To Bret Starr, one of the best aspects of the marketing agency bearing his name was its tight-knit culture. Employees flew all over the world just to be with one another, and the dynamic was fabulous.
But COVID-19 prevented travel and challenged his team’s ability to mix, mingle, and collaborate. Video conferencing, while worthy tools for keeping people connected, didn’t do enough to fill the emotional void created by the rapid shift to remote work.
Going remote and using such tools “freaked us out and exacerbated our feelings of isolation,” recalls Starr, CEO of the Dallas-based Starr Conspiracy. “It was surreal and didn’t mimic reality at all. It just felt like the world was coming to an end.”
Then he got an idea. A virtual reality (VR) enthusiast, Starr bought an Oculus headset for himself and a partner to see if the metaverse—an immersive, 3-D version of the internet—might create enough of a quasi-workspace to offset his team’s feelings of isolation. The ability to digitally jump into cyber-rooms, meet on the fly, and feel like he was really sitting right next to his partner convinced him it could do the trick. So, they bought every single one of their 90 employees a headset as well—spending more than $20,000.
The equipment had an almost-immediate positive impact on the company’s ability to collaborate.
Virtual collaboration gets real
“There’s a real application here for collaboration because that was one of the big things that people were saying when we went remote–it is very hard to collaborate over Zoom,” Starr says. “We found our people got comfortable with the equipment quickly, and that’s why we started having our small-team collaborations in the metaverse. We think it works even better than collaborating in person.”
Indeed, metaverse collaboration could soon become a common part of the average workday.
For more than a decade, technology giants such as Microsoft, Cisco, and Meta (formerly Facebook) have made hefty investments in the metaverse as a potential meeting and collaboration platform. Bill Gates has even predicted the metaverse will replace the way companies collaborate virtually within a few years. And Mark Zuckerberg says it will be mainstream within 5 to 10 years.
First, by utilizing many of the fun, engaging, and addictive qualities of video games. Many call this “gamification.” But Jon Radoff, CEO of Beamable.com, a video game development platform, writes that it’s now more than that. Where gamification was once about aligning activities to scoring points, badges and other digital rewards, Radoff writes the metaverse takes that to another level with immersiveness, emotion, aspiration, progression, socialization, and many of the things that tend to help people connect to experiences. So, for example, in the metaverse, employees might not only have incentives to attend and collaborate in more meetings, they might also get a charge out of the positive energy in their digital surroundings.
The metaverse can also encourage more collaboration by providing infinite amounts of flexibility and space. In the metaverse, workers never have to worry about limited seating, whiteboard space, dry erase markers, notepads, pens and pencils or any of the other things they might lack in physical environments. All of that is right there for their use. What’s more, they can customize the look and feel of meeting rooms to their own creative juices. Work better with windows? No problem. Feel better collaborating with purple walls and pink desks? That’s doable too. The possibilities are endless.
Then, of course, there’s the social element that many of us have come to miss during the pandemic. In the metaverse, it’s possible to still have those watercooler or break room conversations. Only instead of strolling down a physical hallway, workers enter a digital representation of the real thing. True, it’s not exactly the same. But in some ways, experts say that with a little creativity—maybe having a real glass of water or wine while chatting with an online colleague—it can get pretty close.
By bringing together these three elements of gamification, flexibility, and collaboration, “It is a shared immersive experience,” says Liz Hyman, CEO of the XR Association, a trade group for the extended reality (XR) industry. “In these early days, we are seeing a lot of collaboration and getting people together in virtual conference rooms to share ideas on how to do complex management tasks in this way.”
Still a way to go
Despite its promise, industry experts caution the metaverse is far from mature. The equipment, platforms, and cultural shifts needed to make it a mainstream collaboration tool will take time, adjustment, and patience. Technical standards underlying it are still coming together. And the key enabling technologies, including VR, AR, and artificial intelligence (AI), are in relatively early stages of development.
Sizable companies, in particular, could also balk at the idea of shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to connect employees to the metaverse—at least until the platforms and technologies like VR headsets are more mature. And even if they commit to this expense, team members may resist the idea of wearing clunky VR headsets throughout the workday. Many remote workers already feel they spend too many hours in video conferencing; they may not be happy about spending the same amount of time in the more digitally intense metaverse.
“People need to just start using it,” counters Alfredo Ramirez, CEO of Vyopta, a company that helps facilitate VR and XR collaboration for companies. “Not many people are using (the technology) yet. People need to get familiar with it.”
Ramirez says VR headsets, for instance, have actually evolved quite a bit thanks to CPU advances. People don’t even have to be tethered to PCs or laptops anymore, he notes. As a result, headsets of the future could bring more immersive experiences to desktop and mobile users alike.
Starr agrees. “What’s amazing about the metaverse is that all you need are headsets, controllers, and Wi-Fi, and you are ready to go,” he says.
Overcoming the learning curve
For employers like Starr, who prides himself on fostering an agile culture, the metaverse was a no-brainer collaboration tool.
“The learning curve for this technology was much less significant than many of us imagined it would be,” he says. “One of the biggest things that I had heard was that employees were nervous about the technology. We were sending people these advanced headset devices, and about half of them said, ‘but I’m not a gamer’ or ‘I don’t play video games.’”
Metaverse experts differ in their assessment of whether the technology truly replaces the in-person experience of collaboration. Ramirez concedes that in the metaverse, it’s easy for a worker to feel as if they are losing that human touch when everything is digitally represented—including their own likeness. But he believes people will come around to the idea.
The metaverse is a little like an explorer looking for something nobody knew or cared about, says Ramirez. “It was a long and lonely journey getting there, but once people understood the upside of what they’d found, it was well worth it.”
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