Does the metaverse… matter?

by Ben Ice
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man using vr goggles

It’s going to shape the future, we just don’t yet know how. For facility managers there’s plenty to think about.

Interacting virtually with objects and spaces, sharing information remotely, and tracking complex building data with simple sensors. The metaverse offers mountains of potential for facility management, property and maintenance, but first one needs to wrap one’s head around it.

In Wired last year, Eric Ravenscraft said “To a certain extent, talking about what ‘the metaverse’ means is a bit like having a discussion about what ‘the internet’ meant in the 1970s

“The building blocks of a new form of communication were in the process of being built, but no one could really know what the reality would look like. So while it was true, at the time, that ‘the internet’ was coming, not every idea of what that would look like was true.”

In a Forbes article about the metaverse and healthcare, Bernard Marr summed up the effect it’d have by reducing it down to the convergence of three major tech trends, each of which has the power to influence healthcare on its own. These are telepresence, or the ability to communicate and work with other individuals remotely, digital twins, and blockchain technology. “Together,” he wrote, “they could create entirely new channels for delivering care that have the potential to lower costs and vastly improve patient outcomes.”

The other big part of the metaverse conversation is the hype. It’s hard to go online without seeing it anywhere and everywhere, which could serve to intimidate or simply annoy people out of properly engaging.

The technology has been around for a number of years, though, with the various tools outlined and explored previously in FM. The ‘metaverse’ moniker seems more recent, having emerged as a kind of catch-all.

Mark Zuckerberg rebranded his Facebook empire to ‘Meta’, which may have been a desperate attempt to remain relevant as his products hit a user plateau and ad revenue took a hit. Whether the metaverse ends up looking how he imagines it, or whether Meta even ends up having an active role in it, remains to be seen. But Zuckerberg’s big bet can be taken as a sign that the metaverse matters, and that it could change or replace the way we use technology to interact with each other and the world.

It is a concept we know will grow and change but perhaps not how. Just like, as Ravenscraft explained, the way we viewed the internet before the new millennium. And there are plenty of ways it could help those managing built spaces. Simple digital twins can be created using an app on a smartphone. Property managers and real estate agents can offer virtual reality building tours to prospective tenants who cannot arrange a physical visit. IoT sensors can be placed on assets to track performance, flag issues and schedule repairs.

Cyberspace management

Ben Corser is APAC managing director at Matterport, whose products include a spatial data platform and apps to make simple digital twins using smartphones. “We define the metaverse as a virtual environment that connects real-world people to the abundance of virtual spaces,” Corser says.”The metaverse signifies an increasing shift toward digitisation of the physical world.”

Products like Matterport’s and many others in the metaverse can be powerful, like digital twins that unlock critical building intelligence such as accurate measures of the structure and dimensions of the equipment within. “Using a digital replica of a physical space, facilities managers can unlock a whole range of process efficiencies ranging from building inspections, equipment repair and installations to regulatory compliance tracking and vendor management,” Corser says. All of the captured dimensional data on structure, utilities and equipment can then be integrated into computer aided design (CAD) or building information modelling (BIM) software, giving managers a view of assets in their portfolio that’s accessible anywhere at any time. But what makes the metaverse different from many of the technologies we’ve been using and discussing for a while now? Is the ‘metaverse’ anything more than a bit of techy jargon to get us all excited?
“What we are now seeing,” says Corser, “is a collaborative pursuit to build environments virtually. While digital twins in the built world have existed in the past, it was not at the scale or pace we see today.”

Furthermore, Corser says, where digital twin technology has been a luxury enjoyed by enterprises and businesses, mainly used at large factories and buildings, we can now democratise access to digitising spaces. Matterport Axis, for example, is a motorised mount that allows any smartphone user to create a digital twin of their space.

This democratisation – to be blunt, the savings – is one of the things that has caught the attention of Graham Constable, facility management consultant, technology thought leader and FM columnist. He offers an anecdote:

I did some work at a large university for about 18 months, and they had a guy there who was a very clever individual. He was looking after and managing their BMS for all the facilities on campus. He knew all the data inside out. But it was a very, very costly system that was introduced.

On the other hand, I met up with some people who were doing a similar thing, not with such complex environments to manage, but nevertheless, they were buying these four dollar little sensors you can stick on doors and lights that give you data. They were just linking it up, consolidating all of the data and making decisions. And I said to them, “This sounds like a bit of a BMS,” and one said, “It is.”

I then went back to the guy who was looking after the large university and asked, “Do you think there is a chance for these huge, costly systems to be disrupted by all these very little clever devices that can be multipurpose, multifunctional, that can be moved at a moment’s notice, that are all connected up to clever algorithms and have clever people making sense of it?” And he said, “Well, yes.”

Why not?

Constable ponders why more of these IoT capabilities aren’t taking off right now. “Why pay an absolute fortune for a hard-wired BMS when you could install and connect via the internet, small, smart and interactive sensors that monitor pretty well everything and can be flexibly applied or attached to any system or equipment at any time as the need requires?

“It’s either because there are very few people that are dealing with that visionary idea, or there are just companies that spend such a large amount of money so they’re not going to remove what they’ve already invested in.” Furthermore, he says, “some of these BMS systems are very inflexible. They’re hard-wired, doing a great job but they are costing a fortune to install.”

There’s also a bit of inertia, perhaps. Certain inspired thinkers and future leaders recognise the possibilities. “People have really good ideas,” says Constable, but, “they’re just going to stay dreams unless someone actions them higher up.” Another business case, aside from the savings, is the treasure trove of actionable data that can begin to inform changes in strategy for the betterment of budgets, maintenance, utilities and occupant experience.

Corser believes the main barrier to adoption is awareness. “Many are still unsure of the applications of three-dimensional capture and digital twin technology, so education is still needed on the benefits and potential applications,’ he says.
The various building blocks of the metaverse do appear to be catching on, though. According to a Resonai survey of 76 directors from 11 industries in the US and Europe between late 2020 and early 2021, augmented reality technology enjoyed an adoption rate of 30 percent in hospital and medical facilities, 26 percent in manufacturing, and 23 percent in corporate offices. Maintenance automation (49 percent) and preventative maintenance (45 percent) were the most perceived benefits of AR use. A recent Marketwatch forecast expects the digital twin market to hit a value of US$72 billion by 2028.

One fun thing about the metaverse, though, is that a lot of the wisdom and capability that can be transferred to facility management from the outside – from video gaming, or in cutting edge advancements like robotics. “Go and research what’s being done in different industries,” advises Constable, “and go and meet them and speak to them about the technology they’re using for their particular line of work.

“Then start thinking what parts of that you can transform and recreate that are going to solve some of our own issues in the industry.”

He uses the example of UNSW’s Dr David Kellerman, who was looking for a way to quickly keep up with the questions from his 500-plus lecture attendees. He built a Microsoft Teams channel, which students adopted easily, and began logging lectures there and fielding questions with a chatbot. As more questions came through, machine learning was applied and began to notice similar questions and prepare automated responses. As more questions and answers were generated, it grew smarter and helped flag struggling students for assistance. It was able to help curate the coursework and personalise guidance for each student, with very high levels of satisfaction and a feeling of community among the pupils.

Constable recalls thinking, “What an amazing bit of technology that was so simple to put in place. What would happen if we implemented that within the FM industry, where there are all these playbooks, which are sources of information, and we had a bot that analysed questions from operational teams, who were then linked up to this information. The bot could say ‘we’re getting a lot of questions around this sort of thing, maybe this is a skillset we may need now to train up our FM teams’.”

Entering the metaverse

You may still be sceptical and you’re not alone if you steer clear of a Zuckerberg-style identity overhaul to suit the metaverse. But don’t ignore it. It’s an interesting space and could make a difference in your work one day, if not right now.

Corser concedes the metaverse and digital twin tech can be difficult to explain and visualise. He recommends seeing and doing is the best first step. “Learning by doing may be the best way for facility managers to truly understand the power of digital twin technology and its applications in creating three-dimensional environments.”

Constable feels FMs should be excited about the new possibilities, and that metaverse tools aren’t just to be learned and then coasted on. “Have an attitude of lifelong learning,” he says. “You may be doing a good job at the moment but is it good enough for you? Is there something more that you can learn and do better?”

Once these capabilities are truly embraced, they open up new avenues within a facility’s management but also in the careers of tomorrow. “The future’s not just going to be about looking after a building in Pitt Street,” he says.

This article originally appeared in our digital magazine. Download the latest issue here.

Photo by Laurens Derks on Unsplash

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