26 September 2023

Going to work in the metaverse: How is it really?

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Hannah Rimm* discusses her experience of working in a virtual reality.

These days it seems like all I ever hear about is the metaverse.

From the buying and selling of virtual real estate to Facebook officially changing its name to Meta, it appears the Black Mirror/Ready Player One future is upon us.

So when I saw that Mark Zuckerberg predicted that going to work in the metaverse would be a reality in the next five to ten years, I knew I had to test it out for myself.

The metaverse can mean a lot of different things, but for the purpose of this story, I’ll use it to refer to Meta’s version of the metaverse, which I accessed using a virtual reality headset.

The initial experience felt a lot like walking into a smart TV — I was inside a virtual reality living room and had many different apps to choose from including games, meditation apps, and Netflix.

In all honesty, my initial thought was that it all felt very overwhelming, and I couldn’t immediately picture this being my future.

That being said, when it comes to the metaverse, I’m what 15-year-old me would call a noob — I got the Oculus Quest 2 (Meta’s newest virtual reality headset) in December 2021 and I’m still in my “I Mostly Play Beat Saber” phase.

For other noobs, Beat Saber is like VR Dance Dance Revolution with lightsabers and is seen as a gateway into the metaverse.

I’ve dabbled in Horizon Worlds (Meta’s virtual worlds where you can walk around various settings and interact with other users — think Club Penguin but with people), which are very cool, but also not ideal for my very prone-to-motion-sickness self.

The first time I went to a public world, a community guide (Meta’s employees that moderate their virtual worlds) taught me how to slide around the screen instead of teleporting constantly, which a stranger told me would make me look “less like I just got here.”

In an attempt to talk to other people and look like I belonged, I started to slide around the plaza — then immediately got motion sick and had to take off my headset.

When I first heard about Workrooms, Meta’s attempt at a workplace in the metaverse, I was cautiously intrigued.

It sounded nice to meet with my coworkers in a virtual conference room where we could write on a whiteboard and see each other’s hand movements, but because of my I was a bit worried about the nausea of it all.

Thankfully, when I sat down at my virtual desk, I was pleasantly surprised to feel as close to the Refinery29 office as I’ve felt since March 2020.

I spent the first 30 minutes sitting in a meeting room by myself, checking my email.

Through the Oculus Remote Desktop app, I was able to connect my laptop to my Quest 2, so though there was a piece of equipment over my eyes, I could fully see my screen and my hands typing on the keyboard.

Workrooms allows you to use your hands instead of the controllers, which certainly took a minute to master, but as soon as I did I had way too much fun waving my hands in front of my face.

I also spent a bit of time playing with the whiteboard feature, which was entertaining, though it felt weird to be writing against nothing but air.

Next on my agenda was an interview with Meaghan Fitzgerald, director of product marketing for Meta Reality Labs.

So I quickly swapped my avatar’s clothing from sweats to a blazer and then popped into a meeting room.

It was the first time I was interviewing someone not on Zoom since March 2020, and it felt exhilarating.

I had to physically turn my body to look between the three different people in the room, there was a city view out the window, and I was able to watch Fitzgerald’s hand gestures and social cues in real-time.

At one point, she said she liked my nose ring (actually she said “your avatar’s nose ring”) and it felt like the kind of passing compliment I haven’t gotten to indulge in since before office culture disappeared.

All of this to say, it felt really good, almost emotional, to have an entire meeting in Workrooms.

During my lunch break, I went for a walk in a random park in Horizon Worlds.

There were a few groups of people scattered about and I felt instantly awkward.

I could hear bits and pieces of their conversations, much like one might hear walking around a real-life park, but I didn’t feel the sweet calmness of being alone in a crowd.

Instead, I felt like an intruder.

I felt like I had just stepped onto the playground at recess and the cool kids were looking at me, thinking, how dare she have the audacity to exist in our presence? I left almost as quickly as I had come and vowed to never enter a public metaverse space alone again.

My last meeting of the day was with my manager, Mirel.

Once again, the mere act of sitting in the same room as a work colleague felt strangely emotional.

We’ve had thousands of meetings on Zoom over the last two years and we’ve even met up in person a handful of times, but for some reason, this felt different.

It took a minute to put my finger on why, but after 30 minutes of talking about goals and upcoming stories, it hit me: it all felt so normal.

It felt like the before times — we weren’t wearing masks or spaced six feet apart; sitting closely together didn’t feel risky or scary.

COVID didn’t even exist in our little slice of the metaverse.

The illusion only broke when we tried to touch.

We reached our hands out to one another and watched our fingers collide, but there was no warmth or connection, just our fingers hanging in empty air.

When our meeting was over, I took off my Oculus Quest 2 and recalibrated to the real world.

I was a bit dizzy and my head felt sore.

I laid down to rest my aching eyes for a minute and woke up two hours later — turns out existing in the metaverse is exhausting.

This doesn’t surprise me, though.

It was my first time spending that many hours completely inside the metaverse, and my brain needed more than a few hours to adjust to the all-encompassing stimulation.

Plus, Workrooms is still very much in beta.

Fitzgerald reminded me many times that spaces designed for work in the metaverse are still in their earliest stages.

“Workrooms is one of our early work experiences, designed to bring people together in a way we’ve been lacking over the last few years, but it’s only the beginning,” Fitzgerald said.

So what will the future look like? According to Fitzgerald, the goal will always be to make existing in the metaverse as natural as possible.

She is also really excited for what it means for inclusivity in the workforce.

“[Work in the metaverse] will cut down on things like business travel and commuting, which can have real effects on people’s personal lives,” she told me.

“This will become a seamless way to quickly jump into an interaction with a team member no matter their location or physical limitations.”

Based on Meta’s predictions for the coming years of remote work, integrating the metaverse into our daily lives may very well be the future of corporate America.

My only real complaint is the strain it put on my eyes.

A few hours after my time in the metaverse, my favourite coworker told me she was giving her notice.

I was immediately heartbroken and started to cry — but after a minute or so, I realized I wasn’t crying any actual tears because my eyes were so dry from metaversing for hours.

That night and many eye drops later, I still could barely muster a tear.

Maybe it’s chronic dry eye, maybe it’s the metaverse.

*Hannah Rimm is Editor, Money Diaries/Lifestyle at Refinery29.

This article first appeared at refinery29.com.

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