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When virtual reality hits Part 1

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    What was once the domain of hard-core gamers and niche tech companies has hit the mainstream in the last year, with Facebook rebranding to Meta, Disney introducing a new Disney virtual 'world', and Travis Scott performing a concert on Fortnite. On the brink of what is anticipated to be the biggest shift in technology use since the internet, in this three-part series we are looking at how employers should be approaching the metaverse, and what risks they should be taking into account.

    This series will be broken down into three parts:

    • Part 1 (what you're reading right now) looks at what the metaverse actually is, and why employers should care about it, including some of its most promising use-cases in the workplace;
    • Part 2 will deep dive into the data protection issues associated with using metaverses, which at the moment presents the greatest barrier to employers adopting a metaverse; and
    • Part 3 will conclude this series by going through a number of employment risks that employers should be starting to consider if they're interested in adopting a metaverse, and will provide some practical tips on how to approach these risks.

    What is the Metaverse?

    The metaverse is envisioned to be a 3D shared virtual space made up of individual 'worlds'. Think of it like a virtual version of the real world, with businesses and individuals operating their own 'worlds' with unique offerings such as:

    • new products (real goods or non-fungible tokens);
    • experiences (such as a new interactive game); and
    • services (such as design of a virtual home or business).

    The concept of the metaverse is still in its infancy, and we don't have the technology yet to realise its true potential, however ultimately there are a number of pillars which the concept of the metaverse is anticipated to achieve:

    • It will (eventually) be interoperable, meaning that individuals will be able to access different worlds (like different websites or businesses) through the same platform. This is a long-term vision, and in the short-term it is more likely that there will be multiple metaverses.
    • It will (eventually) be integrated, meaning that individuals will be able to switch between worlds in the same way they can walk between two different shops, or switch between two different websites. Again, this is a long-term vision, and in the short term metaverses are likely to only have a handful of integrated worlds.
    • It will be accessible through the internet, and enabled by hardware such as virtual reality headsets.
    • It will be a living experience, with individuals able to engage with the metaverse in real time, and exist in the metaverse as an 'avatar', a 3D representation of them similar to a character that you might choose to play in a video game.

    The best way to imagine it would be to think about an interactive video game or activity that you may have played or seen your friends or children play, such as Fortnite, Zwift, Club Penguin, Minecraft, Pokemon Go or Call of Duty. Individuals can be in different places across the world, but are able to enter the world of the game and interact with others in that world in real time by competing in activities, going on quests together, building structures and/or buying items for use in that world. Metaverses will contain an infinite number of these worlds all existing side by side.

    How can employers use the Metaverse?

    Metaverses are anticipated to revolutionise the way that we live and work, with Bloomberg estimating that their economic prospects will reach 2.5 trillion USD by 2030 alone. This opens up huge possibilities for businesses, with some of the most interesting use cases for the metaverses being in how they will change the way that we work. Some examples of opportunities for businesses to consider include:

    • Meetings: Metaverses are likely to overhaul how businesses run their meetings. In the short-term, virtual reality meetings may be one of the most common ways that employers adopt a metaverse, with individuals able to join meetings with all the hallmarks of physical presence including 3D surroundings, eye contact, and hand gestures. We are already seeing the building blocks for this kind of use of the metaverses being put in place, with Microsoft recently announcing that it will be integrating its popular Teams platform with a new 'Microsoft Mesh' to create a mixed reality experience for meetings.
    • Hybrid Working: Working remotely is expected to be a permanent feature of working life for most businesses. Metaverses present an opportunity for businesses to optimise the hybrid work experience and ensure employees remain engaged, including through the creation of virtual workplaces which will attempt to mimic the interactions you would have in a physical workplace, with each employee able to sit down to work, put on their virtual reality headsets, and be sitting in a light filled Japanese garden, or in Middle Earth…all only one virtual door away from the rest of the office and their colleagues. For example, Accenture has recently introduced the Altspace, the so-called 'Nth floor' of their offices where anyone from Accenture globally can join and collaborate on ideas.
    • Training: Training of employees is another area in which metaverses are expected to provide significant advancements, particularly in industries which experience higher health and safety risks, or in roles which require complex visualisation of tasks. For example, businesses in the construction industry may choose to train employees using a world in a metaverse that is designed to mimic the construction site before exposing them to the risks associated with work on the actual site. Similarly, in the past few years we have seen car companies such as Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz increasingly adopting mixed reality in their training to assist mechanics and technicians in identifying faults in an engine via a virtual re-imagining of that same engine. Metaverses can also assist with initial training ad onboarding of employees, particularly in large intakes. For example, in 2019 Walmart undertook training for over 1 million employees using virtual reality.
    • Creation of new jobs: In the same way that the growth of the internet and social media spurred the creation of new jobs such as influencers and content creators, metaverses will also pave the way for the development of new jobs. For example, businesses who want to provide services in the metaverses will likely need to engage specialist metaverse architects to design the metaverse 'world' in which they will operate.
    The information provided is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to.
    Readers should take legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.

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