Exploring the Metaverse - Part Two

Exploring the Metaverse - Part Two

Over the month of June, The Difference Engine are publishing a four-part series exploring the metaverse in-depth. What is it? How is it being used? And what is the future of both the metaverse and the internet as we know it? In the second part of this series, we are examining how the metaverse exists in 2022, and how exactly it is being used.

Read part one in our series: the origins of the metaverse.

In a blog post released to coincide with the launch of Facebook's name change to Meta, CEO Mark Zuckerberg writes that "In recent decades, technology has given people the power to connect and express ourselves more naturally. [...] The next platform will be even more immersive — an embodied internet where you're in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build."

The decision to rebrand Facebook to Meta and effectively attach it to both the progress and future of the metaverse is just another in a string of moves by a large number of corporations all experimenting with what many experts predict will be the next big technological revolution.

It becomes clear, however, when examining the tech landscape of 2022, that much of the metaverse is still to be built. VR is something that has progressively come into the wider public usage - not just in games, but in the workplace, being used in training for certain jobs, such as astronauts, surgery and the military. Training virtually provides a level of safety and cost-effectiveness that was not previously available to such careers. Many in the industry, including Zuckerberg in his blog post, have started talking about a world beyond those specific case-uses, and instead lay out a vision for the future of workplaces on a much wider scale.

The metaverse in 2022

Today, much of the metaverse exists in games that are hugely popular amongst younger demographics, such as Roblox and Minecraft. Companies like Meta, however, latch on to a different possibility - the ability to use the metaverse to enhance social media, or indeed, communication within the workplace.

Work, more than anything, is the likeliest way that people will be perhaps unwittingly introduced to the metaverse. This might mirror, in many ways, the ways in which the pandemic and subsequent boom of home working have led to employees across the globe being forced to get to grips with pre-existing technologies like video conferencing and instant messaging. It has been widely reported that workers increasingly are reluctant to work in the office full-time, with many companies who once took a hard stance on their "Return to Office" (RTO) policies starting to backtrack a little, for fear of losing top talent.

Meetings in the metaverse presume to offer some sort of compromise. They offer workers the ability to enjoy the perceived benefits of work from home - less travel, a comfortable environment, the potential to create a better work/life balance - whilst targeting its potential pitfalls. Collaborative work, in particular, is often seen as the biggest loss of home working. Google itself has claimed that informal coffee machine conversations have been the impetus for innovations such as Gmail and Street View.

When Zuckerberg discusses the future of the metaverse, he lays out a vision for the future of workplaces on a much wider scale.

"Zoom fatigue", too, has made headlines over the past few years, described as a culmination of the lack of mobility, self-consciousness of being able to see one's own video feed constantly, intense eye contact and the cognitive demands that come with needing to give exaggerated feedback to communicate effectively over a virtual platform. This cost to the wellbeing of workers is something that, like the concept of "burn out", is something that workers aren't necessarily able to identify until they're suffering from the result of it, making it in employers' best interests to take steps where they can, to lead the charge on combating it.

VR has the benefit, on the other hand, of allowing users to use body language -headsets are not limited to sight but instead allow users to use their hands to interact with things in world. It has been found that VR headsets in fact make better active use of the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands than one hour of a typical Zoom meeting.

It is believed also that enabling employees to sit in the same room and interact the cartoony avatars of co-workers, and exist in a space that mimics an office environment, will increase productivity. The avatars, too, reduce some of the effects of being actively on video, without impacting the more social aspects of video calling.

Workspaces in the metaverse come complete with all the fixings - chairs, walls, conference tables, screens displaying PowerPoint presentations, all of which users are able to view through their VR headsets. The immersive experience is designed to leave you feeling like you're in the office - all from the comfort of your own home.

It is believed that enabling employees to sit in the same room and interact the cartoony avatars of co-workers, and exist in a space that mimics an office environment, will increase productivity.

A number of companies are already implementing the metaverse as part of their daily activities. Alongside Meta, consultancy firm Accenture has begun to use VR headsets and its own virtual world, called Nth Floor, to onboard and train new starters to the company. "As more people are embracing the virtual world to better connect, a continuum of technologies and experiences are growing in popularity—and offering huge potential for future ways of learning and working," Accenture's website reads.

Senior Managing Director Jason Warnke, in a blog post about the move, writes that for Accenture, Nth Floor is "how we want to host a virtual coffee break, conduct training, or host important all-hands meetings. The Nth floor is a versatile, customizable and scalable solution for bringing a geographically distributed workforce together. In short, it helps our people to be there without physically being there—even when we return to our own offices." He highlights in particular that the firm feel the move puts the health and wellbeing of employees front and centre, with the inclusion of VR experiences like a physical and mental workout product called Supernatural.

Zuckerberg too, during a display of what the metaverse can do for workplaces, demonstrated a world in which anyone can be thrown into a virtual video call at any moment - something which evoked an instant reaction across the greater wide web. In his blog, Zuckerberg writes, "In this future, you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents' living room to catch up. This will open up more opportunity no matter where you live. You'll be able to spend more time on what matters to you, cut down time in traffic, and reduce your carbon footprint."

So, is the metaverse truly becoming more commonplace? It would seem so, although it is still very much early days. Indeed, for every Accenture, there are a hundred companies who have yet to even so much as consider it. As it stands, the workspace metaverse hasn't really caught on much - mostly because it's still so much quicker and easier to simply click a Zoom link.

Scott Wassmer, General Manager at Appnovation, writes that the metaverse in 2022 is reminiscent of "the internet in the late 1990s. It's filled with experimentation driven by the potential of long-term consumer engagement and spending. Don't forget, most people thought the internet was just a fad in the '90s, with very few truly understanding its long-term potential." Wassmer does also feel that, with the combined scale of digital connectivity in 2022 (as opposed to the late 90's) and the power of the way new technologies are able to talk to and interact with one another. "Ignoring the long-term potential of the metaverse could be catastrophic for companies in the not-so-distant future," he writes. "The growth of the internet led to 20 years of disruption in everything from entertainment to education, financial management, healthcare and more. That change isn't done yet, making it important to understand the next wave."

However, that doesn't mean it is imperative that every company joins the metaverse immediately. Indeed, Wassmer points out that many early adaptors of the interview were unable to grow long-term alongside it. Later adopters have the considerable benefit of being able to learn from the mistakes of those that adopt early on.

In 2022, the metaverse still has a way to go until it reaches maturity as a technology - however, with the speed of technological advancement in this current age, it is more likely that this means change will happen over the next few years, as opposed to ten years down the line.

The metaverse is here to stay, this much is clear. Next week, in part three, we'll be examining the future of the metaverse in more detail, and the changes we might expect to start seeing as the technology starts to mature.

'Exploring the metaverse' is a four-part series released by The Difference Engine over the month of June 2022.