When Digital Meets Physical, pt. 2: The evolution of the “Metaverse” in architecture and design.

In an industry where the ability to mold a physical product is at the core of success, it might not seem immediately obvious how invisible technologies have the potential to add value. Over a series of contributions to Canadian Interiors, I’ll be looking at some emerging technologies that have the potential to reimagine the industry, while at the same time strengthening the value of the physical product.

Built on the foundation of macOS, iOS, and iPadOS, visionOS is a spatial operating system that blends digital content with the physical world.

The “metaverse” isn’t dead, it’s just going through a rebranding.

We’ve seen the headlines dominated by investments made by tech giants like Facebook, who went as far as to re-name their company, leading many to believe that theirs was the vision for how this new ‘world’ would come to life. However, as Apple’s recent Vision Pro announcement reminded us, there are many visions for how the metaverse might come to life, and many names for what we might call it. And with these new visions comes increasing opportunity for the architecture and design community.

Another of these emerging labels is the “Industrial Metaverse.” This term, coupled with the broad approach shared by Apple’s introduction to “spatial computing” are acknowledgements that immersive spaces do not need to be permanent residences, but can be purpose-built experiences that an enable very specific opportunities for commerce, collaboration and beyond.  It is this notion of numerous, concurrent three-dimensional immersive experiences, not a single alternate reality world, that should have the architecture and design community excited, as the possibilities are truly limitless and the need to intelligently design them has never been more apparent.

The industry is already engaged

The interior and commercial design industries are already deeply engaged with the Industrial Metaverse as, by its very nature, it looks to build on pre-existing digital and physical world utility.

Established tools like Revit, CAD, and Rhino serve as baselines for creators in this emerging space, enabling seamless integration of virtual and physical design processes. Gaming engines such as Unity and Unreal Engine are diverting significant resources to cater to architects and designers, recognizing their potential as key users of their platforms. Entrepreneurial ventures like Bitreel and Baya3D are also building custom applications specifically with architecture and design in mind, expanding the possibilities even further.

At this point, many firms and designers have experimented with the use of VR goggles or headset, often with less-than-inspiring results, but this level of experience is quickly being left in the past. Not only are the headsets themselves improving, but the internet itself is unflattening as immersive experiences with three dimensional models, accessible via the web and mobile browsers, touch screen experiences and more, are revolutionizing how work is done in several areas.

Bitreel is creating customized 3D spatial tools specifically for the sales process in the B2B and D2C interior design industry.

The power of the Digital Twin

A common example used when describing the Industrial Metaverse for the design industry lies in the creation of “digital twins”: virtual replicas of physical spaces or products that allow for detailed simulations and analysis. This tool allows designers to create accurate representations of their projects and test various design elements virtually before executing them in the real world, thereby reducing costs, minimizing errors, and optimizing the design process, resulting in more efficient and effective outcomes.

In a notable local example, the global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm HOK used a digital twin to allow them to pressure test and plan an extensive conservation and renovation of the Centre Block buildings of the Canadian Parliamentary complex in Ottawa, which houses Canada’s Senate, House of Commons and Library of Parliament. Use cases are rapidly expanding as Unreal Engine rolls out improvements to their Twinmotion product with other innovators following suit by creating their own technology, from large scale simulations to integrated workplace experiences to showroom and tradeshow extensions.

Custom 3D spatial Training and Education

Virtual and extended reality (VR and XR) have been deployed in the worlds of training and education for some time now and this trend isn’t going away. Virtual reality simulations provide immersive learning experiences for aspiring designers, allowing them to practice their skills in a virtual environment. Additionally, virtual classrooms and collaborative platforms enable design professionals to engage in remote teaching and mentorship, expanding the reach and impact of their expertise.

These are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential. As digitally savvy architects, designers and specifiers enter the industry and sales and business development teams clamour to work both in their service and to sell to them, we’re poised to see the use of these tools grow and create new ways to educate, engage, inform and inspire.

Elevated is creating new ways for their in-person and remote work teams to collaborate using digital twin technology, focused on improving employee experiences.

Imagining new opportunities and experiences

At the core of the Industrial Metaverse concept is the rapidly emerging potential for imagination to develop new ways to interact and solve problems facing the industry, including any number of areas where the potential to create a purpose-built, immersive digital experience can exist, such as:

Engaging Remote Teams and Customers

  • Leverage immersive spatial experiences to bridge geographical gaps and enable remote teams and clients to interact with designs in a realistic virtual setting. Gather client feedback and reach decisions more quickly, conduct virtual walkthroughs, showcase designs, and reconfigure floor plans without the need to order or ship products, gather feedback and strengthen relationships while managing costs;

Telling a new kind of design story

  • Showcase design portfolios and visualizations through interactive virtual spaces to capture the attention of potential clients and illustrate and iterate on design concepts like never before;

Attracting, onboarding, and retaining talent

  • Top talent in the design and architecture industries have never had more career options.  Using custom immersive experiences, companies can reimagine their relationship with talent, position themselves as a forward-thinking destination, and help new employees chart a course of innovation from day one.

While the race for faster, cheaper technology is on, there are still significant investments of human and monetary capital needed to get projects off the ground. Experts are still, relatively speaking, less available and the wider war for this kind of talent is heating up. That said, when designers and architects are able to immerse themselves in virtual environments — whether using headsets, browsers, or even Augmented Reality digital overlays — and collaborate seamlessly with colleagues and clients from around the world, it has the potential to transform the industry for the better. This not only enhances productivity but also facilitates real-time feedback and decision-making.

Through it all, the original potential for an industry with design and creativity at its core to thrive in imagining this new world remains, and once we move past preconceived notions and begin to explore and create, the possibilities are endless.

Andrew Lane is a co-founder of design industry-focused consultancy and technology firm, digby.  He’s also a co-founder of the Interior Design Metaverse Architecture & Design (MAD) Awards and co-host of the Web3 architecture &  design podcast on the SANDOW Surround podcast network, Barriers to Entry.