- Jane Wakefield
If we look back 50 years from now, it’s likely that the 2D internet we’re all using today will seem ridiculously archaic.
Not only will the Internet likely no longer exist behind a screen, we will likely interact with it differently.
We will manipulate objects with augmented reality (AR), explore virtual reality (VR) worlds, and merge the real and the digital in ways we cannot currently imagine.
And what does that mean for the world of work? We are already moving away from the commute to work and are turning our backs on the classic office. And that’s thanks to two years of pandemic lockdowns and a newfound love or tolerance for virtual meetings.
Will the next logical step be to work in the Metaverse, the intended virtual universe where cartoonish 3D representations of everyone walk, talk and interact with each other?
Metaverse has become a buzzword, so it’s important to note that it doesn’t exist yet. And even those who have invested in the concept disagree on exactly what it will be.
Will rival virtual worlds connect in ways not currently seen between competing technologies? Will we spend more time there than in the real world? Do we need entirely new rules to govern these new spaces?
None of these questions have yet been answered, but that hasn’t stopped growing interest and exaggeration as companies see it as a new way to make money.
We’ve seen businesses open in fledgling metaverses, from Metas Horizon Worlds to games like Roblox and Fortnite to newly created territories like Sandbox and Decentraland.
Nike is now selling virtual sneakers, HSBC has land in Sandbox and Coca-Cola, Louis Vuitton and Sotheby’s have a presence in Decentraland.
The term “metaverse” was coined by author Neal Stephenson almost 30 years ago. In his book Snow Crash, the hero finds a better life in a virtual reality world.
Perhaps the boldest move to convert this fiction into real technology took place in October 2021. It was then that Facebook announced it was changing its name to Meta and began investing billions of dollars to transform itself into a metaverse-focused company — a vision very strongly championed by its founder and boss, Mark Zuckerberg.
Still, this huge investment has caused a stir among shareholders, some of whom have recently expressed concerns that the company is overspending on VR.
And a report from The Verge last October, which claimed to have reviewed internal meta memos, suggested the Horizon Worlds platform was buggy and not being well used by employees.
Herman Narula, CEO of Improbable, a company that makes software for creating metaverses, and author of a book called Virtual Society, is unconvinced by Zuckerberg’s vision.
“Why would we want an office in the metaverse that looks like our real office?” he said. “The goal of creative spaces in new realities is to expand our experiences, not to replicate what we’ve already experienced in the real world.
“But I think there will be a lot of jobs in the metaverse – for example, we will need moderators.”
The moderator or police aspect of the metaverse is controversial, not only because it is technically difficult to monitor potentially billions of avatars chatting live in a virtual world, but also because of the massive amount of data those avatars can generate in the process .
A Stanford University study found that spending just 20 minutes in virtual reality yielded more than two million unique body motion recordings, a rich new stream of data for businesses.
Alex Rice, co-founder of online security company HackerOne, believes that the metaverse’s design must be carefully considered before a company can consider keeping its employees there.
“Imagine something harmless, like a casual conversation in an office,” he explains. “Imagine it taking place in a fully guarded Metaverse environment: it will surely have life-changing consequences.
“People could be fired immediately for saying what they believe was a private, informal conversation with a colleague who is now under massive corporate surveillance.”
Tom Ffiske, editor of technology newsletter Immersive Wire, thinks it’s far too early to start thinking about working in the metaverse.
“The discussion of the metaverse is still fraught with difficulties, and the definition is still tenuous and controversial,” he says. “While the term itself is debated and poorly defined, it’s unclear if we’ll be working in the metaverse going forward.”
While no one can define what the Metaverse is, there are optimistic market predictions as to what it might be worth. McKinsey suggests a market value of $5 billion by 2030, while Gartner, another consulting firm, predicts that a quarter of the world’s population will spend at least an hour a day in the metaverse by 2026.
Matthew Ball, principal analyst at research firm Canalys, disagrees: He predicts that most current commercial projects in the metaverse will be complete by 2025.
In his opinion, companies need to ask themselves whether a presence in the metaverse is really necessary or whether they are using technology for technology’s sake.
“Not every company needs a VR headset to remotely host colleague avatars or view virtual models,” says Ball. “Nor every company needs VR headsets for meetings. As powerful and compelling as VR is, Zoom Calling and Teams offer near-frictionless alternatives that can be less cumbersome.”
Tiffany Rolfe is Creative Director at RGA, a digital branding company. She and some members of her team have already worked in the metaverse.
The company created a virtual soccer stadium in Fortnite for phone giant Verizon during the pandemic and also collaborated with Meta to build a music world in Horizon Worlds.
“People who normally work on computers had to put on headsets and work with builders all over the world,” says Rolfe.
And who says that new working methods mean new considerations, such as the length of time employees are required to wear helmets? “My team wore it for two hours,” she says.
The fact that people are already working in virtual reality worlds suggests that the metaverse as a workplace may well have a future, but the jobs that will exist there will likely be very different from those we see in the practice real world.
And if you want to swap your daily commute for a helmet, you’ll probably have to wait many more years for this to become a (virtual) reality.