For a few weeks in 2021, it was all anyone could talk about: Facebook announced it was changing its name to Meta, a move meant to reflect the company's pivot away from social media toward the metaverse. H&M, Nike and other big consumer brands got on board, launching their own virtual stores and products that customers were meant to peruse in a virtual world, all from the comfort of their homes using virtual reality (VR) glasses and their own personalized avatars.
Less than two years later, dozens of publications have declared that the metaverse is dead. And there are several reasons to think so. Some blame the fall in the value of cryptocurrencies and NFTs, which had positioned themselves as a key component of the metaverse. Others say it's because generative AI, the technology behind chatbots like ChatGPT, has now stolen the tech industry's attention. Many hated the idea, to begin with.
But in one sector, the metaverse has quietly been gaining steam. Industrial manufacturing sees applications for the technology, and the "industrial metaverse" is a main topic on the agenda at this year's Hannover Messe, one of the world's largest industrial trade fairs. Not everyone attending agrees on or knows what it is. But that doesn't mean they're not part of it.
The factory floor moves to the metaverse
The metaverse is ultimately about linking the physical world with the virtual world, Sebastian Klöß, manager of the consumer technology division at Bitkom, an umbrella group of the German IT and telecommunications sector said in a panel discussion on the concept, one of several taking place at the fair.
"And in the industrial metaverse specifically, it's primarily about coupling machine data and real-time data from factories with the virtual world," he said.
On display at the fair are plenty of technologies using virtual reality headsets, smart glasses and gloves with sensors that let you see and work virtually or remotely, and laser scanning technology used to create digital copies of physical objects, something known as a digital twin, a key component of the industrial metaverse. The object could be an automobile, a small component, or even a whole factory.
"Use case: fewer flights, less travel, more sustainable, prototype production is optimized," an employee at the exhibition for Igus, a plastics company that works in the realms of 3D printing and automation, told DW. "You don't need as many prototypes because you can do that with digital twins."
'Digital twins' minimize cost and risk
A digital twin has several benefits. Companies can test out how the equipment works in a virtual space and suss out potential problems without producing faulty prototypes or damaging equipment in real life. They can artificially speed up workflows and see what the production process would look like over the long term or multiply the number of machines to see what scaling would appear like before investing in a bunch of new machines.
Cameras and VR technology are other components of the metaverse, which industrial players hope will take remote working to the next level. Remote areas like oil drilling platforms and gas pipelines where experts located elsewhere could easily be connected.
"Maybe there aren't any experts on site, because the plants aren't very big," Thomas Kühn, manager of the embedded systems division at the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering in Germany, said in a discussion. "They could be located globally, and we can then bring them in [using metaverse technology] via a service technician on site. That is a use case that I can imagine very, very well at this point."
Simulations to show proof-of-concept
At the Igus booth, DW puts on a VR headset and grabs a set of controllers. The next five minutes are spent on the upper platform of a virtual oil well installing replacement parts. The simulation shows what the installation process would be like, the Igus representative explains, so that you can see beforehand what problems might arise. Does the part fit? Can the worker access the location?
Simulations like this have existed for a while, and a lot of VR visuals still aren't easy on the eyes. But what's different about the industrial metaverse is the application to industrial production, and that these simulations are now meant to match a physical reality exactly.
That's why so many digital design and scanning products are on display this year in Hannover. Some start with a design, which is then made into a physical copy. Others use lasers to scan existing physical objects in order to then create a digital copy.
Industry torn on 'metaverse' terminology
At one exhibit, a dog-like yellow robot takes a few laps around the stand. A salesman points out the 360-degree camera jutting out of its back and says it's used to create a virtual copy of a factory floor. DW takes a look at a nearby screen, where a virtual copy of an actual factory is displayed – tables, equipment, high ceilings. Aesthetically, it looks like a video game. And like in a video game, clicking on different components opens a text box with information and options to interact with the equipment.
"For us, it's a gaming technology that we use in a business context to teach mechanical engineers about the possibilities of the virtual world in such a way that they can put it into practice," the Igus spokesman says of his company's technology.
People are torn on the concept's association with Mark Zuckerberg's supposedly failed metaverse, which one attendee grumbles was just Facebook capitalizing on a trend that had already been developing for some time. Another says it might be more confusing than helpful. And others aren't really concerned.
"It's simply a development. It's technologies that are coming together now," Bitkom's Klöß told DW following the panel discussion. "And maybe we'll call it something completely different in 10 or 15 years. Just like how no one calls the internet 'the information superhighway' anymore."
Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey