Few aspects have captured our imagination recently as much as the Metaverse, in the way that it promises to fundamentally change the way we think, work, interact with others, and go about our lives. And one of the most exciting prospects for the Metaverse to be successful in the future workplace is the transformation it can bring about in the employee learning experience. Before delving into that, though, it may be useful to briefly look at some of the learnings from our experience with traditional training models in the workplace.
As a practitioner who has participated scores of times on both sides of the training experience, I’ve always felt there were a few practical challenges when it came to running highly effective interventions of behavioural training. First, such interventions, parts of which certainly require in-person engagement and real-time interaction, are expensive and difficult to scale up. Emergent hybrid methods, involving certain sections of the session to be pre-recorded and shown asynchronously, followed by in-person interventions, may offer some form of solution to the problem of scalability while tempering costs.
However, these training modes do not address another kind of challenge – the realness of the learning experience. Regardless of the depth and sophistication of the toolsets, methodology, case studies, and roleplay exercises – the effectiveness of behavioural training in the in-person world depends, to a considerable extent, upon the energy, passion, expertise and articulation of the participating trainers. An inspired trainer can surely work wonders. However, for the large majority of facilitators who conduct such pieces of training, the feedback from participants is often that it is not a lived-in experience. In others words, not “immersive” or “real” enough.
It is in this respect, in the realness, the true-to-life nature of the learning experience, that the Metaverse can make a huge impact. Since the earliest days of the Metaverse, though, one set of questions came up repeatedly. Are my experiences in a purely virtual world? Do I feel those sensations or emotions that I seem to experience? In Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, a book published in January 2022, internationally renowned David Chalmers has argued that virtual worlds are not second-class worlds and that we can live a meaningful life in virtual reality. He includes not only interactions but also relationships, which, he contends, have real value, even if formed in a purely online, virtual world. This is all the more potent in situations when the physical reality is enhanced virtually – Augmented Reality.
Philosophical arguments aside, there is a powerful and tangible reason why experiences in the Metaverse can feel intensely real – and this is the use of neuroscience. Certain precise combinations of AR and VR can cause the sensation of being in a particular physical place, by activating the hippocampal place cells through one’s headset – the precisely identical “GPS neurons” that inform the brain when one inhabits that same place in the real world. Similarly, take the experience of inhabiting one’s own body in the Metaverse through a digital clone, and interacting with others. The Metaverse has the power to activate the same brain-to-brain attunement between individuals that occurs during interactions in the real world, affecting empathy and the recognition of intentions. Likewise, VR and AR can also come together, to activate the same brain-to-brain stimulation or synchrony that occurs when group interactions take place in the physical world.
To illustrate this, let us suppose I’m attending an organization-wide training on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, with a special emphasis on “Recognizing Bias”. The Metaverse would recreate the nuances of a global, multi-cultural, über-competitive and stressful environment, so much so that it feels like the real thing. Then, the instances of bias begin to kick in, subtly, one by one: gender, age, and given that the large part of the simulation is in an Indian context, aspects of creed, regionality and community – all come into play. Since the incidents are happening to my digital avatar, or of others, due to a fairly high sense of identification with our respective avatars, we react and emote spontaneously to stressors or provocation. The experience is immersive, and the takeaways, therefore, are far more deep-rooted.
Now, we’ll add an interesting layer of complexity to this training experience. We are still in the same stressful, globalised, multi-cultural environment, and the work scenario, too, is the same. The only difference is that my digital avatar is now a young, Black woman. Once I’ve crossed the initial “identity hurdle”, I begin to notice things. A stray, just barely heard comment, about my attire or shade of lipstick, the way the other digital avatars move and behave when mine is in their proximity, or perhaps being instructed by my boss to take notes in a couple of back-to-back meetings. It is only then that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I may begin to imagine what a young Black woman feels like, as she walks through the front office door.
The most immediate aspect of any virtual world, including the Metaverse, is its incredible visual appeal. It may be interesting to cast our glance backwards for a moment, into the earliest forms of such production. Even a generation after Vermeer of Delft and other Dutch painters of the 17th century used the camera obscura to create paintings of astonishing realism, a standard criticism was still being levelled against the use of all mechanized implements. “The effect of the camera is striking but false." Three centuries on, we now have a complete reversal.
The effect of the imminent Metaverse will be striking – and true.