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Are we destined to work in the metaverse?
- 19 March, 2022 08:30
Mark Zuckerberg (Meta)
In a recent interview with Lex Fridman, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg described a future in which our workplace would exist in the so-called "metaverse."
Our commute would involve little more than slipping on a pair of virtual reality (VR) goggles. Once jacked in, we’ll interact with colleagues via avatars, attend meetings, give presentations and do all our work in a VR world.
Instead of sitting at a desk in front of a keyboard and screen, we’ll instead sit in front of a virtual keyboard and virtual screen, doing our work as before, but all virtualised.
Zuckerberg specified the virtualisation of even jobs that involving typing — such as writing and coding — where VR would be preferable to actual reality because you could have a virtual screen of any size — "your ideal workstation," he said.
That scenario, he said, is "no more than five years off."
Zuckerberg's predictions, which are more than predictions because his company is investing billions to realise them, confront futurists (especially those of us writing newsletters called "Future of Work") with the question: Is the future of work virtual?
What Zuck gets right
Zuckerberg's broad point that virtual technologies will have a large role to play in the future of work is absolutely correct. While we tend to think of VR as mainly for gaming or entertainment, it's true that this powerful, broad set of technologies will find many uses in most industries.
In fact, VR is already playing a role in business. It’s used in marketing (including experiential marketing), training, engineering and manufacturing, real estate, and other industries. And it will only get better, more powerful, and more ubiquitous in business.
Specifically, the idea that we'll hold remote business meeting in virtualised spaces via avatars is absolutely going to become very normal, and a powerful improvement on Zoom meetings.
Because the use of VR in business is a certainty, there's nothing surprising, new, or interesting about Zuckerberg’s predictions.
What Zuck gets wrong
Zuckerberg is totally wrong about people wearing VR goggles all day, and living their work lives entirely in virtual spaces. In fact, the use of virtual worlds as an alternative to actual physical reality is a core concept of Zuckerberg's "metaverse" idea, and one that's especially flawed.
Yes, in the future, many people will spend most of their waking lives in virtual reality. But it will be considered a dangerous pathology, both a byproduct and a cause of poor mental health. The use of virtualised spaces and content for work will be used like a tool — the way we use applications today. We'll drop into the virtual as needed, then pop back out to reality.
And while Zuckerberg has suggested that the "metaverse" will involve both augmented reality (AR) and VR, he seems obsessed with the VR part; I think that sends his predictions awry.
Augmented reality will, over the foreseeable future, serve as a much larger and more appealing, powerful and useable virtual technology than VR, simply because it's disorienting and unnatural to exist in VR for long periods of time. When the novelty of both VR and AR wears off, and the quality of AR technology improves, nearly everyone — especially business users — will vastly prefer augmented reality to virtual.
Apple offers this opposing view: It sees the future as mostly AR, with people dropping into virtual spaces temporarily. In short, it sees people continuing to live their lives in the real world and not the virtual world. I believe Apple is right.
Today, good-enough VR technology is cheaper and easier than good-enough AR technology. And that's why it appears that Apple will use VR technology for AR until their AR gets better, as I've explained before.
What matters now
Zuckerberg has appointed himself the chief evangelist and expert on the future of what he calls "the metaverse." But that doesn't mean he's right. In fact, Zuckerberg is neither a visionary, nor an unbiased observer, in his predictions.
The idea that we would spend most of our lives in virtual spaces — the "metaverse" idea — is an old concept from science fiction that has always been expressed as a dystopian and terrifying outcome for humanity, not a smart pivot for a social networking company.
My advice: Try to ignore Zuckerberg's predictions about the "metaverse," and keep an eye on the many companies making both AR and VR tools, apps, platforms and spaces for businesses — and on Apple, which I predict will dominate this space in the decade to come.