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The Promise of Digital Twins and the Virtualization of the Physical World

0622-Mark-Schreiber-CPP.pngWith a predicted market value of $224 billion in 2030, the emerging metaverse business will likely be an active component in many commercial industries as a tool, an investment, or a product offering. 

As security professionals, we are tasked to embrace change and support our organizations with new innovations and new business operations, as well as their related emerging risks. As metaverse technologies begin to be introduced to businesses, we are seeing the promise of augmented reality, virtual reality, and specifically the technology of digital twins. 

In a simple explanation, digital twins are the virtualized copy of the physical world that give professionals the ability to analyze their built environment (i.e., buildings) in a digital environment without impacting the real world. Think virtual reality but with the virtual model being a copy of the real world.

A digital twin model is built through image and sensor capture of the physical environment and then digitally assembled in the computer model to simulate a human moving through the environment and looking around as if they were doing so in the real world. Most people are introduced to this technology by Google Street View and this technology is now provided by multiple companies with varying capabilities focused on specific markets and operations. 

Digital twins have gained ground quickly for business operations in recent years due to their practical implementation and relatively low cost—which has been made possible by recent technology innovations and the power of cloud computing.

The physical security industry has been introduced to digital twins through companies like Visual Plan, which uses the Cupix digital twin engine to capture the physical world and provide the digital transformation tool for security design and operations at commercial businesses.

For security design uses, a digital twin allows for a detailed analysis of the existing environment using the virtual model. Unlike a virtualized design model done in a two-dimensional Computer Aided Design (CAD) model or three-dimensional Building Information Modeling (BIM) model, a digital twin is a copy of the existing physical world, not the future environment that is yet to be built. 

This environment, which can be detailed down to centimeter-level of accuracy, allows for the following:

  • Virtualized site surveys

  • Vulnerability assessments

  • Existing site conditions

  • Improvement planning for renovations and additions

Beyond the design and construction purposes, a digital twin can also support the ongoing operations of a facility for all physical operations—including security operations. This is especially attractive knowing that these operational uses of the digital twin can be performed without interrupting existing operations in the physical world. 

For security operational uses, a digital twin enables the following:

  • Virtualization of security training

  • Equipment maintenance planning

  • Security operations planning

  • Optimal response planning, including law enforcement

  • Tabletop exercises

The benefit of providing all these capabilities is appealing to business needs, especially with the understanding that this can all be performed from a Web browser using the Internet from anywhere in the world. 

That being said, as with any other technology, there are limitations with digital twins. The digital twin is a snapshot in time from when it was captured, so we must understand that the elapsed time since the digital twin was updated is a factor that will decrease the value of the model as time progresses. And there will always be details in the real world that a virtual model cannot fully replicate, such as texture, compositions, and other human senses that are not accessible in a digital environment. 

And we must also seriously consider the cybersecurity risks associated with these virtual models as the informational value that the digital twin provides can also be used by adversaries and other perpetrators against the owners of these physical environments. 

We have transitioned to better protection of digital assets that would include digital twin technologies, but that does not mean that the organizational value of having a digital twin is automatically worth the associated security risk. Every organization should evaluate that risk decision for themselves before implementing a digital twin or any other technology innovation prior to implementing.

Mark Schreiber, CPP, CPD, is president and principal consultant at Safeguards Consulting, Inc., and director of the U.S. CPTED Association. Schreiber has more than 20 years of experience in design and consulting within the engineering and construction industry, including being directly responsible for the complete design of large enterprise physical security systems from conception to design completion and oversight. He also serves as a community vice president for ASIS International.