What is a metaverse? And how will it affect learning and development teams?

As competing visions of a metaverse emerge, along with speculation about how people will work, meet, play, and learn in “the” metaverse—or a metaverse, since there will be multiple metaverses—learning leaders are starting to delve into this new “thing” with the goals of understanding how it can advance adult learning and training.

In a metaverse, a person can (supposedly) be present as if they are in a physical space. They can interact naturally with other people who are present. But, of course, no one is physically there, and everyone is represented by an avatar that might look like them … but can look like anything at all. These characteristics can make it hard to imagine and plan training activities in a metaverse.

What is a metaverse?

According to Josh Bersin, “a metaverse is a digital space represented by digital representations of people, places, and things. In other words, it’s a ‘digital world’ with real people represented by digital objects.”

Business strategy consulting company Accenture sees the metaverse as “an evolution of the internet that enables a user to move beyond browsing to inhabiting and/or participating in a persistent shared experience that spans the spectrum of our real world to the fully virtual and in between.”

As metaverse pioneers like Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft imagine it, a metaverse can be used for meetings, training, virtual travel, immersive experiences, networking, entertainment, and more; the possibilities appear unlimited.

Accenture’s “Meet Me in the Metaverse” report says, “Rather than viewing digital content, people will live and be present within it.”

Anthony Wong, writing for Forbes, leans away from a technology-focused vision of a metaverse: “Many think of the metaverse as a specific piece of technology when, in fact, it’s a shift in how we interact with technology and our relationship with cyberspace.” In Wong’s vision, the metaverse offers “more interactive ways to get involved with the online world, mainly through the use of virtual and augmented reality.”

Businesses are exploring metaverses

Business applications based on the metaverse are already emerging. For example, Microsoft is rolling out “Mesh” for use in Teams. Instead of seeing your teammates as little video boxes on your screen, your avatar can interact with their avatars in an immersive Teams environment and do whatever you’d do at the office, “together”: meetings, training, team building, social and collaborative activities, brainstorming, casual conversations, etc.

“Within the next two or three years, I predict most virtual meetings will move from 2-D camera image grids—which I call the Hollywood Squares model, although I know that probably dates me—to the metaverse, a 3-D space with digital avatars,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote in a late-2021 blog post. “The idea is that you will eventually use your avatar to meet with people in a virtual space that replicates the feeling of being in an actual room with them. To do this, you’ll need something like VR goggles and motion capture gloves to accurately capture your expressions, body language, and the quality of your voice.” Because most people don’t have these VR (virtual reality) tools (yet), early versions of Mesh will use webcams and animated 2D avatars, Gates wrote.

Interaction in a metaverse

In an interview with the Sway podcast, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier emphasized that the experience of virtual reality is most valuable for its ability to connect people with reality. “For me, it just was plainly obvious that what virtual reality was good for was noticing how magical conventional reality is. I think that’s what’s special,” he told host Kara Swisher. “The thing is that any digital world, no matter how elaborate, no matter how beautiful, is going to be most valuable as a form of contrast to notice that mystery.”

But when executives at Microsoft or Meta talk about their vision of a metaverse, that contrast—or any reference to physical reality—is given short shrift. Instead, these futurists emphasize the quality of interactions in the virtual worlds they are creating.

Avatars can take any form

One aspect of interaction in a metaverse is avatars. While it’s possible to create an avatar that resembles oneself, it’s also possible to choose an avatar that does not.

Some types of VR-based training relies on the ability of participants to take on avatars that are very different from themselves: For example, training aimed at increasing empathy or combatting bias often relies on the experience a person has as a person virtually experiencing discrimination to, it is hoped, increase empathy and change behavior so as to reduce sex- or gender-based discrimination or racial discrimination.

Lanier told Sway that while avatars in corporate settings are often realistic depictions of the person, “You can turn into fantastical other creatures. … The thing is, if you change your avatar, you change the world. You can screw around with a sense of the passage of time. And when you can change all these things and yet there’s something that’s still there, to my knowledge, that’s the only technology that’s ever come along that makes you notice that your consciousness is a real thing.”

Avoid over-exposure

Use of immersive training for empathy building or other soft skills is still new enough that long-term results are not widely available. However, early research indicates that learning leaders should be cautious in how, and how much, they use this approach to training.

Cultivate the right image

Projecting the right image as a corporate leader in a metaverse might present challenges. Voice and leadership coach Miluna Fausch suggests that leaders work on their “executive presence,” in part by working to “craft” their voice. “Projecting leadership in a virtual environment has been a challenging transition for many leaders,” she said, and projecting authority in the new normal of virtual meetings carries increased stakes. “Leaders who evolve their communication as the metaverse evolves can significantly impact and benefit other people,” she said.

Where does L&D fit in?

In its 2022 Tech Trends report, the Future Today Institute predicts that, “The future of work will become more digitally immersive as companies deploy virtual meeting platforms, digital experiences, and mixed reality worlds.”

Learning leaders are likely to spearhead the integration of their organizations’ workers into a metaverse, whether by providing training in using the tools that make a metaverse possible or through developing training and performance support resources that learners will use in an immersive environment.

Advantages of moving some workplace collaboration and learning into a metaverse include ease of scaling and globalization. The Tech Trends report mentions personalization at scale and easy multilingual translation as advantages of “synthetic media”—algorithmically generated digital content, which could proliferate in metaverses.

And Wong writes, “You’ll also be able to reach teams on an international scale. Use the expertise of people from all around the world to benefit and nurture the knowledge of people within your organization.”

Upskill for the metaverse

As metaverses take shape, learning leaders can get ahead of coming changes by preparing their organizations’ leaders and workers with the skills they’ll need. “Business leaders should start building new strategies today, exploring the potential of new products and services and training their executives on the technologies that will soon be foundational to their business,” Accenture advises in “Meet Me in the Metaverse.”

  • Digital skills are paramount, including use of cloud-based technologies and implementation of a foundation of platforms and services that enable connection and collaboration throughout an organization. Developing these at all levels of the organization is a critical focus for learning leaders.
  • L&D teams creating or supporting work and learning in a metaverse will need expertise on immersive and 3D design, tools, and platforms, including game engines like Unreal or Omniverse, a 3D design platform.
  • L&D teams, and their leaders, will need to deepen their understanding of emergent technologies like blockchain, AR and VR, and the internet of things (IoT).

An entry point to using a metaverse in learning is a company’s adoption of VR-based training. While more organizations are using immersive training, VR-based training is still not common, especially in smaller organizations. Another driver will be the need to find ways to build and maintain team connections in fully remote or hybrid organizations. Learning leaders are likely to find that the urgency of preparing for training in the metaverse depends heavily on these factors.