This article elucidates the significance of the future metaverse – defined as the network of interoperable immersive virtual worlds that will supersede the modern Internet. After describing a brief history of the notion of the metaverse, I explain a few reasons (e.g., hardware economics, Internet infrastructure, and cultural norms) for the likely mass adoption of metaverse-related technologies (e.g., virtual/augmented reality, avatars, virtual-meeting platforms) in the near future. I liken some of these trends to the early days of the Internet. Then I describe my own experiences teaching in virtual reality, which I started doing in January 2022. I share lessons learned from the experience about what works and does not in this teaching context. I then extrapolate to the larger context of virtual work-oriented meetings, describing some of my recent research findings on Zoom fatigue, attitudes about virtual meetings, and gender differences. I also describe recent research findings on the psychological and significance of avatars. I conclude with some advice for people who want to prepare for the metaverse future.
Some metaverse history
The metaverse, a term coined in Neal Stephenson‘s 1992 Snow Crash, is on track to become more than a virtual reality, but it is still years – if not decades – away from being fully realized. The fundamental technologies of the metaverse, such as virtual reality (VR) headsets, are still clunky, and the infrastructure of the metaverse is still being developed. We are to the metaverse today as we were to the Internet in 1992. However, in the year 2022, news outlets, companies, and the public are abuzz with talk of this phenomenon – though there are a diversity of perspectives on what it all means. Here, we define the metaverse as an interoperable network of immersive virtual spaces, like an Internet that people can access through VR headsets or other types of immersive technologies (e.g., augmented/mixed reality), as well as traditional flat screens.
The metaverse will not replace, but complement, the modern Internet. In many ways, we can think of the transition into the Internet era as a metaphor for our ongoing transition into the metaverse era. In the 1990s, most people relied on telephones as the primary network of information exchange in business and social lives. Over the last 20 years, we have increasingly replaced voice-based communication on the telephone with communication through networked computers. Instead of calling a bank on the phone, users can easily go to the bank website or mobile application to manage their finances. Today, phone calls are still an option, but most people use such information technologies for their transactions, and even phone calls are increasingly integrated with Internet-based technologies, such as artificial intelligence and other computational interactions.
Ten years from now, we might imagine a similar shift. People will still have the option of using a mobile phone, desktop computer, or even a voice call to engage in their transactions, but many, if not most, will likely prefer to do so in the metaverse. Instead of interacting with a nameless, faceless flatscreen to carry out banking transactions, people will prefer to speak to a virtual agent who looks and communicates like a human and may actually be driven by a human – at least part of the time, for at least part of the interaction. Instead of video conferences with a grid of squares representing meeting attendees, people will prefer to meet in virtually immersive rooms where everyone is represented by 3D avatars and the conversation flows like it would around a physical table, aided by nonverbal cues and audio channels programmed to modify volume based on proximity between virtual others and objects.
This metaverse future was actually fundamental to the vision of the Internet long before the term “metaverse” was even invented. In William Gibson‘s Neuromancer (1984), cyberspace is described as a type of virtually immersive network of interconnected computers that people navigate in ways that are seemingly intuitive and spatial. The term “cyberspace” was co-opted to mean the Internet, and the Internet has become synonymous with interconnected flatscreen information technologies, but fundamentally the metaverse has been the vision of the Internet all along.
But if this vision will not be realized for years to come, what has fundamentally changed and caused all the recent fuss? Simply, there has been a metamorphosis (pun intended) in VR hardware economics, Internet infrastructure, and cultural norms.
When I was a graduate student working in Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory (VHIL), directed by Jeremy Bailenson (one of the world’s foremost VR researchers) in 2005, the technology required to run a VR study cost over $200,000. This included super-fast computers with advanced graphics cards, high-end camera tracking systems, and rare high-resolution, large field-of-view VR headsets. Those early VR experiences, along with Snow Crash, inspired me to dedicate my graduate studies to metaverse-related technologies, such as avatars and online games. However, I was not convinced at the time that I would see a true metaverse in my lifetime. But in 2013, Oculus released the Development Kit One (DK1), the most commercially successful VR headset until that time. The DK1 and a sufficiently powerful computer cost about $3000, which made it accessible to common enthusiasts (and researchers). In 2014, just months after Mark Zuckerberg visited the VHIL to test out the high-end VR systems there, Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion. Many people were surprised by this move, and they continued to be surprised when Facebook changed names to Meta in 2021. However, over those six years, Facebook propelled the Oculus hardware forward in immense strides. In 2019, they released the Quest VR headset, which was just $300 and functioned completely without a connection to a computer, unlike most other high-quality VR headsets at the time that cost several hundreds of dollars and required a fast computer. Potential users needed neither a high level of technological expertise nor a heavy wallet to try virtual reality in the Quest. Meta (still Facebook at the time) quickly released the Quest Two in 2020, improving upon the first iteration’s speed, memory, display, and controllers. Sales skyrocketed. The Quest Two quickly became the most popular VR platform, selling 15 million units from launch through June 2022, according to industry analysts reports,[] apparently eclipsing Xbox sales in this period.[]
Metaverse technologies are improving
Meta will likely continue to release new headsets over the coming years, both at the lower consumer price level as well as at a higher price level for professional workplaces. Meta is investing not only in the hardware, but also in the software that supports virtual meetings and events (the “Horizons” suite), as well as the marketplace where all of these applications can be purchased (providing revenue shares). Other players will certainly enter the market, with Apple rumored to be working on a high-end, augmented reality product. Apple has dominated the mobile space for years, with the iPhone providing not only hardware revenues, but also an endpoint for sales (i.e., the App Store) with a largely captive audience. Regardless of which company controls or profits from the metaverse, technology industries as a whole are gearing up for this major change.
Improvements in technological and Internet infrastructure have also contributed to the recent flurry of virtual reality adoption. As we have shifted to 5G for mobile phones and the cost of gigabyte Internet and high-speed video processing chips has declined, virtual reality headsets have become less vomit-inducing. While a blip of computer lag during a Zoom call might cause a minor inconvenience, the same during an immersive virtual experience can be deeply disorienting. Although “simulator sickness” affects a non-negligible portion of the population, and has been shown to harm female more than male users,[, , ] the extent of simulator sickness has been declining as the technology improves.
Further, the cultural norms around virtual reality have changed, and people are more open to adopting this technology. The same technological infrastructure that has supported the high Internet speeds required for virtual reality were developed in the first place to support massive amounts of streaming, online gaming, and other Internet intensive activities. People are simply using their computers for heavier networking applications. This is evidence that as a population and society, we are increasingly ready to adopt the metaverse when it is born.
Teaching my classes in VR
For my part, noticing a unique opportunity – one that I had been waiting for during most of my career – I decided to start teaching my classes in virtual reality. Following in the footsteps of Jeremy Bailenson, who taught the first large-scale class in VR in 2021,[] I taught my first class both about virtual reality and in virtual reality in January 2022. My students and I would spend about 40 minutes per class meeting using virtual reality headsets, talking about topics related to VR and experiencing them together. Students who did not have their own headset could borrow one from a batch I had purchased using a Meta research gift. There were about 15 students in this first class, and in the fall semester of 2022, I began teaching my avatar psychology class to about 30 students. This class is fully online and we again spend an average of 40 minutes per class period in VR, with the remaining time on Zoom. Although this class is not as focused on VR technology, the content is of course relevant. The virtual meeting platform we use, Engage VR, is designed for business meetings and is impressively stable compared to many others. As far as I know, VR has not made anyone nauseous in class yet.
Across both classes, my students have reported being more engaged and connected than they would have through other platforms. Most students – especially those who express an interest in participating and learning – seem to love meeting in VR. They feel more connected both to me and to each other, and they appreciate being shut out from their computer screen because they are not as tempted to multitask in distracting ways. That said, I encourage complementary multitasking. I allow them to fidget with tools within the virtual environment, doodle with 3D pens, and spawn virtual objects. This helps them keep their minds active when they get bored, which happens both in person and online. Complementary multitasking is great for productivity as long as it is not too distracting. Students have also reported being better able to remember course concepts in VR compared to Zoom classes because they can associate the ideas discussed with the virtual environment. For this reason, I move the class to a new virtual location for each new major topic (i.e., on the beach, on a mountain, in a stadium).
Some relevant research
Meeting in VR – with students or otherwise – is quite new and so there is little published research on this topic, though many studies will soon hit the presses. In one recent study (under review), we found that “Zoom fatigue” (the sense of exhaustion from being in videoconferences [, ]) negatively predicts openness to using the metaverse for both professional and entertainment purposes. We also found that people were more open to using the metaverse for entertainment compared to professional purposes. Further, we found that gender differences in Zoom fatigue were related to gender differences in openness to using the metaverse for both professional and entertainment purposes. In other words, women tend to have lower openness to using the metaverse than men, and this is likely in part because women tend to experience more Zoom fatigue than men, which many studies (including my own) have previously found.[, ] This finding paints a bleak picture of a future in which gender disparities from the realms of video games and high technology – fueled by erroneous stereotypes[, ] and hateful toxicity[] – are replicated in the future metaverse, which has implications not just for entertainment spaces but also professional domains.
However, I am optimistic that development and uses of technologies can be guided towards more inclusivity and equity. For example, my research on avatars suggests that when people customize avatars to represent themselves, gender stereotypes are prevalent in their perceptions and behaviors.[, ] However, when we encourage participants to customize avatars in ways that highlight their skills (not identities), some of these stereotype (threat) effects are negated.[] In other words, avatars can be used as a tool to buffer against inequities in the metaverse that relate to stereotypes and identity characteristics.
Avatars are a potentially powerful tool for influence in these spaces. The phenomenon referred to as the “Proteus Effect” suggests that avatar identities influence how people perceive themselves and thus how they act, even after avatar use.[, ] For example, people who use taller avatars have been found to negotiate more aggressively;[] people who use more attractive avatars exhibit more social confidence;[] and people who use inventor-looking avatars produce more creative ideas when brainstorming compared to those who use avatars in casual attire.[, ] The Proteus Effect has been replicated in over 50 studies and is relatively robust for a media effect, especially in studies that use virtual reality.[] This suggests that metaverse avatars will play an important role in the way people engage within that space.
Preparing for the metaverse future
What does this all mean for those of us living in the “meat-verse” today who want to prepare for the metaverse of tomorrow?
First and foremost, I recommend that you procure or borrow a VR headset and use it to explore the growing number of experiences available. I especially encourage you to experiment with networked experiences, where you are in virtual reality along with other people. Many applications allow people to access the world from VR or other non-VR devices, such as a computer or mobile phone. Such cross-platform applications are great for increasing accessibility to the technology, but the experience is entirely different within virtual reality.
Some people simply cannot stomach the technology, find it uncomfortable, or otherwise do not have access, but they will not be shut out of the metaverse; there will be options, but they may have to make an extra effort to keep up. Just as the introduction of the personal computer fueled a vicious cycle of a digital divide because those without computers could not gain computer skills as quickly as those with them, thereby making access more difficult, we will see the same type of cycle in the metaverse. People who have the skills to fully interact within the technology space will have an advantage. They will be more productive in their jobs, better able to connect with their colleagues and bosses, and have more fulfilling social relationships with their friends, assuming all of these interactions are happening in VR (or other similar technologies).
If you want to go a step further and contemplate how to integrate the metaverse into your future productivity and work-related activities, I recommend that you focus on experimenting with VR applications designed for productivity. There are many out there, some of which allow you to integrate with your computer so that you can see your keyboard and operating system on virtual screens while using them on your physical computer (e.g., Immersed, Workrooms). This can be an efficient way of increasing productivity, especially in instances where having multiple screens speeds up the work (e.g., writing research papers, computer programming). Just jump into your VR app store of choice (e.g., the Oculus store), search for productivity apps, and download to try it. Most of them have a free version with some paid features.
Lastly, you can start considering the types of environments and virtual assets in the metaverse that would complement your work and daily life best. Will your small business need a presence in a virtual world – perhaps so that you can interact with customers more intimately (e.g., sales, personal information services, consulting)? Would you like to train employees remotely or conduct interviews in environments where you can assess social or other skills better than in videoconferencing readily? The possibilities are seemingly endless and the time to start considering them in your own context is now.
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