The metaverse. A misunderstood place where avatars roam and virtual reality almost seems like, well, actual reality.  

Walid Saad, a professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech and member of the Wireless@VT research group, wants to help close the knowledge gap related to the metaverse. He’s starting with digital twins, or virtual models of real world objects, that will be a key constituent of the metaverse.

Saad received a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore a new type of connectivity for digital twins in hopes of enhancing their role within the metaverse and beyond.

The research team will address current challenges of connectivity in these digital replicas by introducing the Internet of Federated Digital Twins.  Similar to the Internet of Things (think different electronics powered and controlled by Alexa), the Internet of Federated Digital Twins will create a platform for interconnected digital replicas that can “talk to each other.” Through the use of fundamental theoretical and artificial intelligence-based tools, the team will be able to analyze, optimize, and operate these devices within wireless systems. 

What is a digital twin?

By definition, a digital twin is an exact digital replica of a physical entity. Digital twins can be used for many purposes such as simulations, testing, real-time control, maintenance, or monitoring of a real-world system/process. They are helping revolutionize automation and product development across multiple areas.

Many industries are transitioning to virtual reality or digital twin test bed technologies to understand how, for example, proposed modifications to a piece of equipment will perform before physical changes are implemented. Benefits to this type of new workflow include more efficient training, cost savings, and reduced waste. Perhaps the most significant benefit is enabling increased and seamless collaboration. Taken a step further, this new technology can even allow workers to operate on physical equipment from their own home through digital twin replicas.

Although many consumers may associate digital twins and the metaverse with exorbitant spending and negatively framed media coverage, this virtual reality world is much more than a place to play video games with friends. 

“The metaverse is an opportunity to experience a digital world for everyone, everywhere. It can help reduce distances and facilitate novel methods for social and business interactions,” said Saad. “During the pandemic, we saw the crucial need for online interactions and connectivity. The metaverse can take video calls to a whole new level whereby you can have holographic meetings in which you can, not just see and speak to the other person, but eventually interact with them with all five senses, as if they were sitting next to you.”

Walid Saad and Ph.D. student Omar Hashash analyze a drone and compare it to its digital twin replica on the screen at a lab space in Arlington, Va. Photo by Chelsea Seeber for Virginia Tech.

Walid Saad and student stand in library room and hold drone together
Walid Saad and Ph.D. student Omar Hashash analyze a drone and compare it to its digital twin replica on the screen at a lab space in Arlington. Photo by Chelsea Seeber for Virginia Tech.

A new approach

Saad’s research envisions a new concept of an Internet of Federated Digital Twins that holistically integrates two different and physically separated digital twins within a single framework and system. This concept will allow for simultaneous and real-time changes to be made to a model, such as that of a Boeing airplane. These virtual airplane models could be separated by thousands of miles and vast oceans, but as long as they are both connected and communicate with each other over the 5G and 6G network, the geographical boundaries that exist while working on physical objects are eliminated.

The proposed wirelessly connected network of digital twins will require improvements on the artificial intelligence front. They must be built as dynamic systems that continuously grow and evolve with the data and the outcomes of the real time actuation. This calls for novel artificial intelligence techniques using the idea of lifelong learning, whereby a machine learning algorithm can “grow”  over time with the information it receives, just like a child develops skills over a lifetime. This portion of the research will be led by machine learning expert Saad and his team at Virginia Tech.

The research is being done in collaboration with Tokyo Institute of Technology, where a test bed has been created at the Smart Mobility Research and Education Field. The test bed will allow the research team to better understand how digital twins interact with physical systems.  By creating a digital twin for autonomous vehicles that will be driving around campus, the team will be able to use that vehicle’s twin to monitor and potentially control its movement.

Professor Kei Sakaguchi noted the expertise of the teams at both Virginia Tech and at Tokyo Institute of Technology. More specifically, how they complement each other.

"Professor Walid Saad and his team at Virginia Tech are well known for artificial intelligence, which is in cyberspace. Our team at Tokyo Tech is well known for 5G/6G networks and its application to super smart society, which are in physical space," said Sakaguchi. "It is exciting to merge the pieces of the puzzle in this project."

Professor stands next to autonomous smart car in the streets of Tokyo
Professor Kei Sakaguchi stands alongside an autonomous vehicle that will be used as a testbed for the collaborative digital twin research. Photo courtesy of Kei Sakaguchi.

Other partners include the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, as well as graduate students from the U.S. and Japan. Omar Hashash is a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech studying electrical engineering with a focus in AI and wireless communication in the metaverse. As a graduate research assistant, he has enjoyed working with Saad and the innovative nature of this particular field. 

“I am acquiring knowledge and gaining experience in the digital twins and metaverse fields, which are at the heart of the digital revolution that tech giants such as Meta, Nokia, and NVIDIA are leading,” said Hashash. “The contributions and experience in these fields will play a key role in providing me with the confidence and expertise to excel in any relevant industrial work field one day.”

professor and student test out VR headset in a room with a computer screen on the wall behind them
Ph.D. student Omar Hashash tries out a VR headset similar to those often used when interacting with digital twins in the Metaverse. Photo by Chelsea Seeber for Virginia Tech.

The future of society is 5.0

Saad and his team are contributing to a much broader purpose with the enhancement of digital twins and their inter-connected networks. The Internet of Federated Digital Twins will provide a major leap toward the vision of Society 5.0, which aims to “balance economic advancement with the resolution of social problems by using a system that integrates cyberspace and physical space."

This transformative research will also help revolutionize several industries, including manufacturing, intelligent travel systems, healthcare, drone systems, and more. The proposed networking framework will create a new breed of wireless systems ready to support a massive deployment of federated digital twins. Additionally, it will play an instrumental role in creating programmable, autonomous virtual spaces that can grow and adapt to the data, eventually leading to smart city infrastructure.

“I expect that in the next 5-10 years we could see a more mainstream adoption of digital twins and the metaverse by industries and the average consumer looking for an immersive communications experience," said Saad. “Breaking through the negative stereotypes associated with this technology and encouraging adoption is going to greatly change the way we live, work, and play.”


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