This is the first in a series of articles aimed at both professionals and the wider community. Its purpose is to showcase current technology, as well as the benefits of ‘digital twins’.

The second will tease out the existential risks we are all facing in relying on a virtual world that purports to mirror the real world, that also seamlessly integrates with it.

The third looks at an approach being explored by a National Workgroup to mitigate the risks by establishing a common governance framework to protect privacy, maintain security and enhance trust in the digital world – while also simplifying access. The approach is far from settled, though it is now sufficiently advanced to provide a base for thoughtful discussion; which this series seeks to ignite.

The fourth and fifth explore what the proposed approach may mean for how we procure new buildings and infrastructure, as well as share data to more quickly build our ‘digital infrastructure’. They also explain why and how we need to get our models (and related data) on the balance sheet, the main way we can keep the model in sync with the real world, and how to ensure trust in the data.

Unless you are involved in major manufacturing and building projects, or asset management, the term ‘digital twin’ may not be familiar. Even if you know the term, likely it will have different connotations for different people.

Essentially, ‘digital twin’ is referencing ‘computer generated representations’ of real objects, buildings, and even the landscape, as well as all data about the objects. It also extends to simulations of the processes that we use to create and manage our cities (from planning and design, through construction, to asset and facility management, logistics and traffic for example), as well as the natural processes that significantly impact daily life (including weather and flood events, to the movement of the tectonic plates which impact local positioning, and even the behaviour of crowds used in designing public spaces), and much else.

While it is often said that change today is ‘exponential’, apart from the internet and smart phones, for most people life seems to carry on much as it has for decades: go to work, make a home, go out, travel (if you’re lucky), deal with personal issues, try to stay ahead of the bills. This is because we are still at the very beginning of the upward curve. Most of the changes illustrated in this article have only been invented, or at least become widespread, in the last 10 years or less; but many more are on the way: AI, additive manufacture, widespread robotics, data analytics, and of course: immersive 3D Virtual and Augmented Reality.

In a few years, people will wonder how it was possible to get anything done in a purely physical world, just as young people today cannot comprehend living in a world without the internet and 24/7 mobile connectivity across the globe!

The following videos have been sourced from YouTube. They are illustrative only. I’ve not edited them, as you are free to watch as much or as little as you like!

If you think you have a better illustration, or a video that illustrates a significant facet of the emerging digital world that I’ve overlooked, please let me know. This series will be updated as new events unfold.

Already we have digital twins of buildings detailed down to the level of each screw, bolt and piece of reinforcing to create Constructible Designs:

Parametric, Computational and Generative Design goes a step further by combining architecture, engineering and computer science to automate the way design content is imagined, fabricated and constructed. These approaches use parameters and algorithms to generate hundreds of alternate designs (each of which meet the required planning, building, use and cost constraints of the project) – enabling designers to select an optimised set for evaluation and agreement among stakeholders, before the final constructible design is developed… minimising cost, disputes, re-work and time to completion, all while achieving the ‘best possible outcome’ (at least in theory):

And it is not just design. Modelling existing structures is getting cheaper and easier.

For some years now, piloted aircraft have been routinely used to model whole cities using lidar and photogrammetry, with ever-improving quality and lower cost:

More recently, autonomous drones are being used to fly sections of the built environment up close to get ever finer detail:

As well, hand-held devices now enable us to model the inside of buildings by just ‘walking around’:

Also, asset, building and facility management is rapidly moving to the cloud with mobile technology connected to 3D models and data about every asset, giving situational awareness and connecting users with managers and managers with suppliers to provide real-time responses. AI and data analytics is also being used to predict failure and to manage planned maintenance and refurbishment across the whole life-cycle.

But this is only the start. Across all facets of the natural and built environment sensors are being embedded in fixed and mobile devices to tell us about the world in real time:

Of course, having the data is only the beginning. We also need a way to intuitively interact with it in the Virtual/Augmented Reality world. Until recently, the interface has been pretty clunky. But it is improving fast:

This quote from a recent email from Peter Diamandis (of Singularity University fame) is particularly telling in regard to the expected benefits:

But perhaps most remarkable are the bucks AR can make for business. Using the [Google] Glass, GE has increased productivity by 25 percent, and DHL improved its supply chain efficiency by 15 percent. While only (currently) available for businesses, the new-and-improved AR glasses stand at $999 and will continue to ride plummeting production costs.

And it’s not just about things and money.

VR and AR already provide better training and greatly improved on-site safety:

On a personal level, this is what our avatars looked like way back in 2016:

As the video showed, they used our own voices and sort of made eye contact, generally looking in the direction we were looking in ‘virtual space’. They could also express a few gross emotions.

Here is what they look like today:

In the not too distant future, some people will extend their avatars to include full body scans that capture not only their external appearance, but their internal organs, skeleton, musculature and circulatory systems at the very least, linked to encrypted data about their genome, medical history and key vital signs recorded in real-time, all able to be accessed in an emergency. Even simulation of the effects of drugs on each specific person is considered possible at some time in the future.

Which is really great! It means better individual health; and (as these full body avatars will move like the real person, look like the real person, and sound like the real person), we will enjoy real social interaction within VR and AR: making eye contact and reading each other’s body language – transcending space and time as we digitally flit around the globe.

That is the upside.

The next article looks at the downside.

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