Covid pushed us deep into the metaverse, and it’s just the beginning

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The pandemic has pushed more of us into the digital workspace, with teleworking becoming the new normal. It's just the beginning of a move into the metaverse – and some of that new territory is scary. Hailey Ngo reports, in an ongoing series on the impact of digital media in our lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digitalisation of work.

Teleworking, virtual meetings, and home offices have become the new normal in the post-lockdown world. This shift is merely the beginning of a larger change to the nature of work.

In 2021, Mark Zuckerberg rebranded his corporation, previously known as Facebook, as Meta with a new intent: “to help bring the metaverse to life”, he said.

 In the same year, Microsoft released their latest mixed reality platform called Mesh, with the aim to “improve remote collaboration and provide immersive training and communication tools for businesses and consumers”, David Roe reported on CMS wire. .

These are just two of many companies who are trying to enter the next phase of the Internet by building a “metaverse”.

Metaverse – a new communication ecology?

Metaverse has emerged as a buzzword in various discussions about the future of work.

The term, which is a combination of two words, “meta” meaning beyond and “universe”, indicates an evolving virtual environment beyond the current physical real world.

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Global law firm Dentons partner Virginia K Allen describes the metaverse as “a multitude of online, 3D and virtual environments” enabled by the application of virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) technology such as headsets, VR/AR glasses, smartphones, PCs, and gaming consoles. It is also crucial to understand that the metaverse is not merely a virtual reality platform but a complex digital environment.

Entrepreneur Jon Radoff, CEO of live games platform Beamable, says the metaverse is built relying on seven structural layers: infrastructure, human interface, decentralisation, spatial computing, creator economy, discovery, and experience.

These seven layers ensure the functionality of the communication process within the metaverse, making it a complete digital communicative ecology, he said on the What is the Metaverse? podcast.

Metaverse will take telework to another level

Dubbed as the next phase of the Internet, the metaverse is believed to be the solution to many existing problems of remote working.

First, the adoption of virtual and augmented reality technology can create a more interactive and immersive online working experience for workers.

In his  latest Connect event, Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated how, instead of communicating through a screen, participants appear as a customised hologram or avatar in a virtual reality meeting space which allows them to talk and interact with each other similarly to real life.

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They can also build their own virtual workspace where they can tune out all possible distractions and fully focus on working.

This new architecture of work will be beneficial to various industries such as constructions, entertainment, architecture, engineering, education and even healthcare, Allen said.

Future workers can view and amend information in real-time rather than screen sharing while practising telework. Future students can attend classes “in person” from across the world.

Future artists will be able to hold concerts in a space that can accommodate an unlimited number of audiences, which has already been seen in Ariana Grande’s Rift Tour on Fortnite.

Second, the transition to a digital workspace has the potential to cut costs and save time for both businesses and employees, as they no longer have to rent physical workspaces and commute to and from work.

These benefits have been increasingly recognised during the pandemic as flexible remote working practices became the new normal.

According to Purpose Bureau CEO Nick Kamper, working from home is now a permanent feature of the employment landscape, even as the workforce begins to recover from the pandemic.

Research from the business intelligence firm showed that from March 1 to December 31, 2021, job ads offering remote working options increased by 95 per cent.

“As the WFH debate carries out across workplaces, boardrooms and BBQs, this research shows that WFH arrangements are being now accepted as a vital part of employment offering,” Kamper said.

Last, metaverse developers aim to improve the connection between people, as more connections mean more opportunities.

Future workers may be able to find a job regardless of physical distances. Technological innovation will create wholly new jobs.

As 20 years ago when the era of web 2.0 began, people would never have imagined any jobs like influencers or content producers on social media.

The unsolved human problems

While tech giants are investing in building the metaverse with positive visions of the new hybrid world, many experts are still sceptical about whether the existing problem of web 2.0 will be resolved, as well as new challenges that will emerge in this future workplace.

Digital literacy, including both being familiarised with the platform and being aware of its dangers, will continue to be a concern.

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A 2020 survey on the future of mixed reality workspace by Microsoft and Harvard Business Review Analytic Services found that six in 10 respondents believed an efficiently run mixed reality workspace is much more complicated to develop than any enterprise structure.

New skill sets are required for both employers and employees to be able to work efficiently and safely in a mixed reality environment.

J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, is worried about the rising issues of security and privacy for connected devices, as metaverse platforms will allow companies to collect vast amount of personal data in a more intimate manner compared to traditional social media.

The issue of cyber safety is gaining attention after Metaverse Research vice-president Nina Jane Patel said her avatar was sexually harassed and gang-raped by a group of male avatars when she attended a Meta Horizon venue. Meta has since introduced personal boundaries on avatars.

“As I tried to get away they yelled, ‘don’t pretend you didn’t love it,” she said on CNBC TV show The News with Shepard Smith. “It was a nightmare.”

This incident prompted many concerns among tech experts about the safety of future workers in this digital workspace.

Allen said the virtual world, with all its new opportunities and freedoms, opened new avenues for crime and misconduct.

The “realness” of the virtual environment could actually contribute to the severe real-world traumatic effects of criminal and violent acts on the victims.

Jesse Fox, an Ohio State University professor who researches the social implications of virtual worlds, said in 2016 that virtual reality opened the door to a new level of violation. 

“What’s different about virtual environments is an extra layer of immersion. If you are being groped in the real world versus a virtual world, the visual stimuli do not differ,” she told The Guardian.

“You are seeing it. It is appearing to happen to your own body. Those layers of lifelike experience are going to be more traumatizing in that moment.”

Experts are sceptical about the possibility that metaverse can completely replace physical working space due to its effects on human health.

Duncan Roberts, manager at Cognizant’s Centre for the Future of work, says technology still “struggled” to become comfortable for users to spend their whole working day and, possibly their social life in.

“Wearing a device on your face all day can lead to information overload, physical and mental fatigue if the software is not well designed,” he told news site News Azi.

Potential still some time off

The metaverse and its potential to become the future workspace has been front and centre as tech companies competitively show innovative prospects of a new virtual world.

While this evolution of the Internet can cause enormous changes to existing working practices, the question remains of whether the future of the physical world would completely integrate with a digital world.

Even though the gateway to the virtual world has been opened with the adoption of VR/AR technology in various fields, tech companies still have a long way to go before expecting a full fusion between the real and digital workplace.