It’s easy to say, as many have in recent months, that the office of the future is in the so-called metaverse or that the metaverse is the solution to remote and hybrid work issues. It’s easy because the word “metaverse” does not have a universally accepted meaning.
For example, if the statement “the office of the future is in the metaverse” means people start their day by putting on virtual reality (VR) goggles, sitting at a virtual desk using a virtual computer surrounded by avatars, and going to virtual meetings in a universally shared extended-reality virtual space, I would strongly disagree with that prediction.
If, however, the statement means that, in addition to the tools we have now, we’ll also sometimes use augmented reality (AR) and VR briefly for specific purposes, I would not only agree, I would say: “of course — this has been assumed for decades. This is obviously going to happen.”
It’s worth noting that the former prediction is essentially Facebook’s view, while the latter is predominantly Apple’s. So Facebook is wrong, and Apple is right.
Even today, employees struggle with the unnatural act of looking at a screen all day. Systems like the Pomodoro technique remind workers to stop what they’re doing and take a break every 25 minutes.
Fully immersive VR worlds are far more mentally taxing and harder on the eyes than looking at a laptop screen. Therefore, the idea that employees will willingly work full-time in virtual spaces is a non-starter.
One ongoing issue for those trying to predict the future is that “metaverse” means different things to different people.
Metaverse definitions include:
- A virtual-reality space
- A 3D virtual version of the internet
- A digital reality that combines aspects of social media, online gaming, AR, VR, and cryptocurrencies to allow users to interact and conduct transactions virtually
- Or a massively scalable, persistent network of interconnected virtual worlds focused on real-time interaction where people can work, socially connect, transact, play and create. It uses AR, VR, and other technologies to simulate reality
Note how widely these differ.
Some say a metaverse is basically an app or website that offers a virtual space; others say it’s a massive interconnected series of spaces. Some say it’s just VR. Others say it’s VR, AR, and other technologies. Some say it’s based on crypto; others don’t mention crypto at all.
At present, the word “metaverse” is a Rorschach test that means one thing to the speaker or writer and another thing to the listener or reader. That’s also what makes it a popular marketing buzzword.
An enormous range of products and services can be hyped as “metaverse” products, providing a halo of relevance no matter the offering.
Of course, organisations are working hard to build a shared, open “metaverse” — like the Open Metaverse Alliance for Web3 and The Metaverse Standards Forum. But their success is unlikely, given the monetary incentives for companies like Facebook and Apple to create walled gardens that will likely attract most users.
As with all technological revolutions, the future starts early in isolated places. Accenture, for example, is using VR for onboarding and remote-worker meetings.
A Korean start-up called Zigbang developed a virtual office building called Soma World. Virtual floors of the virtual office are leased to some 20 companies, each of which uses that space as a kind of global virtual headquarters. Unusually, the avatars in Soma World don’t have heads; instead, the avatar bodies are topped with a circular cutout where a real-time video of the user is displayed.
It’s like combining “Second Life” with Zoom. As you can see from the video links, the interfaces are crude and, in both cases, exist to simulate physical space and proximity to remote employees.
So, yes, the future of work involves VR and even more AR, but probably not for most of the workday and probably not in a universal, shared VR internet.
Importantly, in the words of Bill O’Reilly, the metaverse is not a place — it’s a communications medium. And it’s also a broad category of user interface.
So, let’s get excited about the dawn of a new communications medium and interface category coming to the workplace. It’s going to be great. But let’s not get so excited that we delude ourselves into thinking we’ll be working full-time in the metaverse.