It is easy to say, as many have done in recent months, that the office of the future is in the so-called metaverse, or that the metaverse is the solution to the problems of remote and hybrid work.
It’s easy because the word “metaverse” has no common meaning.
For example, if the statement “The office of the future is in the metaverse” means that people start their day by putting on virtual reality (VR) glasses, sitting at a virtual desk using a virtual computer surrounded by avatars, and going to virtual meetings in a universal shared virtual space with augmented reality, I would strongly disagree with this prediction.
However, if the statement means that in addition to the tools we have now, we will also sometimes use augmented reality (AR) and VR briefly for specific purposes, I would not only agree, but say:
“Of course – this has been assumed for decades. That’s obviously going to happen.”
(It’s worth noting that the first prediction is essentially Facebook’s point of view, while the second is mostly Apple’s. So Facebook is wrong and Apple is right.)
Even today, employees struggle with the unnatural act of staring 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 much more mentally taxing and harder on the eyes than looking at a laptop screen. So the idea that employees will volunteer to work full-time in virtual spaces is a non-starter.
One ongoing problem for those trying to predict the future is that “metaverse” means different things to different people.
Definitions of the metaverse include:
- Virtual reality space.
- 3D virtual version of the internet.
- A digital reality that combines aspects of social media, online gaming, AR, VR and cryptocurrency to allow users to interact and transact virtually.
- Or a massively scalable, persistent network of interconnected virtual worlds focused on real-time interaction where people can work, socialize, transact, play, and create. It uses AR, VR and other technologies to simulate reality.
Notice how much they differ.
Some say that the metaverse is basically an application or website that offers a virtual space; others say it is 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.
Currently, the word “metaverse” is a Rorschach test that means one thing to the speaker or writer and another to the listener or reader.
This also makes it a popular marketing buzzword.
A vast array of products and services can be advertised as “metauniverse” products, providing an aura of relevance regardless of supply.
Of course, organizations are working hard to build a shared, open “metauniverse”—like 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 are likely to attract most users.
As with all technological revolutions, the future starts early in isolated places.
Accenture, for example, is using VR for remote employee onboarding and meetings.
A Korean startup called Zigbang developed a virtual office building called Soma World. The virtual floors of the virtual office are leased to about 20 companies, each of which uses this space as a kind of global virtual headquarters. Unusually, avatars in Soma World do not have heads; instead, the avatars’ bodies are covered by a circular cutout where real-time video is displayed to the user.
It’s like Second Life combined 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.
It is essential that, in the words of Bill O’Reilly, the metaverse is not a place—it is a communication medium. It is also a broad category of user interface.
So let’s get excited about the dawn of a new communication medium and interface category coming to the workplace. Will be great
But let’s not get so excited that we delude ourselves into working full-time in the metaverse.
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