Is the metaverse our next reality or is the hype just virtual insanity?

Amer Iqbal, Founder and CEO of 5 Ways To Innovate, examines if the metaverse can be the next revolution that will transform the workplace.
By: | February 24, 2023

I gazed in wonder as the rising sun burnt away the mist and cast its warm yellow glow across the mountain range in the distance. The raw beauty of the majestic landscape in front of us drew audible gasps from the group of people travelling with me.

A little later, we made our way down to the beach and collectively agreed to go scuba diving, a first for some of those present. Once we were submerged in the depths of the clear blue ocean, off in the distance we saw what looked like a large fish gliding through the water.

A few brave individuals chose to swim up close, only to discover it was a shark. As they drew right up to its gills and reached out to touch its rows of razor-sharp teeth, suddenly the lights came up and the shark vanished. Our eyes squinted and adjusted to the brightness as we returned to the meeting room and got back to the rest of the presentation.

You see, I was standing in a training facility in front of about 30 HR executives from across a variety of industries who had come to learn more about the metaverse and the impact it will have on their business. The trip around the world we had just taken was completely virtual.

I have been asked to run a lot of sessions recently on the Metaverse, and wherever possible I like to include an immersive session. I find that experiencing the potential of a technology is a critical step in getting business leaders to believe in the impact it might have in the near future.

Unfortunately, despite the hype and media coverage surrounding the metaverse in the past 12 months, this is where most of the narrative ends: Virtual Reality (VR) is great for gaming, Web3 is great for investing in crypto, but there is not much else to it. There has been very little conversation to help businesses make sense of how the metaverse will impact the way work gets done.

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“Is the metaverse truly the next revolution that will transform the workplace as much as the rise of the internet or the mobile phone?” Amer Iqbal, Founder and CEO of 5 Ways To Innovate.

It raises a valid question: is the metaverse truly the next revolution that will transform the workplace as much as the rise of the internet or the mobile phone? Or is it all just a flash in the pan that will be discarded when the next shiny new thing comes along?

Metaverse and the workplace

Assumptions about technology in the workplace in 2023 mostly revolve around how we adopted mobile phones: first we bought a personal iPhone, then we installed an MDM or some clunky work software, and eventually ended up carrying around two phones. It was personal tech first, work tech second. This is not really a practical model for the metaverse.

Ben Thompson, tech industry analyst and author of the popular Stratechery blog, argues that the enterprise will actually be the killer app for the metaverse. In the 1970s, people first used computers in the workplace, and then wanted that same power at home, leading to the invention of the PC.

In the same way, the metaverse is more likely to be a work-first technology, which enters the rest of our lives once it is more normalised. This perspective seems a sound bet: with Microsoft and Meta both investing billions into metaverse applications for the workplace, combined with the post-Covid shift to remote work, it is hard to imagine that an immersive technology that brings people together from around the world will not have a major impact on how we do work.

In fact, several notable companies have already begun implementing some version of this: Hilton have implemented VR as a means of training hotel staff in a staging environment that does not disrupt the customer experience, and Accenture have begun onboarding new hires virtually, allowing joiners from around the world to meet and even visit digital twins of some of their global offices.

Beware the hype cycle

In my former role at Meta, one of my final projects was developing a Metaverse Readiness Model that would help companies develop a pragmatic metaverse plan. Through our research we identified five increasingly mature use cases that businesses are likely to use the metaverse for over time:

1.  Play – Delivering metaverse experiences through content. Think interactive marketing campaigns where a QR code launches an Augmented Reality (AR) character you can interact with in a 3D space.

2.  Explore – Bring consumers on a journey of exploration across time and geography. If you have ever tried on lipstick or sunglasses virtually before buying, you know what this is.

3.  Learn – Immerse in training, analytics, and research, lowering time, risk, and cost required.

4.  Create – Augment data and resources to give professionals a new way to do their jobs. Architects who can design a building while walking through it, or surgeons who can perform surgery from the other side of the planet will begin to emerge.

5.  Connect – Collaborate without co-location. Connect people remotely, communicate via “See what I see” and enable individuals to view and interact with the same data. Eventually, geography will not be a limit to talent and hiring, organisational design and workforce planning will become borderless.

The discovery of these five use cases led to some useful insights. Firstly, it became clear that the metaverse industry is still in its earliest stages of maturity, somewhere between the “Play” and “Explore” stages. Secondly, when we analysed sentiment data on Facebook and Instagram through this lens, it became clear that the huge early interest in the metaverse, followed by a nosedive in sentiment followed a classic hype cycle pattern. Like most new technologies, we can expect negative headlines and confusion about the metaverse for a while, with confidence stabilising to a more normal trend over time. 

What is absolutely clear is that the metaverse’s hype cycle is following an almost identical pattern to game changing technologies that came before it. Early excitement has given way to a sophomore slump; but those companies who stay the course and continue to make small, pragmatic investments will be the winners over a longer horizon. Think about all those companies who ignored cloud computing in its early days and then had to invest astronomical amounts over the next 10 years in an attempt to catch up to early adopters.

The metaverse is not going anywhere. This is not a fad, it is the beginning of a movement that is going to dramatically change the way we think of work. Like all waves, it begins with a ripple and eventually becomes a tide of disruption for those who try to resist it. If you have not guessed by now, I am optimistic about the potential for this movement to bring positive change into the world, from decentralisation of power structures to democratisation of economic opportunity. There really is so much upside if we can work together to get this right. That is a reality I’m looking forward to.

About the author: Amer Iqbal is Founder and CEO of 5 Ways To Innovate. To find out more about how you can harness the impact of the metaverse on the workplace, join Amer at HR Tech Festival Asia 2023 on May 11 (12pm SGT), where he will be discussing the future of the metaverse.