There’s a lot of speculation about the Metaverse and what it will mean for the future of work. Will we actually be spending our nine to fives in virtual offices connected by VR headsets? With a global metaverse market size predicted to reach $678 billion by 2030, major players in Big Tech are betting on it. But in the meantime, virtual office environments are already gaining popularity. And they exist right in your web browser. No VR goggles required.
That’s because a small contingent of tech startups are launching lower-fi virtual spaces for tech you have right now: your desktop. They’re not immersive, but that’s kind of the point. Rather than adopting the UX/UI of the Metaverse in its current state, marketed as a technocapitalist utopia in “the Mark Zuckerberg Aesthetic,” these browser based environments tap into the visual language of our collective past, where we played together on our computers or with handheld game consoles. Gather, a virtual platform launched in May 2020, is the best example of those, offering a friendly and accessible UI counterpoint to Meta’s slick VR vision—and that once again proves that delivering on user intent trumps design decoration.
Gather isn't the only one. Startups like Teamflow and Teemyco are providing work-from-home teams with customizable Sims-style meeting spaces as a means for capturing the feeling of casual in-office interactions (and also reducing Zoom fatigue). Users can navigate the floor plan interface towards different virtual desks or other communal areas where people host meetings, or just remember what it was like to stand around the water cooler and talk in meatspace (aka the real, non-cyber world).
Images courtesy Gather.
Gather has become one of the most popular virtual office platforms, with 4 million users worldwide. It’s free to use for up to 25 concurrent users, and its paid plans are useful for virtual events and conferences, like NASA’s 2021 Exploration Science Forum & European Lunar Symposium. It's already seeing dividends, according to Forbes: Gather quadrupled its monthly revenue to $400,000 via customers like Coca-Cola and Amazon, which recreated the fantasy world from The Wheel of Time as a promotional interactive experience for fans that included live events where users participated in scavenger hunts, fortune telling, live performance, fan chats, and pub trivia.
It’s gained a loyal fanbase due to its UX/UI: a kitschy pixel art aesthetic that instantly appeals to anyone who spent time playing GameBoy as a kid. Gather CTO Kumail Jaffer, 27, says the nostalgic interface was important to them from both a visual and logistic perspective. They took UX/UI inspiration from ‘90s era Pokémon and the Legend of Zelda, which used simple controls that made it “easy for anyone to jump in and start exploring,” says Jaffer. “We also chose to use pixel art because we wanted to create something fun and approachable—something playful and inviting that makes you want to stay longer and chat late into the night with your friends.”
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Navigating a Gather space with your keyboard’s arrow keys is intuitive and actually pretty fun. A simple walk across “the office” really does feel like you're on a little journey in search of the next rare Pokémon and not just attending yet another video conference call. Moving between different conversations is also surprisingly seamless. Rather than having to wait for a host to place you in a breakout room, like on Zoom, users can occupy public and private spaces, where you can only hear the conversations of people you are within close proximity to on the map or floor plan.
Images courtesy Gather.
Jaffer says they took design cues from MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) when they were exploring different ways to gamify the standard video call. “MMO worlds are built in a way that helps people easily organize themselves into different groups,” he explains. “The games themselves are engaging, but the reason you logged on everyday after school was that your friends would be there. We wanted to recreate that experience, but for everyone, not just gamers.”
With hefty VC investment and a $700 million valuation, Gather could easily hop on the VR bandwagon. But CEO Phillip Wang, 24, explains that hosting Gather in a web browser was a deliberate decision, as it makes emerging technology more open and accessible by lowering the barrier to entry. “All you need to do is click a link and you're in,” he says. “No need to sign in, no need for extra equipment. VR has such a high learning curve right now, and we're just trying to keep it simple while still empowering creatives to build out the vision they have in their minds."
Wang says that fundamentally, “the Metaverse is about creating a strong sense of connection, presence, and place no matter where you are.” Gather’s UX/UI has achieved this by striking the right balance with a design aesthetic that is both familiar and novel—and it proves that tech doesn’t have to be a mind-blowingly immersive experience for it to be successful.