- Jane Wakefield
When we look back 50 years from now, it’s likely that the 2D internet we all use today will look ridiculously archaic.
Not only will the internet probably no longer exist after a screen, but we will likely interact with it differently.
We will manipulate objects using augmented reality (AR), explore the worlds of virtual reality (VR), and merge the real with the digital in ways we cannot currently imagine.
And what does this mean for the world of work? We are already moving away from commuting and turning our backs on the traditional office. And that’s thanks to two years of pandemic lockdowns and a new love, or tolerance, for virtual dating.
Will the next logical step be to work in the metaverse, the intended virtual universe where cartoonish 3D representations of everyone will walk around, talk and interact with each other?
Metaverse has become a buzz term, so it’s important to note that it doesn’t exist yet. And even those invested in the concept disagree on exactly what it will be.
Will rival virtual worlds interconnect in a way that currently does not exist between competing technologies? Will we spend more time there than in the real world? Will we need entirely new rules to govern these new spaces?
None of these questions have an answer yet, but that hasn’t stopped a growing amount of interest and hyperbole as companies see it as a new way to make money.
We’ve seen businesses open up in new metaverses, from Meta’s Horizon Worlds to games like Roblox and Fortnite, to newly created territories like Sandbox and Decentraland.
Nike now sells 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 nearly 30 years ago by author Neal Stephenson. In his book Snow Crash, the hero finds a better life in a virtual reality world.
Perhaps the boldest move to turn this fiction into real technology happened in October 2021. That’s when Facebook announced it was changing its name to Meta and began investing billions of dollars to transform itself into a company focused on the metaverse – a vision strongly defended by its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
However, this large investment has raised eyebrows among shareholders, some of whom have recently expressed concern that the company is spending too much money on VR.
And a report from The Verge last October, which claimed to have reviewed internal Meta memos, suggested that the Horizon Worlds platform had numerous bugs and was not being used well by employees.
Herman Narula, CEO of Improbable, a company that makes software for creating metaverses and author of a book called Virtual Society, is not convinced by Zuckerberg’s vision.
“Why would we want an office in the metaverse that looks like our real office?” he said. “The purpose of creative spaces in new realities is to expand our experiences, not to repeat what we have already experienced in the real world.
“But I think there’s going to be a lot of work in the metaverse—for example, we’re going to need moderators.”
The moderating—or policing—aspect of the metaverse is controversial, not only because it is technically difficult to monitor potentially billions of avatars having live conversations in a virtual world, but also because of the sheer amount of data that these avatars can be created along the way.
A Stanford University study found that spending just 20 minutes in virtual reality provided more than two million unique body movement recordings, a rich stream of new data for businesses.
Alex Rice, co-founder of Internet security firm HackerOne, thinks the design of the metaverse needs careful consideration before a company can consider leaving its employees there.
“Imagine something innocuous, like a casual conversation in an office,” he explains. “Imagine it happening in a fully protected metaverse environment: there are sure to be life-changing consequences.
“People can be fired for saying something they believe is in a private, informal conversation with a colleague who is now under massive corporate surveillance.”
Tom Ffiske, editor of tech newsletter Immersive Wire, thinks it’s too early to start thinking about working in the metaverse.
“The discussion of the metaverse is still mired in difficulty and the definition is still tenuous and controversial,” he says. “While the term itself is debated and ill-defined, it is unclear whether we will be working in the metaverse in the future.”
Although no one is able to define what the metaverse is, there are optimistic market predictions of what it could be worth. McKinsey suggests a market value of $5 billion by 2030, while Gartner, another management consultancy, 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 close by 2025.
He thinks companies should ask themselves if a presence in the metaverse is really necessary, or if they are using technology for technology’s sake.
“Not every company needs a VR headset to host remote co-worker avatars or view virtual models,” says Ball. “Not every business even needs VR headsets for meetings. As powerful and compelling as VR is, calls and teams from Zoom offer nearly frictionless alternatives that can be less overwhelming.”
Tiffany Rolfe is creative director at RGA, a digital branding company. She and several members of her team have previously worked in the metaverse.
The firm created a virtual soccer stadium in Fortnite for phone giant Verizon during the pandemic, and also worked with Meta to build a music world in Horizon Worlds.
“People who were usually at a computer designing things had to put on a headset and work with builders around the world,” says Rolfe.
And who says new work methods mean new considerations, such as how long employees must wear a helmet. “My team wore it for two hours,” she says.
The fact that people are already working in virtual reality worlds suggests that the Metaverse may have a future as a workplace, but the jobs that will exist there will likely be very different from what we do in the real world.
And anyone hoping to swap their daily commute for a helmet will likely have to wait many years before that becomes a (virtual) reality.