Recognising the metaverse’s potential to reshape modern working, tech giants have sold competing visions of what new digital offices could look like – but there could be more consistency after major industry players joined forces to establish metaverse standards.

Designed to improve interoperability between core visual technologies, the formation of the Metaverse Standards Forum (MSF) brings together key players including Meta, Microsoft, Huawei, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Epic Games, Unity, Adobe, and standards body The Khronos Group.

Designed to foster “consensus-based cooperation” between the dozens of companies pursuing metaverse visions that range from real-estate speculation to socially-inclusive space and all-ages red-light districts, MSF members collectively cover the spectrum of workplace and entertainment technologies.

They already offer widely-used technologies spanning everything from productivity suites to social media, content presentation standards and the graphics technologies – and their cooperation is the next step in linking those technologies into a more-coherent virtual world.

“The metaverse will bring together diverse technologies, requiring a constellation of interoperability standards, created and maintained by many standards organisations,” Khronos Group president Neil Trevett said in welcoming the “pragmatic and timely standardisation that will be essential to an open and inclusive metaverse.”

Industry experts have outlined broad characteristics they see as essential for the metaverse – including a real-time, active and “bright” environment with dynamic economies and experiences created by both users and companies.

Meta, for one, is working to develop a photorealistic VR environment that will include extremely high-resolution environments, photorealistic avatars, and more.

Paired with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recently demonstrated mock-up of a rather spartan office space, Meta’s efforts around photorealism suggest the company’s aesthetic conceit is focused on building the metaverse as a ‘digital twin’ of the real world.

Real work in the virtual world

Yet for all the focus on creating convincing and engaging virtual spaces, early tests suggest building a viable metaverse office – one to which we will happily don VR goggles and check into the metaverse for our working day – will require much more than verisimilitude.

Although one recent survey of Australian IT professionals found overwhelming support for the idea of conducting meetings using VR headsets, a recently-published German academic study – which challenged 18 people to work in the metaverse for a week while wearing an Oculus Quest 2 VR unit – found today’s metaverse office experience to be suboptimal.

Two participants dropped out of the study completely, while 35 per cent of the remaining 16 participants said that working in the metaverse office was significantly harder in VR.

Citing issues including eye strain (experienced by 48 per cent), frustration (42 per cent), anxiety (19 per cent) and negative affect (11 per cent), participants said VR working compromised system usability, perceived productivity, and self-rated workflow.

Indeed, one in five participants said spending a week working in the metaverse had compromised their personal well-being.

“We are well aware that with the current state of VR technology, working in VR will be demanding on the user,” the study’s authors note, conceding that “one can expect that the user experience in VR might be inferior to the one in the physical environment.”

Yet by quantifying the baseline experience using today’s technologies, they said, the current study “can serve as baseline for future optimised VR experiences that do not necessarily replicate a physical environment.”

Ongoing scepticism about the workability of virtual office spaces has kept companies like Slack – whose widely-used messaging platform could theoretically be adapted as a core metaverse service – from joining the metaverse-office experience quite yet.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield has openly expressed scepticism about the value of the metaverse office, preferring to focus on tweaking a collaboration environment that will get a boost with next month’s release of a US government-certified secure version called GovSlack.

Rather than rushing into the metaverse, Slack is curating its own collaboration space with enhancements to its Huddles co-working feature that adds casual video chat capabilities for ad hoc virtual meetings – providing a sort of virtual-office watercooler.

“We’re seeing that teams are more open than ever to changing how they work and embracing new tools that help them work better,” Rob Seaman, Slack senior vice president for enterprise product, told Information Age.

Providing equal access to meetings for in-office, fully-remote and hybrid workers makes it as easy to set up impromptu meetings online just like in-office workers used to grab a room to work on a project.

The current vision, he adds, is much more ambitious than just replicating the office online.

“We don’t want to just bring back the metaphors of the physical office into the digital world,” he explained. “We really want to use this as an opportunity to rethink how modern business works.”