Bentley Systems is a leading global provider of software solutions for infrastructure design, construction, and operations. They specialize in creating innovative software tools and platforms that help engineers, architects, and construction professionals design and build better infrastructure projects.
The concept of the industrial metaverse is an area of focus for Bentley Systems. It refers to the digital representation of the physical world, specifically in the context of industrial infrastructure. The industrial metaverse combines elements of virtual reality, augmented reality, and various digital twin technologies to create a rich, immersive environment that allows for better visualization, collaboration, and decision-making throughout the lifecycle of infrastructure projects.
The Metaverse Insider had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Demchak, the Director of the Digital Innovation Lab (iLab) at Bentley Systems. The iLab focuses on exploring and utilizing cutting-edge, next-generation technologies that have applications in architecture, engineering, and construction within the built environment. The scope of their work encompasses a wide range of physical infrastructure projects, including airports, bridges, and even nuclear fusion reactors.
Seamless Communication and Information Sharing with the Metaverse
Greg Demchak discusses the concept of the metaverse and its relevance in today’s world. He mentions that the term “metaverse” gained popularity due to Facebook’s name change to Meta and its connection to Neil Stephenson’s novel. In Stephenson’s vision, the metaverse represents a virtual world where people can escape reality and engage in immersive experiences. This concept aligns well with platforms like Facebook, which aim to provide users with a fantastic environment for networking and sharing experiences.
However, Demchak suggests looking beyond the hype and examining the underlying technology that enables the metaverse. He emphasizes the importance of a networked experience with three-dimensional content, allowing for multiplayer interactions across various devices such as VR headsets, augmented reality (AR) devices, and desktop computers. Demchak believes that the industrial sector, particularly those involved in architecture, engineering, and construction, already possesses the necessary 3D models generated through CAD software. The challenge lies in bridging the gap between these detailed engineering models and the metaverse experience through game engines. By doing so, the metaverse can extend the reach of these models, making them more accessible and engaging to a broader audience.
How can the Metaverse Help Address Common Challenges Associated with Typical Construction Camp Collaboration?
Demchak provided a simple example to illustrate the benefits of using immersive technologies in the construction industry. He explains that traditionally, floor plans and drawings are used to understand aspects like clearance and visibility on a construction site. While drawings can serve this purpose, 3D models can enhance the visualization process. However, Demchak highlights the next level of advancement, which involves using virtual reality (VR) to immerse workers in a first-person perspective.
By experiencing the site through VR, workers can take on the role of the actual worker, such as a truck driver accessing the site and communicating with a tower crane. This immersive approach helps identify overlooked issues that may not have been apparent in traditional media, like 2D or even 3D models. The ability to be immersed at a one-to-one scale allows the workforce to spot problems that would have been impossible to see otherwise or that would have been discovered too late during physical on-site experiences.
Demchak emphasizes the value of VR in providing a full experience before physically going to the site. It helps workers build muscle memory, awareness, and conscious familiarity with the site’s appearance, mitigating potential safety hazards. This one-to-one scale experience in VR is a powerful tool that cannot be replicated through other means.
Furthermore, Demchak mentions the relevance of the metaverse in this context. By utilizing the metaverse, multiple people, including different workers at various scales, can be introduced into the virtual scene, enabling collaborative interaction. This further enhances communication, coordination, and overall effectiveness on the construction site.
A Digital Twin of a Nuclear Fusion Reactor
When the Metaverse Insider asked Demchak about any projects that excited him the most, he was quick to recount his personal experience with using immersive technologies in the context of building a nuclear fusion reactor in France. Demchak explains that they had access to the reactor models and developed a new pipeline from Synchro to Unreal Engine, enabling them to transfer the models into VR headsets. They conducted testing and exploration of the model in London, simulating the site virtually.
Demchak highlights the significant moment when they were invited to the actual job site, where they had to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). They express the sense of familiarity and understanding they had gained from their virtual experience as if they had already been present at the site. This firsthand virtual experience provided them with a compelling understanding of the scale and navigation around the reactor.
The power of virtual experiences in preparing individuals for real-world situations. Despite the previous encounter being entirely virtual, it proved to be highly beneficial in terms of building familiarity and confidence when physically present at the job site:
“It was really compelling to have that firsthand experience of, wow, I’ve actually been here before.”
How Does the Metaverse Support Decision-Making in Construction?
Demchak drew inspiration from Marshall McLuhan’s concept that “the medium is the message.” He highlights the significance of the interactive, three-dimensional world of the metaverse as the medium and emphasizes that the content loaded into it is less important compared to the capabilities enabled by the medium itself.
He explains that the metaverse allows the entire construction team or facility operators to immerse themselves in a three-dimensional representation of reality alongside their peers. They can explore the virtual version together as if they were physically present. This immersive experience aligns with how people naturally navigate and problem-solve in the physical world. It taps into our understanding of physical movement, problem-solving with hands, and spatial awareness.
By leveraging the interactive and immersive nature of the metaverse, individuals can digitally walk around, problem-solve, and engage with their surroundings in ways that mimic physical experiences. This intrinsic connection to our physical understanding of the world enhances the decision-making process within both the metaverse and therefore, in person.
Are We Close to Reaching a Multidisciplinary Approach to Construction Collaboration?
Demchak emphasizes that significant progress has been made within the iLab, where they have successfully conducted multiple prototypes concerning a ‘multiplayer’ approach:
“We’re getting much closer”
They have developed an app that runs on a remote server and streams pixel data into a web browser. Through this app, they have enabled users from different locations to navigate a fusion reactor model together using avatars. The avatars can fly through the model, allowing for interactive discussions with audio and visual elements.
Demchak believes that the necessary technology already exists, including web browsers, networked interactivity, and a pipeline built with Unreal Engine. He emphasizes the openness of platforms like Unreal Engine and other game engines, where users can assemble various tools and innovate at their own pace. Furthermore, Demchak express excitement about the emerging possibilities for interaction and believes that the experiences gained during the COVID-19 pandemic, with remote collaboration and video conferencing, have prepared us for the next level of immersion in virtual environments:
“We just have to take it to that next level of immersion.”
What is so Powerful About These Platforms and Engines?
Demchak states that both Unity and Unreal Engine have the capability to integrate with existing contextual information from construction sites. Through API connections, they can import data such as terrain meshes from Cesium or immersive Google Maps into the engines. This provides access to reality mesh and contextual information. Additionally, they have developed a way to connect the engines with the latest BIM (Building Information Modeling) or 3D models, allowing them to be placed accurately within the context.
Another form of connectivity involves rendering camera feeds from CCTV cameras or integrating IoT data feeds to show real-time information. This integration of sensor data allows for the creation of a digital twin, combining reality capture and sensor-based information. Demchak also mentions a new technology called “nerf neural radiants fields,” which enables the reconstruction of AI-assisted 3D representations from videos captured on a phone. These representations can also be incorporated into game engines like Unity, Unreal Engine, and Omniverse:
“That’s the name of the game. These platforms have to be open-ended, open-access, and interoperable.”
The Future of the Industrial Metaverse
Demchak discusses the emergence of the metaverse as a concept and notes that while it may seem new, the technology behind it has been developing over the past 20 to 30 years. He emphasizes that there is nothing inherently revolutionary about the idea itself, but rather it has been steadily progressing over time.
He highlights two key factors that are contributing to the realization of the metaverse: the decreasing cost and complexity of engaging with 3D models, and the growing accessibility of open platforms. These factors are enabling more individuals to create and contribute 3D content, thereby fuelling the expansion of the metaverse.
He also speculates on the potential impact of Apple’s recently announced headset, drawing parallels to the transformative effect the iPhone had on mobile computing. He suggests that a groundbreaking product like Apple’s headset could spark a shift in how people perceive and interact with the metaverse, leading to new possibilities and perspectives.
Demchak briefly touches on the role of AI in the metaverse, expressing his belief that AI will have a place within it. He envisions AI systems that can be conversed with and possess their own sense of agency, going beyond mere keyboard interactions. This opens possibilities for unique and engaging human-computer interactions within immersive environments. Demchak also raises questions about the nature of relationships with AI and augmented individuals in the metaverse, speculating on how personal AI assistants could augment individuals and potentially blur the lines between the person and their AI counterpart.
Overall, Demchak sees the industrial metaverse as an evolving space with a lot of potential. While the term itself may carry some hype, he believes that the concept is here to stay. Similarly, he acknowledges that AI is a significant field that will continue to play a prominent role in the development and evolution of the space.