A digital twin is a virtual replica of a physical asset, process, system, or place. It’s more than a static copy of its physical counterpart; it’s a dynamic representation that’s connected to its counterpart’s sensors and that’s fed with real-time data. Through Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), it’s a digital simulation that learns and changes as its counterpart does.

The digital twin of a machine

Gartner named digital twins one of the top 10 strategic technology trends of 2017. Big companies, such as GE, Siemens, Dassault Systemes, Lockheed Martin, and others, are creating digital twins of an increasingly larger subset of their products, and it’s easy to understand why: digital twins allow companies to ask what-if questions. It allows them to create hypothetical situations, without disrupting day-to-day operations, and see the possible impact on their assets or systems.

For example: a company intends to open a factory in a new location where the average temperatures are ten degrees Celsius higher than in their other factories. If they have a digital twin of their factory, or of the specific machines in that factory, they can create a simulation that reflects this higher average temperature, to see the impact of it on their factory and its machines.

The digital twin of a factory

Another example: an entire hospital, and all its machinery inside, can be recreated as a digital twin. This can include airflow, temperature, patient in- and outflows, other foot traffic, and so on… Hospitals can run simulations on this digital twin to determine what they should change for their hospital to run more efficiently.

How to Visualize a Digital Twin

Currently, digital twins are mostly visualized through 2D monitors. However, companies are increasingly looking into Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) devices to visualize their digital twins. In December 2018, Tesla filed two patents for using AR in their factories. Trimble has even built a safety-certified hard hat that has Microsoft’s HoloLens built in.

AR can be used to superimpose a digital twin on its physical counterpart, but it can also be used to simply display a digital twin anywhere in the real world (on a table, for example) to see the model in 3D.

The benefit of using AR over VR is that nearly everyone already has access to a device that’s capable of displaying AR: their smartphones. As such, a company needn’t restrict access to its digital twins to the few who have tailored AR devices such as Google Glass or Microsoft HoloLens. Instead, they can create an AR app to display the digital twin that anyone with a smartphone can use. This can include consumers.

For example: a security company created a digital twin for the shopping mall they’re managing. Through cameras, sensors, and other information streams, it can detect fire, violence, overcrowding, and theft. They created an AR app where this information is available to people inside the shopping mall. If there’s any danger, the app could notify its users and guide them away from the danger by superimposing a safe path over the real world.

Be guided to safety through an AR app

The Impact of AR and Digital Twins On Society

The trend is clear: over the next few years, billions of things will have digital twins. Piece by piece, we’re creating a virtual representation of the entire world. Google Earth has already mapped a large part of the world. Street View allows you to explore cities you wouldn’t ever go to otherwise.

But that mapped world is seen through a 2D screen (unless you’re using Google Earth VR). It’s static and clumsy. Digital twins represented through AR will add context, meaning, and functionality to the world around us. Here’s one such example: Wayfair’s AR app allows you to select a piece of its furniture and place its digital twin wherever you want in your house.

Does this lamp suit my living room?

Another example, one that doesn’t require you to conjure up a digital object, is the Google Lens app. Google’s AI is capable enough to provide meaning to everything your smartphone’s camera scans. It gives information on nearly everything: from plants to animals to a Coca Cola vending machine. It can scan and translate text, add phone numbers, schedule in events, and more, all through your smartphone’s camera.

Scan a piece of clothing to find it right away with Google Lens

It’s a brilliant app that shows how deeply connected the digital and the real world is becoming. Digital twins place a real-world object into the digital world, while the digital world is represented in real life through AR. Once society builds and accepts cheap, wearable AR glasses, this trend will accelerate exponentially.

Just like we couldn’t imagine how the Internet would transform our lives early 90s, we can’t imagine how the merging of the digital with the real will impact our lives. But it’s safe to say that the future will look nothing like it does today.