The Metaverse and HR

What is the Metaverse and why should HR bother?

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Happy Monday folks,

Due to unscheduled last-minute rescheduling of last week’s intended article, last week’s edition of FullStack HR is coming this week instead.

So much for publishing consistently. But it is what it is, life happens and so forth. The good news is that you’ll get two articles this week and that the upcoming week’s articles are already written, waiting to be published!

But enough of this, let’s dive in.

This post is one of these posts where I have to underscore, today we're going to talk about the future. As with the DAO post, this is probably not something you'll have to consider in 2021. Or 2022. It's further away. See it more like a vision of how things might be later down the line and food for thought. It is not something you need to run to your CEO with and scream that if you don't transfer all of your staff to the Metaverse tomorrow, then you'll probably go belly up. Don't do that.

What is even the Metaverse?

You know the feeling when you've talked about buying a pair of Nikes over dinner, and then Facebook serves you the perfect Nike ad an hour later? We've all been there. (And we also forget that we browsed Nikes the day before, making us retargeting targets.)

I had that feeling around Metaverse this summer. All of a sudden, all I read and listened to included something about the Metaverse. Meta what? I got you. Let's start at the beginning.

The almighty Wikipedia describes Metaverse as:

"The word "Metaverse" is made up of the prefix "meta" (meaning beyond) and the stem "verse" (a back-formation from "universe"); the term is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe."

Forbes describes it in one article as:

"Welcome to the Metaverse, alternate digital realities where people work, play, and socialize. You can call it the Metaverse, the mirror world, the AR Cloud, the Magicverse, the Spatial internet, or Live Maps, but one thing is for certain, it's coming, and it's a big deal."

The term itself was coined in the novel Snow Crash in 1992. But there's no unified view of the Metaverse. Still, to summarize it, what most people mean when they talk about the Metaverse is a virtual space where you, together with others, can experience stuff, usually through some VR-glasses such as Facebook Oculus. Think Read Player One, and you are close to what most people describe as the Metaverse.

What's happening in this space?

As I said, during the summer, the Metaverse was on everybody's lips, only outshined by NFTs. The concept is far from new. There have been talks about VR and the Metaverse for some time, but both Facebook and Microsoft (publicly) intensified their efforts around building metaverses during the summer. Two of the world's leading companies invest heavily in the space, putting money and time into the area. And as with everything else, when someone decides to invest in a space, that means that we'll likely see some output on the other end.

Microsoft said it is "uniquely positioned" with a stack of artificial intelligence and mixed reality tools to help companies start developing "metaverse apps today." The underlying premises of what Microsoft thinks and how they invasion the future are partly outlined in this video. It's obvious they see a blend of virtual reality and "normal" reality.

On the other hand, Facebook is also leaning in hard to become a "metaverse company." VR and the Metaverse aren't a new bet for Facebook. In 2014 Facebook acquired Oculus, a builder of VR headsets. Earlier this year, they also revealed that they are working on a wristband, creating an even more immersive experience.

A month or so ago, they, together with Ray-Ban, released Ray-Ban Stories. In all honesty, it is a bit underwhelming as a product, but as a first-generation, it marks where Facebook is heading. Besides hardware, they publicly announced their plans around the Metaverse and their efforts in the space during the summer.

And just the other day, Facebook announced that they are investing 50 million dollars in global research and program partners to ensure these products, aimed at developing the Metaverse, are developed responsibly. 

Saying that:

We'll work with experts in government, industry, and academia to think through issues and opportunities in the metaverse. For instance, its success depends on building robust interoperability across services, so different companies' experiences can work together. We also need to involve the human rights and civil rights communities from the start to ensure these technologies are built in a way that's inclusive and empowering.

If you want to know more about Facebook’s thoughts around the Metaverse, I strongly suggest this interview with Mark Zuckerberg, and we’ll talk more about that interview later.

Besides the tech giants leaning in hard in this area, other initiatives such as Decentraland are also seeing a surge in users. And we also have the whole gaming sector that already blends into the metaverse definition, with Fortnite and Minecraft being the most prominent examples of virtual worlds.

To conclude, huge investments are made in this area, propelling the development of Metaverse forward.

Why should I, as an HR person, bother?

I think most of us agree that we are heading towards a distributed way of working, if not everywhere now, then everywhere soon. And even if the tech we use to connect with one other has made significant leaps forward during the pandemic, it is still more or less the same—two-dimensional video (at best) with decent audio. 

Mark Zuckerberg concludes in the interview I linked above, that's not how we are used to interacting with one other, and it's not our natural habit, so to say. We are used to having to turn our heads to the one talking, audio coming from different angles in the room, seeing people gesturing, all of it creating an immersive experience. 

This is where VR can fill a gap and create that more immersive experience where someone "sitting" to your left also reflects in where their sound is coming from and so forth. And though this might sound like sci-fi far out in the future, it's not. Facebooks Horizon Workrooms are in open beta. Not perfect yet, but a glimpse into what the future might offer.

The avatar is still more Nintendo Wii-like than real people, but rest assure that this will change in the future. (And also, be sure we will have tons of blog posts and conference topics covering "How to build a culture in a VR world" know where you heard it first.)

And no, you don't need to rush online and buy Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2 headsets for all your people. Still, if you are genuinely thinking of having a remote workforce, then it could be worth starting to explore the idea and, over time, buying a couple of them to start and test things out. 

I'm not anticipating it to be a smooth ride, but as with all new technology, you'll have an edge if you start early. You'll get insights and knowledge that can help you propel into what's to come. 

The most crucial part to take with you from this text is that the Metaverse will happen. One way or another, we will use virtual reality to connect in the future. And this follows the trend where tech is centered around us, not the other way around as it has been for quite some time. Reading a small screen is not natural - looking at your colleague through smart glasses might not be natural either, but it's more realistic.

Will you have to wear a wonky VR headset that will make you look crazy? I guess not. I think the future will be more in line with the Ray-Ban Stories version. A couple of nice-looking glasses that you'll put on to be transported to your workplace or your next meeting. Paired with sensors on your hands/wrists, showing you as a (good looking) avatar in a room with your colleagues. 

And will every meeting, all the time be like this? No, that would be pretty dystopian and not far from the world painted by Ready Player One, but I think this will be one option that's available to us. And beyond creating a more pleasant and richer work-from-anywhere experience, it also has one huge benefit; if it reduces flights across the globe. It reduces the carbon footprint without potentially compromising on the experience of meeting each other.

Unfortunately, the Metaverse will not solve the issues with bad meetings; that's still on us to fix, but hopefully, it can help us create a more natural feeling than staring into a small or large screen for several hours per day.

That's it for today. Let me know your thoughts around the Metaverse and where we are heading.