It is early days as yet, but the metaverse could open up new ways to learn and collaborate at work.

Bigtech companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Meta, the owner of Facebook, are making substantial investments in the next generation of collaboration tools for the enterprise, taking aim at the metaverse. The idea is to offer richer and more captivating work experiences than we get from today’s two-dimensional Internet.

What is the metaverse?

The metaverse is the next step in the evolution of the Internet—an immersive, three-dimensional virtual world built on technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and the blockchain. It is a space where people can meet to work, socialise and play games, but it’s unclear for now whether we’ll see one metaverse emerge or multiple platforms run by different companies.

VR enables you to immerse yourself in a 3D world with a sensation of “presence” and share that environment with others. AR overlays visual elements, sound, and other sensory input onto real-world settings viewed through a digital camera. A central idea in the metaverse is that it will be a virtual world where people can create, buy, and sell goods and real-estate.

What will the metaverse look like at work?

Some of the applications that Meta envisions are:

  • Better remote meetings: Each participant in a meeting will be represented by a highly realistic 3D avatar that mirrors their body language as they speak. Remote meetings will feel as though you and your colleagues are sharing the same room, with all the benefits of communication, trust, and authentic connection. You will also be able to share and manipulate virtual objects in three dimensions.
  • Take the same setup with you everywhere: VR and AR technologies will allow you to take your desktop setup with you, wherever you go. In VR, you could see multiple virtual screens, arranged just how you like them. Or with AR you can summon a virtual keyboard on any desk. This will be a boon for people shuttling between multiple locations for work.
  • Training: VR and AR could allow for more immersive training simulations that allow people to get hands-on experience with a task or process. For example, customer service reps could learn via role playing scenarios with AI avatars in a VR world.
  • Spaces for different purposes:  People will be able to use different VR and AR spaces for different types of work. For example, you could put yourself in a tranquil mountain setting while you work on a creative project. Or you could use AR to add dynamic digital elements to the conference room you’ve been assigned.

We can expect these applications to emerge in fairly specialised settings at first—think of an architect walking a client through a 3D blueprint of a building or a sound engineer working with a band to mix an album in a virtual recreation of a sound studio. The technology has a long way to go before the metaverse becomes mainstream and it will be a while before most of us are working in the metaverse.

What are the challenges for the metaverse?

The cornerstone technologies are still immature, so the metaverse doesn’t yet offer that sense of presence. VR/AR googles are shrinking, but they are still relatively clunky and uncomfortable to wear throughout the day. They are also still too expensive for most workplaces to give to everyone. Many people struggle with nausea and headaches in VR. There is also still much work to be done on haptics—technology that gives tactile feedback, such as gloves that help you feel like you’re manipulating an object in virtual space.

When will it become mainstream?  

As Polygon writer Ben Kuchera puts it, the VR revolution has been five minutes away for eight years. For now, it’s a niche technology. A report by Counterpoint Research forecasts that VR/AR headset shipments will grow about 10 times to 105 million units in 2025 from 11 million units in 2021—a mere fraction of the smartphone market. Some observers believe it could take up to 2030 for VR and AR to go mainstream.