On last week’s episode of Metaverse, I spoke with Apurva Shah, founder and chief executive of Duality Robotics, which is devoted to pioneering the enterprise metaverse to solve real-world problems. Apurva’s previous positions gave him a wealth of experience as an imaginative visionary, having served as head of creative technology and design systems at Capital One, and as visual effects supervisor and member of the technical brain trust at Pixar. His film credits include Ratatouille, Shrek, Finding Nemo, and Toy Story 3. He is also an adjunct professor in emerging technology at the California College of the Arts, where he teaches topics such as metaverse design and designing for trust, and advises the non-profit, Kids and Art.
One of the main themes in our conversation was how forward progress in our new digital world truly requires both vision, creativity and imagination, as well as grounded, tested, rigorous engineering. Duality Robotics itself arose from the marriage of these complimentary skills sets: with his media background, Apurva brought his passion and creativity for world building, while his co-founder Mike Taylor, who worked for the industrial giant Caterpillar, lent his knack for precision and rigour in engineering. With their skills combined, the whole of their strength is greater than the sum of its parts, allowing them to tackle extremely difficult and high impact problems that would otherwise seem unsolvable without this multifaceted, nuanced approach.
Apurva walked me through how this sort of problem solving works in application. By using real-world physics and massive data sets and creating 3D models that correspond with the real world through Unreal Engine, they are able to create simulations that are often 98-99% predictive of what would actually happen in reality. As a strong proponent for the open source/open standard paradigm to create interoperability, Duality Robotics are doing their part to create the metaverse’s first building blocks, with an eye on eventually implementing a standard that will benefit us all. By sharing their thought leadership and work, Apurva believes they’re playing the long game: it might lead to short-term gains to hold onto this IP at first, but by openly sharing it, they’re helping the metaverse to flourish, more collaboration to occur, and ultimately more business to roll in.
We also touched on the exciting work Duality was commissioned to do for DARPA, which selected the company as a provider of an advanced environmental simulation technology to help bridge the gap from virtual to real world environments. Although the agency is known for its work in defence, they have a long history of pushing forward innovation in America. As Apurva noted, DARPA actually started the internet, and of course the self-driving car revolution was sparked by their grand challenges in the mid-2000s. These days, the work Duality can help with is moving past the maps most self-driving cars rely on for navigation towards creating an autonomous brain that can make in the moment decisions about how to proceed in the safest, most efficient way. (This is especially important for DARPA, as military vehicles generally don’t have traditional roads to navigate.) Using advanced environmental simulation will allow them to fine-tune the tech without the human risk of real-life trials: Apurva is hopeful their work at DARPA will inspire the other research teams to start adopting simulation as a core methodology for building these systems.
Of course, we also spoke more broadly about the metaverse: how Apurva approaches teaching the subject to its students and where he sees us heading. He is most excited about its potential as a tool to allow us all to collaborate en masse to solve our most daunting issues, like climate change. Naturally, he believes we need to keep in mind the human impact this revolutionary work will have and that we need to be intentional about creating an equitable metaverse, but like me, he’s a true optimist, and tends to focus on the infinite possibilities for good this new technology will bring to us all.
To hear more of our stimulating conversation– including how figuring out how to animate water in the film Antz taught Apurva to have faith in the creative, iterative process– listen to the full episode here.