By Azfar Aslam, Vice President & Chief Technology Officer, Europe at Nokia
For a long time, industries have been looking for ways to boost productivity, efficiency and resilience, with digitalisation becoming one of the central methods to achieve that. COVID-19 has allowed companies to accelerate their digital transformation journeys, opening up a myriad of opportunities many never thought possible before.
One path many have taken is the adoption of emerging Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) such as artificial intelligence (AI), edge cloud computing and SaaS models. Driven by trends such as environmental sustainability and cybersecurity, this move will allow for more innovative solutions to be born, and, fused with 5G networks, is set to add $8 trillion to the global GDP by 2030.
Whilst most digital industries such as online retail, media and banking have pivoted during COVID, more physical sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare, transportation and energy have only scratched the surface of the significant value that digitalisation can generate in terms of increased safety, productivity and efficiency (SPE).
Luckily, the world is now approaching the ‘big inversion’ – a new ecosystem of 5G and key-related technologies such as edge cloud infrastructure, softwarisation, augmented intelligence/machine learning, as well as advanced sensors and robotics. Infused with these capabilities that we refer to as 5G+, the Operational Technologies in physical and digital industries will find the necessary solutions to undergo the much needed digital transformation within the next ten years.
As a result, the need for digital skills of the future will become more critical, fuelled by the emerging technologies powering Web3, the cloud and perhaps one of the biggest ICT innovations of all, the Metaverse.
The rise of the Industrial and Enterprise Metaverse
Described as ‘the next evolution in social connection and the successor to the mobile internet’, the Metaverse’s focus to date has been on consumer-led experiences driven by brands’ engagement. However, the biggest and most impactful opportunities will come from other forms of this virtual and augmented environment: the Industrial and Enterprise Metaverse. It is these applications which will allow organisations to blur the lines between physical and digital environments and reshape the world – referred to as ‘digital twins’.
In practice, this means that projects can take place virtually before being replicated in the real world. For example, using Augmented and Virtual Realities (AR/VR), employees at a factory will be able to design and test equipment before deploying it to a live production line, thus limiting risks and more precisely, predicting production volumes. The current use of 5G+ networks in certain industries is already a great testimony to the further benefits the Industrial and Enterprise Metaverse can bring.
We are already reaping rewards from digitalisation in several industries. An analysis of an iron ore mine in Australia showed that the use of private wireless networks instead of WiFi had seen a 20x reduction in wireless access points and a 4x reduction in the personnel required to maintain sites, bringing annual savings of €70 million. In another case, a farm in the Netherlands deployed a precision farming approach with 5G technologies where an application identified good crops from weeds and remotely triggered automatic spraying to eliminate the weeds. This resulted in a 6.7x increase in productivity, and if the same technology was applied to at least 15% of global farms, would lead to an increase in yields by up to 300 million tonnes and a reduction in water consumption by up to 150 billion cubic meters annually.
Further advancement of the Metaverse and the ability to initiate or replicate projects in the virtual environment will mean less time, lower costs and reduced risks. As mentioned by Nokia CEO Pekka Lundmark at Brooklyn summit, take the Brooklyn Bridge as an example – it took 14 years to build, with at least 20 casualties back in the 19th century. If the construction took place today, the approach would be completely different.
Using 3D modelling in the virtual environment, engineers can design construction projects like bridges down to the smallest detail and plot their life cycles up to 100 years in the future. Using the bridge as an example, the Enterprise Metaverse allows project players to co-design and interact with the bridge no matter where they are, providing space for limitless collaboration. Similarly, the Industrial Metaverse allows for sections of the bridge to be prefabricated in factories using AI-powered systems, with production workers ‘operating’ machines through AR and VR tools. Moreover, once the bridge is built, applying sensors to every stress point allows authorities to monitor its condition in real-time and maintain it using drones and robotic technologies. The Brooklyn Bridge of the 21st century could be completed in less than a third of the time, with zero fatalities, and maintained without significant closures and disruption to traffic.
But it’s not just the construction industry that can benefit from the Metaverse. Break-through discoveries in medicine and science will happen at a quicker pace too, allowing for organisations and nations to come together to solve pressing world problems such as finding a cure for cancer or tackling the climate crisis: not just leveraging the power of today’s cloud, but realtime interactions with the genome or climate digital twins from anywhere in the world Clearly, the advantages are numerous. However, in order to allow for a fully immersive experience, there are a few other technology solutions that will need to catch up first.
The connectivity opportunities of the Metaverse
The Metaverse is accessed via smart devices and wearables, which require a high-speed, flexible and stable internet connection. To accommodate this, networks need to make significant advancements in latency, reliability and speed, including retiring or recycling legacy 2G and 3G networks and frequencies in favour of those focused on 5G and 6G.
As we enter a new era of unprecedented immersion and industrial digitalisation, there will be a new level of expectations set for network providers based on the reliability, ubiquity, security and sustainability of the networks they operate on. Whilst consumer adoption will come after several years, we are already seeing industrial and enterprise adoption taking place at a fast pace. To cite an example, IBM already has a digital twin exchange platform that allows organisations to purchase digital twins from their partners. With this in mind, there is a clear argument to move towards a standard of open accessibility for both established and emerging companies looking to improve and grow the potential of the Metaverse.
The launch of 6G networks will finally see the full fusion of our digital and physical lives, which will help companies build the underlying infrastructure of the Metaverse. The development of programmes such as Hexa-X-II, the second phase of European 6G flagship initiative led by the European Commission that will form the basis of 6G standardisation, will also allow organisations to come together and drive future developments in connectivity.
Collaboration is the key to success
The Metaverse economy is predicted to reach over $824 billion by 2030. Organisations investing in this technology now are the ones that will win the initial innovation race. However, the Metaverse can only achieve its full potential if organisations work together to create an open, secure, ecologically sustainable and all-inclusive environment that encourages innovation and translates into value for everyone involved. This will require heavy investment and technology adaptation, sophisticated content creation tools and large servers in order to maintain the stability of the system and create a truly immersive experience.
For this reason alone, the Metaverse can never be solely owned by one person or organisation, and initiatives such as the Metaverse Standards Forum should help drive industry standards of cooperation and openness. Long gone are the days when technology start-ups were able to break through and build their empires on their own. As we move from the 5G to the 6G era, digital transformation will take over every industry through technology collaborations and digital-physical fusion ecosystems.
By 2030, everything taking place in the digital world will affect the physical one and vice versa, and every physical object that can be linked to the digital world will be connected. Whilst many consumers will be looking at Metaverse as a new means to join communities and engaging activities, businesses and entire nations will be using the Industrial and Enterprise Metaverse to boost innovation, collaboration and economy, as well as to create safer and simpler ways of operating highly complex technologies. This is where the Metaverse really does become exciting.
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