This week saw the return of thousands of people to their offices in Irish cities and towns, many for the first time in 18 months. But it is a changed environment, with companies embracing digital technology to usher in a hybrid way of working.
Before coronavirus locked down the country, the idea that virtual communications could ever replace in-person meetings was something that only a few companies had embraced.
Things may be reopening, but there won’t be a wholesale return to the office of old. The digital transformation is irreversible, but the future doesn’t lie in endless Zoom or Teams calls, either. Rather, it may be a virtual world where your avatar interacts with others as if in person, providing a more effective way to network.
Welcome to the metaverse, a digital world that could soon be a hub for business and leisure.
The idea of the metaverse has been the subject of a number of books and movies, from its first appearance in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash to the Oasis in Ready Player One and plenty more besides.
One Irish company is working hard to make the metaverse for business a reality. Waterford-based VR Education has seen its development accelerated in recent months as companies have turned to new technologies to create a better way of collaborating.
VR Education was founded in 2014 by chief executive David Whelan and his wife, Sandra, the company’s chief operating officer.
Whelan’s interest in virtual reality was sparked after he backed Oculus’s original Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. As soon as he put on the headset, he knew that he wanted to get into virtual reality.
Immersive VR Education, as it was known then, was started with a €1,000 loan from Whelan’s sister in 2014. In 2018 the holding company listed on the stock markets in London and Dublin, raising £6 million.
The company’s original focus was making virtual reality experiences that brought viewers to the Apollo missions or enabled them to explore the Titanic. But soon the company turned its hand to building the Engage platform, offering educators a better, more immersive education experience.
“It is a bit of a head trip for new people when they get it,” he said.
Good for business
For VR Education, the pandemic has been a boon for business. The company had envisaged a more gradual adoption of Engage until the coronavirus outbreak shut down businesses all over the world.
“We were thinking three to five years is what the adoption of digital collaboration would take,” said David Whelan. “Then Covid hit and it happened within five weeks. It wasn’t just schools, it was all different types of organisations, and we’re seeing that continue even though vaccinations are going quite well.”
Those tools developed for the classroom, Whelan says, will work well for enterprise users, too. The company has held events for large companies in a virtual world, and so far, it has worked well – holding an event inside an arcade cabinet such as Wreck it Ralph, for example.
“With the events, especially with these big large blue-chip companies, they’ve been using Zoom and Microsoft Teams for events. All that happens is you’re watching PowerPoint presentation after PowerPoint presentation – the only interaction is a question and answer at the end, which is often text-based,” he says.
“The real reason people go to events is to go and meet someone – a chance meeting where you spark up conversation and hopefully that leads to business or you go talk to a sales person in an exhibition hall. That stuff we can do on Engage because we have spatial audio; you can get up out of your seat, walk down the corridor or have a private conversation with somebody and that real natural interaction is something that we do that these video platforms can’t do.”
The company now has more than 130 corporate customers for its technology. Last year it hosted a conference for Taiwanese electronic consumer products company HTC, which invested €3 million for a stake in VRE and is now packaging the Engage software with its Vive headset in China. That market holds huge potential for VR Education and its products, Whelan says, with VRE one of the only virtual reality platforms operating in China.
Its technology has already been used for medical training at the Royal College of Surgeons and the University of Oxford, and it has also agreed a multi-year licence agreement with Japan-based English education facility Tokyo Global Gateway.
It has been so successful that Engage now accounts for a larger proportion of its revenues than the original VR experiences, something the company hadn’t anticipated at this point in its development.
VRE is already working on the next generation of its technology: a virtual world. “Engage Oasis”, as it is currently known, will be a virtual world that will see a range of people, from professionals to college students, providing their services in an immersive environment.
It isn’t alone in trying to whip up enthusiasm for the metaverse. Early efforts from Second Life showed the potential in the space, and games such as Roblox and Minecraft have also made headway.
However, Engage Oasis will be different, Whelan says. “They have millions of kids on the platform, buying small items. They might spend maybe $5 or $10 a year within those platforms, and yet those platforms have huge valuations because of the amount of users.
“We are very very different, so if they’re like the TikTok or YouTube of the metaverse, we’re aiming to be the LinkedIn of the metaverse, where we’re attracting business users, corporations, educators, digital artists who want to do real business. That’s the thing that really does differentiate us, we have a much more mature audience base. You could be standing in a room next to the CEO of some large tech company and then some professor, whereas with the other platforms you’re standing next to a 12-year-old student of yours.”
The potential of the space hasn’t been lost on other business-minded players. Facebook has already demoed its own collaborative virtual workspace known as Horizon Workrooms, and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear he wants Facebook to be known primarily as a metaverse company. It’s a developing space that is ripe for growth.
Whelan compares the virtual reality market to the home computer market of the 1980s – gimmicky, with limited connections and uses until the advent of the internet in the 1990s, and with it online shopping and communication. Now the hype phase is over, and the productivity phase is starting.
“With the business metaverse that we’re building, these corporations will own their own metaworld, and they have control over what happens inside the metaworld. They can have a dress code; they can switch off audio for free users if they want; they can also sell products inside the platform,” he says. “You could be a retailer with a virtual reality store, with all your products on the shelves; people can pick up and look at a product, click on buy, and the physical item is brought to your house. We would make money off that transaction, or you can sell a subscription to your location and generate revenue from it that way.
“The metaworld is kind of like a new internet, where all these brands have their locations or presence, people go visit that presence and get a tailored, branded experience. You’re meeting digital representatives or you’re going on a digital journey before you get to the product.”
The key thing is being able to break down silos. Instead of virtual reality environments largely separate from each other and limited to specific devices, the metaverse would be a far more open, communal experience.
“When you’re on the internet, you probably only visit the same four or five websites, each time you look at the news, you might visit maybe adverts.ie or other sites,” he said.
“Inside the metaverse you’re not just visiting a website, you’re actually visiting a location that you can go and physically walk around, meet other people, have a shared shopping experience if you want or shared training experience, or go off to a virtual Ted Talk. These are the kinds of things that we’re enabling.”
He paints a picture of what the metaverse could look like: a digital city of sorts, with a central plaza as a gateway where people would enter before going off to the various virtual worlds that have been built, each with their own rules and levels of access.
While it may seem futuristic, the reality isn’t that far away, with VR Education expecting to have the platform up and running for public access next year. The company raised $10 million earlier in the year to develop Engage Oasis, and it plans to have it up and running in the first half of 2022.
“It’s going to be used more for marketing than anything else – a branded location to find out more information about the business. Maybe it’s going to be used for recruitment as well,” he says. “Then gradually it’s going to seep into the purchase and selling of digital products, because it’s not only the corporations that will be selling products; the actual general public can make their own products and sell them as well, like what we see with NFTs.
“We have a lot of interesting technical challenges to get ahead of but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”