Is the workplace the final conquest for the metaverse?

5 min
A man in a blue t-shirt is wearing a VR headset while sitting at a desk, a laptop opened in front of him. He makes a framing gesture with his hands.

In our latest exploration into the metaverse, we look at the ways businesses might approach this new immersive world – as well as some of the very real challenges that doing so might present.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, when it comes to new tech, the standard workplace is often slow to catch up.

Today, you can still find companies that are only just embarking on their own process of digital transformation and plenty is still being written on the subject as nervous CEOs continue to venture the choppy waters of technology and change.

Admittedly, this isn’t exactly the easiest moment to do that. A recent KPMG Global Tech Report makes for an eye-opening read on this point. On the one hand, it says businesses report that investing in technology helps them to be more productive and efficient. On the other, they are constrained by budgets and skills shortages.

If that’s just for technology in general, imagine what the feeling is like for emerging solutions like the metaverse.

Truth be told, some sectors are already fully embracing it. Think of fashion companies, for example, with their flourishing NFT collaborations and digital fashion weeks or the increasingly metaverse-first event management organisations, real estate, digital assets businesses and more.

But the workplace is, sadly, nowhere near them. The potential this wonderful technology has in the labour market is huge and yet it’s often the case that companies don’t fully know it nor see how it could apply to them.

We asked our Canon experts for their views on the metaverse debate and the many ways it can pave the way for the workplace of the future:

How VR is transforming workplace training

A key issue standing in the way of metaverse adoption in the workplace is that unlike recreational or even educational spaces, within a business there are limited-to-zero opportunities for experimentation.

Business objectives come first and any metaverse technologies will need to show that they will make money or create highly valuable new efficiencies – either way, a demonstrably significant and assured return on investment.

Marc Bory, Canon EMEA’s Vice President, DP&S Marketing and Innovation, says: “For me, metaverse implementation has to be related to a tool that’s going to support an objective. Augmented Reality, for example, will increase productivity in areas like operational fixes or maintenance [in products].

“On the other hand, Virtual Reality has different potential. The fact that it disconnects you from reality makes it, for the time being, not appropriate for most general day-to-day operations. However, for training and simulation purposes, it will bring a lot of value.”

VR training and the use of digital twins to simulate operational scenarios are, by metaverse standards, relatively old tech. NASA has been simulating on-board conditions since the 1960s and companies like Boeing began to incorporate VR into their training programmes several years ago.

At the same time, the fact that investment has only just started picking up is quite telling of both the investment required and the culture of caution that still exists around it.

That clearly shows that while the potential and interest in these solutions are there, these are still technologies for very specific scenarios. So if for most of us, daily office life is unlikely to need simulated experiences or digital twins, what does the metaverse have to offer?

A digital illustration of five people working in the metaverse. They are floating upper bodies, with no legs, resting on light wood chairs around a light wood table. Around them, other meetings in other rooms are depicted, as though they can be seen through glass windows around the office.

Is an entirely immersive workplace practical for most businesses? Probably not, but we are likely to see a combination of mixed, augmented and virtual realities solve different problems within future organisations.

The ultimate work meeting experience

Office life has changed a lot in the past few years. The pandemic has forced us all to fully rethink workplace communication and collaboration, making the hybrid working model widely accepted as the balanced solution.

The emphasis is on the word ‘balance’. Marc himself admits that there needs to be a halfway between remote and office-based operations. “Personally, I missed physical interaction with people,” So, a combination of video conferences and physical meetings is good.”

However, on this front, the metaverse feels slightly challenged at present – with most virtual meeting solutions falling some way short of even a video call due to the social limitations of avatars and the absence of the subtleties of human expression.

Solving these problems has become something of a holy grail for metaverse developers. For Canon USA, that has led to what Advisor of New Business and Development, Kohei Maeda, refers to as “the serendipity of the water cooler” – or a meeting solution called Activate My Line Of Sight (AMLOS).

“Imagine there’s an AMLOS camera in the office and a conversation starts by chance, but they need to involve a person who is working remotely that day,” he says. “All they need to do is face the camera and make one gesture. Then the AMLOS system recognises the person in the office space and then, based on this gesture, creates a Microsoft Teams meeting spontaneously.”

Bringing sophistication to the workplace avatar

What AMLOS proposes to do very much reflects the brainstorming needs of geographically dispersed teams and the desire to create closeness and camaraderie. But it also comes with challenges.

As we mentioned earlier, highly accurate human facial expressions and gestures aren’t among the strengths of the current metaverse virtual workspace offerings. And there is also a wealth of research to suggest that long periods of time spent in VR environments can trigger feelings of disassociation. Knowing this, organisations looking to migrate their teams into any shape of metaverse might do well to give equal priority to the human experience as well as the exciting benefits of the tech.

One frequent recommendation is to have experts in physical and mental wellbeing work within project implementation teams, guiding the process and flagging concerns. In other words, we might soon have a workplace where different aspects are conducted at different levels of immersive, engagement, look and feel.

This is something that Canon USA’s Kokomo video calling software is already working to provide – allowing you and the person you are calling to present yourself in accurate human form, right down to the facial expressions and clothes you wear.

It’s a highly sophisticated level of personal avatar that we think will make the difference in the future, with research showing that building biophilic design can be enormously beneficial to mental health.

Jumping on the metaverse bandwagon

Quentyn Taylor, Canon EMEA’s Senior Director of Information Security and Global Response, reflects on the potential risks that metaverse implementation could bring.

“I think humans are very good at accepting being fooled,” he says about the rise of generative AI and the likelihood of seeing AI avatars participate in the virtual workplace. “If you know it’s a bot, it will simply be a convenient lie to tell yourself and therefore you’re in control."

Shifting the perspective from personal to organisational risks, he also feels largely unperturbed by the prospect of any new and complex cybersecurity dangers that may arise through a business transition to the metaverse. “You focus on the data and look from the perspective of the benefits it brings versus the negatives,” he reassures.

“Take cloud, for example. From a security team perspective, it increases exposure to risk, but it also allows you to operate at scale. Overall, these risks tend to balance out."

He adds that we will likely see an abundance of different solutions in use across our organisations before we even begin to formally recognise that we are, in fact, working in the metaverse. “To paraphrase Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, we cannot see it because we're in it,” he smiles.

“We can only see it once it's happened.”

Find out more about AMLOS and Kokomo here. If you want to dig deeper into the future of the workspace, check out our latest piece on it here.