Facebook’s metaverse, or Meta’s metaverse, isn’t just being touted as a better version of the internet—it’s being hailed as a better version of reality. We will, apparently, “socialize, learn, collaborate, and play” in an interconnected 3D virtual space that Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg describes as an “embodied internet.” This space, Zuckerberg claims, won’t be created by one single company, but rather by a network of creators and developers. First problem: 91 percent of software developers are male. Second problem: You’ve been living in a version of metaverse for years—and, having taken over video games, it’s now coming for the world of work.
Companies big and small have been testing avatar-based platforms for remote and hybrid working since Covid-19 lockdowns began. Using Oculus VR headsets, Facebook’s Horizon Workrooms envisages a near future in which people meet virtually in a soulless, floaty virtual world. Microsoft’s Mesh for Hololens 2 hopes to facilitate similarly corporate mixed reality meetups, and Canadian ecommerce platform Shopify just launched its browser-based game Shopify Party, in which employees appear as their chosen avatars to spice up one-to-ones, icebreakers, standups, and other team events.
Many have already pointed out how boring the Zuckerverse looks. Most of us have already been living in that future, be it through the organized fun of workplace social apps or through video games like Fortnite. And while the video game metaverse offers plenty of room for imagination and connection, the corporate metaverse risks repeating and potentially magnifying the flaws of the real world.
Whether a company adopts certain aspects of the corporate metaverse, or uses it for every aspect of remote work, there’s nothing to stop unconscious biases from seeping in. “It’s easy for companies to just invest in the technology, but businesses need to understand the psychology driving people to use it,” says Roshni Raveendhran, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “Can employees thrive within that sort of universe? What would allow them to thrive?”
Unfettered by the risks of mass metaverse adoption—or, less excitingly, lots of companies using remote collaboration tools—a gaggle of startups are piling in to sell the future. The most well-known virtual workspace tool is Gather.town, which amassed 4 million users in just over a year as the pandemic took hold. Its retro, pixelated design is intentionally basic, while Roblox’s Loom.ai and Teeoh use sophisticated graphics for more realistic virtual worlds. The preeminent simulation platform Second Life was adopted by Cisco and IBM over a decade ago. Despite virtual and augmented reality companies consistently promising the world and failing to deliver, a 2020 report from consultancy PwC predicts that nearly 23.5 million jobs worldwide will use AR and VR by 2030 for tasks such as employee training, meetings, and customer service.
For businesses, the most interesting benefit of avatars, a video game staple pioneered by NASA employees in the 1970s, is the sense of digital proximity, without needing to focus on facial expressions—the cause of the much-maligned Zoom fatigue. And while self-expression is the allure of video game avatars, it’s not yet clear what employees gain from being asked to exist in the corporate metaverse.