Immersed in the metaverse

Employers such as Hyundai see value in virtual reality for events, training

Immersed in the metaverse

At the end of 2021, Hyundai Card — the credit card arm of Hyundai Motor Group — decided to hold its year-end celebrations in the metaverse.

An online singing competition let employees show off their karaoke skills by creating avatars to represent themselves in a metaverse. Other employees were selected to be part of a judging panel and a total of 71 contestants applied.

“I love to sing but get stage fright so the metaverse singing contest was perfect for me,” says Minhyuk Choi, who took first place. “At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect in a virtual reality competition; however, when it was my turn and my avatar walked on stage, it felt as if I was live on stage with all my colleagues watching. I could see and hear them cheering me on, I knew I had to perform my best.”

Hyundai Card also held a group quiz in the metaverse, where teams could work together on their answers. Meal prizes were sent to the team members to enjoy online together.

Thanks to the dramatic increase in remote workers because of the pandemic, is the metaverse a viable option for employers looking to boost collaboration and innovation?

Institute makes training fully immersive

Ryan Androsoff seems to think so. As associate of digital governance at the Institute of Governance in Ottawa, he runs a program for public sector executives focused on training around digital trends.

And with the pandemic, they had to pivot from the in-person to online training.

“We wanted to be able to still give people a sense of connection and networking. And I think that's one of the real challenges, is moving to doing training through Zoom or Microsoft Teams; it's an imperfect vehicle, and it sometimes doesn't give you the opportunities to have that immersive experience that you get when you're actually physically together. “

At first, the institute tried out a web-based platform where users created characters or avatars in an online meeting space to interact with each other, while the facilitator imports PowerPoint presentations or videos in the video game-like setting.

While that went well, the institute decided to take the approach a step further through fully immersive virtual reality by investing in Oculus Quest VR headsets that are lent out to participants. The week-long program incorporated roughly 90 minutes of activities using the Oculus system into each day’s program. This included a collaborative design-thinking activity, a 3-D data visualization exercise, self-directed exploration of various VR experiences, and an end-of-program workshop and graduation ceremony.

The organizers were pleasantly surprised at how well it went, says Androsoff.

“It was something we were really conscious of was: How are people going to take to this? Are they going to view it as being a gimmick?” he says.

“It has been almost universally positive in terms of the feedback we've gotten from it… once people get on board to it and get comfortable with using it.”

Maybe 10 to 15 per cent of participants could experience eye discomfort or a mild headache at first, but by the end of the week, everybody seems to tolerate it well, says Androsoff.

“Using VR, there certainly is a time limit on it, in terms of being able to use it productively. And we don't tend to have people use it for more than about 60 to 90 minutes consecutively — that tends to be about the limit of what people are comfortable tolerating in one session.”

The Employment and Education Centre in Brockville, Ont., recently started using VR to assist clients and students who are looking for extra guidance with career exploration.

Benefits to metaverse training

There are a several benefits for people in using the VR approach, according to Androsoff.

“Number one, it's a more immersive experience in terms of interacting with their peers. You feel much more like you're in a room with each other, and it adds a sense of realism to the experience, which is difficult to capture in the same kind of way in a two-dimensional experience through a Zoom call, for example.”

When people are together in a physical environment, there's a lot of unspoken or unconscious body language and social norms around how they interact, so it’s second nature. And in moving to a Zoom culture, people have come to realize they have to be more intentional with their behaviour.

But in transitioning to virtual reality, people are taken back to that physical presence again, he says.

“It's not perfect yet, the technology hasn't fully gotten to where it feels like I'm just sitting in the room talking with you, but you're actually seeing another person, you can see people in your periphery, and I find some of the behaviours that we would do if we were meeting in-person, people start to replicate that a bit more when they're in the virtual reality environment.”

In addition, the leaders involved in the VR training come to better understand and appreciate the technology, says Androsoff.

“They're seeing potential applications as to how virtual reality might be used in their work in the future, whether it's people who are working, for example, at an inspection-based agency where perhaps… you don't have to necessarily travel somewhere to be able to have those same kinds of experiences.”

In the Zoom world, people have reported fatigue, isolation and disengagement, and the asynchronous element doesn’t help, particularly when it comes to learning online, says Carrie Purcell, co-founder and CEO of Tech-Adaptika in Toronto, which provides a metaverse for educational and professional development.

“We know from our user testing, we know from our data, we know from our own experiences, that it feels different. [But] I might be in a virtual reality world, whether I have a headset on or in the form of an avatar, and I feel like I'm there; and I feel like the people around me are there. I get a better sense of my community.”

Plus, many of those spontaneous moments that happen in a real-world environment — such as impromptu conversations in a corridor or over cocktails — just don't happen in a video call, it’s a one-way conversation, she says.

“The metaverse allows you to recreate those spontaneous interactions. So people walk of out an auditorium together, and they start to interact with people that they may know and haven't seen or they may not know at all. And there's a layer to the metaverse that makes it more comfortable for a lot of people that may otherwise have social anxieties, or other inhibitions about going up and talking to someone. The metaverse allows you a safe space with an avatar… you have these different levels of engagement, that allow people to ease into their comfort zone.”

As an added bonus, the metaverse surroundings can be changed, so people working from home or a windowless call centre, for example, can expand their horizons, says Purcell.

“In a virtual world, we don't have limitations — it can be a meeting in the sky, it can be on the beach, it can be wherever you want it to be,” she says, adding the space should be intuitive so people are comfortable and know how to navigate it quickly.

Prince Edward Island recently announced it is using virtual reality (VR) technology in hopes of recruiting doctors into the province.

The future

The introduction of the Oculus Quest headset has been a real game-changer around the VR usage from a cost perspective. At $400, it's half the price of a smartphone and, “in the grand scheme of things, it’s relatively inexpensive in terms of the actual hardware,” says Androsoff.

“Most of the companies that I've been tracking who were investing [and] doing a lot of employee training around this seem to be gravitating towards the Oculus because of that price point, and the fact that it doesn't require specialized computer hardware, it's a self-contained product.”

And as new technologies such as this become more pervasive with consumers, it’s likely employers will start picking up on it, he says.

“As VR becomes more mainstream, I think you might actually have some bottom-up pressure from employees who are using it in their personal lives and start saying, ‘Hey, why can't we take advantage of some of this in the work setting as well?’”

Last year, the Ontario government announced that some employment centres would use VR to lure more job candidates into the steel and aluminum trades.

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