This year, Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program class of 2017 settled on a different venue to host their annual class reunion: the metaverse.
When the alumni sat down to plan the event in December 2021, travel restrictions and a surging Omicron variant of COVID-19 meant it wasn’t clear when the class of 2017 would next get the chance to see each other in person, Sean West, the event’s organizer, told Insider.
Not keen on a mass video call, and used to meeting up a couple of times a year, West decided that a metaverse-based event would enable them to recreate the feeling of being in-person, he told Insider.
90 people from 28 countries donned Oculus Quest headsets to watch their former professor, Ranjay Gulati, give a speech about his new book, before heading to a virtual plaza for a catch up.
The concept of the metaverse isn’t new and remains fairly nebulous, but it is generally viewed as the future of the internet where people will use virtual reality and digital avatars.
Critics argue it is overhyped and worry that a fully immersive digital world could “fracture reality,” leaving users open to exploitation for their data, or by other users.
In a post-COVID world it is the tech’s ability to bring people together, in a way that feels like they’re in person, where the metaverse has the most immediate potential. It has the added bonus of cutting down on costs and travel time.
West is the cofounder of Hence Technologies, a legal tech startup, but he also sits on the advisory board of Mesmerise, a UK startup that specializes in VR events, which built and hosted the reunion venue.
For West, a Harvard reunion usually comes with the “serious time cost” of an eight-hour-long flight each way from London, jet lag, and then a very packed three or four day agenda. The metaverse event took about 90 minutes in total, West said
“Nobody had to miss work. Nobody got stuck because they couldn’t get a visa,” West told Insider. “No COVID.”
Mesmerise sent all 90 attendees Oculus Quest headsets in the mail.
During the event the class split into two groups of 45, and spent half an hour each with Gulati, before moving into a “digital plaza” to mingle.
call, if you want to take people aside to talk to you one on one, it’s exclusionary, I have to create a break out room and tell you to join me,” West said.
“In VR we just hopped onto the plaza, you’re out of earshot of everyone else. It’s like in real life,” he added.
The technology is not yet at the stage where this is viable full time, but that could change
Microsoft founder Bill Gates has previously said that most virtual meetings could move to the metaverse within two or three years. VR technology still has someway to go before that vision is realized, however.
A recent study by researchers in Germany attempted to measure the impact of working in VR for an entire work week. Two of the 18 participants dropped out within a day, while the remainder generally felt less productive, more anxious, and more frustrated by the end of the week, compared to a week they spent working normally. The weight and awkwardness of the headsets was highlighted as a problem.
“Today, VR is a sometimes tool,” West said. “The portability and the price of devices can’t be overstated to the importance of the shift,” West said.
The experience can also be daunting for people who have never gone through it before, and there are some experiences, like watching a movie for example, where VR makes it much worse, West said.
However, when compared to the cost of attending, and hosting an event, he can justify paying $300 for a device so people can attend, he said.
The class has scheduled an in person reunion for October, but for West, it’s simply a matter of time before the metaverse becomes mainstream.
“When we first got online if someone told me that my mom would be buy books on Amazon to send to me in London I would say no — but someone would have stood up and said that it will be possible. The question is would it be five years, 10 years or 15 years away?”