By Geoffrey Cann
There’s been lots of chatter about the metaverse and its impacts on society, but what about the real world of digital energy? What’s the angle for merchants in electrons and molecules?
Hidden In Plain Sight
What exactly is the ‘metaverse’?
The metaverse is an online digital world, which combines clever technologies like video, audio, and virtual reality, creating a place for humans to interact virtually with each other and with a digital environment of digital things from anywhere, at any time.
What makes the metaverse work is the massive data holdings now accessible through cloud computing, inexpensive sensors like cameras and small screens to capture and present data in clever ways, powerful rendering engines in headsets and hand held devices, super fast networks that can move video around at blazing speeds, and easy to use tools for building the software (engines, algorithms, voice generators, and the like).
If this all sounds a bit familiar, it’s probably because you’ve been buying it for your kids for years. They call it gaming. The metaverse is expected to be more immersive than gaming (using virtual reality headsets, for instance), but the pioneers in creating avatars of people, piloting them through virtual worlds, interacting with things like weapons, clothing, tools and money, entering buildings and other spaces, have been the game companies.
And it’s cheap too, because the game companies have captured scale economies by selling their kit to millions of consumers. Other hardware companies such as the smart phone makers have added LIDAR, 3D effects and augmented reality to their cameras and screens, again through scale economies.
Access to a variant of the metaverse is probably in your basement right now, except you call it an Xbox or Playstation or Nintendo Cube, and your current and former teenagers (aka millennials) are already living out their virtual lives in Fortnite, Minecraft, and World of Warcraft as we speak. They’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about.
Why a Metaverse? Money
I’ve been to one world’s fair, in 1986. We travelled to Vancouver to wander through Expo 86 in September, after the schools reopened. We figured the attendance would be down and the crowds would have abated. We were hopelessly incorrect as the Fair experienced its highest gate for the entire 6 months. Apparently, every other childless couple had the exact same idea. It was fun, but exhausting, horribly expensive, inconvenient, and limited. We spent hours just standing in lines to get access to pavilions you could see but not touch.
As a consumer goods company, or artist, what would you be prepared to pay to have a few million idiots like us visit your pavilion at a World’s Fair for a few months? Quite a bit, I reckon, based on what I saw.
What if your foot fall could be hundreds of millions, or billions, of consumers, interacting with your brand, advertising, promotions, and experiences, from anywhere in the world, anytime, with no line ups, no need to provision toilets or restaurants, no weather concerns, and no consumer out of pocket costs?
Could you coax the visitors to play a game, meet other like-minded consumers, take in an online event like a concert, a show, a sporting event, or enjoy a training course? You bet. A live in person concert venue now has to deal with vaccine passports and is limited by seating, but the virtual world faces no such limitations.
As an artist, what would you prefer? 25000 live guests in a crappy hockey arena paying $250 each, minus costs, or 12m paying $10 and no venue costs?
And by deepening your personal relationship with your fans, you capture a great deal of data about them, and more of their eventual mindshare and their wallet.
That’s why there’s a bit of a land rush to secure virtual real estate and property, to take advantage of traffic when it comes.
The Traffic Is Coming
We’re all now very accustomed to an online existence because of the pandemic, which has forced social distancing on us. We’ve upgraded our homes and computers for work and school that are now online all the time. Travel is now thoroughly unpleasant with passports, mandatory vaccines and quarantines, multiple high cost departure testing, longer queues, dangerous fellow traveler behavior, no travel amenities, and the very real risk of getting deadly sick in a foreign country.
A lot of companies are well positioned to participate in their own or other’s metaverses and to set up for the coming land rush. Netflix cut their teeth in video streaming and are now into content creation (to keep traffic flowing, the metaverse will need content). Microsoft has its Teams platform already installed in the corporate world. Facebook has its advertising stream and huge customer base to exploit. Disney are the best at creating experiences, along with their content library. Apple has created the safe space, secure, private and wholesome, along with its music, book, apps, games and devices ecosphere.
But what about the industrial world of energy? What’s the play for us?
The Metaverse And Energy
If you work for an energy company, and you’re feeling left out (again), don’t. Energy companies are all over our version of this eventual meta world, but we call it the digital twin, it’s here now, and we’re fecking good at it.
Instead of a mythical fake world of made up stuff, we are in the real world of physical pumps and valves, pipes and turbines. We produce the power, the fuel, and the feedstock that lets others get on with building their metaverses. The physical world of our assets, processes, and supply chains is not going away.
We have all kinds of data about our cherished assets, tucked away in ERP systems, engineering databases, drawings, and records. Most of our equipment has been designed on computer assisted design technology (CAD) for years now. We’re now using cameras and AI engines to capture highly detailed point cloud datasets of the real world to create highly accurate digital representations of the real world.
We’ve been creating purely digital representations of some of our physical assets for close to four decades. That’s how we train people on very dangerous assets like nuclear plants. A nuclear plant is not like a car that you can take out for a test drive. Plant operators go through many months of training before they even step foot in a plant, let alone be entrusted to supervise the plant during operations.
We now use virtual reality headsets to design, inspect, test and validate new industrial equipment. Customers can walk through virtual representations of physical infrastructure as if they were engaging with a video game. Installation technicians struggling with a repair can engage virtually with a senior engineer to get live coaching on site. A digital representation of a replacement part can appear on a visor or eyewear precisely how it is supposed to fit within a housing, revealing how it must be rotated to slide into place. Live operating data about a piece of equipment, such as its temperature, pressure, and set points, presents itself to the operator as they approach the asset.
Our digital twins serve many needs, from training platforms, test beds, simulators, economic forecasters, project planners, reliability managers, and process modelers.
The digital twin versions of our very real worlds differ from the metaverse in several important aspects:
- The metaverse vision from the tech giants for their eventual customers is purely digital. There is no physical counterpart, so there is nothing to be the twin of. It is easier and faster to make the metaverse because there’s nothing it needs to be connected to.
- The metaverse for a tech company will have multiple tenants to create a complete virtual world, but the digital twin of a power company will likely only include the company’s assets and will have very restrictive access. For competitive and security reasons, energy companies are likely to keep these assets behind their firewalls so that prying eyes can’t pry.
- The tolerance for error in the digital twin is a lot lower than that in the metaverse. No one’s Minecraft life is at risk if their game headset suddenly hiccups, but if the digital twin of an aging asset does not age with the asset, mayhem could follow.
There are some very exciting cross-over opportunities between the consumer metaverse and the industrial digital twin. The software building blocks, engines and tools used to make the metaverse (for things like designing buildings, laying out virtual roads and bridges, animating human avatars, gamifying activity, commercializing usage) could be well deployed to create digital twin settings. The Microsoft metaverse will be on most energy company desktops anyway because of the corporate licensing structure of Microsoft’s tools.
Energy companies need to ask themselves some questions:
- Should energy companies pick up real estate on these metaverse worlds to secure their rights and protect their brands?
- How do energy companies open up their digital twin datasets to unlock the creativity that the technology giants are going to capture with their more open platforms?
- How can energy companies make money with its digital twin investments?
- Should the digital twin version of a plant be connected to a tech company metaverse, and if so, for what purpose?
- If energy companies don’t participate in these metaverse worlds, what bad outcomes are coming their way from trolls, brand spoofing, and mockery?
Energy companies are well positioned to participate in a metaverse world. We have the data, the smarts, and the experience from our digital twin investments. There’s nothing to fear.
Check out my book, ‘Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas’, coming soon in Russian, and available on Amazon and other on-line bookshops.
Sign up for my next book, ‘Carbon, Capital, and the Cloud: A Playbook for Digital Oil and Gas’, coming next year.
Take Digital Oil and Gas, the one-day on-line digital oil and gas awareness course.