The maddening, surreal experience of VR work meetings.

When a junior manager at the tech-consulting firm Accenture tried to organize her first work meeting in the metaverse, it was difficult to even log in. “I am totally immersed in the metaverse, have a big headset on, and then I need to take off the Oculus, look on my phone for the two-factor authentication code that’s been sent to my phone, then memorize the number, put my headset back on, and try to key it in,” she told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But when you take off the Oculus it automatically goes to sleep mode, and I was trying to navigate the back-and-forth.” She wasn’t the only one who struggled with simply accessing an animated meeting room; by the time the meeting had concluded, some team members still hadn’t made it in.

That’s perhaps not the future that was promised when companies started going all-in on the metaverse last year. And the malaise is showing: Attention to and mockery of virtual and augmented reality developments has quieted down in recent months. Still, the money is pouring in, and companies of all stripes want a piece of this. McKinsey projects that the metaverse will transform from a sci-fi term to a $5 trillion enterprise by 2030. But, instead of speculation on virtual lands and hosting digitized nightclub parties, the latest push is focused on smaller-scale, more quotidian uses.

And what’s more quotidian than your workplace? The roster for the recent Consumer Electronics Show included some ambitious plans for shifting your labor into the metaverse, like constructing a “digital twin of your headquarters.” Meta has also been trying this out in real time by implementing Horizon Worlds’ office space, Workrooms, for internal employee use.

Not bad! Except for the fact that Meta’s hefty investments in VR have ravaged the company’s finances, Horizon Worlds has fewer than 200,000 total users, Meta employees don’t like having to procure all the necessary devices or even using Workrooms, and enthusiasm from the C-suite seems to have cooled. Clunky visuals, headset pians, nausea and dizziness during use, Zoom-fatigue hangovers, imperfect facial replications, and lack of actually additive features have alienated even the people who should be loving this metaverse tech the most; other offices that have used Workrooms have found out it’s difficult to interact with dense financial information or even to, like, type words.

Yet companies, including some fields outside of tech, are still trying to make it happen, hence big corporations bringing on chief metaverse officers.

So I decided to speak with executives who’ve incorporated the metaverse into their companies, and to workers who’ve been nudged by their bosses to check this thing out, to see whether any of this hype can really translate into corporate culture. What I found was that workers and bosses, perhaps unsurprisingly, tend to have differing views on the metaverse’s usefulness for daily tasks. Furthermore, businesses may be eager to take on metaverse tech not necessarily to make work easier, but for another reason entirely.

The Accenture manager told me that “over the past year, when our company rolled out a bunch of Oculus headsets to a large population to see how we might self-adopt the technology. I feel like we were guinea pigs in how the metaverse might be applied to more of a workplace social setting.”

But even during an introductory opt-in phase for VR experimentation, there were problems—most notably accessibility issues, especially for staffers with motion sickness or other disabilities, as well as learning how to adjust to social customs in a digital setting. Basic etiquettes like figuring out how and where to stand next to other participants, learning specific tools, and shaping your 3D avatar’s look and attributes presented unexpected problems. “The body shapes that were available in the [AltspaceVR app] didn’t have characters that had breasts,” the Accenture manager told me.

The company continued to encourage use of metaverse tech, even offering headsets to new hires upfront. Still, nothing was forced for employees, the manager said; bosses were happy to see their reports using the tech to access apps for meditation and mental health. For the time being, it seems many of the Accenture manager’s colleagues are bearish on the tech and don’t use their Oculus app much. (There’s little desire, she told me, for “low-fidelity Minecraft virtual happy hour.”)

But she suspects the point may not be so much what they do with it as much as how Accenture can tout the hardware to its clients at large. “My company would be invested in making other companies want to use the metaverse rather than care so much about how many virtual happy hours we are having in our Oculus,” she said. “We’re selling you on an experience, we’re selling you on a new business model, we’re selling you on how your companies can integrate the future into your workplace. And I think that as long as other companies are buying, we will continue to make like it’s this great thing.”

One exec experimenting with VR-at-work just happened to be close to my own workplace: David Stern, founder and CEO of the Slate Group’s Supporting Cast podcast platform. Stern had first worked on a VR experiment for Slate back in 2017, when the site launched a virtual chat show hosted on Facebook Spaces, but he only thought of it in a co-working context more recently, after using VR to play poker with friends and reading business analyst Ben Thompson’s accounts of using virtual workspaces. That’s when he decided to purchase 10 Oculus Quest 2 headsets for his staff, who all work remotely, and see how they could all make best use of it: 45-minute meetings, occasional social outings.

But he’s experienced some of the same problems as the Accenture manager. “Between forgetting to charge headsets, operating system updates, new app installation/updates, logging into accounts, screensharing between desktop and headset, there’s just a lot that can go wrong,” Stern wrote to me in an email. He and the staff enjoyed some metaverse capabilities—the three-dimensional immersion, the improved sound quality as compared with videoconference apps like Zoom—but they might find the whole thing better suited for one purpose over the other. “I’m not sure it’s better for meetings, particularly if you’re doing a lot of screensharing to look at someone’s desktop,” he wrote. “But it might be better in some ways for having an open conversation or a brainstorm.”

He’s not the only boss who is clear-eyed about the metaverse’s limitations even while trying it out. Rahul Mehra, a co-founder of the India-based automation startup Roadcast, sounds psyched about the prospects of metaverse-aided work, but frank about current impediments. “Right now there are more disadvantages than advantages,” he told me: low internet bandwidth speeds across South and Southeast Asia, lack of consistent and compatible software across differing brands of hardware, and a shortage of workers with the right skills to improve such issues. Mehra would rather be in the metaverse than a videoconference or group call, but as of now, he’d still prefer a meeting in an actual office than an animated one. So would his employees, it sounds like: “Some are of the opinion that maybe this software needs to be developed more or needs to be simplified,” he said. “The senior-most people in my company, who may be in the finance department or the HR department, are not really comfortable with this.”

Still, Mehra hopes to keep tinkering with the metaverse-as-office, like for job interviews with candidates in different regions of Asia. Plus, he thinks adoption could be key to making his business more attractive both to prospective partners and job candidates, a mentality many corporate managers, and companies like Accenture, also share: “The people you’re hiring also see that this company is very forward-thinking.”

Assuming the tech improves, if corporations keep buying and distributing headsets, if every meeting becomes a VR or AR meeting, even proponents of this shift don’t think it’ll be as massive a disruption as Mark Zuckerberg thinks it will be. “Could I see people waking up and putting on a headset and then getting out of the headset at 5 in the evening? I hope not. And I don’t see it,” said Sean Hurwitz, chief executive of the Michigan company Pixo VR.

At any rate, it turns out an animated, interactive, gamified universe may be another opportunity for play over work. “I do think it’s working, at least for social gatherings, and we’ll continue using it for those for the foreseeable future,” Stern wrote. “The jury is still out on the productivity-centric use cases.”

Future Tense
is a partnership of
Slate,
New America, and
Arizona State University
that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*