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As hybrid working becomes the new norm, the blending of real-world and virtual interactions will transform the workplace of the future.
In a downtown coworking space, Doug is sitting in a private booth wearing a virtual reality headset. Inside the VR boardroom, a meeting is taking place in which Doug’s 3D avatar looks slimmer and fresher faced than his flesh-and-blood self. His colleagues can hear his real voice and watch as he writes notes in real time on a floating whiteboard – but, beyond that, he’s just pixels.
As hybrid working becomes the norm, new parallel worlds will be taking shape in the digital realm – and taking business meetings to the next level. ‘Metaverse’ is the hot new buzzword that describes a “fully realised digital world that exists beyond the analog one in which we live,” according to The New York Times.
And while most people are familiar with video games such as Fortnite and Animal Crossing: New Horizons – experiences that allow you to chat to friends at the same time as interacting with their avatars in a virtual setting – when it comes to the metaverse, this is just the beginning. In fact, the metaverse could be the next logical step for hybrid working – if we can work from home, the office, a coworking space or lounger by the pool – why not a cyber hub?
A blending of the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’, the metaverse allows for ‘mixed-reality’ environments where the physical and digital come together. For professionals, this will open up never-ending opportunities for creativity and collaboration.
Just as we have become accustomed to logging on to Zoom calls from home or a local flexible workspace, soon we could be joining business powwows on the summit of Mount Everest or paradise islands with CGI tiki bars. At the very least, it will be a bit more fun than the average video call.
“Sometimes you have to get into the same room, even when you’re miles apart,” says Facebook Reality Labs in its promotional video for its new VR meeting space concept Horizon Workrooms, which was launched in ‘beta’ mode (meaning there are still some bugs and glitches to expect) in August 2021.
Horizon Workrooms, it says, “is designed to improve your team’s ability to collaborate, communicate, and connect remotely, through the power of VR – whether that’s getting together to brainstorm or whiteboard an idea, work on a document, hear updates from your team, hang out and socialise, or simply have better conversations that flow more naturally.”
It’s particularly clever because it allows users to ‘see’ some aspects of what is around them physically – such as their own hands, table and laptop screen – while simultaneously being part of a completely digital space. This is achieved by wearing an immersive Oculus Quest 2 VR headset. Facebook says: “Using features like mixed-reality desk and keyboard tracking, hand tracking, remote desktop streaming, video conferencing integration, spatial audio, and the new Oculus Avatars, we’ve created a different kind of productivity experience.”
As the metaverse evolves, we will see alternate realms taking shape that have their own economies. In fact, it’s already happening. Right now there is a place called Decentraland where digital real estate and goods are being bought for the equivalent of thousands of real-world dollars via an Ethereum token called MANA (basically a blockchain-based cryptocurrency). It’s not hard to imagine companies opening virtual HQs in the metaverse – or even digital versions of Spaces locations. It will be a savvy way to create a branded presence in the ether. The metaverse will also be a place for mass gatherings, be they conferences or team away days.
Earlier this year, an online version of Burning Man (a festival that normally takes place in the Nevada desert and typically attracts the Silicon Valley ‘tech set’) was manifested in the metaverse. This was how a writer for the Financial Times described it: “In the particular 3D virtual world I’m in, called the ‘Dusty Multiverse’, the seven square miles of Burning Man’s Black Rock City have been mapped out to scale, inch by inch, and camps will be hosting DJs and other performances all week. It’s both immersive and interactive; I am able to attend as an avatar, chat with other avatars, dance and enjoy the impressive cyber splendour that appears around me from my hoverboard.”
Like Doug, in years to come it may be common to have a ‘digital twin’ who conducts business for you. After all, maybe your alter ego is better at pitching or more assertive in meetings. It might sound like a stretch, but it isn’t so dissimilar to the social media personas many people have cultivated.
Ultimately, the metaverse may become a standard component of a hybrid working life – enhancing it, enlivening it and helping to bring colleagues together… Even if only their avatars are in the same room.
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