The metaverse will make your meetings worse
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As part of its recently announced rebranding, Facebook is doubling down on its take on the metaverse, an immersive virtual reality environment for games, business meetings and socializing. In the promotional material, Mark Zuckerberg and his friends enter the metaverse through the company’s own Oculus headsets and are transformed into animated cartoon torsos, often arranged around a virtual meeting room.
According to Zuckerberg, the Metaverse promises a reality at work better than ours, with lush backgrounds and endless personal customization (as long as that customization stops at the waistline for humanoid characters). Borrowing elements from games and world-building environments like Second Life and Fortnite, and drawing inspiration from sci-fi referents like Ready Player One and The Matrix, the innuendo is that working in the metaverse will be fun. (This despite the irony that all of these virtual worlds are positioned as dystopias by their creators.)
Assuming the metaverse is the future of work ignores both decades of research into human interactions and the results of our collective experiences with remote working over the past two years. We need technology to help us bring other people to our remote physical spaces. Virtual avatars leave us rather disoriented, without any physical space.
Body language helps us communicate a huge amount of information with each other. Meetings and interactions that take place in a specific location – and include environments with physical objects – are easier to remember; retrosplenial cortex research has shown that memories are inextricably linked to physical locations. Zoom fatigue is real, especially due to discrepancies in eye contact and the constant presence of one’s own image. But the solution is not to switch to a cartoonish virtual reality. Unrealistic representations of nonverbal communication, like the arm gestures of metaverse avatars that do not match the speech patterns, will limit our real-time understanding of each other.
Anonymizing avatars, as harmless as they seem, can also have real emotional impacts. Real-life visuals – such as the surprise appearances of Allison’s cats and Betsy’s young child on video calls – can provide workers with much-needed comedic relief that will be lost behind a helmet. More worrying, the communication mediated by the anonymizing shield of a virtual avatar increases outrage and anti-social behavior, a phenomenon that Facebook should have known for a long time. Employers are unlikely to join the metaverse if it brings out the worst in their employees.
Plus, face-to-face meetings don’t go away; especially because face-to-face interactions are associated with a better quality of life. Many jobs are not totally remote, and many workers plan to come to the office at least a few days a week. Given the choice between hosting a hybrid meeting that allows participants to interact with distant and physically present colleagues, and having everyone join a Glorified Zoom from inside a headset, the choice is clear. Meetings with more complex or relationship-based goals are best conducted in person, and studies comparing video, avatar, and audio-only meetings show that participants find the video more compelling and professional than the avatars. There’s a reason remote workers always feel the need to have some sort of ‘face time’.
So should we give up and fall back indefinitely in our video call-induced lethargy? We think not. There is another model of virtual interactions; think back to Star Wars holograms. Most of the most compelling sci-fi virtual communication examples don’t involve putting on a headset and shutting off the outside world for a cartoon. They involve a projection device that brings the presences of others into your physical space.
Rather than having teleworkers attend a meeting in the metaverse as a dragon or mermaid and dropping body clues as a result, an ideal remote work tool would project a version of the teleworker to another physical location, everything by allowing live participants to see the real world next to them. The teleworker could participate fully in the virtual conference room, non-verbal cues and everything, without his co-workers losing their ability to notice a friend walking past their door or see the sun go down through the window.
Like casinos that isolate players from the trappings of the passage of time, metaverse meetings exclude any indication of work or gambling occurring outside of them. It might be good for the Facebook ad model, but it’s not good for the job. Rather, we need to recognize that hybrid work environments are here to stay and create tools designed to help all of us browse them.
Allison Berke is Director of Advanced Technology at Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
Betsy Cooper is the director of Aspen Institute Technology Policy Center.
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