The metaverse: A glorified computer game or the workplace of the future?

  • James Webster goes into cyberspace to investigate the future of the metaverse

I have been sent to many different places to report for ITV News before but never into a virtual world. Until now.

Over the last couple of years we have all had to get used to spending more of our lives in front of screens. Mainly it was for work.

In those early Covid lockdowns it was for socialising too- such as for quiz nights on a video call.

Socialising in the real world may have now returned, but working from home is still a major part of many people's weekly routine and it is a trend which many experts predict will continue.

Facebook employees take a photo with the company's new name and logo outside its headquarters in California. Credit: AP

When Facebook announced it was rebranding as Meta, the new name made sure most people had heard of the Metaverse.

The vision is to create a virtual world which can be explored through your laptop, phone or wearing a headset, with towns and cities to explore. Interacting with companies might mean visiting virtual shops and offices. There would also be places to socialise with friends. Microsoft and Google are also among the major companies investing in the idea.

Some such technology is already in use.

Atacc trains medical professionals to prepare for various emergency scenarios, including terrorist attacks as explained by intensive care consultant Dr Mark Forrest:

"By using the immersive world and metaverse we can create those things with the sort of scale that you imagine so as you approaching, you enter it, you grasp the real scale of things and then you can start to interact with it, move around it."

Previously courses would have involved bringing in expensive props and people to pretend to be casualties. The online courses have many benefits, according to emergency medical consultant Eimhear Quinn:

"It's amazing to be able to put people in that and in an emotionally safe environment where they can feel what it would be like to do that in real life so they can make the mistakes, learn from the mistakes, learn from different simulations that we can put them in and then when it comes to it in real life, they'll be better prepared."

Another sector which is using such technology is education, where virtual university campuses are being developed by Credersi, whose spokesperson Sophie Duncan hopes it provides a better learning experience than simply joining a video call:

"You have the ability to teach in a classroom virtually, but you can also walk around the world. You can go to a cinema and listen to a guest lecturer or take a look at the Covid lab that we have in the education metaverse, and you can learn about the other courses that are offered."

The virtual version of me interviews one of the team developing virtual workplaces at PixelMax Credit: PixelMax

But for those of us not working in health or education, how might the metaverse affect our daily routines?

That's where I needed to load up my avatar (a virtual version of me) and step into what could be the workplace of the future to find out.

The difficulties of working by video call are well known by anyone who has been told "You're still on mute!" over the last couple of years. And it is this which one of the companies developing such technology, PixelMax, hopes to improve.

Its virtual workplaces can either exactly mirror the real-world buildings they are seeking to replace, or can be altogether more imaginative, according to the company's co-founder Andy Sands:

"Everyone can have that corner office. You can design that the way you want and interestingly, some of our clients are actually using incentives through the week and then rewarding staff with the right to build a sculpture in their office or have a trip to a digital aquarium or a football pitch."

The system aims to fill in some of the gaps in workers' daily routines which working from home has left behind, according to co-founder Shay O'Carroll:

"We've done research that highlights that 90% of creative activity within a workplace is done informally when you bump into someone, you have a chat with them. Now we tend to have a diary of events are happening and we rarely move out of that so that informal communication seems to be something across the board that the people are missing. For me, it's about giving the ordinary people a personality."

Research has showed that many people want a form of hybrid work going forward, as working from home can limit networking opportunities. Credit: PA

Recent research suggests 80% of workers want a combination of working in the office and working from home and having a more immersive environment could have benefits, according to business psychologist Sarah Clarke:

"People get that sort of zoom fatigue because by the end of the day, they have had all of these conversations, nothing's been spontaneous. Quite often some of the niceties of how are you, how are you feeling, maybe aren't there and because it's 2D it takes a lot more brainpower to be able to interpret what's going on."

But the virtual world isn't one that everybody will want to inhabit. Far from it, according to technology writer Keza MacDonald from The Guardian:

"I think the actually useful applications of the metaverse are yet to be proven beyond things like virtual meeting rooms and virtual parties. But the fact is, if you've got the option to socialise in real life, then people want to. That's something the pandemic has certainly proven. We need human interaction and technology of any kind. It's never going to replace that and people don't want it to replace that fundamentally."

So, with vast sums of money being spent on, the questions remains, will the metaverse remain a glorified computer game or be somewhere more of us want to live, work and socialise? The investment and the potential are there, but like all new technology, its future remains hard to predict.