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’s a changed environment, with companies adopting digital technology to introduce a hybrid way of working.
Before the coronavirus shut down the country, the idea that virtual communications could never replace face-to-face meetings was something only a few companies had adopted.
Things may be reopening, but there will be no wholesale return to the office from before. The digital transformation is irreversible, but the future does not lie in endless calls from Zoom or Teams. Rather, it can be a virtual world where your avatar interacts with other people as if they were in person, providing a more effective way to connect to the web.
Welcome to metaverse, a digital world that could soon be a center of business and leisure.
The idea of the metavers has been the subject of several books and movies, from his first appearance in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash to the oasis of Ready Player One, and more.
An Irish company is working hard to make the metaverse for business a reality. VR Education, based in Waterford, has seen its development accelerate in recent months as companies have turned to new technologies to create a better way to collaborate.
VR Education was founded in 2014 by CEO David Whelan and his wife, Sandra, the company’s chief operating officer.
Whelan’s interest in virtual reality was aroused after he supported Oculus ’original Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. As soon as he put on the headset, he knew he wanted to get into virtual reality.
Immersive VR Education, as it was known at the time, began with a 1,000-euro loan from Whelan’s sister in 2014. In 2018, the holding company, which was listed on the London and Dublin stock exchanges, raised £ 6 million.
The original focus of the company was to do virtual reality experiences that would take viewers on Apollo missions or allow them to explore the Titanic. But soon the company helped build the Engage platform, offering educators a better and more immersive educational experience.
“It’s kind of a journey towards new people when they get it,” he said.
Good for business
For VR Education, the pandemic has been a boon for businesses. The company had planned a more gradual adoption of Engage until the coronavirus outbreak shut down companies around the world.
“We thought three to five years would be what the adoption of digital collaboration would need,” David Whelan said. “Then Covid hit and it was five weeks later. They weren’t just schools, they were all kinds of different organizations, and we’re seeing that they continue even though the vaccines are going pretty well. “
Those tools developed for the classroom, according to Whelan, will also work well for business users. The company has held events for large companies in a virtual world and so far has worked well: organizing an event within an arcade cabinet like Wreck it Ralph, for example.
“With events, especially with these big big chip companies, they have used Zoom and Microsoft Teams for events. All that happens is you look at the PowerPoint presentation after the PowerPoint presentation: the only interaction is a question and answer at the end, which is often text-based, ”he says.
“The real reason for event attendees is to get to know someone: a casual meeting where you have conversations and, hopefully, take you on business or go talk to a salesman in an exhibition hall. These things we can do them at Engage because we have space audio, you can get out of your seat, walk down the aisle or have a private conversation with someone and that real natural interaction is something we do that these video platforms can’t do. “
The company now has more than 130 corporate clients for its technology. Last year he hosted a conference for Taiwanese consumer electronics company HTC, which invested € 3 million in a stake in VRE and now packs Engage software with its Vive headphones in China. Whelan says this market has huge potential for VR Education and its products, 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 Oxford University, and it has also agreed to a multi-year licensing agreement with the Japan-based English Global Gateway.
It has been so successful that Engage now accounts for a larger proportion of its revenue than the original RV experiences, something the company had not anticipated at this time 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 allow you to see a large number of people, from professionals to college students, offering their services in an immersive environment.
It’s not the only attempt to get enthusiasm for the metaverse. Early Life’s early efforts showed potential in space and games like Roblox and Minecraft have also advanced.
However, Engage Oasis will be different, Whelan says. “They have millions of children on the platform who buy small items. They may spend $ 5 or $ 10 a year within these platforms, and yet these platforms have huge valuations due to the amount of users.
“We are very different, so if they are like the TikTok or YouTube of the metavers, we want to be the LinkedIn of the metavers, where we are attracting business users, corporations, educators, digital artists who want to do real business. That’s what really sets us apart, we have a much more mature audience base. You could be in a room next to the CEO of a large technology company and then a teacher, while with the other platforms you are next to a 12-year-old student of yours. ”
The potential of the space has not been lost on other players eager for business. Facebook has already demonstrated its own collaborative virtual workspace known as Horizon Workrooms and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that he wants Facebook to be known primarily as a metaverse company. It is a space in mature development for growth.
Whelan compares the virtual reality market to the home computer market of the 1980s: artificial, with limited connections and uses until the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, and with it online shopping and communications . The advertising phase is now over and the productivity phase is beginning.
“With the commercial metavers we are building, these corporations will own their own metaworld and have control over what happens within the metaworld. They may have a dress code; they can turn off audio for free users if they want to; they can also sell products within 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 to buy and the item physically we take it home.We would make money with this transaction or you can sell a subscription to your location and generate revenue that way.
“The metaworld is like a new Internet, where all these brands have their location or presence, people visit that presence and get a personalized branding experience. Meet digital representatives or go on a digital journey before you get to the product.”
The most important thing is to be able to break silos. Instead of virtual reality environments largely separated from each other and limited to specific devices, metavers would be a much more open community experience.
“When you’re on the internet, you probably only visit the same four or five websites, every time you look at the news, you might visit adverts.ie or other sites,” he said.
“Within the metavers not only visit a website, but visit a place where you can physically go and walk, meet other people, have a shared shopping experience if you want or shared training experience or go to a virtual Ted Talk. These are the kinds of things we’re enabling. “
Paint a picture of what the metaverse might look like: a digital city of sorts, with a central plaza as a gateway where people would enter before going to the various virtual worlds that have been built, each with its own rules and access levels.
While it may seem futuristic, the reality isn’t that far off, as VR Education hopes to have the platform up and running for public access next year. The company raised $ 10 million earlier this year to develop Engage Oasis and plans to have it up and running during the first half of 2022.
“It will be used more for marketing than anything else: a branded location to get more information about the company. Maybe it will also be used for hiring,” he says. sale of digital products, because not only companies will sell products, the real general public can manufacture their own products and sell them as well, like what we see with NFTs.
“We have a lot of interesting technical challenges to move forward, but we’re definitely going in the right direction.”