If you’d told me twelve months ago that I’d spend a drizzly January morning in the metaverse, I would have laughed my socks off. But here I am. Or at least, here my avatar is, delivering a presentation to my Digital Skills Partnership colleagues, in the metaverse.
It started with a tweet. Wo King, from Cornish AI company Hi9, tweeted about meetings using an Oculus headset and Meta’s Workplace platform. And after a brief discussion he kindly offered – or challenged? – us the chance to borrow the kit for our next meeting.
You’d be forgiven for losing the thread here – as the idea of the metaverse wasn’t a reality until a few months ago. Essentially, it’s the concept of a highly immersive virtual world where people gather to socialise, play games, and work. The platform for the latter, Workplace, has been developed by Mark Zuckerberg, who recently changed the name of his company from Facebook to Meta, so he is clearly betting on this being the future of online interaction.
A novice to the virtual world, I had to start from scratch: design my avatar, draw my meeting room with the controller, and place the virtual whiteboard somewhere safe (I didn’t quite achieve this, and spent quite a lot of the meeting bumping into a chair).
Then it was a matter of sending a link out and starting the meeting.
Avatars on the Workplace platform must be used to sitting at desks for the most part, because the designers haven’t bothered adding legs. It was a little surreal seeing Wo’s torso hovering in the room, and the meeting guests didn’t get to see the snazzy trousers I’d picked out for myself.
The biggest drawback was that for the other meeting guests, without headsets, the meeting experience was no different to usual. They were still looking at a grid of faces on a screen – it just happened that one of them was a cartoon.
Looking around me at the virtual high rise towers behind the virtual glass windows, I also couldn’t shake a vague uneasy feeling that I was somehow stepping into a world that Mark Zuckerberg had created for the financial gain of his shareholders.
There were definitely positives. The clearest difference for me was that I was up on my feet, moving around and gesticulating at a board on the wall, exactly as I would be if we were meeting in person. It felt so much more dynamic and natural, and I felt less drained after the session. It was also really refreshing not staring at my own face.
I reflected on this with the DSP’s chair Caitlin Gould after the meeting. She highlighted how that element of the experience has huge potential for making people feel more comfortable in meetings. I don’t like looking at my face on Teams because I look knackered, my hair needs washing, and my nose is somehow magnified. But I don’t have any form of dysmorphia. When I look at myself, I don’t feel like I look wrong, or that the way I look doesn’t reflect who I am. For some people, Teams meetings must be excruciating. Building an avatar and meeting in the Metaverse allows people to be whoever they want – which feels like it could be transformative.
For Cornwall, and other rural areas, traveling for meetings is increasingly untenable. Burning fuel or spending hours on the train for an hour’s meeting just doesn’t seem efficient or even ethical. But so much interaction and joy is lost when you don’t meet in person. The Metaverse, however, feels like a place of genuine interaction and somewhere you could play. It was FUN.
Later this year, the new generation of headsets will come out. They will be much lighter and easier to wear for extended periods. Crucially, they’ll also be much more affordable. My hope is that this will pave the way for alternatives that aren’t inextricably tied to the Zucker-verse.
If everyone on a team had a headset, and the marketplace opened up to allow for other providers to enter the space, then I don’t see why you wouldn’t meet in the metaverse. For now, I’ll be in the real world, but my legless, pink-clad avatar will be waiting patiently in the wings.