January 17, 2023
Someone has to say it: The metaverse today is what we in the enterprise technology space have been calling virtual reality for the last several years.
If you’re having FOMO about NFTs or dystopian nightmares of a virtual world ruled by Mark Zuckerberg, you’re not alone. It’s too early to predict what the metaverse will become, or really, what all the individual metaverses-slash-virtual-worlds that seem to multiply daily will become. How will we enter the metaverse? Who will moderate it? How do virtual economies translate into real money…Welcome to the Wild West of the metaverse, where one thing is certain: The metaverse will start in the enterprise. In fact, it already has.
Though the word has come to encompass pretty much any concept or venture in the digital world, the metaverse can be seen as an emerging business model that’s less reliant on the physical world. It’s also an extension of our social life, and a new frontier or marketplace for corporations to compete and sell to consumers. It also - and this is very important - does not exist yet, as Will Oremus writes in the Washington Post. Instead, we have many virtual worlds and immersive experiences requiring different devices, apps, profiles, and, in some cases, digital currencies to access. A true metaverse would require a level of interoperability that’s unlikely in Big Tech today. (Historical parallels like email or the Web were driven by governments and other non-corporate bodies.) As for all the current hype, Oremus observes that companies are merely “rebranding existing technologies.”
Why now? In addition to Facebook co-opting the sci-fi concept of the metaverse for its rebrand, COVID continues to add fuel to the metaverse fire. As the pandemic drags into year three, the way we’ve been living and working these past few years is no longer an adaptation. It’s, to use another overused phrase, the new normal. Now, a perfect storm of maturing technologies and remote/hybrid work taking root in enterprise is forcing companies to seriously consider the virtual workplace and invest in improving the remote working experience. The continued necessity of remote work and employees’ desire to continue working remotely post-pandemic (Flex Jobs) make it clear we need to redesign the workplace. The challenge, as Splunk brand writes for Forbes, is to create a truly useful tool, a digital workspace that’s not just better than Zoom, better than Spatial, but enhances how people collaborate and understand information.
The Enterprise Metaverse
The “best” examples of the enterprise metaverse today are XR-enabled remote collaboration and training apps. There are many immersive collaboration platforms and training solutions out there from companies like The Wild, VRtuoso, Strivr, etc. You might view these as building blocks or early forays into the enterprise metaverse, but they’re not new. Enterprises have been collaborating, designing, and training in XR for several years now, and increasingly so since the start of the pandemic. What is new perhaps is Big Tech’s efforts to make videoconferencing better: There’s Google Meet on Google Glass, Microsoft Mesh for HoloLens, Horizon Workrooms for Oculus Quest, even Canon's recently revealed Kokomo. Meanwhile, immersive collaboration companies are raising millions, all in the name of improving communication between remote workers.
What intrigues me, though, is the concept of the virtual office. Today, employees put on XR devices for specific tasks like equipment troubleshooting with a remote expert or design reviews with colleagues in other locations. They’re immersed for relatively short periods of time. But what about working a nine-to-five in virtual reality? I’m surely not the only white-collar worker who is sick of her WFH setup, struggling to stay productive, and desiring a better way to connect with team members in other cities.
Welcome to My Virtual Office
Two journalists recently put the concept of the virtual office to the test: Wired’s Ben Klemens and Cal Newport writing for the New Yorker both used virtual workspace app Immersed on Oculus Quest for a whole workday (or hundreds of hours in Klemens’s case).
Immersed allows you to customize your virtual workspace. For instance, you might choose to work in a coffee shop or in a forest with up to five screens around you. The virtual monitors are replicated from your personal computer and can be grabbed and moved around or pinched to make bigger/smaller. Klemens and Newport worked in solo mode, but you can work in the same virtual room with four or more people according to Immersed’s website.
In addition to better video calls and location flexibility, proponents of working in virtual reality cite benefits around focus and productivity. Certainly, there’s less multitasking inside a VR headset than on a Zoom call, and, as Ben Klemens points out, fewer distractions than in your physical space. The drawbacks? Klemens reported feeling disembodied and unaware of his surroundings, writing that working from home is already isolating without a VR headset. Apparently, you can’t see your hands or keyboard, and Klemens noted missing cues like the sun setting which can make the experience both physically and psychologically disorienting.
Then there are the barriers to entry: The hassle of the headsets including battery life, turning on the app and setting up your workspace, getting your whole team to use it, etc. Newport is more favorable towards the Oculus Quest 2, but he points to user experience as an issue, observing that subtle controller movements for manipulating and rotating the virtual monitors are difficult. And though Immersed has a mode for teaching the Oculus’s outward-facing sensors to recognize your hands and keyboard, it’s not the most user friendly.
So, why not work in VR? Well, the fact that a third of Immersed’s active monthly users are software developers says a lot. AR and VR can be a better replacement for remote coworking on 2D apps like Zoom, but it’s not as easy or natural to “jump on a quick call.” Immersed and similar apps are definitely closer to in-person than the video chat platforms widely used today but not yet an attractive “digital analog” to the real office.
Boeing recently vowed to create its next aircraft in the metaverse, but what does that really mean? Should you be having all your meetings in the metaverse or buying virtual real estate for your brand right now? Keep in mind that the metaverse as sold by the Zuckerbergs of the world isn’t a reality. More and more of our activities are moving online, the Web is going increasingly 3D, and we’re seeing a lot of experimentation around what the metaverse could be. But as with virtual reality, there will be a period of “The Metaverse is Dead” headlines once the hype dies down. Until our actions in the digital world have the same weight and impact as they do in the physical world, the metaverse remains a concept. Extended reality, however, isn’t going anywhere and is critical to reinventing the workplace for our current times and what’s to come.