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“I believe the metaverse will become a natural part of how we work in much the same way as the internet”

Interview with Mads Troelsgaard

You can work from anywhere but still have the option to visit a physical office space – albeit one that has far fewer desks and is optimised for a hybrid work model. Your morning email routine will likely not change because emails, sadly, aren’t going anywhere (for now at least). But you might not use your fingers to type them. Instead, you can opt for voice to text or simply send a recorded voice message.

Next up is your weekly check-in with your boss followed by a virtual visit to your company’s new production plant in Shanghai. Here you meet the on-site director who walks you through the facility and shows you how the entire production process works using a mixture of video, documentation, interactive guides, and animated 3D models and more.

After lunch, you meet up with your colleagues from the Sao Paulo office and challenge them to a game of virtual ping-pong. In the afternoon, you head out to a client and walk them through your company’s new solution using AR so they can see how it will look and work in their production. Your last meeting of the day is a remote support call with a service tech in Los Angeles. Using your mixed reality device, you help them fix a malfunction that’s slowing down production.

This scenario describes a typical office workday in the near future, as envisioned by Mads Troelsgaard. He is the CEO and co-founder of SynergyXR, a platform that supports companies in establishing their own presence across AR, VR, and Mixed Reality. Troelsgaard believes that the emergence of the so-called ‘corporate metaverse’ will drastically change how we work in the future, and that companies and organisations will soon need to get involved for the same reasons that they might have needed an intranet or website 20 years ago. We met with Troelsgaard to learn more about why, how, and when he thinks this might happen.

You believe that a paradigm shift is underway and that the metaverse will radically change our lives, including how we work. How do you see this happening?

At a high level, the metaverse is the next evolution of how we communicate. With XR (‘extended reality’, referring to environments that combine the real and the virtual, as well as human-machine interactions) we’re finally able to harness the power of 3D and can now immerse ourselves into virtual worlds and layer digital information onto physical spaces to enhance our understanding of our surroundings. This is basically what we know as VR, AR, and MR today – all of which are manifestations of the metaverse. There we can connect with others through telepresence in a way that gives us the same feeling as being next to each other in real life, albeit with fairly rudimentary avatars that we all can agree need to become more lifelike – that’s coming soon.

When it comes to how we work, I think it’s safe to say that the metaverse will also have a major impact. Think about how much of our work today is internet-dependent. Without it, most of us wouldn’t last a day. Then consider how the pandemic impacted office work and how quickly we adapted our work tasks, meetings, and processes to accommodate the change – and how much the internet played a role in facilitating that. I think the recent shift to remote working or hybrid work models comes as a blessing in disguise for the transition to the corporate metaverse. The more employees become exposed to virtual workspaces like Zoom or Teams, the easier it will be to move work tasks into virtual, augmented, or mixed realities. One thing to remember is that this won’t happen overnight. It will take some time before we begin to see the true potential of the metaverse. And even though we’re seeing increased adoption, there’s no need for people to fear that their jobs will become ‘metaverse-jobs’ anytime soon. What I believe we will experience, however, is that XR headsets will become as commonplace as laptops and mobile devices over the next 2-3 years. Simply put, I believe the metaverse will become a natural part of how we work in much the same way as the internet.

Can you elaborate on how you see the corporate metaverse developing in a long-term perspective? What challenges can the metaverse help solve in the future workspace? And what are the most significant disadvantages to the future workspace in this transformation?

Over the next decade, I think we will see companies begin to create their own corporate metaverse. And I anticipate that in 10 years, 80% of all companies will have a presence in the corporate metaverse. Again, I compare this to the early internet. It took a while for organisations to figure out how to use it, but before long every company had a webpage,
an intranet, a social media presence, and for some, a new revenue stream with online stores.

I think the same will happen with the metaverse. For instance, we will have digital replicas of physical spaces which will make it easy to visit the company headquarters without having to travel. Our avatars will also become much more lifelike, so much in fact that we won’t notice the difference between our real and virtual selves. Moreover,
companies will have an ever-expanding network of virtual spaces and experiences
that they will use for things like designing products and services, training and onboarding employees, and gathering for social events. We will also use the metaverse to engage with customers in new ways. For example, corporate ‘websites’ will become virtual experiences which can be used to share stories and promote products and
services in a much richer and more immersive way than today.

Retail and e-commerce will also be impacted. In the metaverse, you will be able to visit a virtual version of your favourite store and see products in an unlimited number of sizes and colours before buying. As for brick-and-mortar stores, I think we can expect them to become ‘experience showrooms’ that let you not only touch and try products but also learn more about how the product was produced, track its journey, or meet the designer.

When it comes to how the metaverse will solve some of the challenges related to the future of work, I think it’s important to start with the fact that companies have finally realised that remote working is here to stay. Even in a post-Covid world, we will still
have some form of hybrid work model where employees may work more frequently
away from the office than in the office. That means companies now need to find new, faster and better ways to keep their employees connected. XR is the perfect solution to this problem. There’s even a growing body of evidence that suggests employees are growing tired of online meetings, so companies are beginning to explore alternatives to
platforms like Zoom and Teams.

Another challenge – and one that affects us all – is the need to reduce CO2 emissions. Fortunately, XR technologies like virtual reality reduces the need to travel for work. Another upside is that companies also save a lot on travel-related costs and employee downtime.

There must be some disadvantages to working in the metaverse as well?

I think there are a few. First, as is the case with all new innovations, there’s a risk of marginalising senior employees. And given the large number of Baby Boomers who are still on the job market today, getting the entire workforce to adapt to this new technology
could be a challenge. But here’s the thing: we have been here before and not that long ago, when the internet took the world by storm around 30 years ago, and when the iPhone was introduced in 2007.

Another concern is how the corporate metaverse will impact workplace culture when workers meet in virtual spaces instead of going to the office. What happens when we no longer have water-cooler gossip, lunch conversations, or after-work cocktails? Of course,
this problem isn’t new, especially for employees whose teams are spread across the globe. In that sense, the metaverse provides new ways to socialise with remote colleagues. And to our digital native successors, this is just another day in their always online lives.

XR, MR, VR, and AR. There are many technologies to consider when talking about the corporate metaverse. In your mind, which is the most interesting one?

I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about individual hardware because at some point they will all merge into one. Today we experience AR on mobiles and tablets and VR/MR on headsets. And it’s breath-taking to see how far we’ve come since Morton Heilig introduced the ‘Sensorama’ in 1962, which was the first immersive, multisensory experience. The evolution is similar to that of the personal computer, which developed from mainframes that filled entire rooms to what we have today.

In the last few years alone, we’ve gone from computer-tethered XR devices to stand-alone XR devices that, considering their size, weight, processing power, and memory storage, deliver a mind-blowing experience. We will soon say goodbye to controllers and replace them with rings and bracelets that mimic our hand movements. Our clothing will include sensors that can both send and receive information, and those large VR headsets will be replaced by devices resembling normal eyeglasses. Those probably won’t last too long either, as they will eventually be replaced by contact lenses with built-in microchips – and before we know it, we will have sensors, chips, and who knows what else inside our bodies that will let us control the world around us literally by moving our eyes and snapping our fingers.

Before you yell “Black Mirror”, remember that this change will happen over long periods of time. When we look back into history, we will see the exact same patterns of adoption and improvement with basically all new innovations.

As more companies are looking for hooks to grab in the development of the corporate metaverse, which areas have the most potential?

Training, onboarding, and upskilling employees at scale is an ideal starting point for companies because the metaverse enables them to tell better stories using visual 3D communication. This is especially helpful when you have a complex and sophisticated product or service offering. Let’s say you are Grundfos, the largest pump manufacturer in the world, and that you want to educate new employees on how these pumps are used to move groundwater into people’s homes. Traditional methods like classroom instruction or elearning are good, but they’re costly, inefficient, and mostly ineffective.

But when you bring employees into a virtual reality training session, they’re able to get close to the products and quickly understand how they work in the real world. Even better, they’re able to interact with other employees to create a shared learning experience all without having to travel. Seeing that most companies today are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, going the XR route and reducing the need to send employees to facilities is a no-brainer.

In fact, studies have shown that VR training is not only four times faster than traditional learning, but employees are also four times more engaged. A VR training project we developed for Grundfos reduced training times from six weeks to four days. That’s a return on investment I think most companies can get excited about.

Another example of where the corporate metaverse is driving value is through accelerating learning and collaboration. Sanovo, one of the world’s leading egg processing manufacturers, needed to find a quick solution that enabled them to carry out repairs without having the machinery physically in front of them. Before Covid-19, the
firm’s service technicians would travel – often more than 200 days annually – to clients’ locations to repair machines on-site. But this was made nearly impossible when international travel became heavily restricted.

The company now uses Mixed Reality (MR) to connect support technicians in Denmark with plant technicians located around the world in order to assist and support remotely, through their computers. The support technicians can see what the plant technician sees and share 3D content like instruction diagrams and manuals to facilitate repairs. The plant technician can manipulate this content with their hands and follow instructions in real-time, while the support technician ‘looks over their shoulder’. What’s most impressive is that downtime has been reduced to only a few hours versus a few days – not to mention costs saved by not having to travel.

Ultimately, I think the most radical change we are seeing is how fast we are able to learn thanks to our ability to simulate, create experiences and get involved. As the Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.”

The futurist John Naisbitt once remarked that trends, like horses, are easier to ride in
the direction they are already going. In your experience, how open are the companies
you work with to getting ahead of developments and changing the way they do business?

think most companies have seen the writing on the wall long enough that they can no longer ignore it. At the same time, it’s not lost on me that organisational change takes time and must be carried out incrementally. As with all new technologies, there will inevitably be resistance throughout the organisation (and outside the organisation
as well). What makes me optimistic is that I see a major push from top management
in many organisations to implement digital transformation strategies and explore, understand and adopt this technology sooner rather than later. I think a lot of that has to do with sheer timing and how the Covid pandemic has shaken companies to their very core, forcing them to realise how vulnerable they are when they are not ready to embrace new ways of working (or indeed new places of working). Another reason why companies
are leaning into the corporate metaverse is that the benefits are undeniable – both in terms of time and money saved but also in the rapid reduction of business travel and subsequent CO2 emissions, which is – or should be – top of the list for every CEO today. Finally, companies are also experiencing increased pressure from stockholders to produce
more, deliver faster, maintain quality, and stay competitive. I believe we’ll see more and more companies start experimenting with XR and dipping their toes into the metaverse soon, setting their organisations up for longterm success with these technologies.

If you could give some advice for companies who want to get started with the metaverse,
what would it be?

I would tell them to get started today, not tomorrow. Think about how many companies Amazon has killed, how much it cost Microsoft to arrive late to the smartphone party, and what Blockbuster would’ve done differently if they’d believed in streaming. I would
advise companies and organisations to not be afraid to dip their toes in already today; there’s little risk and tons of reward awaiting the first movers. Getting started is easy and doesn’t require huge capital investments, so you don’t need an army to get the ball rolling. I would also recommend starting small, piloting, testing, iterating, learning, and
growing. It’s not much different from how we’ve introduced and adopted other innovations in the past.