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Finding the Right Metaphor for the Metaverse

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Image: Thamrongpat Theerathammakorn - Alamy Stock Photo
Spot, a Seattle-based metaverse start-up raised $5.5 million in a seed round this past week. It's not the biggest metaverse start-up deal out there — sports metaverse companies are grabbing $200 million in investment commitments — but it caught my eye because Spot's visual approach is fun and familiar to anyone who's spent any time playing gently immersive games like “The Sims” or “Animal Crossing.”
This has been my biggest question about the metaverse as it applies to the new world of work: Isn't the metaverse just like playing “Animal Crossing,” only with fewer cute animals and more cubicles? And why on Earth, in a digital medium where you can present as any sort of avatar, in physics-defying landscapes, would you replicate a cubicle farm?
When I moderated the metaverse panel at Enterprise Connect 2022, panelist Tom Brannen explained the utility of a metaverse office space thusly: A metaverse can give people the necessary sense of place that helps them shift into work mode with other folks. By providing a distinct and dedicated space in which to have productive, collaborative conversations around work projects, people will bring their work mentality to the online space. Maybe, it's just harder for some people to discuss budget allotments when it takes place on a peach tree-bedecked island, and one of you is presenting as a cutesy character in a polka-dot dress.
To make the metaverse work at, well, work will require finding the right metaphor for people whose experience of work began with a spatial separation from the not-work parts of their lives — going to school, going to the store, going to the office.
I'm reminded of Alan Kay's work at Xerox PARC in the 1970s. He helped people understand how they could incorporate computers into their workflow by turning computers into a tool with a visual representation of a desktop. People understood the notion of organizing and doing their work on a dedicated work surface, so it wasn't hard to begin thinking of their computer as that dedicated surface where they could stack, store, shuffle and sequence their files and tasks. The desktop metaphor flourished in the 1980s — Xerox's David Canfield Smith brought it to mass market with the Xerox Star 8010 Information System by introducing icons like file folders and trash cans, and the Apple Macintosh computer popularized it even further by training people who were not yet going to offices in how to think and work with office-like workflows around storing, organizing and finding information, and automating tasks.
Even before the pandemic, we were at least two workplace generations removed from people whose initial work experiences included dedicated desks, floppy disks, and physical file cabinets as the company's primary information repository. Now, we're experiencing the gap between what people understand as their work (data-based, cloud-residing, centered around conversations, context, and task) and what workplace metaphors we're using.
I'm not quite a believer in the metaverse yet. But I believe companies like Spot are working toward inventing the metaphors that will explain the value of the metaverse to the new world of work.

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