Digital Twins, Machine Learning, and IoT


Digital Twins, Machine Learning, and IoT

Digital twins are part of the Internet of Things (IoT) interconnected system. In 2021, Accenture positioned them as one of the top five strategic technology trends to watch.

Image credit: Noria Corporation

As the name suggests, a digital twin is a virtual model designed to reflect a physical object. Companies like Chevron are using digital twins to predict maintenance issues faster, and Unilever used one on the Azure IoT platform to analyze and fine-tune factory operations such as temperatures and production cycle times.

With a digital twin, the object being studied is outfitted with sensors related to key areas of functionality to produce data about aspects of the physical object’s performance, such as energy output, temperature, and weather conditions. The data is relayed to a processing system and applied to the twin. 

Once informed with this data, the digital twin can run simulations, study performance issues, and generate possible improvements, all while generating insights that can be applied to the physical object.

Sometimes digital twins include a rich immersive visual experience, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes they have a simple interface or no interface at all.

Digital Twins are part of the evolution of IoT within the digital transformation. They are used often today in commercial real estate and facilities planning, and as we think about the metaverse, digital twins take on increasing importance with virtual spaces. When you think about the implications of machine learning on digital twins and the IoT, the possibilities for real-time smart monitoring get very interesting.

Imagine a large corporate campus that has been turned into an enormous digital twin that expands to other campuses and physical locations. What if that digital twin uses machine learning to optimize things like traffic, utilities, and weather? How could a global company use digital twins to have a complete model of the physical world?

Here is our biggest tip for anyone considering digital twins as part of a project strategy:

We like to start by considering the existing tools. A robust set of tools already exists through companies like Microsoft and Amazon Web Services TwinMaker (both of which are Valence partners).

Leverage existing industry ontologies (data dictionaries) like schema and naming systems and data formats for interchange within communities. You’ll benefit from established best practices and from broader operability between third-party vendors.

Microsoft contributed industry standards for digital twin definition language that make it simpler to build, use, and maintain digital twins.

The underlying services are provisioned automatically so developers can build upon a platform of services and extend the existing Microsoft or Amazon product. The process isn’t turnkey, and you won’t be able to create a digital twin using completely out-of-the-box tools, but the platform is managed for you, which lowers the operation costs. The platforms are also more secure and designed with best-operating practices in mind such as automatic back-up and built-in deployment automation.

Building upon industry standards will also save you time. For example, if you want to create a smart building solution and need to describe a building’s physical space, industry standards will help since software developers don’t usually have a facilities or building management background. An industry-standard model gives developers an advantage when creating a digital twin that their clients can understand and use.  

Data-driven solution

Digital twins create a platform to measure and store data. With the data available, you can test and answer both operational and business questions. For example, you can investigate fragile risky components in your supply/production system and explore opportunities to improve and expand new services. The key is that measuring and storing the data are essential steps before using any analytical tool.

Digital Twins are Evolving

While building a digital twin is more difficult than what can be done by a typical business user, we can develop these complex systems with a modest team of developers and designers. We typically only need to bring in highly specialized engineers when there are heavy integration and interoperability challenges with several vendors.

The technology is evolving, and early-stage challenges with vendor integration will improve over time, making it easier to transition a digital twin solution from one cloud provider to another.

One of the keys to digital transformation is challenging how we do things today to explore how to get more computerization and automation involved. Can digital twins improve your organization’s warehousing and distribution? Can digital twins improve the challenges faced in the supply chain? Can your sustainability goals be tested with a digital twin? There are many possibilities to consider!

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Announcing the Blockchain Innovation Accelerator

Announcing the Blockchain Innovation Accelerator

We were excited to announce yesterday the release of two new innovation programs related to blockchain technologies. The two releases include the Blockchain Innovation Accelerator as well as an internal, employee-focused crypto marketplace built on blockchain technologies.

The Blockchain Innovation Accelerator is focused on accelerating customer projects related to understanding and applying blockchain technologies in market today. Focused on a loyalty points scenario in which a sample airline utilizes blockchain to allow customers and vendors to redeem and exchange airline frequent flyer miles (or “tokens”) using smart contract technology, the accelerator offers reference architecture and sample code to create a more approachable scenario as well as accelerate development efforts. The Blockchain Innovation Accelerator is built on Microsoft Azure using the Ethereum blockchain and implements the ERC20 Token Interface with custom smart contract modifications to restrict the flow of tokens between and among whitelisted participants. This is the second Innovation Accelerator released by Valence, coming after the most recent release of the HoloLens Innovation Accelerator this past May. Built by the Valence Innovation Team, the Innovation Accelerator program strives to provide a specific — and often vertical, industry-oriented — framework to help “jumpstart” real-life solutions.

“At Valence we focus exclusively on digital transformation technologies and how they work together to deliver real business results for customers,” said Jim Darrin, Managing Director of Valence. “We believe blockchain will change the nature of distributed systems, and so we have assembled a set of software components and reference architectures to accelerate the ability to both build integrated loyalty points solutions as well as make blockchain more approachable generally for enterprise customers everywhere.”

Additionally, the company today announced the release of their internal, employee-focused crypto marketplace. Built on Hyperledger Sawtooth blockchain technologies, this internal marketplace enables the issuing and redemption of Valence cryptocurrency called Valence Electrons (symbol: VLE). When joining Valence, new employees get a fixed number of VLE which they can spend on the internal Valence marketplace to purchase unique goods and services. Each step of the transaction is recorded on the blockchain and over time, VLE will have increasing value correlated with the growth of the company. Additionally, the company expects to enable employees to post their own offerings and create a barter environment to increase the number of unique goods and services available.

“I am incredibly excited to release this internal marketplace based on the core concepts of blockchain,” said Matthew Carlisle, Technology Director at Valence. “We strive to make all our digital transformation technologies approachable to employees, and we believe this idea of creating our own internal token system for redemption of goods and services will be a great way for employees to experience blockchain and token technologies first hand. And we’re thrilled to be able to share our experience with the rest of the world as well.”

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Marketplaces, Blockchains, Smart Contracts, Oh My!

Cryptocurrency Marketplace, Blockchain, Smart Contracts, Oh My!

In this post, we talk about how to use blockchain technology to improve the employee experience with a cryptocurrency marketplace.

At several previous companies I’ve been given jackets, t-shirts, mugs and other nice employee perks — the simple stuff. While these have always been well meaning by company leadership, it’s usually been the case that these perks were not entirely to my own personal taste. After all, it is pretty hard to imagine a scenario where you are able to accommodate the tastes and interests of all employees. But what if there was a way to customize employee merchandise to what each employee really wants?

At Valence we like to use the digital transformation technologies we evangelize to our customers to advance our own business. You certainly have heard this before — the old “eating your own dog food” program. But for us we not only learn how these technologies work but also helps us (1) create a learning environment for all our employees and (2) have real-life experience we can share with our customers. To that end — and to tackle the issue of employee preference — we developed our own merchandise cryptocurrency marketplace using Hyperledger Sawtooth, one of the most popular blockchain technologies available today.

The user experience is simple: when joining Valence our employees get a fixed number of Valence Level Electrons (symbol: VLE), and we have an internal cryptocurrency marketplace website where employees can spend the VLE for various Valence-branded items you might not normally find: wireless headphones, beer growlers, and more. More VLE is given to employees over time as and when performance and situations allow.

If you’re saying to yourself right now, “um, folks… in 2017 we just called this a ‘website’”, then I’d say you are both right and wrong. Right in that — yes, it’s a website! But wrong in that the sense that the underpinnings of our marketplace use blockchain technologies. And this underpinning allows us to think about a few new things that would not be easily possible with just a “website”: (1) a level of integrity and transaction auditing, and more importantly (2) the ability to easily open this up more broadly to other vendors. After all, why couldn’t other companies in the local area start accepting VLE as a currency for the exchange of goods and services? It is both possible and totally reasonable.

For larger companies this starts to make a lot of sense. It allows them to give employees more choice and, in theory, spend less on perks as there would be less waste. Plus, it allows employees more choice because blockchain technologies allow for very simple integration, so they can accept VLE instead of the good old U.S. dollar (USD). In order to enable this, we would need to create a reimbursement flow as well assign a starting VLE to USD exchange rate. But note that this can all be done in a trustless environment. In other words, in order to add a vendor that accepts VLE, we don’t need to trust that company and they don’t need to trust us. Smart contracts running on the blockchain enforce the rules that govern our business relationship. Each party can do what they want as long as they follow the rules.

There are many companies out there that issue loyalty points, with airlines certainly one of the largest. As their users start to accumulate large amounts of points this creates several problems: first, customers accumulate too many points and thus may switch airlines, and second — and in many cases a bigger issue — it creates an outstanding financial liability for the company. As a reaction, airlines try to create innovative ways to solve these problems. In fact, recently I saw a glass of fancy champagne available to buy with my Delta Airline SkyMiles. And yes, I can already exchange my SkyMiles for a few other things but honestly the selection is really limited — and there is a reason for that: you can only imagine the IT integration headaches to onboard a vendor into the Delta Airline IT systems so that they could access the user’s SkyMiles balance in order to redeem points for goods or services.

Realizing this scenario is one that many customers might struggle with, we built and released today our Blockchain Innovation Accelerator focused on loyalty points systems. Built on Microsoft Azure and Ethereum, this Innovation Accelerator provides a reference architecture and sample code to make these technologies more approachable. In general, moving loyalty points — or scenarios similar to this — to blockchain technologies offers the potential to create a much larger market for those points by solving issues associated with the current system.

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Transformational Technology: Don’t Blink or You’ll Miss It

Transformational Technology: Don’t Blink or You’ll Miss It

Every generation experiences transformational technology. I used to imagine what life was like for my great-grandmother, who was born in 1900. Can you fathom witnessing the rise of the airplane, the Model-T, nuclear power, space flight, personal computing, and today’s era of linkable, sharable, searchable, mobile, on-demand, smart, multi-platform everything?

How could anyone alive in 1903 imagine that those first improbable aviation tests by Orville and Wilbur Wright would land us in an era where 3.6 billion passengers would take a commercial plane flight in a single year? Back then, people mainly laughed at the idea of flying in the first place.

Fast forward to the 1940s and ’50s, when the first computers overtook entire rooms with vacuum tubes and enough metal to construct a passenger train. At the time, nobody in their right mind would have predicted that average school children in 2018 would have access to computers of their own and that they’d regularly take them to and from school, in backpacks.

In just over a century, the world has changed so profoundly that a time-traveler from 1900 would barely recognize anything.

The same thing is happening now in technology, but at a faster pace. The World Wide Web didn’t exist until 1990. Amazon was just a small online book retailer before 1998. The iPhone debuted only 11 years ago, and it has now sold north of 1.2 billion units.

Technology that might have seemed laughably impractical and futuristic only 15 years ago (or that had newly been released to the public) now forms the basis of everyday life. Think about how you navigate from here to there, touch base with friends, buy stuff, watch movies, collaborate with co-workers, find the closest phone repair shop, see when your local coffee shop opens, make dinner reservations, figure out what to do with spaghetti squash, check your bank balance, get rides around the city, etc. etc. etc.

That has to do with massive adoption of (and advances in) what at the time was transformational technology — like GPS, smart phones, publicly accessible APIs, cloud-computing, Big Data analytics, and data security.

If this were 2000, GPS would have just been introduced to the public with its current level of accuracy. Only 8 years later, it was already fully integrated into consumer, industrial, and civic applications and had made Wired’s Top Technology Breakthroughs of 2008. As Wired aptly noted (and as we all know from personal experience) it’s used for just a few things:

We use GPS to navigate our car trips and manage fleets of taxicabs, trucks, buses and rental cars. First responders and package-delivery services rely on GPS. Airplanes fly with it. Fishing boats find their way to rich waters with it. Researchers track wildlife with it, and we even find our way down wilderness trails with it.

Cloud-computing wasn’t even mentioned for the first time until 1996. A brief 10 years later, Amazon Web Services launched. By 2007, Netflix started streaming on-demand video, and enterprises were moving quickly to migrate their data and business operations to the cloud. Today 96% of IT professionals polled for a 2018 RightScale survey use a cloud strategy for their enterprise, and the massive cloud migration continues.

What accounts for this kind of explosion of transformational technology? Three things: cost reductions, tooling and platform availability, and the acquisition of advanced engineering skills. As costs come down, this kind of leading-edge tech becomes accessible to small- and medium-sized enterprises, not just national governments or large businesses. Once things start to gain traction, developers push to acquire relevant skills, so they can improve the tools and platforms behind the new tech. This sets up a positive feedback loop, with the availability of better tools and platforms enticing more developers to acquire skills, which further pushes technology adoption and demand for better tools.

I hate to use clichés, but with these transformational technologies, you blink and you miss them. That’s why our team at Valence continually stays up on the latest developments, and it’s why we keep in touch with leading-edge experts. We know that what seems fantastical today may be foundational tomorrow. And we make a practice of understanding what’s likely to catch fire. We predict that our six pillars of innovation — Voice & Chat, Blockchain, IoT, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality & Virtual Reality, and Robotics — will be as widespread in the business world in 10 years as GPS and cloud-computing are today.

How about a Dose of Virtual Reality to Ease the Pain?

How about a Dose of Virtual Reality to Ease the Pain?

Virtual Reality and Pain Management

What role do technologies like virtual reality play in patient care for issues such as pain management?

I hate going to the dentist. That insidious high-pitched squeal sends shivers up my spine. The cold water they spray in your mouth makes my teeth ache. For me, it’s a guaranteed hour of incredible discomfort, stress, and pain — that kind of high-pitched pain that only happens when someone inserts sharp objects under the tender tissue at your gum line.

My dentist lets me watch Netflix, to distract me from the experience. But I can still see the razor-sharp instruments approaching out of the corner of my eye. Plus I hear everything going on around me. Including that insidious high-pitched squeal.

The good news is that there is a better way! Enter virtual reality for pain management. It turns out it can help with fear and anxiety, too.

Researchers have actually been studying this and conducting legitimate case-control studies that are getting published in medical journals. We’re seeing all sorts of collaborations between health plans or hospitals plus VR headset makers plus insurance companies plus digital tech firms and even pharmaceutical giants.

One intriguing experiment was done at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. It’s a major teaching hospital in a large urban area, so they get all sorts of patients coming through the door, from people having heart attacks to others limping in with broken bones. The idea was to compare how much pain in the hospital felt when they used immersive 3D VR goggles and headphones vs. watching 2D nature videos, which is one technique doctors use now to help calm and soothe patients and distract them from pain.

For anyone who has tried (and failed) to get kids away from a video game to come to dinner, it’s probably not a huge surprise that the patients in the VR group became fully immersed in the virtual world.

But the statistical results were really impressive: The VR folks experienced a roughly 25% drop in pain levels, plus twice the pain relief compared to the regular video watchers. Which is a big deal when you think about our current national crisis with opioid overuse and addiction.

Imagine if doctors could prescribe fantasy vs. fentanyl (meaning harmless VR sessions vs. dangerous, addictive drugs). The head researcher on this study, Brennan Spiegel, believes that this isn’t so far-fetched. He can picture a day when futuristic pharmacies might actually prescribe specialized VR to patients.

Why might this work? Spiegel says this: “The simplest theory is that it’s just distraction. It’s like shining a bright light right into the brain and almost overwhelming it with signals so it runs interference with the brain. Because the brain is so immersed in the experience, it’s unable to simultaneously process the pain signals coming from the body.”

The mechanism might be slightly different in helping people deal with anxiety vs. pain, but it seems to work, nonetheless. One study has focused on using VR to help veterans recover from PTSD by continually confronting the same event that traumatized them over and over again, this time from a safe vantage point in a virtual environment. With VR headsets, which they can borrow to do homework, patients can always just walk away if things get too intense. This allows PTSD survivors to focus on working through their trauma and anxiety in manageable baby steps.

The same applies to people with different kinds of fears and phobias. Right now therapists use exposure therapy to help people master phobias. Sufferers are exposed to the source of their fear, say spiders, in real life, over and over again. Eventually, over time, they get desensitized and lose their fear. With VR, therapists can expose people to a virtual fear-inducing environment, slowly increasing the spiders or darkness or height or whatever as the patient calms down (which is measured by tracking brain waves).

Imagine if you used these technologies but could then hook people up to a wearable device like an Apple watch or an iPhone to detect the brain waves, and enable patients to get real-time home-based biofeedback? It’s an intriguing idea and a real possibility given how accessible and affordable today’s digital tools have become.

This is the kind of innovation that is transforming patient care, improving outcomes, and reducing costs, while also generating troves of valuable data. That’s what our team at Valence is about, and it’s what we offer our healthcare clients, as well.

At Valence, we can add augmented reality or virtual reality experiences for our clients and let them collect and view real-time patient data at the same time. It’s exciting to imagine the possibilities. Interested in hearing more? Contact us, and we’ll start you off with a demo, to show how remarkable this technology can be!