As companies struggle to return employees to offices full-time, interest in a virtual alternative like the metaverse has surged, providing new business opportunities for firms like New York-based IA Interior Architects.
As a trained architect, Guy Messick spent nearly 40 years designing physical offices and retail spaces globally. His design firm IA Interior Architects helped bring Uber’s New York office and Mastercard’s Tech Hub to life.
The coronavirus pandemic changed everything. These days, you’re more likely to find him donning a virtual reality headset in his home office than visiting construction sites.
“When we all went home a couple of years ago, we got immediate interest from clients who had worked with us, saying ‘well what about this extended reality stuff,” said Messick, head of design technologies at IA Interior Architects. “Immediately the light went on and we said let’s leverage our experience in both design and this technology.”
Frustrated by Zoom calls and those muted squares, Messick said employers are increasingly seeking out new ways to engage workers, nearly three years into the work-from-home experiment. And, they’re finding that upgrades are much easier in the metaverse.
“We initially thought along with clients that we would be replicating their [office] space…that has not actually happened once,” Messick said. “[Virtual spaces] have the branding, and the feel and the look perhaps [of the physical office] but you don’t have the same rules.”
Case in point, IA’s Atlanta Studio location. While the physical office was built near the city’s Midtown neighborhood, Messick and his team opted to transport the same structure to the coast of South Africa, when it came to designing the metaverse. Employees have since taken to hosting happy hours and brainstorming sessions along the virtual waterfront, in the absence of face to face gatherings.
Messick said IA designers have placed particular attention on the use of biophilia, making sure the water rippling or grass and trees moving inside the virtual world are as close to real as possible.
“We did a lot of design study groups both internally and externally, and consistently the top two requests were outdoor spaces and vistas,” Messick said.
A mixed reality
The global metaverse market is expected to reach nearly $400 billion in the next two years with virtual assets like NFTs and hardware driving the gains, according to Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
But for all of the focus around Mark Zuckerberg and Meta (META)’s vision of a digital commerce empire built in the virtual world, adoption outside of gaming has largely been concentrated in corporate offices. Fortune 500 companies are increasingly utilizing virtual reality headsets to train new employees, conduct meetings with co-workers, and gather a global workforce for company retreats.
Employees at BCG began exploring use cases for the metaverse several years ago. Since the pandemic began, the company has held more than 5,500 virtual sessions in the metaverse for internal conferences, client pitch meetings, and recruitment efforts, according to Sarah Willersdorf, BCG’s global head of luxury.
The virtual office space, designed by Munich-based Arthur Technologies, includes snowy resorts and tropical retreats. Users can exchange post-it notes, share ideas on a whiteboard, and sip on virtual drinks while conducting private conversations within a group setting.
“I think after two years of Zoom or Teams, most people are exhausted and sick of looking at their own picture and sick of being on there,” Willersdorf said. “To actually be in a virtual setting that feels much more close is really unique.”
Willersdorf and Messick said the virtual experience is still in the very early stages. While interactions are largely limited to legless avatars and clunky headsets right now, Messick sees a future that seamlessly connects the real with the digital in mixed reality.
“A mixed reality is when you will be observing your office the way it is now and you’ll be greeting people from other locations as avatars and holograms,” he said. “We think that’s in the very near future.”
That reality is likely to take a giant leap, with the launch of mixed-reality headsets from Meta and Apple (AAPL), which are expected within the next year. And while companies remain divided over the viability of hybrid or remote work, Willersdorf said BCG plans to continue incorporating its virtual office space into its work low.
“If I think about the next generation of workers, they’re interacting in this way now,” she said. “They socialize in the metaverse, they play games in the metaverse, they exchange pocket money for V Bucks in Roblox. If you imagine them coming up and becoming employees, it’s not going to be foreign anymore.”
Foto: Gavin Menichini gives a demonstration of the Immersed Virtual Reality program at the Immersed offices on January 28, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Sergio FLORES / AFP)