Written by Harry Menear
The Metaverse is a lot of things to a lot of people, from a boundless multiverse of gaming and entertainment experiences to the final frontier of online dating. With the rise in remote and hybrid working environments brought on by the pandemic, and cemented by the fact employees rightly don’t understand why they need to spend nine-to-five with their line managers breathing down their necks anymore, metaverse tech could well be the answer to new, sustainable remote and hybrid work experiences.
"The pandemic has demonstrated how people are getting used to working remotely and not being in the same physical place. The metaverse can take this to another level,” says Jawad Ashraf, CEO of Terra Virtua, a company selling collectible NFTs that you can view in “the real world” using augmented reality. Ashraf argues that, by harnessing augmented and virtual reality tech, the metaverse represents a new virtual work/play/X space “where we can still have the feeling of togetherness even though we are not physically together.”
Can new, virtual experiences within a “Metaverse of Work” help bridge the gap between the in-person office and a cold, lonely world of emails and jittery conference calling?
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the newly rebranded Meta, seems to think so. “By 2030, the new generations of Oculus will allow users to teleport from one place to another without moving from their couch - not only for gaming and entertainment but also for work,” he said in an interview last year. But what does a world where we “teleport” to work inside a VR headset look like?
What is the Metaverse?
Defined loosely (a lot of people have a lot of money riding on the idea, so most of them will tell you that the Metaverse is anything, everything, and exactly what you needed yesterday), a metaverse is a series of persistent, real-time virtual “spaces” powered by augmented and virtual reality.
It’s World of Warcraft with an ice cream social. It’s the next frontier of commerce and marketing, a brave new blend between gaming and social experiences (the frontier that Meta is tackling first with its Horizon Worlds VR social media experience, which went live in December), and theoretically a virtual office where you can have a workday experience that’s every bit as immersive as showing up to smell your boss’ body odour and listen to him shout about “synergy” in person.
The first steps towards a synthesis between the virtual, remote office and an in-person working experience are already underway. In September, shortly before Facebook’s rebrand to Meta, the company announced a sweeping collaboration with Zoom. By integrating Zoom Whiteboard and Zoom Meetings with Horizon Workrooms (the Linkedin to Horizon Worlds’ Instagram), colleagues will be able to meet as avatars in a virtual space.
“Users will be able to collaborate with each other both virtually and in reality, asynchronously and in real-time, enabling teams to have powerful, engaging and efficient meeting experiences, regardless of physical distance,” says Phil Perry, head of Zoom UK&I.
With Zoom’s future riding on a world in which hybrid or fully remote work is the bedrock of a new and hopefully permanent normal post-pandemic reality, replicating (even, dare I say, improving?) on the “in-office” experience with AR and VR is a high priority. Perry is optimistic about the potential for a “metaverse of work” to sufficiently blur those lines. Workers “in” the metaverse “will be able to ‘draw’ on their physical desk or ‘write’ on a physical wall, which will be transcribed to their Zoom Whiteboard. This kind of technology aligns with the concept of the metaverse, delivering better experience than in-person meetings,” he says. “In the hybrid office of the future, collaboration tools will be vital. Emerging technologies such as VR, AI and 5G, and new advancements like the metaverse, will continue to enhance this, bringing the best of in-person and virtual communications together for maximum productivity and flexibility.”
Zoom isn’t the only organisation reaching for a slice of this massive, slightly intangible pie. “While it’s clear that the metaverse is a while away from becoming a commonplace reality, there is undoubtedly an appetite and opportunity for virtual reality in all areas of our lives, driving technology companies and telcos to evolve their offerings,” says Niall Norton, GM at Amdocs and CEO at Openet. Norton points to the fact that, in January, Walmart unveiled a demo of its own VR shopping experience and, soon after Meta’s announcement last year, Microsoft revealed that Teams will be getting virtual reality avatars.
“When AI and natural language capabilities that already exist are added to the mix, this will have huge implications,” he adds. “Microsoft’s announcement is surely indicative of the workplace being a growth area for VR. With the world of work changing drastically as employees become used to joining meetings or attending events via video conferencing apps, it’s easy to see how VR is the next step in the evolution of workplace technology.”
The Metaverse: Tying it all together
A lot of the technologies and concepts that make up the metaverse have been around for several years at this point. Augmented and virtual reality have been pushing against the mainstream like, well, like an early VR game about demons escaping from your TV screen. The kind of connectivity that tech like 5G deliverse - which is finally providing the kind of latency and throughput we need to power these immediate, fully remote experiences - has been here for almost three years. Persistent online spaces have existed since Neverwinter Nights went live on AOL in the early 90s. The components are nothing (all that) new. The way in which they’re all being put together, however, is hopefully going to be greater than the sum of its parts.
“The Metaverse ties in all the VR/AR, robotics and remote experiences we have been talking about for the last five or six years,” says Maria Lema, Co-founder at Weaver Labs in the UK. “We now have all the tools to make remote experiences immersive and realistic and this is where the Internet of Skills and Mixed Reality can really come into action.”
Beyond the White Collar Metaverse
When I sat down to write this article, a lot of my preconceptions were tailored towards the kind of white collar, tech-focused office work where AR/VR and metaverse experiences are starting to crop up. Indeed, this is where we’re starting to see early adoption, which makes sense; it’s easiest to move the kind of workplace where everything already happens inside the G-Suite further into the virtual world. However, when I spoke to Matt Rose, an Experience designer and self-professed Futurist at Cambridge Consultants, he told me that “If the metaverse ends up being just another way to have a meeting, we have truly wasted the opportunity.”
He explained that “Working in the tech industry, it's easy to forget that ‘work’ goes beyond sitting at a desk in a comfortable office - or at home as it's been recently. Where this technology would have the greatest impact is out in the world and mobile.”
By leveraging the ultra-low latency of 5G (and 6G when that rolls around) and edge computing advances, Rose believes the true value of metaverse tech will be created outside the sphere of tech, financial, and service industries - “the dirty and dangerous jobs — the ones we rely on to keep things working.”
Norton agrees, extolling the virtues of more immersive VR. “Think also of scenarios where plumbers can ‘see’ images of pipework, or machines doing dangerous work in hard-to-reach places (such as buildings in city centres) that are autonomously controlled. The cost savings and productivity gains will be astronomical.”
Whatever form it takes, and whichever hardware is used to bring people together in remote spaces (Rose mentions “fringe” hardware beyond the usual haptics and display technology, including “e-textiles that can alter your mental state, tactile holograms that don't require you to wear haptic gloves, a stretchable sweat-powered battery”) it’s clear that a world in which remote and hybrid work are here to stay is a world intimately bound up in the future of the metaverse.
“The metaverse is an exciting new concept that we could see having many use cases in the hybrid workplace of the near future,” adds Perry. “VR undoubtedly has a key role to play in this, giving businesses and employees another avenue for communication and connectivity, no matter where everyone is.”