- Jane Wakefield
Looking back 50 years from now, it’s likely that the 2D internet we all use today will seem laughably archaic.
Not only will the internet no longer likely exist behind a screen, but we will likely interact with it differently.
We will manipulate objects using augmented reality (AR), explore virtual reality (VR) worlds, and merge the real and the digital in ways we cannot currently imagine.
And what does this mean for the world of work? We are already moving away from the home-to-work commute 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 meetings.
Will the next logical step be to work in the metaverse, the envisioned virtual universe where cartoon-like 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 about exactly what it will be.
Will rival virtual worlds connect in a way that does not currently 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 hype as companies see it as a new way to make money.
We’ve seen companies open in fledgling metaverses, from Meta’s Horizon Worlds to games like Roblox and Fortnite, to newly created areas like Sandbox and Decentraland.
Nike now sells virtual sneakers, HSBC has land in the Sandbox, and Coca-Cola, Louis Vuitton and Sotheby’s have a presence in Decentraland.
The term “metaverse” was coined nearly 30 years ago by writer 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 occurred 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 metaverse-focused company—a vision largely championed by its founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg.
Still, this huge 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 by The Verge last October, which claimed to have reviewed internal Meta memos, suggested that the Horizon Worlds platform had numerous flaws 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 unconvinced by Zuckerberg’s vision.
“Why do 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 have already experienced in the real world.
“But I think there will be a lot of jobs in the metaverse — for example, we’ll need moderators.”
The moderating or policing aspect of the metaverse is controversial, not only because it is technically difficult to monitor potential billions of avatars live-chatting in a virtual world, but also because of the enormous amount of data these avatars can create along with way.
A Stanford University study found that spending just 20 minutes in virtual reality yielded more than two million unique body movement recordings, a rich new data stream for businesses.
Alex Rice, co-founder of online security firm HackerOne, believes the design of the metaverse needs to be carefully considered before a company can consider leaving 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’s sure to have life-changing consequences.
“People can be fired outright for saying something they believe is in a private, informal conversation with a colleague who is now under massive company surveillance.”
Tom Ffiske, editor of the tech newsletter Immersive Wire, thinks it’s way too early to start thinking about working in the metaverse.
“The metaverse is still difficult to discuss, and the definition is still tenuous and debatable,” he says. “While the term itself is under discussion and poorly defined, it is unclear whether we will be working in the metaverse in the future.”
While no one is able to define what the metaverse is, there are optimistic market projections of what it might 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, chief analyst at research firm Canalys, disagrees: He predicts that most current commercial projects in the metaverse will be closed by 2025.
He believes that companies must 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 co-workers’ avatars or view virtual models,” says Ball. “Also, not all businesses need VR headsets for meetings. As powerful and compelling as VR is, Zoom calls and Teams offer near-frictionless alternatives that can be less cumbersome.”
Tiffany Rolfe is creative director at RGA, a digital branding firm. She and some members of her team have worked in the metaverse before.
The firm created a virtual soccer stadium in Fortnite for phone giant Verizon during the pandemic, and it also worked with Meta to build a music world in Horizon Worlds.
“People who were normally on a computer designing things had to put on headsets and work with builders around the world,” says Rolfe.
And who says that new working methods mean new considerations, such as how long employees have to wear helmets. “My team wore it for two-hour periods,” she says.
The fact that people are already working in virtual reality worlds suggests that the Metaverse may well have a future as a workplace, but the jobs that will exist there will likely be very different from the ones 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.