To echo the sentiment of a recent article in Wired Magazine, the metaverse is less about any specific type of technology, and much more about how we interact with technology. To appreciate just how compelling a departure this is, consider Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s take:
… the metaverse enables us to embed computing into the real world and to embed the real world into computing, bringing real presence to any digital space. Techgig.com; Jan 2022
Thus, the promise of the metaverse is a net-new ‘phygital’ experience – one draws strategically upon blending elements of the physical world together with the digital.
Originally through speculative fiction, the notion of the metaverse was first introduced some 30 years ago. Because it has taken the intervening three decades to amass the technologies required to enable instantiations of the metaverse, it is only recently that the notion has become truly viable – i.e., that technology permits the degree of interaction required to support a unified experience that simultaneously transcends the physical and digital.
Arguably the most profound outcome of digital transformation available today, the metaverse depends in a very fundamental way upon data. Thus, of all technological advances over the past 30 years, it is those that are most data centric that are required to enable the metaverse. Although there is significant breadth and depth implicit here, it is the Internet of Things (IoT) that has proven not only the most disruptive advancement, but the most critical for enabling the metaverse.
A sustainability metaverse for industrial agriculture
As a ‘proving ground’ for a sustainability metaverse, it would be difficult to conceive of a more challenging setting than that of industrial agriculture. Responsible for the most-diverse array of greenhouse-gas emissions, from carbon dioxide to methane and nitrous oxide, the sector’s value chain (see figure below) is anything but green. Emissions aside, the sector also finds itself situated at the nexus of the broader dialog on sustainability – a dialog that incorporates concerns relating to biodiversity, plus waste and water management, and more. Together with social and governance metrics, and based largely on sustainability, environmental metrics contribute to a corporation’s ESG criteria – an aggregation of non-financial metrics that are increasingly used to characterize performance. For an industry that has been practiced for more than 10,000 years, that is a lot to grapple with.
Figure 1 Agriculture’s emissions portfolio across all scopes.
In stark contrast to the home or office, industrial agriculture makes use of the broadest spectrum of indoor and outdoor spaces. Uptake of industrial IoT (IIoT) serves well to illustrate the challenge from the technology perspective, as it would be impossible to engineer a one-size-fits-all device that covers all agricultural use cases. Whereas indoor monitoring devices might need to factor in the corrosive effects of ammonia in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), intermittent power and connectivity may be the key requirements for deployments in expansive outdoor settings involving crops and livestock. To reiterate, industrial agriculture introduces some of the most demanding physical and digital integration requirements for a sustainability metaverse that can embrace both the barn and the field.
Almost remarkably then, by leveraging Microsoft’s broad and deep technology portfolio on Azure, solution collaboration demonstrates that a sustainability metaverse can embrace industrial agriculture at scale. Despite the demanding requirements of in-the-field yet sparse IoT deployments,
… helps farmers shift to data-centric practices. It tackles the problem on both the decision-making and operational levels. [Azure] cloud technology [is used] to gather millions of data points and synthesize them via sophisticated machine learning. It advises farmers and interacts with devices to control irrigation and other functions.
Innovative solutions can now validate the reciprocity implicit in Nadella’s characterization of the metaverse:
Finally, yet perhaps most importantly, these types of solutions are being used in production at scale today.
Figure 2 TalentCloud’s Agro-Brain solution.
Should value be perceived, the existing platform could be augmented to include sensors capable of ‘hearing’ and/or ‘smelling’ (e.g., monitoring water-vapor, methane, and/or nitrous-oxide levels). It seems reasonable to posit, therefore, that the more visceral the experience becomes (e.g., by catering to all senses) the more compelling a sustainability metaverse. The metaverse, recall, is all about the mutual interaction between us and our technology.
To glean even more from TalentCloud’s Agro-Brain solution please consult the customer story here.
The industrial agriculture use case and solutions can be considered a sustainability metaverse today – even though there exists ample upside for enhancements. Of course, the IoT-fueled intersection between sustainability and the metaverse is not restricted to just industrial agriculture.
In a previous post, I provided an overview of a solution that is being used by the Town of Cary, North Carolina, to predict and manage floods. In common with the above example from industrial agriculture is the requirement for broad and deep uptake of IoT technology. Although benefits from this ‘smart city’ are already being derived, refactoring the Town’s solution within the emerging framework of a sustainability metaverse has the potential to deliver even greater value. An existing feature of the Town of Cary’s solution is the engagement of its citizens. As IoT-fueled metaverses thrive on interaction, the prospects for urban environments would seem to present exciting prospects for the future.
Digital transformation requires a data-first approach. So too does the metaverse. From smart farming to cities, IoT is arguably the key enabler as devices can instrument the physical world with a broad and deep array of sensors. As the previous industrial agriculture solution demonstrated, the introduction of cloud-based AI allowed valuable insights to be derived from field data – non-trivial value that impacts both financial as well as ESG criteria metrics.
AI, however, is merely one of the ‘game-changing technologies’ that can be leveraged in the IoT-fueled metaverse. To illustrate how other technologies might factor into a sustainability metaverse, consider the case of supporting the transition to electrified vehicles (EVs). As the EPA data (below) indicates, the impetus for aiding transition of the light-duty vehicles segment of the sector to electrified vehicles is well evident.
Figure 3 Emissions by source in the transportation sector based upon 2019 EPA data.
Because the transition is anything but straightforward, however, Microsoft partner Allego has developed an intelligent electric vehicle charging solution enable by Azure Digital Twin. This solution models entities within the electric vehicle charging network to optimize charging schedules using real-time data. The modeled entities include regional information, utility companies, vehicles and as a result enables electric vehicle drivers everywhere with flexible, user-friendly charging options that are also environmentally friendly.
As uptake of EVs by consumers remain early stage of market adoption, electromobility has come a long way. EV performance is improving, battery ranges have increased and there is growing adoption as fleet managers, utility companies and municipalities closely manage monitor and optimize grid stability and charging stations. Of course, it would be fair to state that the volatility inherent in the space at the current time means that the risk remains an inherent characteristic. Allego’s charging solution monitors and services charging points remotely and supports a variety of electric vehicles, charge speeds and charging station. These capabilities enable grid operators and energy suppliers to adapt to the demand and align to the availability of renewable resources and lower energy rates.
Figure 4 Schematic illustrating the better visibility into energy usage throughout the system, making it easier and more affordable to own and operate an electric vehicle.
Much like the Town of Cary’s dashboard for flood prediction and management, a natural next phase in the evolution of Microsoft IoT Sustainability enabled by partner solution would be a refactoring that moves it progressively in the direction of a sustainability metaverse. Ultimately, real-time interactions between the physical and digital realms could enable a next-gen experience for EV consumers and infrastructure providers.
Under the auspices of the United Nations, sustainability was defined as:
… meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Penned some 34 years ago, this definition still resonates in terms of its simple characterization of our interdependent present and future – a present and future defined by interaction.
Because a bias towards interaction is fundamental to any notion of the metaverse, the juxtaposition with sustainability is only surprising in terms of the possibilities that can be considered. From the proving grounds of industrial agriculture to exciting prospects for decarbonizing urban centers, sustainability metaverses bring the promise of real-world solutions in a digital age.
Data will always be the critical component of the sustainability metaverse. Fortunately, \ IoT is poised to ‘instrument’ the physical world as needed to ensure interactive digital experiences can be realized. The emphasis on data ensures that value-added experiences can be delivered; for example, cloud-based AI models can deliver real-time insights to farmers as well as those responsible for the infrastructure of smart cities.
Originally posted here