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Digital twin technology: what it is and why it matters

Posted September 23, 2021
Two models of human faces looking at one another

As our interactions with the digital world become more frequent and profound, an increasingly sophisticated shadow is beginning to take shape. It follows us closely and takes the form of a collection of data: browsing history and eCommerce purchases, social media likes and shares. For now, it's our virtual shadow — not us, but representative nonetheless.

Someday, though, we may find ourselves with a digital twin, a real-time virtual counterpart.

It may sound futuristic, but digital twin technology has been in the making for nearly two decades. Fueled by advances in AI and Internet of Things (IoT) technology, digital twins are helping businesses map products and predict issues. Read on to learn how the customer experience may be the next frontier for this technology.

What is a digital twin?

"When we think 'digital twin' we almost have to jump immediately to IoT data and looking at what having millions or billions of data points really give us," explains customer experience (CX) expert James Wallace, whose research examines the intersection of customer experience and digital twins. "What it can do for us, is create this almost real-time feedback loop of information both for organizations and for the customer as well."

A digital twin is defined as a real-time representation that serves as a virtual counterpart to a physical object or process. Pioneering work took place in the early 2000s by Michael Grieves, a product lifecycle management researcher and teacher at the University of Michigan. Prior to his work, NASA had been practicing some 'twinning' ideas since the 1960s that used the concept to simulate different scenarios with rockets and shuttles.

Digital twins aren't conceptual. Rather, they are intended to be representations of their real-world counterparts. That's what makes them a powerful tool for modeling scenarios, identifying issues before they happen and making better decisions that improve the overall customer experience.

Along with NASA, the manufacturing industry has been ideal for the technology. For one, companies in this sector are already sensor-heavy, with the capability to capture the volume of data necessary to create an effective digital twin. But the rise in IoT adoption in recent years has helped bring digital twins into the common vernacular, bridging the gap between physical and virtual worlds and doing so in an authentic way.

"What a digital twin can provide for us with enough sensors is it can provide a real-world, very flawed — and necessarily flawed — image of what we're actually dealing with," says Wallace. "Having something that’s actually real, and that provides a picture of what your expectations should be of something, is important."

How are digital twins being used?

The emergence of smart buildings — tech-enabled spaces equipped with sensors that track occupancy, temperature, air quality, light levels and energy consumption — blend well with digital twin technology. "Imagine living in a smart apartment building and you had sensors everywhere," says Wallace. "You would be able to go on your mobile device and see the state of the building."

This technology is already in practice. The Hickman, a mixed-use tech-enabled building in London, was recently named one of the world's smartest buildings due to its use of digital twin technology to monitor the building and its assets in real time. Eventually, the developer plans to use machine learning alongside the digital twin to predict outages and adjust automatically. When it comes to the built environment, decarbonization and energy efficiency are two big targets for digital twin technology, since it can be used to reduce the carbon footprint of the construction process and building management.

Healthcare has also started to implement digital twins, employing health data and wearables to keep tabs on baseline health, predict irregularities and help guide interactions with healthcare providers. In April, Q Bio launched Gemini, a platform that scans the body and "automatically reflects an individual's most accurate physiological state in the form of a digital twin, highlighting the most important changes in a person's physiology in a comprehensive summary that can be securely shared with physicians and specialists all over the world."

As industries like retail and hospitality start to adopt digital transformation through IoT, artificial intelligence and data analysis, brands have an opportunity to redefine the use-cases for digital twins and CX itself.

The role of digital twins in the future of CX

The possibilities to enhance the customer experience with digital twin technology are endless, particularly as products and services become more complex. When it comes to customer support specifically, it's not always easy for an agent providing technical support to troubleshoot the issue.

"Digital twins resolve this struggle by providing accurate data straight from the source: the product itself," says Michael Ringman, CIO at TELUS International, in an article for Forbes. "Through digital twin technology, companies can test upgrades and new features while proactively troubleshooting before releasing them to the public to avoid any unwanted errors. This practice provides organizations with both lessons and opportunities learned from the digital twin that can then be applied to the physical product or solution."

As another example, digital twins could be used to create the epitome of a personalized travel and hospitality customer experience, says Anil Bilgihan, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University, whose research focuses on user experience, digital marketing and online social interactions.

With current technology, guests can check in for their flights with their smartphones. But in the future, it's possible that the second a traveler arrives at the airport, their hotel will send a shuttle because it knew they were there, says Bilgihan. From current state and past preferences, it would initiate a sequence that starts preparing the hotel room for the customer's lighting, temperature and ambiance preferences.

Retail is also ripe for a highly personalized CX through the use of digital twins and AI, especially with scanning technology. "The store could say 'OK, this person has this style, these are the things that he is more likely to purchase' and [configure] different types of scenarios that could add to the store experience," says Bilgihan. "The algorithm can suggest the salesperson show me different things based on what I purchased before and what I'm wearing currently."

Digital twins have the potential to give businesses more precise insight into customers and create a more optimized customer journey — one that's relevant, engaging and as personal as your shadow.

Unlocking consumer trust

Within the CX context, creating accurate digital twins of your customers means collecting data, which highlights the needs for robust privacy and security policies. It will also require new training for the ethical and transparent management of "digital twin programs." These factors underline the importance of a roadmap approach to identifying opportunities and developing customer-centric digital twin solutions.

Wallace says he sees the potential for blockchain as a tool to allow customers to choose the information they share with brands looking to create digital twins. "It makes it completely secure because it gives that power back to the end-user," he says. "The IoT data is not going into some nefarious repository, it would be made accessible to individuals with access based upon a blockchain encryption."

For brands, that means creating a transparent CX that ultimately leads to better trust. It's a lot to think about, says Wallace, but digital twins have the ability to create a collaborative experience, one that's constantly being defined by the end-user. That, he says, would really create a customer-driven future.

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