People using virtual reality in the office. Image: REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
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Future of Work
- There are a growing number of CEOs experimenting with the metaverse as a workplace, as remote working continues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Environments, for example, a smart building design company in Baltimore, US, has created a digital twin of its headquarters.
- The metaverse may never completely replace in-person working, but depending on the interaction you want to have, you’ll pick the right environment.
About 10 minutes into my interview with Shep Ogden, the 26-year-old co-founder and CEO of a digital media startup that counts Mark Cuban among its investors, I began to panic.
Ogden was showing me around his company’s sleek virtual employee clubhouse, but it was hard to focus. I was sure I was going to vomit.
“Shep, I’m sorry,” I finally said, “I’m not sure I can do this.”
I was nauseated, but Ogden was gracious enough not to laugh. He said my problem was not uncommon for newcomers to VRChat, the virtual platform where Offbeat Media Group built its bespoke private campus.
The real Offbeat Media—maker of virtual influencers and streaming shows—is based in Atlanta, where it has a small physical workspace. Ogden was speaking to me from his office there, I was at home in New York, and we were both wearing VR goggles.
With Ogden’s guidance, I adjusted the way my avatar walked so it no longer made me dizzy. Now my avatar glided, allowing me glimpses of its form. I was a raccoon, I discovered, shortly before sliding—by accident, I might add—into the company’s pool. As I sank, virtual water slowly filled my field of vision.
The beginnings of the metaverse as a workspace
Ogden is one of a growing number of CEOs experimenting with the metaverse as a workplace—increasingly so, as remote work has taken off with covid.
The more distributed workforces become, the more companies will need these spaces to collaborate, says Erin McDannald, CEO of Environments, a smart building design company in Baltimore that has created a digital twin of its headquarters.
She believes that people work best together in person, but when meeting in person isn’t possible, she says the metaverse is the next best option.
“One day, we’ll have to measure what we lost in 2020,” she says.
The metaverse isn’t just for small or obscure companies. Well-known organizations like Walmart, Nike, and Gucci, have gotten into the metaverse, too. And many more have plans to build storefronts in virtual lands, too.
What the metaverse can do for the average in-person workplace remains an open question, but early research and experimentation suggest the uses of the workplace metaverse will fall roughly into three functional categories: an alternate office space, or place for immersive training, or, an employee hangout.
What is the metaverse?
To the uninitiated, “the metaverse” may sound like a single place, but it isn’t.
For now, when people refer to the metaverse, they’re actually talking about a number of virtual reality spaces that you would typically experience through a VR headset (though a laptop also works–kind of). Meta, PlayStation and HTC Vive all sell headsets, and reporting by Bloomberg suggests Apple will launch a VR headset next year.
Enthusiasts hope the metaverse will one day exist as a kind of decentralized internet, where we can live, shop, work, and socialize in digital public or private spaces. But currently, there’s only an assortment of unconnected virtual worlds that are mostly open to the general public, though some places or events may require a password or special invitation to enter. Key players these days include the likes of Decentraland, The Sandbox, Meta, and gaming platforms like Unity and Robolox.
Still, a nascent economy is blossoming in these worlds, with people spending real money (usually converted to cryptocurrencies) to buy sprawling properties or virtual designer clothes, all made of code.
Skeptics say the metaverse will never be more than a fringe interest for anyone but gamers, who already spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on VR content.
But Suneet Dua, the products and technology chief growth officer at PwC, is a believer: In three to five years, he says, we’ll be spending most of our day working and transacting in virtual reality. (Today’s bulky headsets, which can make your face hot, will be replaced by lighter ones, he promises.)
If that sounds far-fetched, just think about how much has changed over the past two years, he says. “Did you think you’d spend entire work days on Zoom calls?”
For companies, the metaverse has gone from being “not really a topic of interest” several months ago to “it’s Monday morning and the CEO wants your idea of what we should be doing with the metaverse,” says Jeff Wong, an eBay veteran who is now the global head of innovation for EY. “I’ve been around through the AI hype and the blockchain hype,” he says. ”This is moving faster than both of those.”
Major questions about how to make the metaverse safe from hate-speech and harassment, and how to protect people’s data still need to be answered, to be sure. But the lingering questions don’t seem to be holding companies back from getting in on the fun.
The metaverse as alternate office
McDannald, of Environments, fell into metaverse planning almost by accident.
It was 2020, one month into the lockdowns that shuttered countless offices in the US, when she asked her staff to start operating as if the covid-19 pandemic would never end. “If we think it’s going to be here forever, how do we act? What do we do?” she recalls saying.
That’s when a data architect at the company—which makes products like speech-enabled lighting and environmental sensors—uploaded 3D replicas of her company’s headquarters into Unity, a gaming platform. They discovered how easily they could build a virtual space and add their colleagues, as avatars, to walk the halls.
Now, a core group of Environments employees work in the “office” while they work from home. Most don’t wear VR headsets (although that’s an option), but instead use a mouse to move their avatars around on a screen, going into virtual rooms for meetings. It’s a huge improvement over Zoom, says McDannald, because the interactions feel closer to the way we behave in person. When she wants to speak to someone, instead of pinging them online, she’ll often walk her avatar across the virtual office, which gives her time to gather her thoughts.
Spatial audio—where you hear someone’s voice coming from the direction of their avatar and their voice fades when they walk away from you—is a key reason people often say that metaverse conversations feel natural. It allows for semi-private conversations with people as you stand around a coffee machine or trail other avatars on the way to a meeting.
McDannald, who is 45, says she was inspired to pursue a VR office for Environments after watching her young daughter virtually reunite with her best friend during lockdown. The girls had built digital homes across the street from one another in Roblox and they met on their virtual road, “jumping up and down just like kids do when they find each other in school,” she says. It struck her that their social interaction wasn’t diminished because it was in VR. To them, the meeting felt tangible.
VR meeting apps allow people to write on whiteboards, or in the air, and to watch video feeds, which might include a Zoom call. Meta’s Workroom app also has a Passthrough window, which allows users to see into their physical space without removing their headset, so you can work on your actual keyboard. Still, where virtual workspaces fall short is that there’s not a whole lot to do beyond watching a presentation, running a Post-it note brainstorming meeting, or just talking.
But McDannald also sees more practical applications coming. Already, she makes herself accessible to staff by leaving her digital door open and keeping a green light above her head, so they can pop in and ask a question.
Anything but another email. “This is more convenient for me, and so much more collaborative,” she says. Eventually she’d like to be able to sit in her physical office and have someone working from home “walk” up to her actual door.
In her version of the future, real people would mingle with projections, or holograms, of colleagues, so her distributed team could be in the office no matter where they are.
The metaverse as a workplace training center
Another practical function for the metaverse: immersive training sessions and onboarding.
Imagine you’re learning to be an airline agent and you’re standing at a virtual counter, face to face with virtual customers, says EY’s innovation expert, Wong. Or, you could do field safety training, he says, “where you see the objects and can you identify, what is an unsafe situation or a safe situation?”
With haptic technology, trainees can “touch” digital props and walk around in a space that looks exactly like what they will encounter in the physical world. Research by EY and other studies show that a person’s recall is improved and the overall effectiveness of VR training is far superior than when using today’s standard training videos and interactive quizzes. EY is entering the market with training templates its clients can customize.
Dua, says his firm PWC is also developing content for VR training. “If you’re really going to learn, it has to be applied learning — learning by doing something,” he says, “and with the metaverse you get to do applied learning at the next level. It’s like learning on steroids, because you get to try something in a very interesting sandbox.”
Learning and training in the metaverse is inevitably going to disrupt higher education, and devalue academic degrees, he predicts. Because anyone in the world will have access to hands-on courses, anyone, anywhere, will be qualified for the best, top-paying jobs. “That is what really excites me.”
The metaverse as an employee lounge
Back in Atlanta, Ogden’s plan for his company’s piece of the metaverse is far less specific or goal-oriented. In the Offbeat space, employees just chill.
Initially at Offbeat, which works with partners like Samsung, McDonald’s, Warner Music Group, Cheesecake Factory, and DoorDash, we wanted to create a world “where we bring clients in and maybe do some work,” Ogden says, “but that’s not super realistic.” It turns out the metaverse, at least as it currently stands, is not the best place to get serious work done because you don’t have easy access to all the apps you typically need in the workday. The software is also pretty clunky, he notes.
My tour with Ogden was a perfect example. We lost time while he helped me get set up, and more time while he showed me how to climb out of the pool, not to mention how to maneuver my avatar after it bonked into a glass wall trying to enter the room originally designed to be Ogden’s corner office. But even once I had mastered basic movements, there wasn’t that much for us to do except chat and wander around.
Admittedly, it was quite fun, which is what Offbeat’s team discovered, too. They go to the digital campus for conversations, and try on different avatars, or draw things in the air. (The day I interviewed him, Ogden’s avatar was a skeleton in a black hoodie that cocked its head like a german shepherd when he was listening.) So rather than an operational campus, what Ogden had instead was a custom-designed, multi-level, partially “outdoor” staff hang-out, complete with a nightclub where, sometime soon real-world DJs SMLE will perform at a company rave.
Finally, here was a space where they could hold happy hours during the pandemic.
Congregating in the metaverse is “10 times better” than gatherings on video calls, he says, because it really does feel like you’re with other people while you’re physically apart. Still, you don’t want to be there for more than a couple of hours. “People start dropping off because it does give them a little bit of nausea.”
Ogden and Wong can both imagine a day when colleagues will dip in and out of virtual reality throughout the workday. (Some, like Ogden’s co-founder even enjoy working solo in the metaverse.)
The metaverse may never completely replace in-person working, they say. But the ambition of the industry, Wong explains, is that on your desk, whether at home or the office, you’ll have your main computer, your phone, your watch, and your headset. And depending on the interaction you want to have, you’ll pick the right environment.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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