The pandemic has forced many organizations to get creative when collaborating with employees and clients, including venturing into the virtual world known as the metaverse.
More tech-savvy companies are turning to the rapidly expanding digital universe powered by tool such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). The metaverse connects teams in a virtual meeting room meant to mimic the feeling of being in a physical meeting space.
Staff at education technology company XpertVR have been meeting regularly in the metaverse since the beginning of the pandemic using a platform called Rec Room.
“Every Monday morning, we put on our VR headsets and we have what’s called a clubhouse inside of Rec Room,” says company co-founder and chief executive officer Evan Sitler-Bates.
In this virtual space, the team has access to boardrooms and whiteboards, much like any meeting in real life, but with a few digital extras.
“We also have a poker table, a little coffee bar, a stage for charades. We even just put in a hot tub, just for fun,” he says.
The team also plays a weekly game of virtual paintball on the platform.
The concept of the metaverse can be traced back to the 1990s in science fiction, but interest has grown in recent months since Facebook announced last fall that it would be changing its name to Meta Platforms Inc. The high-profile announcement generated a lot of questions about what exactly is the metaverse.
Allyson Cikor, a VR and AR instructor at Lethbridge College in Alberta says metaverse is an umbrella term that includes various technologies that immerse the user in a digital 3D space. It can be used for everything from education to travel to work life.
“The metaverse adds that layer of presence, of being in the space,” Ms. Cikor says. “Having a physical or virtual representation of your physical self, there.”
The functions available in metaverse meetings will look different depending on the platform, ranging from basic whiteboards to more advanced 3D models or leisure activities like gaming.
As more organizations look to offer an extended reality service for staff, Mr. Sitler-Bates recommends focusing on the company’s needs and its culture. For instance, using a platform with games works well for XpertVR but may not be appropriate for another company.
Toronto-based MetaVRse, a web platform that enables the creation and sharing of interactive 3D experiences, uses platforms such as AltspaceVR and Engage VR to host meetings. Co-founder
Alan Smithson says the metaverse is not only a natural fit for his company but has helped to increase engagement and connectivity.
“I have several colleagues that I met with in virtual worlds during COVID,” Mr. Smithson says. “And then when we met in person, it felt like we were long-time best friends… Because it’s a real person behind [the avatar], we had built real relationships, virtually.”
But hosting metaverse meetings isn’t cheap. The hardware needed to run these meetings can be too costly for some companies. For instance, a decent quality headset can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, Ms. Cikor says. That doesn’t include the computers, platforms and fast WiFi that are needed to run the technology.
Companies also need to educate employees about how to use the new technology.
“Like everybody else, we had some troubles at the beginning,” Mr. Smithson says, such as certain features not working or a bumpy sign-in process. “It’s like the beginning of the internet — sometimes things worked, sometimes it didn’t.”
He suggests managers schedule a couple of hours to demonstrate to staff how to use the technology.
And while Mr. Smithson firmly believes the pros of the metaverse outweigh the cons, he cautions that there are gaps to fill as with any new technology. In particular, the need for some sort of ethics guideline on appropriate conduct in the metaverse to ensure that everyone can experience it safely.
Lethbridge College’s Ms. Cikor also believes that more training needs to be done in the real workplace to prepare people for metaverse interactions.
“We’re all very focused on the technology,” she says. “I think we’re falling behind a little bit in how do we keep these spaces safe?”
Her hope is that these discussions can continue as the metaverse moves more into the mainstream.
“The metaverse is going to be a new world,” she says. “It’s not relegated to the developers or to the gamers — all of us are going to be a part of it.”