets and spaces that people can control, communicate, and interact with.” Thierry Klein, president of Bell Labs Solutions Research at Nokia
While definitions abound and it remains to be seen how the industrial metaverse will fully unfold, digital twins are increasingly viewed as one of its key applications. Used for everything from creating ecosystems when planning a new city to working out iterations of manufacturing processes, digital twins were first proposed in 2002 and later became a vital technology when the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) accelerated automation and digitization across industries.
Simply put, a digital twin is a virtual replica of a product or process used to predict how the physical entity will perform throughout its lifecycle. BMW, for instance, created a virtual twin of its production plant in Bavaria before building the physical facility. Boeing is using a digital twin development model to design its airplanes. And “Virtual Singapore” is a digital representation of the Southeast Asian nation that the government created to support its policy decisions and test new technologies. The increasing buzz surrounding digital twins is fueling expectations for the industrial metaverse.
“The market opportunity is huge and the amount of investment capital that is going into this particular space is very, very significant.”
Raghav Sahgal, president of the cloud and network services business at Nokia
According to ABI Research, revenues for industrial digital twin and simulation and industrial extended reality will hit $22.73 billion by 2025 as organizations use Industry 4.0 tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, edge computing, and extended reality to accelerate digital transformation.
Potential of the industrial metaverse market
Virtual spaces revenue (global)
- Consumer appeal driven
- Reliant on trends and network effect
- Fragmented monetization, with growth from 2026
Immersive collaboration and related cloud revenue (global)
- Business value driven
- Solution and device innovation
- Good monetization potential, with growth from 2025
Digital twin and simulation and industrial extended reality revenue (global)
- Operational results driven
- Industrial automation focus
- High monetization potential, with early traction
Source: ABI Research, Evaluation of the Enterprise Metaverse Opportunity, Third Quarter, 2022
Experts say a convergence of maturing technologies is fueling the growth of the industrial metaverse. Foremost among these, according to Sahgal, is 5G. “This really is a very big inflection point in the industry,” he says. As he explains, “5G creates interesting new vectors of capability” that enable lower latency (delay) and more precise exchange of data, both key for driving metaverse applications.
Beyond twinning: operational insight
Creating digital twins is just one of the many advantages of the industrial metaverse. Klein says the industrial metaverse can reach “a much larger scale with increasing complexity by creating digital twins of entire systems such as factories, airports, cargo terminals, or cities—not just digital twins of individual machines or devices that we have seen so far.” He points to Nokia Bell Labs’ technology-partnership with indoor vertical farming company AeroFarms, started in 2020, as an example of how the industrial metaverse’s immersive reality, sensing, and machine-learning capabilities can be used to gain operational insights. “It’s an early example,” he notes, “and you can see how some of the key technological elements are being developed to build toward a full-scale metaverse.”
By combining its AI-based autonomous drone-control solution and advanced machine-learning capabilities with machine vision tools, Nokia Bell Labs has created a technology that can track the growth of millions of plants. “We have developed a completely autonomous drone solution with multiple drones flying through this farm,” says Klein. That allows the farm to monitor details such as the height and color of its plants, spot poor growth areas, and predict the production yield.
“We actually built a complete digital twin of the farm that gives the growers a real-time picture of the entire production throughout the farm,” says Klein. With data analysis, the farm can optimize its water, energy, and nutrient consumption; speed up troubleshooting; improve accuracy in yield forecast; and maintain a consistently high quality.
The industrial metaverse could also bolster remote collaboration and optimize processes, says Klein. Users could tap into its capabilities as a dynamic, multistakeholder ecosystem, using intelligent analytics to process datasets and gain deeper insights into problems. Nokia’s collaboration with Taqtile is one example.
The companies joined hands in 2021 to offer an augmented reality training and work-instruction platform, which leverages industrial edge cloud computing, the internet of things, and 4G or 5G networks and enables users to communicate in real time with experts. “It all comes down to having access to more information and better understanding that may not be visible to the naked eye, giving you more insight about what that information means,” says Klein. The platform enables users to extract the most useful information from complex data, allowing them to make intelligent decisions, interact with and control the environment around them, and go back to collaborative design.For skeptics, however, the industrial metaverse—with all its touted possibilities—may sound extremely idealistic. Klein admits, “We should cool the hype a little bit and take a pragmatic approach to solving real-world problems by leveraging the enabling technologies of physical-digital fusion and human augmentation.”
He likens the metaverse to the internet in the early 1990s. “I think the metaverse will be similar where we cannot imagine all the applications and its impact on our personal and professional lives right now,” he says. “There are, however, already a lot of practical examples and very concrete progress is being made.” Still, Sahgal says certain obstacles need to be overcome. These include scalability, which is one of the metaverse’s biggest challenges, making 5G investments crucial because the metaverse “will be pretty immense in terms of data and video consumption.”
For mission-critical industrial applications, the metaverse will require low-latency, massive machine communications and high reliability, in addition to fast network speeds. Edge computing is another must-have because of the requirement for almost zero latency—decentralized local edge data centers close to users will be needed for people to interact with one another and use devices to access the metaverse.“It would be very difficult for people to carry intricate, heavy headsets,” says Sahgal. “Edge compute will enable much leaner, lighter headgear by offloading a large part of the compute from the device to an edge infrastructure—while also providing superior speed and low latency capabilities. Without edge computing, there will simply be no metaverse.”
Getting to the metaverse will take more than sophisticated devices though—it will need to be a collaborative effort. “Nobody will actually own or dominate the metaverse,” says Sahgal. “It'll be all kinds of applications, devices, and other things coming together.” To facilitate that, exposing the network as code will be an important foundation. “The network’s capabilities are represented as a piece of code to the application development community, which they can embed into their applications and then consume those capabilities,” he explains. “And hence, the network becomes very programmable by the ecosystem.” In addition, software-as-a-service will help more organizations access the industrial metaverse and in turn, facilitate agility and rapid innovation.
Meanwhile, Klein compares building the metaverse to having the right selection of blocks and interfaces to connect them in various ways. “Imagine that you bought a Lego set to build a model plane,” he explains. “Initially, you’re quite happy with building that plane, but after a while you are bored and you want to build something else, say a boat, or a car, or a house. How do you build something different that matches your creative interest? It’s the same foundational building blocks from the original Lego set that you reuse, but you put them together in different ways.”
For the industrial metaverse, those building blocks are the enabling modules, applications, and software assets. “You will connect them together in different ways,” says Klein, “using application programming interfaces to create new solutions that solve your specific industrial challenges and match the business logic of your use cases.” An ecosystem of partners, technology and network providers, data producers and owners, and application developers will contribute to these building blocks. Collectively, they facilitate a digital marketplace and lead to new and unprecedented levels of innovation, creativity, and agile and collaborative service creation.
As with any innovative technology, security is paramount, especially because cyberattacks have surged in recent years, with criminals employing increasingly sophisticated technology such as AI, ransomware-as-a-service, and deepfakes. Sahgal says cybersecurity will become even more important in the industrial metaverse: “That's where you're dealing with very mission-critical data; if that gets compromised, it could have a huge impact on that specific industry as well.”
Keeping people’s identities secure and protecting the data shared within virtual collaboration will also be integral, especially across a decentralized ecosystem of stakeholders who may not have pre-established business and relationships with one another.
Not if, but when
The greatest share of enterprises and communication service providers believe the metaverse will be here within 10 years and the organizations need to start preparing now, according to a joint survey by Nokia and Gartner Peer Insights.
Communications service providers
Enthusiasm for the metaverse is intensifying
Believe it will transform the way we work
See the opportunity for new shared experiences and augmented reality
Believe it will benefit industry
Consider the metaverse as hype
Organizations must prepare now
Think the metaverse is already here
Think the metaverse is 5-10 years away but organizations must prepare now
Think it’s a long way off and has nothing to do with them
Source: Nokia, 2022
While increased demand for performance, ultra-reliability, and advanced cybersecurity need to be addressed before the metaverse can be fully utilized on a global scale, experts say companies should not wait to capitalize on this new wave of technology. “It starts with awareness,” says Sahgal. “Acknowledging that this is not an experiment anymore.” But awareness should also be accompanied by the right technology—intelligent, autonomous, cloud-native networks with high bandwidth and ultra-low latency. Industries will also have to modernize their infrastructure to make it much more open and accessible to participate in the industrial metaverse.
Both Sahgal and Klein say they believe early users of the industrial metaverse will be concentrated in certain industries, particularly those involving physical assets, such as manufacturing, logistics, and transportation. The health-care industry could also benefit from metaverse applications, specifically in avenues such as telemedicine and robotic surgery. “The use cases are infinite, quite frankly, because you can apply it almost to any industry,” says Sahgal. While much about the metaverse remains unknown, its endless possibilities seem to be the only certainty.