What you need to know about the metaverse and the future of work

The evolution of work has left many people wondering about a buzzword making the rounds in the technology sphere: How will the metaverse play into the future of work? With the help of some experts in the field, we’re answering your questions about the metaverse, its workplace applications and some of the issues that surround the virtual office.

Before we dive in, I’d like to remind readers that we’re here to tackle your toughest questions about technology, how it may affect your life and the implications on the workplace. So don’t be shy. Shoot us your questions at [email protected]

Q: What is the metaverse?

Generally speaking, the metaverse is a network of digital worlds that could include any combination of technologies from virtual reality to augmented reality to blockchain. But the definition widely varies.

Research firm Forrester defines the metaverse as a 3D layer of the Internet that is interoperable. That means no one company owns the metaverse. “We don’t believe the metaverse is here yet,” Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder said. “There will be a long time frame here, like a decade or longer, to create the full metaverse.”

But companies playing in the space say they are actively engaged in the metaverse or, at least, in its related technologies. Last year, Microsoft rolled out Mesh for its workplace communications service called Teams. The feature combines mixed-reality capabilities and allows workers to collaborate via 3D avatars with access to Microsoft productivity tools. Similarly, Facebook unveiled its Horizon Workrooms app for the Oculus Quest 2 headsets. The app gives users digital avatars and allows them to host meetings and collaborate in a virtual world.

A number of smaller start-ups are also working on metaverse technologies. Spatial.io, based in New York, created a 3D collaboration platform that allows people to create avatars and meet in existing virtual rooms or build their own spaces. Magic Leap, based in Florida, is working on augmented reality headsets and applications for enterprises. And Strivr, based in Silicon Valley, is helping companies such as Bank of America and Walmart train employees in virtual reality.

Q: How do workers use it?

Metaverse technologies are being used in a few ways to train workers on technical skills, to help them develop better communication skills and for collaboration purposes. But experts have noted that, ultimately, the technologies are still immature and somewhat limited.

“It’s very early innings,” said Anthony Georgiades, a founder of Pastel, a platform that provides blockchain infrastructure, which includes metaverse applications. “I wouldn’t say anything is hyped as much as it might be exuberance or an over-expectation of how we can apply this technology today.”

Accenture employees have gathered and onboarded at their virtual office during the pandemic. And PwC workers who speak to advisers in Hong Kong may soon interact in a virtual world called Sandbox, where PwC purchased virtual real estate.

Walmart employees have used virtual reality to train for tasks like using its kiosks that allow for online order pickup. They also learn how to handle active shootings, which chief executive Doug McMillan previously said helped during the 2019 shooting at an El Paso store. Verizon associates have used virtual reality to prepare for complicated customer service calls. And as part of a Boeing training program, astronauts have started using virtual reality for spaceflight preparations.

Jeremy Bailenson, the director of the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab and a founder of Strivr, said the fact that companies such as Walmart and Verizon have picked up its technology is proof of the demand for enterprise applications. Training is more memorable and time efficient in virtual reality, Bailenson said. “When it sticks in the workplace, it’s going to be because of training,” he said.

But beyond companies doing virtual reality training, the number of firms adopting metaverse technologies is relatively small, according to experts. If the metaverse is going to provide “an immersive meeting and office, it seems to make sense on paper,” said Jason Schloetzer, associate professor at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business. “But the practicality behind it is a heavy lift.”

Q: What are the key issues?

There are some problems standing in the way of mass adoption, including the bulkiness and price of virtual reality headsets, as well as privacy, accessibility, data security and health issues such as motion sickness for some workers.

Products from emerging start-ups may not have high-grade security built in, Gownder said. Even the most secure software has the potential to increase worker surveillance, he added. “Head-mounted displays have eye-tracking capabilities,” he said. “They could track your attention and what you’re looking at.”

Bailenson said that beyond the employer, the technology company may also have access to worker data. Some companies who make headsets, for instance, state that they have the right to access what cameras see in the real-life environment of users.

When all that data combines with the data technology companies may already have on users, the result may be particularly concerning, Schloetzer said. “How do we feel about the merging of social media activity with our in-work behavior?” he said. “Someone may be able to construct a very complete midnight to midnight profile of everything we do.”

While technology has gotten lighter, faster and cheaper, it still could be a major expense for companies and take a physical toll on some workers. In some cases, workers could experience headaches and nausea, a phenomenon that often happens more in women, said Bailenson, who implemented a time limit on headsets in his virtual reality classes.

Just as concerning, some applications require people to be able to wear a headset and use their hands for motion control, which excludes many people who have disabilities, Bailenson said. “We need to think more about this as an industry,” he said. “It’s not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do.”

Q: What about the future?

For some, the metaverse represents new job opportunities as major companies and start-ups alike try to get a piece of this emerging virtual world. For others, it may mean new training opportunities or more immersive meetings. Workplaces that use services from some of the large technology companies may automatically have access to new features sooner than they expect, and they may not need virtual reality to access them.

But working entirely in the metaverse is unlikely when it comes to the near term, at least based on the available technologies and challenges, according to experts. Georgiades doesn’t expect wide adoption of virtual reality for several years. “It’s important for enterprises not to go from zero to 100 and dive straight in,” he said. “This might not be suitable for everyone.”

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