Into the metaverse

The metaverse as described to us by science fiction is a world of infinite possibilities. The easiest way to conceptualise it is by looking at Hollywood blockbusters such as Avatar and Ready, Player One.

In the movies, the metaverse is a three-dimensional digital universe where players can escape physical reality, engage with each other as an avatar of their creation and experience anything they want, only limited by the human imagination and technology, says Selina Yuan, general manager of international business unit, Alibaba Cloud Intelligence.

Apart from being a wondrous twin digital reality of our physical world, the metaverse’s true potential lies in its ability to make better use of the digital intelligence we are already gaining and visualising it in a way that uncovers new insights that might have otherwise remain hidden. This could be the key to helping us solve real-world problems and building a greener, more inclusive, and technically advanced world.

Countering the impact of climate change

The metaverse is not only about building a perfect, virtual world. It is also about using technologies to better visualise and address pressing issues such as climate change in our physical world.

Southeast Asia is one of the most at-risk regions in the world, with forecasts from a report by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and British Chamber of Commerce Singapore, showing six of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change worldwide to be Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Accounting for about 40% of natural catastrophe losses, floods have killed over 250,000 people and caused over $1 trillion (€0.88 trillion) in damage globally since 1980. For many low-lying coastal islands in the region, rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns are a very real threat that could make homes uninhabitable and amplify pressures on our food supplies and economic systems.

To help the region navigate climate-related challenges, we first created the nowcasting platform to predict short-term weather conditions. The technology, which extracted meteorological satellite images with high accuracy and in real-time, was able to help track rainfall, wind speed and severe weather conditions to minimise damage to crops and livestock for farmers and help couriers schedule their routes more efficiently.

But what if we could convert this intelligence for use in the metaverse? Mapping out publicly available information of erratic weather patterns or frequencies of natural disasters alone could help us understand the relationships and trends between these events. An isolated event of heavy rain could potentially give us insights into a season of torrential flooding.

While the consequences of climate disasters are not unfamiliar to people, helping them visualise its impact in a familiar environment such as their neighborhood or children’s school can help them better understand the threat. With the ability to create three-dimensional (3D) reconstructions of real-world locations, we can immerse people in simulated catastrophes and hopefully, convince them to be more environmentally conscious.

Streamlining operations and design in built environment and manufacturing

Nowhere else is the metaverse more immediately relevant than for our cities of today. As we move into the Industry 4.0 era where Cloud and IoT technologies dominate, the metaverse will be a perfect playground to manipulate and test future buildings before we build them in the real-world.

Imagine a database so powerful that it is able to quickly analyse tens of millions of massive geometric spatial data, and code the real-time display of the calculation results onto an interactive 3D map. That was what our database scientists had in mind when they first created GanosBase, a cloud-native database engine that could analyse and translate 3D and 4D data to build digital twins mirroring the physical world.

In the built environment sector, leveraging real-time intelligence driven simulation insights creates better opportunities to incorporate sustainable design. Architects can visualise the construction of a building in the metaverse to find the perfect window-to-wall ratio to maximise natural lighting, anticipating how durable and sustainable materials are in the long-run and planning new ways to create new green spaces and preserve nature.

Building a virtual environment consistent with real production scenarios through AR/VR and holographic technologies can transform traditional industries such as manufacturing. Leveraging connected sensors or Internet of Things (IoT) devices in factories, manufacturers can simulate real production setting in the metaverse, to help workers practice virtual operational control and trace faulty items against different production settings, without actually having to do any actual trial runs. In COVID-19 situations for instance, overseas workers can be trained remotely to familiarise themselves with the virtual operations before handling actual machines and be ready to hit the ground running once travel restrictions lift.

The intelligence generated in the metaverse can then be transferred into the real world to improve on AI algorithms, to support the intelligent transformation and upgrading of factories, workshops and production lines without wasting any physical time or resources.

Powering the future metaverse

Tremendous technological advancements are required to power the four technology layers of the metaverse. At the first layer, robust AI, cloud and IoT technologies are needed to construct a geometric model of the physical environment and display it on various terminal devices to create an immersive environment.

Other technologies like remote rendering, which streams visual inputs to the devices in real-time and data analytics are key in constructing the virtual world matching closely to the physical world and ensuring people and objects in the virtual world follow the physical rules of our reality.

Selina Yuan

To break the boundaries of the virtual and physical world, AR and VR technologies are needed to build a high-precision 3D map of the physical world while providing tailored experiences like virtual customer service and navigation, amongst others. Finally, all of these technologies have to come together to link both worlds together.

While the metaverse is an exciting development, it is clear that it will also put considerable demand on energy use and production. To address these challenges, organisations should consider subscribing to greener data centres that are designed, built and operated to induce minimal stress to the environment, incorporating core green technologies such as liquid cooling to reduce energy consumption and increase computing power to save electricity usage, automate monitoring, maintenance and other energy-intensive tasks.

While the metaverse promises to be an exciting digital world, we cannot neglect the physical realm we are in. Our growing dependency on technology and energy needed not just to power the metaverse but how we live our daily lives now requires us to commit to sustainable, responsible practices both now and in the future.

The author is Selina Yuan, general manager of international business unit, Alibaba Cloud Intelligence.

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