According to Mark Zuckerberg, the “metaverse” – which the founder of Meta describes as “an Internet incarnate, where instead of just watching content – you are in it” – will radically change our lives.
Meta’s main metaverse product so far is a virtual reality playground called Horizon Worlds. When Zuckerberg announced his company’s metaverse push in October 2021, the prevailing sentiment was that it was something no one had asked for, or particularly wanted.
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Many of us wondered what people would actually do in this new online realm. Last week, amid announcements of new hardware, software, and trade deals, Zuckerberg laid out an answer: What people will do in the metaverse is work.
But who is it for? What are the implications of using these new technologies in the workplace? And will everything be as rosy as Meta promises?
The future of work?
The centerpiece of last week’s Meta Connect event was the announcement of the Quest Pro headset for virtual and augmented reality. Costing US$1,499 (~AU$2,400), the device has new features including the ability to track the user’s eyes and face.
The Quest Pro will also use outward-facing cameras to let users see the real world around them (with digital add-ons).
Meta presentation showed this function used for work. It depicted a user sitting among several large virtual screens – what he previously dubbed “Infinite Office”. As Meta technical lead Andrew Bosworth said, “Ultimately, we think the Quest might be the only monitor you’ll ever need.”
Meta also announced that it was working with Microsoft to make virtual versions of enterprise software such as Office and Teams available. These will be integrated into the Horizon Workrooms virtual office platform, which has been widely ridiculed for its poor quality graphics and floating, legless avatars.
The Microsoft approach
The partnership could well bring significant benefits to both companies.
Microsoft’s own mixed reality headset, the HoloLens, has seen limited adoption. Meta dominates the augmented reality and reality markets, so it makes sense that Microsoft is trying to halt Meta’s efforts.
For Meta, his project can gain credibility by partnering with Microsoft’s long history of producing reliable enterprise software. Partnerships with other companies in the tech industry and beyond are a major way for Meta to realize its metaverse ambitions.
Microsoft also represents an alternative approach to ensure the success of a product. While decades of efforts to sell VR technology to consumers have had limited success, Microsoft has become a household name selling to businesses and other businesses.
By focusing on an enterprise market, companies can standardize emerging technologies in society. These may not be things that consumers want to to use, but rather things that workers are strength utilize.
Recent implementations of Microsoft’s Teams software in industry and government across Australia offer models for how the metaverse can come to offices.
As proponents of work in the metaverse envision a future in which technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality are seamlessly integrated into our working lives, bringing prosperity and efficiency, there are a number of areas of concern.
On the one hand, technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality threaten to institute new forms of worker surveillance and control. The rise of remote work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a boom in “bossware” – software that allows employers to monitor their remote workers’ every move.
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Technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality – which rely on capturing and processing large amounts of data about users and their environments to operate – may well intensify such dynamics.
Meta states that this data will remain “on device”. However, recent research shows that third-party Quest apps have been able to access and use more data than they strictly need.
Privacy and Security
Developers are learning and worrying about the privacy and security implications of virtual and augmented reality devices and platforms.
In experimental settings, VR data is already being used to track and measure biometric information about users with a high degree of accuracy. VR data has also been used to measure things like attention.
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In a future where work takes place in the metaverse, it’s not hard to imagine how things like gaze tracking data could be used to determine the outcome of your next promotion. Or to imagine workspaces where certain activities are “scheduled”, like anything deemed “unproductive”, or even things like union organizing.
Microsoft’s 365 platform already tracks similar metrics on digital work processes – you can see yours here, if your organization is a subscriber. Microsoft 365’s entry into VR spaces will give it plenty of new data to analyze to describe your work habits.
Moderation of content and behavior in virtual spaces can also be an issue, which could lead to discrimination and inequality. Meta has so far given few concrete protections to its users in the face of increasing allegations of harassment.
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Earlier this year, a report by consumer advocacy group SumOfUs found that many Horizon Worlds users had been encouraged to disable security features, such as “personal security bubbles,” by other users.
The use of safety devices in the workplace can also be considered anti-social or not part of “the team”. This could have negative impacts for already marginalized workers.