How the Metaverse Can Unlock New Levels of Collaboration
As a concept, the metaverse is nothing new. The term can be traced back to Neal Stephenson and his dystopian 1992 novel "Snow Crash." It's since been embraced by the computer gaming community, but with very little development as a work environment.
When Facebook rebranded to Meta, betting its future on the metaverse, the conversation changed to how the metaverse could enhance the key elements of digital work, notably better work communications and collaboration. In fact, activity around the workplace context of the metaverse is accelerating, as technologies develop and workers get used to the idea.
The Metaverse in the Digital Workplace
Brian Jackson, research director in the CIO practice of Canadian company Info-Tech Research Group, said that the workplaces most likely to see early adoption of the metaverse are places where workers use their hands to complete physical tasks. These sorts of jobs still make up about 80% of the workforce, and we’re already seeing that segment adopt metaverse technologies by combining mixed reality devices, real-time communications and immersive digital spaces and objects.
The typical scenario for this sort of use case, he said, is when workers need to use their hands to complete a task but still require digital information or collaboration features while doing that task. He cites the example of a mechanic, who can’t fix a car engine while using a laptop. In a case like that he said it's better for that worker to wear an augmented reality headset — such as the HoloLens — to access the schematics and instructions needed to complete a repair.
In other cases, the worker can use the headset camera and microphone to connect with another expert and receive advice on conducting the repair in real-time, with the expert effectively seeing through the worker's eyes. BMW serves as one example of a “metaverse-enabled workplace” that’s already in effect. The company has deployed a remote connectivity platform to all its US workshops and smart glasses enable remote assistance for its shop workers. The automaker is already seeing reduced repair and maintenance times as a result.
Coca-Cola, which uses augmented reality for its warehousing for a visual picking solution, is also enabling helping workers shuttle products around to the right palettes and out to load on trucks. One of the effects this will have is that more jobs in these industries will become remote.
“While some workers will always be needed to do physical tasks, knowledge experts that offer specialized advice will be brought in remotely to contribute their guidance,” Jackson said. “Instead of spending a lot of time flying around to different locations, these experts will work from home or a shared office setting and connect with different clients around the world through their computers.”
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Metaverse Use Cases
Jeremy Sherwood, chief product officer at San Jose-based of Lucidum, said the most common use-case for the metaverse in a digital workplace is the opportunity it offers for improved collaboration and employee development, where other methods — such as Zoom, Slack or email — are not as effective as the ability to see, touch and interact through a virtual space.
This is particularly useful for hands-on training, he said, since "traditional" methods limit the immersive experience of space by requiring the use of screens. It places constraints on what a person can learn. The metaverse solves for that. For instance, Sherwood said, a person can now learn how to rebuild a transmission or perform a medical procedure interactively in a safe environment without geographic or physical boundaries.
Overall, this provides new potential for areas that have until now been limited in their ability to receive training because of their access to educational and economical resources. “YouTube has seen a lot of success because of the rise in ‘How-to’ videos as an easy way to learn a topic,” he said. "But the metaverse will accelerate the possibilities for learning exponentially via YouTube and other environments where seeing, feeling and hearing through an immersive experience can further speed up and improve learning.”
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What About the Content?
There is still at least one major obstacle to overcome in the adoption of the metaverse in the digital workplace: content. The metaverse, like other connected emerging connected technologies, is in danger of falling victim to something Alan Porter, chief content architect at Westlake, Ohio-based Hyland, calls “The Content Fallacy.”
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This is the underlying assumption that the amount of content to feed these new delivery platforms at scale already exists. And not just that it exists, but also that it is in the right format, has the correct metadata and is managed in the right systems to be able to populate something like a metaverse experience.
“Creating, managing, storing and delivering content for an immersive interactive experience is very different than creating content the way we do now for static, passive platforms such as web pages and social media (never mind print),” he said. “For the future, we need to be able to combine multiple different types of content assets, images, video, audio, text, in 2-D and 3-D renderings, with time-based input that connects to other systems that store data about user interactions, behavior, buying patterns."
To do this, businesses need to be creating modular object-based content models that are stored and managed in a cloud-native environment independent of the final delivery platform, so they can be referenced, manipulated, configured and delivered as a dynamic service.
“Very few companies look at their content in this way at the moment. With various proof-of-concept experiments, the content to drive the experience is often created or modified specifically to meet the needs of the Point of Concept (PoC),” Porter said. “But the question remains, are you engineering your content at every point of the digital supply chain so that it can be used at scale and in new ways?
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More than Collaboration
It's important to keep in mind that just as the digital workplace is more than a means for collaboration, the metaverse is more than a glorified communications platform. According to Zack Letter, CEO of Wonder Works Studios, viewing the metaverse as a 3-D Zoom call is fine, but it won't drive innovation or success. To thrive in the metaverse workspace, companies and employees will need to grasp the unique opportunities it will bring.
“Some people have a great deal of trouble envisioning how that extra dimension adds value. This is where the digital natives, and especially our kind of people, the game designers and 3-D experience architects, have the upper hand,” he said.
That sense of immersion that is the capstone to a great game can be the capstone to a great meeting as a shared experience. Letter said if companies try to replicate a bar graph in 3-D, they're wasting everyone's time. Companies interested in the metaverse experience should instead use it to collaborate at an entirely different level.