Digital twins, virtual replicas of real-life physical systems, processes or products, were first introduced by former University of Michigan faculty member Michael Grieves in 2002. NASA’s John Vickers later coined the term in the organization’s 2010 Roadmap Report.
Since then, digital twin technology has made its way into various industries — such as manufacturing, engineering and health care — that are growing due to advancements in virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI). This uptick across sectors has allowed researchers and practitioners to test and collect data from physical and virtual worlds to inform strategic decisions.
Not to mention emerging VR and AI technology allows digital twins to accelerate the data-collection process to be more interactive than ever before, with markets anticipating the technology to grow from $6.9 billion in 2022 to $73.5 billion by 2027.
It is this interactivity that makes digital twins especially exciting in the field of higher education, allowing students, faculty and staff to expand the campus experience virtually.
Curious how digital twins are being created and used on the Arizona State University campus and in the community? Explore three ways in which digital twins are changing the campus experience for those in the Phoenix area and across the globe.
1. Immersive experiences in the ASUniverse
If you visit Learning Futures, part of ASU’s Enterprise Technology, you will find teams of students designing and exploring experiences in extended reality (XR). One such team is creating a digital twin of the ASU Tempe campus they’re calling the ASUniverse.
For nearly two years, students have gathered data about the exteriors and interiors of campus buildings, uploaded it into a game development engine (the team uses Unreal Engine) and determined the amount of detail needed to create interactive virtual learning spaces.
Explore the ASUniverse, a digital twin of ASU's Tempe campus that brings the university into the metaverse. Video by Alisha Mendez/ASU
But when it comes to exploring how digital twins can be leveraged to improve the student experience, Toby Vaughn Kidd, director of studios at Learning Futures, explains that it’s important to think about the digital twin as an asset, and the ASUniverse as the experiences being built from the digital twin.
Digital twins can enhance learning experiences by providing a virtual space for ASU students, represented as avatars, to meet up for class in the ASUniverse. “Nearly anything that you do in the real world can be recreated for a virtual environment,” Kidd said. That’s why the ASUniverse is ideal for both in-person and fully online students. For example, students can study ASU's architecture (like Old Main), research ways to improve traffic patterns on campus and learn about the biodiversity on campus.
“The way that ASU has taken to solving certain problems like providing shade from the sun or examining iconic historic buildings — these are features that we have on campus and that we should be able to highlight in the ASUniverse,” Kidd said.
2. Engagement and entertainment on campus and in the community
For remote learners across the world, joining in person to meet other students or take campus tours may not be possible. For those students, digital twins give virtual access to campus to interact with colleagues and campus events with an in-person feel.
“We can recreate virtually anything from the real world in a digital twin. That’s one of the powers that we have with the immersive environment,” Kidd said.
“It allows people to visit places they can’t otherwise go and give them objects that they couldn’t otherwise hold — it really transports you."
While recreating performances in virtual worlds is possible, it’s important to design experiences that are intentionally and specifically created for virtual spaces. “Live events and performances in virtual spaces are already happening,” said Kidd. “We’re just finding a way to bring this experience to students who want to engage on campus in this way.”
Outside of campus tours and live performances, there is a lot of work happening in the creation of digital twins for sporting events and stadium experiences.
In fall 2022, Learning Futures tested a VR “on-the-field experience” to enhance what game day at Sun Devil Stadium could be like, virtually. With cameras positioned on the sidelines during a football game, spectators could put on a headset that would allow them to move their head around to explore an on-the-field view of the action taking place.
Kidd also explained that someone could easily virtually attend a game — pick an avatar, sit in the stands wherever you want and watch the game in real time. A few ways in which a 3D, digital twin experience might differ from an in-person experience might include watching virtual presentations play the game with a 3D view, having detailed shots or highlights displayed right next to you or being able to chat virtually with other fans in real time.
Even if users aren’t big sports fans, participating in a virtual setting allows them to enjoy the energy and engage in the experience in a variety of ways that actually help increase their engagement overall.
3. Urban planning and development in the community and beyond
From the campus to the community, other teams at ASU Enterprise Technology are exploring how digital twins can improve experiences for all Arizonans.
Beyond campus grounds, digital twins can offer robust, real-time data and visual representations to help inform community action.
Sensors collect valuable building information management (BIM) data to make this possible. “What digital twins allow us to do is offer the promise of having that data in real time, making decisions for the best interest of the city and its residents,” said Ryan Hendrix, general manager at ASU’s Smart City Cloud Innovation Center, powered by AWS.
With rapid growth, new buildings, the light rail and ASU’s continuous expansion, downtown Phoenix is transitioning from a work hub to a thriving city where the community can live, work and play. Hendrix and ASU’s Smart City Cloud Innovation Center (CIC) recently partnered with DTPHX Inc. and Siradel to build a better downtown.
Together, the ASU CIC, DTPHX and Siradel are partnering to explore the challenge: How might government, real estate, companies, community-based organizations, nonprofits, citizens, neighborhoods and academics find, access and share data and analytics for urban and strategic planning and infrastructure and systems management in the DTPHX service area? A digital twin that’s in the works will help explore the answer to this challenge.
Virtual campuses in 2023 and beyond
While there’s nothing quite like experiencing the ASU campus, Sun Devils will be able to experience the campus in a new way with the many benefits of digital twins and the immersive environments that they create.
Technology is now advanced enough that students, staff and faculty can complement on-campus experiences with additional opportunities to connect virtually with the physical location and other students. “Students are already using virtual environments like this,” said Kidd. “So by creating the ASUniverse, we’re actually meeting the students where they already are and where they prefer to be.”
Written by Stephanie King.
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