Is the metaverse really the future of work?

According to Mark Zuckerberg, the “metaverse” — which the Meta founder describes as “an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you’re in it” — will radically change our lives.

So far, Meta’s main metaverse product is a virtual reality playground called Horizon Worlds. When Zuckerberg announced his company’s metaverse push in October 2021, the prevailing sentiment was that no one had asked for it, nor wanted it in particular.



Read more: What is the metaverse? A high-tech plan to Facebook the world


Many of us wondered what people would actually do in this new online realm. Last week, amid announcements of new hardware, software and business deals, Zuckerberg presented an answer: What people will do in the metaverse is work.

But who is this for? What are the implications of using these new technologies in the workplace? And will it all 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 virtual and augmented reality headset. The device costs US$1,499 (~A$2,400) and has new features including the ability to track the user’s eyes and face.

The Quest Pro will also use outward-facing cameras to show users the real world around them (with digital add-ons).

Meta’s presentation showed this feature in use for work. It depicted a user sitting between several large virtual screens – what it previously called “Infinite Office”. As Andrew Bosworth, Meta’s chief of technology, put it, “Ultimately, we think the Quest could be the only monitor you need.”

Meta also announced a partnership with Microsoft to make available virtual versions of enterprise software such as Office and Teams. These will be incorporated into Horizon Workrooms’ virtual office platform, which has been widely ridiculed for its low-quality graphics and floating, legless avatars.

The Microsoft approach

The collaboration can provide significant benefits for both companies.

Microsoft’s own mixed-reality headset, the HoloLens, has been adopted to a limited extent. Meta dominates the augmented and reality markets, so it makes sense that Microsoft would try to piggyback on Meta’s efforts.

For Meta, the project can gain credibility through its association with Microsoft’s long history of producing trusted business software. Partnerships with other companies in the tech sector and beyond are an important way in which Meta aims to realize its metaverse ambitions.

A virtual reality office with avatars sitting around a conference table.
Meta Microsoft Teams in VR.
meta

Microsoft also represents an alternative approach to making a product successful. While decades of efforts to sell VR technology to consumers have had limited success, Microsoft became a household name by selling to businesses and other enterprises.

By focusing on a business market, companies can normalize emerging technologies in society. They may not be things that consumers want use, but rather things that are employees forced to use.

Recent industry and government implementations of Microsoft’s Teams software across Australia provide models for how the metaverse might arrive in offices.

Improved Bossware

While proponents of work in the metaverse envision a future in which technologies such as AR and VR are seamlessly incorporated into our work, bringing prosperity and efficiency, there are a number of concerns.

First, technologies such as VR and AR threaten to introduce new forms of worker monitoring and control. The rise of remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a boom in “bossware” – software for employers to track the every move of their remote workers.



Read more: 3 ways ‘bossware’ surveillance technology is turning back the management clock


Technologies such as VR and AR — which rely on capturing and processing massive amounts of data about users and their environments to function — could amplify such dynamics.

Meta says such data stays “on the 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 concerned 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.



Read more: Companies are increasingly tracking eye movements – but is it ethical?


In a future where work takes place in the metaverse, it’s not hard to imagine how things like gaze tracking could be used to determine the outcome of your next promotion. Or to imagine workspaces where certain activities are “programmed out”, like anything considered “unproductive”, or even things like union organizing.

Microsoft’s 365 platform already monitors similar metrics on digital work processes – you can check out your own here, if your organization subscribes. Microsoft 365’s access to VR rooms provides plenty of new data that can be analyzed to describe your work habits.

Moderating content and behavior in virtual spaces can also be a problem, leading to discrimination and inequality. Meta has so far offered little concrete protection to its users amid mounting claims of harassment.



Read more: I’m a black woman and the metaverse scares me – here’s how to make the next iteration of the internet inclusive


Earlier this year, a report by consumer advocacy group SumOfUs found that many users in Horizon Worlds have been encouraged by other users to disable security features, such as “personal security bubbles.”

The use of safety features in workplaces can also be seen as antisocial, or as not part of “the team”. This can have negative consequences for already marginalized employees.

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