Meta-morphosis: Is work the final conquest for the metaverse?

If you think your workplace is the last to catch up with new technology, fear not: the metaverse will be heading your way. You just might not notice.
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Meta-morphosis: Is work the final conquest for the metaverse?

Canon Camera

Written by Sarah Vloothuis

Senior Manager External Communications

If you’re reading this at work, how’s your tech looking? If your daily log-in, conference calls and processes are… less than optimal (you can insert your own air quotes here)then you’re not alone. If you’re looking for evidence, KPMG’s 2022 Global Tech Report makes for an eye-opening, if contradictory, read. On the one hand, businesses report that investing in technology helps them to be more productive and efficient. On the other, they are constrained by budgets and skills shortages. Same as it ever was, you might say. So, even raising the question of how the average workplace might leverage the metaverse is likely to be met by a raised eyebrow or two.

In the fourth of our explorations into the metaverse, we look at the ways businesses might approach this brave new immersive world – as well as some of the very real challenges doing so might present.

Firstly, it’s important to say that there are already plenty of businesses either springing up or gleefully pivoting to meet the metaverse. Fashion immediately comes to mind, with NFT collaborations, digital fashion weeks and brands like Gucci, Burberry and even Clarks shoes taking the plunge into Roblox and Minecraft experiences. Plenty of metaverse-first event management, real estate and digital assets businesses are already thriving – who knew you could make so much money out of custom nail art in a virtual world? At this stage, pretty much all of them are operating in the same way that any other business providing digital goods and services might – from desks. Some are in offices; others are working from home.

Because it is a truth universally acknowledged that, like the education sector, the standard workplace is slow to catch up. Today, you can still find companies who are only just embarking on their own process of digital transformation, and plenty is still being written on the subject to guide nervous CEOs through the choppy waters of technology and change. So, can we even begin to talk metaverse in such a culture? “If you’re asking whether there are no-regrets moves that can be made today around the metaverse, the answer fundamentally is yes,” said Venture Altruist Richard Ward, speaking to McKinsey in March 2022. “In every single company, there are people who draw for a living, whether that’s graphic designers, marketing people, engineers, product designers, or process engineers.” He is, of course, referring to the kind of three-dimensional tools that are both welcomed and familiar in these spaces. Taking a leaf from traditional transformation programmes and making headway to improve specific working practices using 3D solutions is a really good place to start.

Three casually dressed people in a white-walled room sit and stand around a wooden table. Two are wearing VR headsets and a third headset sits on the table, alongside white coffee mugs, pens, paper, a notebook and a laptop. On the wall next to them are seven yellow sticky notes.

Right now, the cost of headsets and custom VR solutions not a familiar sight in most organisations, as price continues to be a barrier to entry.

However, this vastly simplifies the potential for the way that metaverse technologies (the connective tissue of the metaverse itself) may affect the way that an organisation functions. But unlike recreational or even educational spaces, within a business there are limited-to-zero opportunities for experimentation. “For me, it has to be a tool that is going to support an objective,” says Marc Bory, Canon EMEA’s Vice President, DP&S Marketing and Innovation. “Augmented Reality, for example, will increase productivity in areas like operational fixes or maintenance [in products]. While Virtual Reality disconnects you from reality and is, right now, not appropriate for most general day-to-day operations. But for training and simulation purposes, it will bring a lot of value.” Business objectives come first and any metaverse technologies will need to show that they will make money or create highly valuable new efficiencies – either way, a demonstrably significant and assured return on investment.

VR training and the use of digital twins to simulate operational scenarios are, by metaverse standards, very old tech. NASA has been simulating on-board conditions since the 1960s and companies like Boeing began to incorporate VR into their training programmes several years ago. But it is telling of both the investment required and the cautious approach to change that it is only now that these approaches are seeing widespread implementation in a real way. This is understandable when you consider that an industrial scale digital twin can cost upwards of a million dollars. VR headsets are substantially cheaper, but a full Virtual Reality training programme and equipment would still make a sizeable dent in most budgets. It’s also clear that, for today at least, these are technologies for very specific scenarios. For most of us, daily office life is unlikely to touch – or need – simulated experiences or digital twins. So, in which case, what does the metaverse have to offer?

"VR training and the use of digital twins to simulate operational scenarios are, by metaverse standards, very old tech.”

Office life has changed a lot in the past few years. Since the height of the pandemic, workplace communication and collaboration has been a hot topic, with the hybrid working model widely accepted as the balanced solution by all but the most determinedly office-centric organisations. Certainly, the tools to facilitate hybrid working have rapidly improved over the course of a couple of years, but the very fact that face-to-face meetings are almost always preceded by “isn’t it great to meet in person?” tells you everything you need to know. “Personally, I missed physical interaction with people,” admits Marc. “So, a combination of video conferences and physical meetings is good.” On this front, the metaverse feels slightly challenged at present, with most virtual meeting solutions falling some way short of even a video call, simply because of the social limitations of avatars and an absence of the subtleties of human expression. And, as we all discovered during lockdowns, valuable chance meetings and office chitchat are often the oxygen of innovation.

Solving these problems has become something of a holy grail for metaverse developers, who are exploring ways to make remote working a little less remote feeling. For example, what Canon USA’s Kohei Maeda refers to as “the serendipity of the water cooler” has translated into the creation of a meeting solution called AMLOS (Activate My Line Of Sight). He explains: “Imagine there’s an AMLOS camera in the office and a conversation starts by chance, but they need to involve a person who is working remotely that day. All they need to do is face the camera and make one gesture. Then the AMLOS system recognises the person in the office space and then, based on this gesture, creates a Microsoft Teams meeting spontaneously.” This very much reflects the brainstorming needs of geographically dispersed teams and the desire to create closeness and camaraderie. Other solutions seek to create broader ‘bump into’ experiences specifically for a 3D metaverse. PixelMax, for example, creates fully immersive virtual workplaces that let you see and stop your colleagues for a chat. Others rely on live status tracking, so you can know who is free and where they are.

A digital illustration of five people working in the metaverse. They are floating upper bodies, with no legs, resting on light wood chairs around a light wood table. Around them, other meetings in other rooms are depicted, as though they can be seen through glass windows around the office.

Is an entirely immersive workplace practical for most businesses? Probably not, but we are likely to see a combination of mixed, augmented and virtual realities solve different problems within future organisations.

However, these fully immersive concepts feel uncomfortably adjacent to employee tracking for Quentyn Taylor, Canon EMEA’s Senior Director - Information Security and Global Response. He wonders about an entirely immersive workplace where every move, action and reaction become data points and how this will ultimately affect the way we conduct ourselves. He references a point in Neal Stephenson’s metaverse-predicting novel Snow Crash where Y.T’s mother mulls over a memo.

“[she] decides to spend between fourteen and fifteen minutes reading the memo. It’s better for younger workers to spend too long, to show that they’re careful, not cocky. It’s better for older workers to go a little fast, to show good management potential.”

It’s a discomfiting read because, from a technology point of view, it’s entirely possible. “So, is there is an optimal amount of time to respond to a message, that shows I've taken care over it?” Quentyn asks. Beside the fact that it’s pleasing to hear someone reference Snow Crash having actually read it, the implications of such practices for employee data are huge. It will require seismic legal and cultural shifts, not least to account for privacy, but also equity and inclusivity. Especially as data analysis at this scale can only be conducted by Artificial Intelligence – and we are all too aware of the implicit bias that lies within many AI models. Who, ultimately, decides what should and should not be flagged? How are the parameters for performance set? At the other end of the debate lies the idea that Artificial Intelligence should be able to spot skills potential and opportunities for professional development that human managers may miss. But it stands to reason that these will only be identified because of their particular benefit to an organisation. Will we, by putting potential under the microscope in this way, actually miss important details?

As we mentioned earlier, highly accurate human facial expressions and gestures aren’t among the strengths of the current metaverse virtual workspace offerings. And there is also a wealth of research to suggest that long periods of time spent in VR environments can trigger feelings of disassociation (some have even named it ‘The Existential Hangover’). Knowing this, organisations with an eye on migrating their teams into any shape of metaverse might do well to give equal priority to the human experience as well as the exciting benefits of the tech. One frequent recommendation is to have experts in physical and mental wellbeing work within project implementation teams, guiding the process and flagging concerns. Like the future metaverse itself, it is unimaginable that one organisation might rely on a single provider of metaverse technologies. So, to bring about a healthy balance to the experiences of users, it’s likely that we’ll see various aspects of work conducted at different levels of immersive – a combination of mixed, augmented and virtual realities – and in various flexible ways in terms of engagement, look and feel.

"AI does not possess the essentially human skills of decision-making, judgement or empathy, but even the most ardent pessimist cannot help but be intrigued by its benefits as a day-to-day timesaving tool.”

For example, the subtleties of expression that many rely on for connection and social cues can be found in Canon USA’s Kokomo video calling software, through which you and the personal you are calling can present yourself in accurate human form, right down to the facial expressions and clothes you wear. But this sophisticated level of personal avatar is probably not necessary when you are simply watching a virtual event. Building biophilic design (bringing the natural world into spaces and places) has also been proven to be enormously beneficial to mental health, regardless of whether in virtual or actual reality, so it makes sense to apply this concept across both types of working spaces.

Beyond the sense of wellbeing while undertaking your job, however, is the matter of what the metaverse might means for continued existence of your role, especially with the rise of powerful generative AI (that can output novel content rather than just acting on existing data). ChatGPT is the most well-known of these but AI overall and has implications for the automation of jobs in customer service, marketing content, coding, executive support, commercial art and more. That said, AI does not possess the essentially human skills of decision-making, judgement or empathy, but even the most ardent pessimist cannot help but be intrigued by its benefits as a day-to-day timesaving tool. It might, however, be a bit more of a stretch to welcome the human-looking avatars of AI-powered bots as colleagues into your future virtual workspaces. Or will it? “I think humans are very good at accepting being fooled,” says Quentyn. “If you know it’s a bot, it will simply be a convenient lie to tell yourself and therefore you’re in control."

Shifting the perspective from personal to organisational risks, he also feels largely unperturbed by the prospect of any new and complex cybersecurity dangers that may arise through a business transition to the metaverse. “You focus on the data and look from the perspective of the benefits it brings versus the negatives,” he reassures. “Take cloud, for example. From a security team perspective, it increases exposure to risk, but it also allows you to operate at scale. Overall, these risks tend to balance out."

It would be easy to conclude with the usual platitudes around how the metaverse will revolutionise the workplace, but, honestly, it’s likely that we will see an abundance of different solutions in use across our organisations before we even begin to formally recognise that we are, in fact, working in the metaverse. “To paraphrase Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, we cannot see it because we're in it. We can only see it once it's happened,” smiles Quentyn, a veteran of organisational change. Even so, it would be wise to pay close attention to developments over the coming months, even if it helps you to consider where you and your organisation might find itself in the future. Because, as a wise man once said:

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

Written by Sarah Vloothuis

Senior Manager External Communications

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