Throughout the past two years, the world has sufficiently illustrated the saying: When a physical door closes, a virtual door opens.
Following the mass adoption of hybrid, flexible and remote work models, virtual workspace has been gaining traction. No discussion around the future of work is complete without mentioning Metaverse. The introduction of Meta (previously known as Facebook)’s wild ambition sparked polarised bodies of discussion, some argues that the Metaverse already exist, while some believes that Metaverse is the gateway to the evolutionary era of Web 3.0.
While it is often impossible to predict how the Metaverse will fall into place, it is expected to bring profound changes to the future of work. Right now, it might be hard to imagine yourself logging in to a virtual workspace as an avatar and working alongside colleagues in their digital forms, so in this article, we will take a peek into how Metaverse could transform the future of work.
Defining the Metaverse: What is it?
Metaverse is a nebulous concept that is yet to take shape. In the simplest explanation, Metaverse describes an immersive, interactive, and shared virtual world that incorporates mixed reality – Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) – with 3D holographic avatars , and digital twins (a virtual replica designed to accurately reflect a physical object), all of which made possible under the advanced use of IoT devices and IT infrastructure.
The origin of Metaverse can be traced back to Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopian cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, in which Neal Stephenson coined the term. Ironically, the novel was intended to warn people off from the dangers of digital drugs, instead of inspiring a modern time real-life adaptation.
Similar reference can be made to the movie Ready Player One, which is a book-to-film adaptation from Ernest Cline's novel. The movie is perhaps the best visual example of the soon-to-come Metaverse, demonstrating how human beings immerse themselves into a VR world where everyone works, plays, socialises, and spends time living their digital second life.
Reimagining the future workspace in Metaverse
1. The virtual workplace of Metaverse
As Metaverse matures alongside with the advancement in VR and AR technologies, running virtual workspaces will become increasingly compelling. The immersive workspace will bring us the virtual replica of all office amenities accessible in the reality, for example meeting rooms, lounges, hallways, breakout area, and so much more. Work-related activities such as meetings, conferences, events, and even casual interactions among colleagues will migrate to virtual spaces.
This will allow companies to cross off a few items from a long list of expenses associated with running a conventional office. While for employees, the Metaverse will offer them an option in terms of where they work and how they collaborate.
During the transition period from physical to virtual, which might in fact be a decade-long, companies will probably find it sensible to opt for a flexible workspace. It will not only complement a hybrid work model but also preserve valuable human interaction.
On the infinite canvas of the digital space, the only limitation is our imagination. Activity-based rooms can be created to suit specific workplace needs and preferences. As creators compete to develop the perfect custom-made rooms to serve companies and employees’ diversified requirements, the effectiveness of each specifically purposed room will be optimised.
2. Joining the virtual workspace as your digital replica
Imagine when a world we build feels as real as reality. But how real is real? The user experience of the immersive Metaverse will hinge upon the visual quality of the virtual environment. Metaverse intends to provide a visual experience which is far beyond that of 2D pixelated characters and decorated settings, and developers plan to achieve this through implementing mixed reality – AR will assist in bringing the digital into the reality, while VR will bring us into the digital world.
Graphics technology nowadays have advanced to a super-realistic level, this is evident in the video game demos produced with Unreal Engine 5. (Don’t take my word for it, watch this video yourself.) And seemingly, we were only a generation or two away from having consoles powerful enough to blur the line between the digital visuals and the reality visuals.
Unreal Engine 5 created metahuman in-game characters through digital scanning, and it will not be long before every device with a webcam becomes capable of scanning your face and body to build your digital avatar – and it will not only scan you once, but remain constantly activated to pick up changes in your facial expression and body gesture, and reflect that change through your digital avatar. This will help foster virtual communications and engagement amongst the team.
What is critical to remember when we unleash our imagination is that, in-person communications and interactions are nearly impossible to fully recreate. It is innate human nature to yearn for true human connections, and virtual interactions should never be an alternative to that.
3. Rethinking ‘space’
The virtual world space is arguably unlimited, and the relative concepts of big or small will no longer exist. You can enter a space as small as 1 pixel on screen but enter into a palace when zooming in.
The drab and cold cubicle farms will be replaced with customised virtual workspace. Companies and employees can tailor their common or private workspace however they please and create a space which reflects their brand identity or professional image.
It is highly likely that Metaverse will operate based on its own rules of play, develop its unique currency, payment systems, data privacy regulation systems, digital shops, goods, etc. So, will companies be free to build their office on a digital space which is infinitely malleable, or will there be a cost attached to building each unit of virtual space? That will be another topic of discussion.
Zooming back into the reality
Many tech giants are betting that Metaverse will be as big – if not bigger – than the Internet today. Virtual world builders, from tech heavyweights such as Meta, Microsoft and Epic Games, to start-ups like Branch, Gather, and Huddle, are pouring in substantial resources into making the sci-fi dream come true. This also means that Metaverse will not be created by one single company, every developer will have a hand in its direction as they construct the Metaverse brick-by-brick.
Nonetheless, it is only when various aspects mature will the overall impact of Metaverse be seen. The expectation is that we will start moving into the grand Metaverse by the end of this decade, but it might come sooner as foundational infrastructures were built with expanded capabilities throughout the past two years.
In the meantime, hybrid and flexible work models are likely to stay in norm, and we are seeing an increased number of companies moving away from expensive offices and conventional leaseholds to flexible workspace as office usage lowers under the pandemic.
While Metaverse gives companies an advanced alternative to video and text chats, it is important to remember that there is no replacement for physical human interactions. The virtue of having a physical office lies upon the small chats in the pantry, the random conversations you had with Pete when you bumped into him in the hallway or dropping by John’s desk to ask him one tiny question. And why is the reality important? As the ending line of Ready Player One puts it: Because reality is the only thing that’s real.