The future of work is virtual

Originally posted at

#longpost #musing #futureofwork #XR #virtualreality

When #Covid first hit, I don’t think anyone could foresee just how huge – and ultimately, permanent – its impact would be. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ramifications, through the lens of XR among others (but ultimately, rooted in human behavior!).

From the beginning it seems apparent that many businesses would realize that a #distributedworkforce not only often works, but is an attractive option: cheaper than maintaining office space, but also the ability to recruit talent from anywhere. For people, many now prefer the humanity of #workingfromhome. Cue the home designer of the future, who will have to make sure that “work space” is built into living spaces of the future. Also, can only imagine the impact on human migration! If you can live anywhere, why wouldn’t you?!

But our technology to do so is adapted from the before times. We lose a sense of community when interactions are limited to Brady Bunch-style #zoom calls, let alone all the “soft interactions” that came from running into someone in the hall, or sharing lunch time in the break room. It’s difficult to harness soft skills when there is no informal interactions.

Virtual Reality has the ability to recreate that sense of community with 3D environments where people can interact much more like they would naturally. Platforms like ENGAGE XR Holdings Plc and Spatial are emerging to provide those environments; it is surprising how easily you interact and engage with others. They call it embodiment, & it’s real: someone might physically be thousands of miles away, yet you feel like you’re standing next to them. NB I’ve honestly had more *real* conversations with people/avatars in virtual reality than I’ve even had in a group on Zoom.

Not only that, but you can share visual assets and experiences just like the real world. Brainstorm with everyone posting visuals on a board, or gather around a 3d prototype, which everyone can walk around and try out – it’s so much more than just sitting around a virtual table together.

{Big} Companies are starting to create immersive spaces that replicate their offices, as they are dealing with new employees who’ve never met anyone in the company – and are not gelling and/or feeling like part of the company. Creating a sense of belonging is important to keep people productive and happy.

The future is quite clearly being brought to you by technology that will enable geographically distributed workforces to succeed. Send a new employee a computer, comfy chair and headset – no cubicle needed! Enhancing our lives, IMHO. A win for people, a win for companies. Not so much for commercial real estate.

Augmented reality (#AR), virtual reality (#VR), Internet of Things (#IoT) & Artificial intelligence (#AI) are increasingly converging to bring us the future where we seamlessly move between reality and digital, where digital will overlay and enhance our daily experience, and where real human connections will be forged across a still very large planet.

That’s it for today out loud musing. A lot more to say though.

Note: I did not use the word #Metaverse. Intentionally. Because all of this is part of our enhanced digital future – hence, the Metaverse. “Meta”verse. Another dimension to our reality, brought to you by a set of  interconnected digital / sometimes immersive experiences. I’m a bit allergic to all the hype though. It’s a real concept that will really happen – but not as many think.

That’s another #reallylongpost.

A journalist asks: XR predictions for 2022

I was asked by a journalist to answer the question, “What do you see as the biggest trends in AR/VR/XR in 2022?” – and although I typically think a little further out than that, here are some of my thoughts on the matter. I took out the bits he’s using in the article, and will post links to that when it comes out – but these are what I think some of the most important short term trends for XR will be next year.

Work: The work at home will continue in 2022, and companies will increasingly realize that distributed workforce can work in many situations and for many industries (and is cheaper than paying for office space). Zoom fatigue is real though, and 2022 will see companies trying out the new VR collaboration spaces like, Arthur, Engage and others to foster a remote yet together sense of camaraderie and collaboration.

Look to see some of the bigger names in the industry announcing official “virtual” offices. This will in turn bring new consumers to try VR, where they might not have been willing before; see this in turn spur the creation of a bunch of new VR applications that are not about gaming. Avatar customization will in turn be a hot area of development; expect an announcement in 2022 for cross platform avatars that will allow consumers to create avatars they can use on multiple platforms.

Advertising: Brands will continue to explore what augmented reality can add to the existing marketing funnel, and the experiences that can enhance the brand-customer relationship. People are already getting used to AR through Snap and other lenses; a few advertisers have started integrating XR into their advertising campaigns, expect to see this trend continue and grow.

In addition to just fun, social AR will start to be explored, building on the momentum around existing fandom or mega experiences (such as Pepsi did at the SuperBowl this year) – and brands will explore different paths to brand engagement via AR and packaging, including small games that may include a social component as well.

Retail: In-store retail has seen huge strides in using augmented reality to help sell makeup; expect this both in-store and as part of ecommerce – expanding to include other products such as jewelry, shoes, and accessories. Although there are huge strides in virtual try-ons, I see the focus in the next year being more on items that don’t have sizing /fit requirements.

Socializing and attending events in virtual spaces will expand from being a somewhat niche thing to something that enters the mainstream. Fortnite has dedicated a virtual space to concerts, while performers are able to perform “live” in front of crowds of avatars via Holoportation from around the world; Reggie Watts performed live stand up in AltspaceVR, and Jean Michel Jarre performed a live concert in VR while in a reconstructed Notre Dame.

Look for more of this in 2022, bringing live concerts to people without worrying about location and the logistics of putting on a live event are two very strong incentives, particularly given the continuing issues with Covid-19.

Cross industry partnerships will continue to surprise, and blur boundaries. Entertainment companies have already started partnering with gaming companies, apparel companies with gaming companies (albeit so far, mostly luxury brands – other than Nike’s latest Roblox partnership, which is a harbinger of more to come). In 2022 I expect to see announcements around entertainment companies (Netflix – particularly since they just launched a game platform for mobile – as well as the more “traditional” networks) partnering with retailers and brands as what we watch and what it on screen merges with what we can “experience” and ultimately, buy. That “interactive television” we’ve been talking about for 2 decades now will become more of a reality, as AR will provide the 3D digital interface to bring the products we’re watching to our living rooms, and enhance the watching experience.

Some of this will be fueled by NFTs / digital assets. I expect more consumer brands to jump on the bandwagon and start selling branded art, apparel and accessories for use in virtual worlds (2021 will be too early to see much adoption of wearing of virtual items in the real world via AR – I think that will happen when we see viable AR glasses that we wear throughout the day). I think they hype will die down a bit although NFTs as a mechanism to track digital authorship, ownership and authenticity is here to stay. I’d love to see that combined with a mechanism that actually permanently and immutably digitally watermarks items a la what Adobe is trying to do so the ownership information isn’t separately on a ledger somewhere, but permanently tied to the digital asset – but that is for another post.

And finally – Facebook (Meta) has brought the concept of the Metaverse to the average consumer, creating a lot of curiosity about what that means. Although the concept is not new, it does seem on everyone’s mind now, not just people in the industry. Until we have interoperability standards for hardware and software, content will continue to be siloed. Given people’s increasing dissatisfaction with Meta’s data and privacy issues, I believe there will be startups focused on providing experiences – both AR and VR – that are NOT part of the current walled gardens system, but will attract the curious there.

Building worlds with Xmod’s NetVRk

I attended the Miami VR Expo two weeks ago, at the  invitation of its Co-Founder, Adrian Allen.  It’s their first year, and he told me his goal for it is very clear: to grow the AR/VR community in Miami. A noble cause. As he pointed out, Magic Leap is nearby, as is DisneyWorld’s themed entertainment, and there are a ton of Miami art school graduates who would like to work in AR/VR but end up leaving the area for lack of work. There’s a parallel to that with  Drexel University in Philadelphia and the gaming / animation industry.

I {fortunately} moseyed on by the XMod’s NetVRk booth on my way out, mostly because I spied VR headsets waiting to be used and  I never miss the opportunity to try a new VR experience! – so glad I did.  I put on the VR headset with my guide Linus Chee,  NetVRK’s concept artist and was immediately immersed in their beautiful experience.

I say “experience” because it’s not really a game. You’re greeted by your very own planet (they’re individually spawned so each one’s different), encircled by a fence. Linus and I stood on the edges looking down at the surface, with the builder’s toolbox hovering to my left. The toolbox has libraries of elements that can be placed wherever you like on the planet (zooming uses Tiltbrush’s grandiose two armed sweeps, which were so fun) – elements click together, so you can build a mansion with pre-formatted pieces, or put sharks in the water, drones in the sky etc.  It reminded me of “god mode” games like Civ, or the Sims/Sims City – games where you are building, creating and making decisions. Think Minecraft on super steroids.

After clicking a few elements together into a house, we entered into the full size experience.  We walked around admiring our handiwork, then hopped on a drone to ride it. I was madly giggling at the jumps, where you throw your hands in the air and point while letting go of the controllers, ending up in 20 foot arcs.

By now a stream of people walking by had stopped to watch what I was doing on the screen and were lining up to try it, and I will *not* apologize for hogging it lol…I hopped on a tall masted ship that happened by (on the most beautiful crystal clear water) which you can steer with the wheel (avoiding underwater rocks lol – if I’d had more time I’d crash into them to see what happens). I fell into the water on one of my jumps and Linus had to save me as “the sharks will find you” – not sure what happens when they do 😃

Linus and I giggled like hyenas as we ended up tossing chess pieces into a rotating fan to see the bounce.

I love that it’s multi-user and social. Linus was talking to me throughout, and we were tag teaming actions in the world we’d just built together.

It had elements of Minecraft (spawned planet, drag and drop elements), Second Life / High Fidelity / Sansar (build your own world and “live” in it) but was far more beautiful than Minecraft, and much easier to create and navigate than High Fidelity.

The experience was utterly beautiful. To the point where, a few days later I was on a {real} boat in the clear blue waters off Miami’s coast, and all I could think was, “not as pretty as the water in NetVRk“.

After I took off my headset and realized there were about 20 people waiting (oops), and after fleetingly contemplating once again how ridiculous one looks when wearing a VR headset, and how much I don’t care lol – I sat down with XMod’s Founder Mike Katseli to talk about what they are creating.

Turns out it’s even more than that – an entire platform, currently complete with crypto currency and developer tools – I’d just experienced the consumer / player side. There is a whole platform for developers, B2B applications, trading, making money – all of it.

It’s a digital sandbox where anyone can create their own fully immersive VR world and experiences, regardless of their tech skills.  This is the genius part of it; it lets anyone create an immersive VR experience without any technical knowledge.

And the default is “open” sharing, unlike the walled garden  Second Life ultimately became. I did get very tired of bumping into force fields around private islands there.

Mike and I followed up on the phone a few days later, and his vision is grand indeed.  His description of NetVRk is “A blockchain based network for the creation and exchange of Virtual Reality content”. It sounds and feels in some ways very much like Oasis in Ready Player One to be honest (and I did love that book).

Obviously I have a ton of questions, some being: how is it going to make money? (Mike talked about a freemium model with non-invasive in world advertising, and a tiered pricing structure for companies). Is there going to be a community of open source developers / artists for stocking the ‘libraries”? Will you be able to import objects created elsewhere? What is NetVRk’s  governance model? What tool are provided for users to manage their privacy? ..and so many more.

He said his goal is to inspire creativity, and part of that will include revenue sharing with users and their data, a la Philip Rosedale.  He’s keen on not “owning” and exploiting user data, but instead seems to view this as a community he’s inviting us all in to share.

Mike believes the “golden feature” of NetVRk – and what makes it unique – is that they’ve managed to create an immersive environment that mimics what someone’s imagination feels like. The ease of interaction and creativity make doing it painless – so the experience comes to the forefront. It’s like being in your own dream, that you have the power to shape. and then, experience. Which is why it’s hard to leave! I certainly didn’t want to.

Mike’s inspiration comes from a childhood environment that fostered both creativity and engineering; he has a charming story about how he and his grandfather used to imagine science fiction worlds together, and create stories for that world – combined with his father’s engineering firm, where he learned to build and tinker, but be practical about it.

I like the idea that NetVRk’s goal is to lower the barrier to VR creation entry, allowing anyone to flex their imagination and start creating in an immersive 3d environment. It’s currently not easy to do (and is the same premise behind my own AR startup last year, Djinnio – which also used a library / drag and drop to democratize AR creation). Great minds!

Imagine the creativity unleashed – ideally attracting many, many more people to try creating in VR (particularly since it is social in nature). I’ve talked about the lack of VR applications for people who aren’t gamers in VR, this could be one of the “killer apps” that helps change that.

Xmod’s NetVrk is scheduled to launch in September on the Steam platform. I encourage everyone to seek it out and build something there. It’s a magical experience, impossibly beautiful and incredibly immersive.

Not sure I’ll ever want to leave.