Practically cool

Greg Demchak, Director of Digital Innovation Lab, Bentley Systems, talks to Danielle Kenneally 

The construction metaverse: Fact or fiction?


A SELF-PROFESSED highly creative visionary with a passion for creating industry-changing solutions to challenging problems, Bentley Systems’ digital innovation lab director, Greg Demchak is on a mission to leverage metaverse concepts and the seemingly endless opportunities that they provide.

Part of his job is to enthuse about the metaverse’s possibilities and how it offers digital information continuity as it drives the design-construct-operations lifecycle.

But Greg does not simply just talk about his excitement of the metaverse and the advancements in gaming technology, alongside platforms such as Bentley’s iTwin, he hums with it. He reveres these advancements as a way of bringing all of the digital information together at lightning speed.

The software designer, entrepreneur, and technology evangelist spoke to the Civil Engineering Surveyor’s Danielle Kenneally on why organisations and people across the world are choosing, and should choose, to take advantage of the metaverse to build the future of infrastructure.

Bentley has been involved with a number of events this year, including the CICES-partnered Digital Construction Week (DCW) back in May – what do you take away from these events?

An important aspect of coming to these events is the in-person face-to-face, hands-on experience. People get to touch the technology, try it on, and see what it does. This can’t be done on a Microsoft Teams or a Zoom meeting, especially with technology such as virtual reality headsets. These technologies are immersive, which require you to experience them, and I think there’s a lot of new technology and applications out there that you experience its benefits by experiencing it in reality.

I participated in a Hackathon with Meta recently and that was fun. We built an app with passthrough cameras where, using a headset, you can see your hands and pick up virtual objects, it was amazing.

We wouldn’t be able to take part and experiment in the same way if we weren’t there. By attending events, I get to host sessions discussing key themes around construction technology, such as the industrial metaverse, which is awesome, so another benefit of visiting events is being able to get out of the office and speak to people, find out about them and what they’re looking for. It helps us to develop, build relationships, and progress our collaborative efforts.

You must see a lot of new and emerging technology and developments – what has been the most exciting you’ve seen or heard about?

When I manage to sneak away from the booth after my sessions, I get to see a lot of cool technology. I really like Mission Room, which is a 360-degree immersive media and interactive display system for infrastructure projects. We ran our technology on that system at DCW – I simply put the build on its computer, walked away, and it worked. It was amazing to see a multi-projection system utilise our build.

While companies can use Bentley SYNCHRO, the fact that I could just drop software into another platform, and see it work was the best part. We encourage interoperability because it’s a critical issue for design and engineering software users as it can result in the loss of billions, not to mention the loss of time and overall quality. It is one in which we want to support.

Any exciting advancements you’d like to share from Bentley?

We’re currently in the process of creating an iTwin prototype, one which develops a guided experience of creating, visualising, and analysing digital twins of infrastructure assets for a general-purpose experience. While it’s not yet a product, we’re seeing its evolution from being a one-off demo at our Year in Infrastructure and Going Digital Awards event to one that is being developed further.

The iTwin Platform, however, is the star of the show at the moment because of its open, scalable operability, as well as its instant access, low barrier of entry, and reduced complexity. These capabilities are what enable us to invest in and invent new technology like this prototype – it’s definitely exciting and one to look out for from us. We also have a new flagship office in the UK – 8 Bishopsgate, which is in Central London.

We have a virtual production stage with LED screens and a huge interactive floor where people can become immersed in all this cool technology. It’s really exciting and we hope other people will be excited by it too.

At DCW, you presented several sessions on the metaverse and its potential for the construction industry – what is the metaverse to the industry and how far are we from fully integrating it?

The iTwin platform is the star of the show at the moment because its open, scalable operability, as well as its instant access, low barrier of entry, and reduced complexity is what enables us to invest in and invent new technology.

The metaverse is a word used as an icebreaker for people to discuss virtual reality, mixed reality, game engines, and so much more. It’s an entry point that can open up a discussion about all this new technology, rather than a singular specific technology.

The word metaverse is not new though, the technology behind all these immersive experiences has been building for decades. It could have been called ‘sensorama’ or ‘cyberspace’, however, it’s the metaverse that has captured people’s interest. You can lose your audience with one technology, but with the metaverse you can steer it in a different direction because it encompasses it all.

The metaverse, while not a specific thing but more a set of requirements, can improve the construction industry today, as you can see from all the technology that companies have developed and are developing, including our iTwin Platform. And while there is so much more to come, it is certainly being integrated and, in many ways, augmenting workflows now.

How do you think the industry should approach it?

The industry should approach the metaverse with an open mind and curiosity. Give multiplayer gameplay a try and look for user cases that make sense in the industry. The metaverse, for me, is a medium for communication. It’s all about its sharing capability, its distribution, its accessibility, and its ability to enable feedback. I think of it as a communication feedback space which provides intuitive interactive 3D communication as a medium to facilitate these feedback loops.

Many professionals are worried about the impact of using the metaverse – do you allay their concerns, or do you share them?

The word metaverse is not new, the technology behind all these immersive experiences has been building for decades. It could have been called ‘sensorama’ or ‘cyberspace’, however, it’s the metaverse that has captured people’s interest.

We certainly must think about our carbon footprint. We need to really think about writing software that is very efficient in its use of the necessary computing power. A lot of the metaverse uses graphics processor units (GPUs), and we need to use game engines to run it. It takes a lot of power, so we need to write software that uses these GPUs more efficiently and ensure our carbon footprint is manageable.

How will infrastructure benefit and will we see the metaverse being used on more projects?

Most definitely, engineers will be able to build better, safer, more effective infrastructure and cities with better planning and community engagement. The metaverse provides collaborative and communicative advancements, which improves health and safety, delivery time, policies and the overall deliverable by reducing risk, complexity, and rework. The benefits are far reaching and its use will only increase.

Where will or can the metaverse go and should civil engineering surveyors be excited?

If the message resonates, with people, then I hope they will be excited. My belief is that it’s practically cool. It’s practical and it’s cool, so don’t be afraid of it. 

Greg Demchak, Director of Digital Innovation Lab, Bentley Systems, spoke to Danielle Kenneally