Digital twins – virtual representations of physical things – have broad uses from science to business to entertainment. And they can be used to create really engaging experiences too.

Defining digital twins

There are differing opinions as to what qualifies as a digital twin, as opposed to any other computer model, but I’ll use a fairly broad and literal definition here: a digital twin is a computerized three-dimensional virtual representation that has an actual real-world analog. It might be a predicate to its not-yet-built analog, in the long tradition of architectural models. Or it might be a detailed approximation of a complex real-world system that we’d like to more safely study, like a space capsule or the Earth’s climate.

Predictive modeling

These latter, more complex models are the genesis of concept of digital twins. Back in the 1960s, NASA developed the technique to problem solve a mission crisis and save the lives of the Apollo 13 crew. In the intervening decades they have become invaluable tools for solving complex engineering problems and doing predictive modeling.

Experimentation is the foundation of scientific investigation – if we do X what will happen to system Y? There are countless reasons we can’t always perform real-world experiments, especially on large systems – safety, cost, technical feasibility. Building a sufficiently detailed digital twin can allow experimentation and prediction that would never be possible in the real world.

Scientists are building a detailed digital twin of the Earth in order to more accurately model its weather systems to help fight climate change. In addition to helping to predict what will be the outcomes of our unchecked carbon emissions, such a system could potentially help us understand the impacts of geo-engineering interventions like spraying reflective aerosols into the upper atmosphere. Digital twins as complex as planetary systems can’t be complete enough to accurately predict all outcomes (so geo-engineering will remain a risky proposition) but they are nevertheless illuminating.

Similarly complex, doctors are working to create effective digital twins of the human body. Clinical trials that could take place using digital twins instead of human volunteers could drastically speed up the development of new drugs and medical devices. Similar advances could be unlocked in areas from diagnosis to patient monitoring. And sufficient detail in such twins could enable fully personalized treatments customized to a patients unique characteristics and conditions. Of course we have a long way to go to solve the technical, ethical and regulatory issues for such applications, but the future potential is clearly evident.

Digital cities

The complex digital systems described above are at the cutting edge of technology. Like NASA’s original, they are costly to produce and only viable for the largest of organizations. But rapid advances in 3D modeling tools have made far less ambitious types of digital twins also quote useful.

Architects, developers and city planners have long used physical scale models to help visualize (and market) their proposed changes to the built environment. Some still hand-build models in order to provide a more intimate look at a building or to find inspiration for improving upon a site. These smaller-scale renderings allow us to visualize the details of something in a whole new way, one that we can’t get from any one vantage point of the physical world. Such models can become not just tools but attractions themselves. The Queens Museum has maintained for decades the scale model of New York City originally built for the 1964 World’s Fair.

Creating such models digitally allows for many improvements to the process – the labor and cost to create them are lower; they can be experienced virtually, broadening their reach; they can be easily replicated and expanded upon. Digital twins of New York City and numerous other cities ave been incorporated into video games like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator.

And digital twins are finding increased reception in the AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) and real estate worlds. Platforms like Matterport allow for quick scanning of existing spaces and an intuitive UX for navigating the resulting digital twin. Such immersive 3D walkthroughs are become standard fare for high-end real estate listings. On the construction side, similar tools like Reconstruct and Openspace allow for monitoring progress on job sites. And visualization software like those from Synchro, VisualLive (recently acquired by Unity), Augmented Construction and Akular can allow construction crews to better visualize architectural plans using augmented reality. 

Twin experiences

SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park were some of the first stadiums to use digital twin technologies in their construction. They were built alongside their twins and ideas for architecture and planning were tested first on the digital version. And in a clear demonstration of their extensibility, this same tech allowed their owners to plan the ultimate fan experience and it will also be useful in the ongoing management of the facilities.

For fans, there are practical uses of such digital twins. When choosing your seats for a sporting event or music concert we can try to infer the experience from a seating chart, but that’s limited, especially for an unfamiliar venue. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to preview the actual sight-lines in a digital twin? You could even simulate what it would look like when your team is on the field, or when the crowd in front of you stands up to cheer.

For facility operators, outfitting the physical space with sensors and linking that data back to the digital twin can help them to plan and manage every detail of an experience. These venues can be manipulated online to manage building systems, crowd flows, security and staff placement. Extreme conditions can be simulated to stress test and improve the venue’s systems and processes.

Experiences themselves can be changed with the use of digital twins too. Over 12 million people recently attended Travis Scott’s virtual performance in the online game Fortnight. Fortnight is a fictional virtual world, not a digital twin. But rather than having viewers simply tune in to a live-streamed event, as would have been done traditionally, a digital twin of Scott himself was transported to a specially built virtual stage on the game’s digital island. Fortnite is planning to invite other performers to “stop by” for concerts in a similar way. The concert was the ultimate virtual cross-platform experience since hype was generated across channels, attendees were offered in-game outfits for their avatars to wear, and could complete game challenges to unlock free items related to the event. And it all netted the artist an extra million Instagram followers.

Some types of experiences can be enabled using digital twins in lieu of their real-life counterparts. Many cultural heritage sites are either inaccessible to visitors or must have visitation severely limited in order to maintain the condition of the site. Digital twins of such sites can allow both researchers and tourists to explore the sites safely. Imagine being able to traverse Egyptian tombs or other ancient archaeological sites without contributing to their decay.

Hybrid events

As I’ve written about previously, the newly virtual event marketing world is likely to remain focused on hybrid events for some time to come. Digital twins could play a useful role in that transition. And the idea of an exact replica that “talks” to the physical world has pretty clear and interesting uses for creating immersive experiences for consumers who are participating in events online. Like the stadiums and arenas referenced above, convention centers and other event spaces have reasons to generate digital twins of their venues. Where they exist, such models could be used to help close the experiential gap between in-person visitors and virtual attendees.

You may have attended virtual events built around a digital event space – I certainly have. While evocative, I find this use of the 3D model as a navigation paradigm cumbersome. Having to navigate a virtual space to find what I’m looking for, especially when having to do so on a 2D screen, makes navigation more difficult rather than easier. But adding some three-dimensional depth to the actual content – say a 360 video of a keynote as opposed to a regular video feed – could improve the sense of presence for remote attendees. Knowing some of the in-person attendees and being able to see them in the crowd (and potentially interact with them via an event’s app) might really help to bridge the distance.

As we’ve discovered over the last year, there can be environmental, safety, and inclusivity benefits to offering people the opportunity to participate in events from afar. As a result, many brands and event organizers will be wary of eliminating those channels now that they’ve been developed. One benefit of that reality is that we’ll have the opportunity to experiment with new technologies like digital twins and find ways to use them that enhance content delivery and hybrid events.

Customer engagement

With in-person events like auto shows on hiatus in 2020, consumers weren’t able to visit and experience the latest cars in person. We helped some of our clients to create digital twins of their vehicles that customers could interact with at home. It wasn’t a true replacement for seeing the cars live, but it did help. Hopefully we’ll be able to have large numbers of attendees at in-person events again soon, but even once we do, marketers can still take a page out of the engineer’s handbook to replicate uniquely immersive experiences that you’d otherwise have to be there to feel.

For marketers digital twins can take advantage of abstraction as well. Engineers require precision in their models, but for immersive experiences sometimes less is more. A few years ago we built a digital twin of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center to help IBM to communicate the breadth and depth of the data they generate and track for the US Open. The twin was extremely minimalist by design, with the stadiums represented in wireframes so as to be transparent. Real-time ball position and scoring data was shown on every court throughout the entire tournament, as well as player sentiment as recorded by social media mentions. The result was a less literal digital twin, but more beautiful for it.

Bridging realities

Of course, there are right ways and wrong ways to use this (and any other) technology. Adding an extra layer of complexity usually isn’t the right way to make an experience more appealing. But as we see the adoption of digital twins to more and more industries over the next few years, we’ll no doubt find even more potential uses for it.

If we can use it to enhance experiences in a way that makes them more interactive, fun, and appealing, then it’s certainly worth experimenting with.

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