Sidewalk Labs’ Replica Has Spun Out

Some really interesting news in the digital twin planning space from last week:

The newly formed company, which is headed by Nick Bowden, also announced Thursday it has raised $11 million in a Series A funding round from investors Innovation Endeavors,  Firebrand Ventures and Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund. The capital will be used to accelerate Replica’s growth through new hires beyond its existing 13-person staff, expansion to new cities and investment in its technology.

What makes this interesting is what Replica is:

The Replica modeling tool uses de-identified mobile location data to give public agencies a comprehensive portrait of how, when and why people travel. Movement models are matched to a synthetic population, which has been created using samples of census demographic data to create a broad new data set that is statistically representative of the actual population.

How, when and why people move around a city.

As a planner, investor or developer; you can imagine how this is really interesting. As the TechCrunch article points out, there are privacy implications to this but if this model works and can help plan cities better, we’ll all be better off. Cities are growing at exponential rates and new ones are being built every day. Helping planners make better initial decisions about where and how things should go OR help them make changes as the city develops will only improve life for all.

The iPhone U1 UWB Chip, Digital Twins and Data Collection

Oddly enough the biggest news this week from the iPhone 11 introduction by Apple barely got any play. In fact, on the iPhone 11 Pro website, you have to scroll past Dog Portrait mode to get any information about it. Apple describes the U1 chip thusly:

The new Apple‑designed U1 chip uses Ultra Wideband technology for spatial awareness — allowing iPhone 11 Pro to understand its precise location relative to other nearby U1‑equipped Apple devices.4 It’s like adding another sense to iPhone, and it’s going to lead to amazing new capabilities. With U1 and iOS 13, you can point your iPhone toward someone else’s, and AirDrop will prioritize that device so you can share files faster.4 And that’s just the beginning.

https://www.apple.com/iphone-11-pro/

Makes sense right? A better way to AirDrop. But there is so much more there, “precise location relative to other nearby equipped Apple Devices“. But what is UWB and why does it matter? The UWB Alliance says:

UWB is a unique radio technology that can use extremely low energy levels for short-range, high-bandwidth communications over a large portion of the radio spectrum. Devices powered by a coin cell can operate for a period of years without recharge or replacement. UWB technology enables a broad range of applications, from real-time locating and tracking, to sensing and radar, to secure wireless access, and short message communication. The flexibility, precision and low-power characteristics of UWB give it a unique set of capabilities unlike any other wireless technology.

So that’s really interesting, low energy use, high bandwidth and is very secure. I thought Jason Snell did a great job looking into the U1 on Six Colors:

From raw data alone, UWB devices can detect locations within 10 centimeters (4 inches), but depending on implementation that accuracy can be lowered to as much as 5 millimeters, according to Mickael Viot, VP of marketing at UWB chipmaker Decawave.

That’s pretty amazing. Basically it takes what makes Bluetooth LE great for discover, secures it and then makes it faster and more accurate. So we can see the consumer use cases for UWB, sharing files and finding those tiles we’ve heard so much about. But where this gets very interesting for our space is for data collection and working inside digital twins. You can already see the augmented reality use case here. A sensor has gone bad in a building, I can find it now with millimeter accuracy. But it’s not just what direction it’s how far. UWB uses “time of flight” to pinpoint location (measuring the time of signal to gauge distance), enabling it to know how far away it is. Just knowing a sensor is ahead of you is one thing, but knowing it is 20 feet away, that’s really a game changer.

You can see this through a little known app Apple makes called Indoor Survey. Small side note, back in late 2015 I blogged about Apple’s Indoor Positioning App which ties into all this. Where you really see this use is when you go to the signup page see how data is brought into this app using a standard called Indoor Mapping Data Format. Indoor Mapping Data Format (IMDF) provides a generalized, yet comprehensive data model for any indoor location, creating a basis for orientation, navigation and discovery. IMDF is output as an archive of GeoJSON files.  Going to the IMDF Sandbox really shows you what this format is about.

Apple’s IMDF Sandbox

Basically you see a map editor that allows you to really get into how interiors are mapped and used. So Apple iPhone 11 UWB devices can help place themselves more accurately on maps and route users around building interiors. Smart buildings get smarter by the devices talking to each other. Oh and IMDF, Apple says, “For GIS and BIM specialists, there is support for IMDF in many of your favorite tools.“. I will need to spend a bit more time with IMDF but its basically GeoJSON objects so we already know how to use it.

The thing about GPS data collection is it works great outdoors, but inside it is much harder to get accuracy, especially when you need it. With Indoor Survey, devices can collect data much more accurately indoors because they know exactly where they are. If you’ve ever used Apple Maps in an airport and seen how it routes you from gate to gate, you get an idea how this works. But with UWB, you go from foot accuracy to sub centimeter. That’s a big difference.

Now we’re a long way away from UWB being ubiquitous like Bluetooth LE is. Right now as far as I can tell, only Apple has UWB chips in their devices and we don’t know how compatible this all is yet. But you can see how the roadmap is laid out here. UWB, GeoJSON and an iPhone 11. Devices help each other get better location and in turn make working with Digital Twins and data collection so much easier.

Underground Digital Twins

We all have used 3D maps. From Google Earth, to Google and Apple Maps, to Esri, Mapbox and others, we are very used to seeing 3D buildings rendered on our devices. But think of the iceberg analogy…

Below is a bigger deal than above…

Icebergs are so much bigger than they appear. This is the case with the built environment. Look out your window and you see a complex city. But what you don’t see is what is below. We know that these underground assets are hit on average every 60 seconds in the United States which costs over $1B dollars in losses. What we can’t see is costing cities and developers money that could be better spent on making these cities sustainable.

But getting a hold on this issue is not easy. The ownership of these assets is many times private and those companies do not wish to share anything about what is underground for business or security reasons. Plus even if sharing was something that interested people, there isn’t a good unified underground model to place them in (we have many of these available for above ground assets). But there seems to be some progress in this area. Writes Geoff Zeiss:

At the December Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Energy Summit at EPRI in Charlotte, Josh Lieberman of the OGC presented an overview of the progress of OGC’s underground information initiative, with the appropriate acronym MUDDI, which is intended to provide an open standards-based way to share information about the below ground.

The part that gets my attention is that MUDDI model is intended to build on and be compatible with many existing reference models. This is a big deal because many of the stakeholders in underground assets have already invested time and money into supporting these. As Geoff writes:

MUDDI is not an attempt to replace existing standards, but to build on and augment existing standards to create a unified model supporting multiple perspectives.

I’m totally on board with this. Creating a new model that handles all these edge-cases only will result in a model nobody wants. As we work toward integrating underground models into Digital Twin platforms, MUDDI will be a huge deal. It’s not ready by any means yet but because it support existing standards everyone can get involved immediately and start working at creating underground digital twins.

BIM vs. Digital Twin

The thing with BIM is that BIM models are VERY complicated. That’s just the nature of BIM. People talk about digital twins all the time, and BIM (as an extension of CAD) is probably one of the first representations of a digital twin. BIM though by its nature isn’t an “as-built.” It is just a picture of what the real world object should be, where-as a digital twin is a digital copy of an existing asset. Now the best way to start a digital twin is to import a BIM model, but there are some areas you need to be aware of before doing so.

  1. A BIM model might not be an as-built. As I said above, BIM is what something should be, not what it ends up being. During construction, changes are always made to the building, and in doing so, the BIM model ceases to be a digital twin. Just importing a BIM model without field verification can result in your digital twin not genuinely being a digital twin.

  2. What detail do you need in hour digital twin? A BIM model might have millions of entities making up even a simple asset, such as a window frame that is unique and requires high accuracy. This is very important in the construction phase where even a millimeter off can cause problems, but for a digital twin, that detail is not needed. This is where BIM and digital twins diverge; the BIM model is the engineering representation of something vs. a digital twin is just the digital replica. There is no reason why you couldn’t import in such an elaborate window frame of course, but throughout a whole building or even a city, these extra details get lost in the LOD. The key here is knowing what your LOD is and how you want to view it. There is much going on in the 3D space where you can use LOD to display the elaborate window frame above, yet still be performant where needed.
  3. Aftermarket features are generally part of a digital twin. BIM models are idealized in that they only show what was spec’d out. Digital twins need to show all those modifications that were made after the building was turned over to the owner. Doors removed, walls put up, windows boarded over. These things all need to be reflected in your digital twin. Just importing a BIM model that doesn’t address these changes means that when you go to link up your digital twin to IoT or other services, there is no one-to-one relationship. Preparation work of that BIM model before ingestion into a digital twin helps immeasurably.

It is easy to want to jump into creating digital twins of your buildings but it is critical to make sure that before you do so you’ve review your files to ensure that they are as-built and a twin of the real world asset.