Meetings are crucial for communication and coordination at work. Does this hold true in the metaverse? Shanti Mathias reports from the frontiers of virtual reality.
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Here are some things I know. One: Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, has spent over $35 billion on developing their conception of the metaverse, an immersive, integrated digital world where users can socialise, work, and play. Two: it is hard to believe this when you are in Horizon Workrooms, Meta’s VR productivity app, and your avatar still doesn’t have legs. Three: journalistic integrity requires courage, which is what you have to tell yourself if your colleagues in your real office are laughing at you while you manipulate your legless virtual body into a virtual desk to set up a virtual meeting.
It’s been nearly 18 months since Facebook rebranded as Meta amid declining use of its products by young people. The unstable economy is particularly affecting technology companies; 11,000 Meta employees were made redundant last year, with a further 10,000 redundancies announced earlier this week. Meanwhile AI, rather than metaverse, now seems like the next big thing.
Still, Meta seems to have stayed bullish in its intention to spend $100 billion on the metaverse by the end of the decade. A blogpost from Reality Labs, Meta’s metaverse division, at the end of last year declared “after one of the hardest years in the history of the company, Meta remains as committed to our vision for the future as we were on the day we announced it”. The company will continue to use about 20% of its overall investments for research into the metaverse, including developing “mixed reality” hardware like VR headsets that make it possible to be in the real world and the metaverse at the same time. If you’re keeping track at home, 20% of Meta’s investments means approximately $19 billion a year – about a tenth of New Zealand’s GDP.
If the vision of the metaverse is to digitally integrate with all of your life, there needs to be space for socialising and playing games – but there’s a place for work, too. “Horizon Workrooms allows people to communicate and collaborate in a more intuitive way that feels almost like an in-person meeting… using gestures and body language to convey meaning, whispering to the person next to you, or getting up from the table to write something on a whiteboard,” says Jason Juma-Ross, Meta’s local head of innovation, in a written response to questions about virtual meetings. The working environment is certainly immersive – enough that I walked into a wall while wearing a VR headset to test it for myself.
Three years into the pandemic, people with laptop-based jobs are used to clicking a link to attend a meeting. But going to a meeting in the metaverse is not so simple, at least not for virtual reality newbies like yours truly. Meta’s PR were happy to oblige, which is how I found myself exiting the lift of a glitzy office building in downtown Auckland, walking into a glass-walled meeting room, donning a sleek black Quest Pro headset (yours for a cool $2700), and talking to a Meta representative’s avatar in a Zen-like virtual room with a view of a lake. As in my previous visits to the metaverse, I immediately felt clumsy, uncool.
“You’re wearing a great outfit,” said the Meta employee. I looked down at the torso of my preset avatar. I was wearing a grey hoodie. I put my hands in front of my face, and interlaced my fingers, but I couldn’t see my real hands. Instead, the slim, hairless fingers of my avatar knotted together. The interior was a Silicon Valley dream of idealised productivity: tables that can be rearranged with the tap of a button; clean, spacious floors. I drew a spiral on the virtual whiteboard, nearly tripped over a chair in the real world, and thought: it would be nice to share this experience with my actual colleagues.
But before I convinced my colleagues to wear their own headsets and meet me in the virtual world, I wanted to know: why do meetings matter? “Meetings are a chance to connect, inspire, and make the focus of the team or organisation clear,” says Samantha Gadd, founder of Excellent, an organisation that helps improve employee experiences. Gadd works with increasingly hybrid or fully-remote organisations that rely on the internet to collaborate across different locations and time zones. For them, team meetings, where everyone is gathered with a clear purpose, are even more important.
“Meetings happen in ritualised ways, and there’s usually a chair – someone who is in charge and decides what kind of talk is allowable in that setting,” says Reuben Sanderson, a PhD student at Victoria University who is researching linguistic norms in hybrid meetings. I can see how these qualities make meetings a good gateway for forays into more normalised virtual reality. Set times and stated purpose could make it easier for metaverse sceptics to give it a go, especially if the technology facilitates more effective communication than remote video calls.
A few days after I try out the virtual meeting rooms with the Meta employees, two boxes get delivered to The Spinoff office. These are Quest 2 headsets, which cost $710. They’re bulky, made of smooth white plastic. I make two accounts with two different email addresses and two phones, and enter the Quest landing page, a sort of luxurious cave that looks out over a deeply forested valley, luminous waterfalls cascading down the slopes.
I make myself a cartoon avatar, musing on the futility of mimesis. My avatar has pieces of me: bouncy short hair, warm brown skin, a round face, and a short skirt, yet the combined effect is still a cartoon, completely unlike how I picture myself. I am relinquishing my actual body in an office doing work for a representation of my body in an office doing work – cultural theorist Stuart Hall would have a field day.
An advantage of virtual reality over video meetings is that you can’t see your own face, so my existential anxiety drifts away as I download the Horizon Workrooms app and use my controller to draw a fake desk to sit over my real desk, looking out at the soothing, surreal view of a lake, rather than my colleagues making faces at their laptops. This is what Meta calls “mixed reality”: the real world and the virtual world are combined.
But you can’t have a meeting of just one person: it must be shared. My colleagues Toby Morris, Alex Casey, Tommy de Silva, and Matt McAuley are all keen to attend a meeting in the metaverse, with The Spinoff’s CTO, Ben Gracewood, attending remotely, as Zuckerberg intended.
Watching other people in virtual reality is a little silly, which is perhaps why this technology is meant for use in the privacy of the home. De Silva waggles his arms in the air, trying to figure out how to sit. I can see why my colleagues were laughing at me when I tried it earlier.
I put on my own headset, and enter the room to join Ben and Tommy, consenting to a “hands privacy notice” that will allow the headset to track my hands. Another prompt comes up: “Please respect your colleagues’ personal space, just as you would in person,” and I agree to this, too. But when I enter the room, I accidentally end up in the same space as virtual Ben. When I look down, our virtual bodies have tangled: my arm is going through his shoulder. I shuffle away, trying to remember where I’ve put my chair in the real world, and sit down gingerly. “This is weird,” says Ben, who has figured out how to play music videos on the shared screen setting. The tinny sound of ‘As It Was’ drifts through the meeting room.
When using something new, it’s extremely easy to describe it in the most bizarre way possible, especially the parts that are awkward or novel: the weight of a headset on your face, the peculiar demand to represent yourself imperfectly, the slightly lagging audio. But as I watched my colleagues struggle with making their headsets work, I realised that my week of practising with Horizon Workrooms had paid off. If I did this every day, or even every week, I would get used to some parts of it.
Video calls still have their limitations, but 15 years of using Skype and then Zoom and Google Meet have made talking to people in this way ordinary. Proponents of the metaverse will be quick to point out that this technology is nascent: communicating in virtual reality could soon become much less glitchy, and much more normal.
The extent of investment in virtual reality products, if nothing else, certainly indicates that they will improve – but what kind of labour does virtual reality lend itself too? What does it have that meeting in person or online doesn’t offer?
There are a number of useful features of VR for people who work remotely. The directional audio of Horizon Workrooms makes talking to others more natural: if someone speaks and their avatar is behind you, it sounds like they’re behind you, unlike video meetings, where sound just comes out of one place. The whiteboard, while imperfect, is useful, and can be accessed after the meeting too – it stays in the workroom, so the next virtual users can see what virtual writing is left behind. Rearranging the room into smaller groups or wider tables is instantaneous, instead of hefting furniture around or fussing with breakout room settings. NASA teams use Quest headsets to communicate; I imagine the technology would also be excellent for looking at three dimensional objects that are designed or tested by remote teams.
But no matter how three dimensional it looks, virtual workspaces still mean looking at a screen. The headset’s battery only lasts for two or three hours, and Meta says that it’s intended for short uses with breaks in between. Anecdotally, some Spinoff staff who used the headsets for more than 10 minutes reported dizziness and headaches afterwards.
In his research, Reuben Sanderson has observed how important eye contact and gestures are to communication in meetings. “People tend to use more exaggerated hand gestures in online spaces,” he says, flapping his hands to demonstrate. In virtual reality, these gestures could be more natural: my Quest avatar didn’t have legs, but the hand tracking effective at showing the location of my arms. I asked colleagues to blink, and their avatar responded, although smiling and other facial expressions weren’t conveyed as accurately.
Videos also limit eye contact, which Sanderson says is part of how the person leading the meeting indicates whose turn it is to speak. This is only imperfectly mimicked by video calls’ “raise hand” feature. “If you have 10 video screens in a meeting, you can’t match everyone’s gaze, which can impact how decisions are made,” Sanderson says. Virtual reality allows eye contact, at least to an extent: your colleagues will know you’re looking at them, not answering your emails, even if you’re both actually looking at screens strapped to your head.
Like video meetings, virtual reality could improve the accessibility of work, as well as making things more egalitarian. “There’s a way to have everyone on the same level,” says Gadd, who is particularly passionate about companies empowering their employees to collaborate across traditional hierarchies. “Virtual reality could lift inclusion in the workplace… people could put on a persona and be active in the meeting no matter how they feel.”
Inclusion is certainly a line that Meta wants to push. The company has consulted technology inclusion advocates as part of the design process for its metaverse, ensuring Meta avatars can have hearing aids, wheelchairs and cochlear implants. “Avatars are at the heart of this, but it’s not just about hair colours, skin tones, and clothing, it goes beyond aesthetics,” says Juma-Ross.
In Horizon Workrooms, the virtual settings can be customised to several different locations: a log cabin with a lake behind it, a high rise building in a city, and a vaguely Greek beach, all empty of people. Juma-Ross says these settings are not based on any real place; they’re abstract representations of where you could be, a world where it’s possible to work without the distractions of the world outside. To participate, all you have to do is remake your body from the options the corporation offers you, a menu of sizes and shapes that is aesthetically representative, yet lacking the spontaneity that is possible in the real world. Would anyone in the virtual office notice my new haircut, a reminder of the body I live in beyond the office doors, if they knew it was achieved in seconds through tapping a button on my headset controller?
The aesthetics are a clue to what kind of work Meta imagines possible users to be participating in: these expensive headsets are intended for the kind of workers who already go to offices designed to convince them that their labour is meaningful. The kind of work that might pay for flights to a lakeside retreat, or to rent a beach villa for a board meeting. Despite the expense and learning curve, VR would be easy to adopt for anyone whose labour mainly involves looking at a laptop. But this is not the only kind of labour: food has to be cooked, children need to be looked after, and pipes need to be fixed. Even VR headsets need to be manufactured, shipped and delivered – none of which can happen in virtual reality, not least because legs are required.
To the people who are being paid to create a metaverse, the possibilities seem immense. “We can expect to see holographic attendance at meetings and events. Imagine being able to project a lifelike hologram of yourself into a meeting or conference! Teleporting to shared spaces could become a reality too,” says Juma-Ross. My sort of work is the kind that could easily be incorporated into virtual reality; in five years, this story could be typed on a keyboard in the metaverse. Or maybe not: lately, Mark Zuckerberg has been mentioning the metaverse less, instead emphasising AI integration, and the latest round of layoffs include parts of the company’s virtual reality team.
I am trying to approach the possibilities of future technology in good faith, but I can’t pretend that I’m not a little relieved to log out of the virtual workroom, take the headset off, and pack it in its box. Perhaps the most realistic aspect of work in the metaverse, just like work in reality, is that meetings come to an end – you can always leave.