Picture a world where you never have to leave your house for work, where you can hold a conversation with coworkers on a beach, take notes while floating through space, or teleport from your Los Angeles office to your New York office. Too many commitments today making you feel stressed? Instead of doing it all yourself, why not delegate some of the work to your digital twin that is equipped with artificial intelligence? These are just a few examples of the kinds of work that “the ,” a term first used by author Neal Stephenson to describe a future world of virtual reality, promises in the not-too-distant future. Although difficult to pin down, the is commonly understood to be an interconnected set of 3D virtual environments in which individuals can use “avatars” to engage in social, professional, and creative activities. Think of it as the Internet of today, but in virtual reality.
While the is still in its infancy in many ways, it has become a lucrative business for tech and gaming giants like Meta (formerly Facebook), Microsoft, Epic Games, Roblox, and others. The integrates a wide range of technologies, such as AR/VR platforms, gaming, Machine Learning/AI, blockchain, 3D graphics, digital currencies, sensors, and (in some cases) VR/AR headsets.
In what way can one enter the ? Many existing workplace solutions can be accessed with just a computer, mouse, and keyboard; however, a VR-enabled headset is typically required for the full 3-D surround experience. A holographic projection of people and images into real space at events and meetings is another area of rapid development in computer-generated holography. This can be done through the use of virtual viewing windows that create holographic displays from computer images or through the use of specially designed holographic pods. Additionally, haptic (touch) gloves are being developed by companies like Meta that will allow users to interact with 3-D virtual objects and feel things like movement, texture, and pressure.
The is a place where people can socialise, raise virtual pets, create virtual clothing, purchase virtual real estate, participate in virtual events, create and sell digital artwork, and even make a profit. However, the emerging ‘s implications for the working world have been largely ignored until recently.
This is beginning to change. Companies are on the lookout for ways to provide remote and hybrid workers with more authentic, cohesive, and interactive work experiences as a result of the pandemic’s effects, especially restrictions on physical meetings and travel. New immersive forms of team collaboration; the rise of new digital, AI-enabled colleagues; the acceleration of learning and skill acquisition through virtualization and gamified technologies; and the gradual rise of a economy with completely new enterprises and work opportunities all seem set to reshape the world of work in the .
Collaboration and Teamwork in the Virtual World
The has the potential to revolutionise the virtual workplace by facilitating greater communication, mobility, and teamwork. NextMeet is an immersive reality platform based in India that provides interactive tools for work collaboration and education. Its goal is to prevent the disconnection and loneliness that can occur in a workforce that relies on remote and hybrid methods of employment. I spoke with Pushpak Kypuram, NextMeet’s Founder-Director, and he shared the following as the impetus for creating their virtual workplace solution: As a result of the pandemic, many companies have had to implement remote work policies, making employee engagement a top priority. A video call’s flat, 2-D environment isn’t conducive to keeping 20 people interested, and some people just don’t like being on camera. Moreover, you’re not recreating a realistic setting. That’s why many businesses are adopting -based platforms.
With NextMeet’s interactive platform, employees can use digital avatars to move freely between virtual offices and meeting rooms, interact with a virtual help desk, deliver a live presentation, chat with coworkers in a networking lounge, and explore a virtual conference centre or exhibition. Participants enter the virtual world through a computer or mobile device, select or create an avatar, and then use the keyboard to perform actions within the world. Kypuram uses the scenario of introducing a PDF document to new employees as an illustration: “If you’re onboarding 10 new colleagues, they will lose concentration after 10 minutes. Instead, they will be guided through a virtual reality gallery of sorts, where they can explore the company at 20 different stations. In other words, you make them want to take a virtual stroll rather than read a document.”
Companies in the are increasingly focusing on workplace solutions to address issues like video meeting burnout and the isolation that can come from working remotely. PixelMax, a startup based in the United Kingdom, works with businesses to develop virtual reality (VR) environments that improve teamwork, morale, and productivity. Their web-based workplaces are accessible without the use of headsets and feature amenities such as:
- Chance encounters: PixelMax’s immersive technology makes it simple to strike up a conversation with a coworker if you happen to run into them in the virtual office. PixelMax co-founder Shay O’Carroll recently stated in an interview that “informal and spontaneous conversations account for a huge amount of business communications— research suggests up to 90% in areas such as R&D,” and that a lot of this communication was lost during the pandemic.
- Healing environments: These are set aside places where people from all over the world can go to relax and try something new. “We have created well-being areas designed as forests or aquariums,” Shay O’Carroll said. They might be on the moon for all we know. In these spaces, you may access a variety of on-demand offerings, such as meditation and exercise videos.
- Transportation to your location: Clients can customise their experience by adding functionalities like the ability to order takeout or have goods delivered to their physical location from the virtual world.
- In-the-moment updates: You can get a feel for the layout of the office, see who is free to chat, drop in for a quick chat, etc., just as you would in a physical office.
PixelMax co-founder Andy Sands has said that the company’s ultimate goal is to facilitate communication between various online workplaces. Forty of the world’s most prominent manufacturers of home furnishings are currently sharing office space in Manchester, England, where a virtual workplace is currently being constructed. It’s all about getting people to talk to each other and interacting with one another. We envision a future where employees can use their avatars to switch between industries, such as manufacturing and interior design, or to do something as varied as playing Roblox or Fortnite.
Stress levels are often higher when working from home. More than a quarter of remote workers in the United Kingdom have trouble turning off their work mind after the workday ends, according to research conducted by Nuffield Health. The separation of work and personal life can be enhanced by using a virtual workplace. This allows for the experience of going to work and then leaving when the day is done. Staying connected with coworkers in the virtual workplace is made easier by the use of avatars to indicate when you are in meetings, on breaks, etc., relieving some of the stress that comes with working remotely from your computer or mobile device.
The virtual workplace will be driven in large part by improved teamwork and communication, but why stop there? Incorporating elements of surprise, spontaneity, and adventure into the traditional office setting is made possible by the . Why not have your virtual office be a tropical beach, an ocean cruise, or even another planet? Gather, a global VR platform that lets workers and businesses “build their own office,” was inspired by this idea. These ideal workspaces can range from “The Space-Station Office,” with its window overlooking Earth, to “The Pirate Office,” with its view of the open sea, its own Captain’s Cabin, and a Forecastle Lounge for informal meetings and drinks. The Rooftop Party and the Zen Gardens are virtual gathering places for the less daring among us.
Meet Your New Digital Workplace Colleague
Our colleagues won’t just be our real-world avatars. We’ll be joined by human-like, AI-powered bots. These AI agents will act as advisors and assistants, doing much of the heavy lifting in the and freeing up human workers for more productive tasks.
Conversational AI systems have made great strides in recent years, understanding text, voice, and natural language. Such algorithms can now sense and interpret context, show emotions, make human-like gestures, and make decisions. UneeQ is an international technology platform that creates “digital humans” for many fields and roles. Like a digital shopping assistant for Noel Leeming stores in New Zealand, or, an always-on mortgage adviser, and even, a digital double of the UBS Chief Economist can meet multiple clients at once to provide wealth management advice.
frontier: emotions. SoulMachines, a New Zealand-based tech start-up, combines AI (machine learning, computer vision) and autonomous animation (expression rendering, gaze direction, real-time gesturing) to create lifelike, emotionally-responsive digital humans. Its digital humans are skincare consultants, health advisers, real estate agents, and more.
Digital human technology offers workers and organisations many possibilities. Digital humans are scalable and can be deployed in multiple locations at once. They can do repetitive, boring, or dangerous work. Human workers will be able to design and create personalised digital colleagues. Digital humans will bring risks, such as increased automation and displacement of human work for lower-skilled workers who traditionally have fewer opportunities, or erosion of cultural and behavioural norms if humans become laxer in their interactions with digital humans, which could bleed into their real-world interactions.
The could revolutionise training and skills acquisition, reducing development time. AI-powered digital coaches could train and advise employees. In the , every object could be interactive, providing 3-D displays and step-by-step “how-to” guides. Virtual reality role-play exercises and simulations will become common, allowing worker avatars to learn in “gameplay” scenarios like “the high-pressure sales presentation,” “the difficult client,” or “a challenging employee conversation.”
Virtual-reality technologies are used in many sectors to improve skills. Surgical technology company Medivis is using Microsoft’s HoloLens to train students through interaction with 3-D anatomy models; Embodied Labs used 360-degree video to help medical professionals experience the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease and age-related impairments, to assist in making diagnoses; Bosch and Ford Motor Company have created a VR-training tool, using the Oculus Quest, to train technicians on complex machinery; Learning and the UK Skills Partnership created nine augmented reality training models for front-line nurses in the UK. The models use 3-D animation and augmented reality to test nurses’ skills in specific scenarios and reinforce the best nursing practices.
With roots in online gaming, the can tap gamified learning technologies for faster skill acquisition. “The game becomes the learning activity,” said PixelMax’s O’Carroll. In the medical field, gamified technologies train technicians; you’ll break out into groups and then use a virtual PCR testing machine, with your training results recorded. PixelMax is working on games that combine physical training with immersive gamification for UK first responders — police, firefighters, medical crew, etc. These games allow first responders to repeat training, try different strategies, see different outcomes and look at different teamwork methods.
Virtual-world training provides greater scope for visually demonstrating concepts (e.g., an engineering design) and work practices. A greater opportunity for learning by doing, and overall greater engagement through immersion in games and “quest-based” problem-solving. Virtual agents, AI-powered bots, can help learners when they’re struggling, provide hints, and set challenge difficulties. -based learning is visual and interactive, which autistic people prefer over verbal cues. Virtual reality can be used to counteract social anxiety at work by creating realistic but safe spaces to practice public speaking and meeting interactions.
The internet brought new enterprises, jobs, and roles, not just new ways of working. As the 3-D economy grows in the next decade, so will the . IMVU, an avatar-based social network with more than 7 million users per month, has thousands of creators who make and sell virtual products for the , generating around $7 million per month in revenues. “Meshers” design 3-D templates that others can customise as virtual products. A successful mesh can be sold thousands of times, earning its developer significant income. Decentraland creates virtual realtors, allowing users to buy, sell, and build businesses on virtual land, earning “Mana”
In the future, we may see -native companies, which are conceived and developed in the virtual, 3-D world. Just as the internet has brought new roles that were rare 20 years ago, such as digital marketing managers, social media advisors, and cyber-security professionals, the will likely bring a wave of new roles that we can only imagine today: avatar conversation designers, “holoporting” travel agents to ease mobility across virtual worlds, fiduciary and asset managers, etc.
Challenges and imperatives
Despite its promise, the is still young. The computing infrastructure and power requirements for a working are formidable, and today’s is not unified like the original internet. The also brings regulatory and HR compliance challenges, such as potential addiction risks or unacceptable behaviours like bullying or harassment in the virtual world. Business leaders, policymakers, and HR leaders can start with these imperatives for collaboration.
Think about how your skills can be used in other contexts.
Concerns about the transferability of skills and credentials will be raised by workers. “Will experience or credentials gained in one virtual world or enterprise be relevant in another, or in my real life?” By agreeing on properly certified standards for skills acquired in the , with appropriate accreditation of training providers, employers, educators, and training institutions can make more skills more marketable. This will aid in preventing the watering down of standards and will give confidence to employers and employees in the .
Don’t just pretend to be a hybrid; do it. Many businesses, as the panicked shift to remote work during the pandemic revealed, had been slow to adopt truly digital ways of working, with outmoded policies, inadequate infrastructure, and a sharp dividing line between consumer and business technologies. The consumer technologies native to the —avatars, gaming consoles, VR headsets, hand-track controllers with haptics and motion control that map the user’s real-world position into the virtual world—can help businesses avoid these pitfalls and create integrated working models from the outset that allow employees to move seamlessly between physical, online, and 3-D virtual working styles. The truth is, though, that this is just the beginning. Companies are working on virtual locomotion technologies like leg attachments and treadmills to make walking simulations more lifelike. Nextmind utilizes electrocardiogram (ECG) electrodes to decode signals, allowing users to mentally manipulate external objects.
Confide in the next generation: When it comes to training, businesses will have to rethink their approaches in light of the , which places a premium on highly stimulating, immersive, challenge-based content. Companies should focus on the younger generation, many members of which have grown up in a gaming, 3-D, socially-connected environment, when creating workplace s. Spreading -based work among the general workforce could benefit greatly from younger workers training and mentoring their older counterparts.
Maintain access: Today’s is the result of the collaborative efforts of millions of programmers, gamers, and artists working in an open, decentralised environment. Enterprises, in order to fully tap into the power of this decentralized movement for their employees, must not only protect against efforts to monopolize or dominate the but also actively seek to build and open it up even further, for example, by pursuing open-source standards and software where possible and by pushing for “interoperability” — seamless connections — between different s. If this does not happen, large technology companies could quickly come to dominate the , as we have seen in the social media sphere, limiting options and stifling innovation.
Workplaces in the 2020s will look very different from what we envisioned even a few years ago, thanks to the rise of remote and hybrid work. This shift has altered traditional notions of how, when, and where people are expected to put in their time at the office. However, that is not the final chapter in the tale of workplace transformation. The emerging presents a chance for businesses to redress the equilibrium between in-person and remote labor by recapturing the spontaneity, interactivity, and fun of team-based working and learning without sacrificing the benefits of working remotely in terms of productivity or comfort. However, three things are evident. The rate of adoption is the first factor to consider. Large corporations will need to move quickly to keep up with technologies and virtual services, as most of the necessary technology and infrastructure have already been established. Second, if the is used for monitoring and controlling workers, rather than stimulating their creativity and enthusiasm, it will fail. And third, it’s important that jobs in the provide the same kinds of immersive digital experiences that consumers and gamers have come to expect.
With these guidelines in mind, CEOs and other business leaders can begin to envision and design their own workplaces for the future.
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