What Does the Metaverse Mean for GIS?
Let’s paint a picture. Our geospatial journey into the metaverse begins at a virtual, yet in-person GIS conference. We are all in a conference room listening as two speakers present their new as-built platform for integrating construction projects with GIS. They do so by displaying a projected build for a new soccer stadium, with the goal of bringing commerce to a struggling economy. The investment will cost millions of dollars, and economic capital is needed from the investors in the audience for the project to come to fruition.
Our “in-person” avatars are brought into a simulated digital twin of the completed stadium. Through several Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, we see crowds of people walking through the hallways, visiting food vendors, and carrying the latest sports swag from a merchandise stand down the way.
We are then brought into an area that is still under maintenance. Engineers and planners are still deciding the arrangement for a handicap compliant restroom. Here, we watch as the empty space is populated with augmented reality representations of bathroom stalls, sinks, and paper towel dispensers.
Those who could not attend the virtual conference with an in-person avatar watch from their desktop computer screens, or on mobile devices.
Defining the Metaverse
The scenario above is a fantastical representation of one of the most immersive metaverse scenarios we can think of today. The problem is, the metaverse is still loosely defined, and by limited players at that. There are countless references to pop culture icons such as the movie Ready Player One or the book Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson that originally coined the term “metaverse”.
What’s important to note here is that the metaverse does not have to exist in a fully virtual world, or come to fruition only once the world has reached its peak exploitation by corporations. It will exist on any platform the end-user has at their disposal. Think phones, tablets, desktop PCs, or virtual reality headsets.
According to Matthew Ball, former global head of strategy for Amazon Studio and current CEO of Epyllion, the metaverse can be defined as:
“A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”
This definition is provided in Chapter 3 of the book The Metaverse and How It Will Revolutionize Everything. It is a good summary of several aspects of the metaverse, but how does the metaverse apply to GIS?
What Does the Metaverse Mean for GIS?
The metaverse is akin to a 1,000-piece puzzle poured out onto a table, with the individual pieces representing the technologies and people that will be responsible for bringing it to fruition. The thing is, we don’t necessarily have the picture on the box. What remains is for us to put the pieces together into a cohesive whole.
Below are a few key geospatial technologies that will be impacted by the introduction of the metaverse.
Real-time Rendered, Synchronous, and Continuous
The Internet of Things (IoT) consists of sensors that track and monitor events in real-time, which are then fed back into databases as real-time data for insights, and future processing. Often, the real-time data is hosted on web-based platforms to help employees and decision-makers respond to and solve problems. In essence, the real-time nature of IoT allows issues to be confronted sooner than was ever before possible.
One geospatial application of IoT is autonomous vehicles. Speed and location data can be tracked in real-time and displayed on city-based web infrastructure for both private and public use.
IoT technology applied to geospatial situations will be an integral part of bringing the metaverse to life in GIS.
The Metaverse and Digital Twins
The term “Digital Twin” refers to the virtual representation of a real-world physical asset, often updated in real-time to reflect changes to itself and its environment. This technology has risen in popularity due to its capacity to visualize and impact one’s understanding of an object and how it impacts space in its actual environment. Increasing one’s understanding of a physical asset’s impact without the requirement of having to be physically present provides additional options for decision-makers to make informed decisions.
In terms of the metaverse, it is unlikely that any sort of persistent 3D world will come into existence without the combination of IoT and Digital Twin geospatial technologies. It remains to be seen exactly how these two technologies will be paired and scaled to create the metaverse, but it is important piece of the puzzle nonetheless.
Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)
Perhaps the easiest way to “mental math” the concept of the metaverse is to picture people and places roaming a fully realized virtual world that they can interact with, and do business in. If you have ever wandered around in a video game world with other live players, your imagination is halfway there.
In today’s world, augmented reality (AR) is already being used in applications, such as warehouse management, or interior design. Using augmented reality, a forklift driver can plan and place items from an incoming shipment into existing space in the warehouse. The augmented reality platform will recognize the structural shelving, and then be able to visualize a pallet of boxes within the space. In this situation the view of the shelves is real, and the generation of boxes is the simulation to the viewer.
Similarly, virtual reality (VR) can do this in an entirely virtual space. Using augmented reality, the forklift driver would need to walk around the warehouse to augment the space. In a virtual reality platform, they could do it from the comfort of their office chair. In this scenario, both the shelves, boxes, and feeling of presence in the warehouse are all simulated.
It’s easy to imagine how massively scaling these technologies in a bustling metaverse, where multiple businesses can perform transactions in a synchronous, persistent, and interoperable way, will shift the way a modern-day GIS technician (or the general public!) interacts with and perceives geospatial software.
Lastly, but arguably the most important aspect of bringing the metaverse to life in GIS, is the idea of interoperability. Every single previously mentioned component survives on the idea of communicable data. For the data to communicate and be interoperable with other data, the data must be standardized.
Adding the concept of a massively scaled, persistent world where each business (and individual) experiences an accurate experience of the world (at the same time!), is a monumental task.
Currently, most systems and organizations use their own data schemas independently of one another. When two organizations undertake a collaborative effort, one of the largest obstacles is formatting the data to be “good data” which is useful for the application at hand.
For the metaverse to work, this “good data” must be the Rule of Thumb. It must already be assumed that data is interoperable with other data in the metaverse. For the metaverse to work in GIS, interoperability is key.
This is where an organization like the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) becomes important. According to the Open Geospatial Consortium home page, the OGC is “Your Global Resource for Geospatial Information and Standards…a worldwide community committed to improving access to geospatial, or location information. [They] connect people, communities, and technology to solve global challenges and address everyday needs…with a desire to make location information FAIR – Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable.”
Listen to this MapScaping podcast for a fascinating talk between Daniel from MapScaping and Dr. Nadine Alameh from the OGC about the complexities and efforts of standardizing data – The Open Geospatial Consortium.
The Metaverse Disrupts GIS
As a final thought for what the metaverse means for GIS, it’s important to realize the metaverse is primarily a theoretical framework in the way the tech industry is trying to make sense of right now. If you are still confused, so are the rest of us. Confusion is part of the process; but, this confusion will one day make sense and cause the disruption in the geospatial industry that we expect.
We can play a role by trying to understand the metaverse right here, right now. Perhaps we can be one of the pieces of the completed puzzle.
Before the idea of swiping a phone screen came into existence, major players thought having a physical keyboard on a phone was the future of cell phones. At the time, swiping disrupted the cell phone industry and revolutionized the way that everyday people utilized cell phones. Today, swiping is just an afterthought, a natural function.
The metaverse will cause a similar disruption in GIS. We do not know the exact parameters that will bring it to life, but when it comes to life, it will revolutionize our way of using geospatial technology. Then, someday, that disruption will just be an afterthought, too.