When COVID-19 forced workers home, companies quickly shifted their communication strategies to video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Microsoft.
But as the pandemic dragged on, companies realized they needed more than daily virtual planning. Even factories that remained open had to update training procedures for people who normally travel to learn new equipment.
Enter the metaverse. Minnesota companies and organizations used the immersive technology used in the game to create new introductory and educational materials with computer-generated environments that looked and sounded real while changing the way people communicate.
Now, they say the technology is here to stay, and they’re working to use it in even more ways — both with employees and customers.
Twin Cities experts see the metaverse as the next iteration of how human beings use and interact with Internet-based technology. It follows the introduction of the personal computer, dial-up Internet, cellphones and browser-based and app-based video conferencing platforms, said Amir Berenjian, CEO of Rem5, a virtual reality studio and development company in St. Louis Park.
For Uponor North America in Apple Valley, the global pipe manufacturer’s US headquarters, Rem5 Studios has created a virtual reality training system where new remote employees and customers from outside the region can walk through the company’s unique manufacturing process and quality controls and testing. .
A few years ago, the company would have shipped these workers to the Twin Cities.
“It’s more scalable and more cost-effective,” Berenjian said.
Companies like Ford are partnering with VR companies to give their remote designers a place to collaborate in real time.
Rem5, also for Uponor, has created an augmented reality experience that displays 3D holograms of Uponor products to show how they fit individually into a final piece and how they work, allowing users to get to know the product, examine parts and interact with it. without having to ship the physical part itself. With a mobile device connected to the Internet, anyone can access the experience from anywhere in the world.
This technology can also change how companies and organizations interact with customers. Instead of hauling equipment to trade shows or to another business for a demonstration, VR can be added as a tool to demonstrate how equipment and machinery work in the real world.
Using VR headsets
Berenjian says virtual reality headsets add a deeper element to 3-D communication because it’s a more natural form of connection. In the virtual world, you can use body language, walk in different directions during a conversation, or even turn your head to see where the sound is coming from.
That doesn’t happen with two-dimensional pursuits like Zoom, he said.
“The reason I like to go down this road is to clear up how people think we’re taking a step away from human relationships when we introduce virtual technology,” Berenjian said. “We’re actually taking a step back when we do that .”
When using a virtual reality headset, all visual input is controlled by the application. “Everything we see is computer-defined, so it almost eliminates the ability of a human to multitask beyond a phone call or even a video conference call, where a person might be cooking or doing the dishes while talking,” said Victoria Interrante, the Professor at University of California. Minnesota Department of Computer Science and Engineering
“It creates a different way of interpreting and interacting with what you’re doing,” Interrante said.
However, how mainstream VR headsets are depends. Not only the price matters, but also the comfort. Some users may experience nausea or dizziness when using the earphones for extended periods of time.
“Once the technology gets to the point where it’s as physically comfortable to be in VR as it is in the real world, I think more and more people will adopt it,” Interrante said.
Society of Avatars
Not all experiences in the metaverse require a virtual reality headset. Many are available via the Internet on a personal computer or mobile device.
While first-person virtual reality allows users to see a world through their own eyes, third-person VR is a method of puppeteering digital characters that represent them.
Rem5 developed a desktop VR program called 1 City 2 Reality as a diversity and inclusion training tool for employers. By logging into the online program, people can control their avatars to tour a virtual gallery of information and images “highlighting systemic racial disparities in our nation and in Minneapolis.”
Rem5 partnered with General Mills and Target to make the virtual experience part of employee training.
The company has also created a similar program that focuses on privileges, Berenjian said.
Such an experiential learning opportunity creates empathy, Berenjian said. The emotional response of watching scenes unfold in VR bridges the gap between watching news coverage of events and actually being there.
“Your brain is more immersed,” he said.
Meetings in the metaverse represent different levels of engagement in avatar form. A video conference meeting with dozens of participants can become complicated when there are too many faces in the tiny squares on the computer screen.
In the metaverse, dozens of people can still gather, but they can have one-on-one or group conversations in a room if their avatars are huddled together, just like in the real world.
“The knee-jerk reaction is to say, ‘I don’t want to replace the real world,'” Berenjian said. “We’re not talking about replacing anything, we’re talking about augmenting or improving or making it more accessible.”
Because immersive technology can make interactions more personal, it is increasingly common in therapy sessions and diversity education. According to Berenjian, meeting in the metaverse just for the sake of it will not increase engagement with the technology.
“We need compelling reasons to be in these places,” he said. “It’s brand new and it will wear out.”
Where companies can start
If companies believe they need to provide permanent virtual training opportunities, they need to think about how much they need to spend. For example, a program using a VR headset can be expensive, Berenjian said.
But as innovators and proponents of Web 3.0, the next iteration of the Internet, create a decentralized and more democratic system for emerging technologies, augmented and virtual technology will become cheaper and possibly free to use.
“We’re talking about making this more accessible,” Berenjian said.
In the meantime, companies should do due diligence in finding potential partners that specialize in immersive technology and negotiate costs. Companies like Rem5 aren’t plentiful in the Twin Cities, but they do exist here, and there are national players.
For example, Red Wing Shoes recently partnered with California-based Roblox Corp., creators of the online gaming platform Roblox, to create a virtual experience called Red Wing BuilderTown through its new Builder Exchange Program.
Finally, some of these designs are being made in the real world for people in need through the Red Wing and Settled partnership, which provides tiny homes for the homeless. Roblox members can also purchase Red Wing merchandise in a virtual store.