Cover Feature Agents of Tech

Across the Metaverse

Erin McDannald

Erin McDannald, CEO and co-owner of Lighting Environments and its sister company, Environments, has positioned herself as a leader and a trailblazer accelerating the growth and success of the firm and its staff. With nearly 20 years of experience in sales and guiding clients throughout the lighting design and construction process, McDannald is now leading Environments to meet the rapidly changing connected device market head-on. Her passion is creating a more inclusive world for those who are excluded from normal activities or spaces due to a chronic illness, disability, sick family or other challenges. Her work with Environments uses technology to break down barriers and help connect all people.

Below, McDannald discusses the latest frontier in real estate: virtual space, or the metaverse, and its role in creating connections.

Let’s start at the beginning. Why should anyone in real estate care about the metaverse?
Those involved in the real estate industry should care about the metaverse because it is quickly becoming an essential aspect of the unification of people and their ability to communicate together.

Take offices, for example. There’s no question that hybrid work is here to stay, and with many companies looking to toe the line between giving their employees greater flexibility with work-from-home policies and hosting much-needed collaboration in-person, the metaverse is a great solution. Integrating the metaverse into a company streamlines employees’ ability to stay connected to one another without having to step foot inside the building unless they want to. Now, workers may choose to work from the office, work from home, or work in the metaverse, working remotely but still maintaining the physical sense of an office. The metaverse creates an inclusive environment where employees of all needs and work styles can equally interact at the workplace, wherever that may be.

The metaverse will effectively unite in-office and remote workers, especially when the experience is heightened by internet of things(IoT) technology. The metaverse gives users access to a digital replica of the physical environment, while IoT technology allows them to remotely interact with the physical environment. For example, a manager in the metaverse could potentially walk up to a digital thermostat and change the temperature, which would then reflect on the real thermostat in the physical office. They can also use this technology to monitor air quality, access real-time occupancy data from heat maps, get live camera feeds and more. Using technology like this reconnects the entire staff, rather than allowing remote work to distance employees and affect their abilities to collaborate.

What advantage does an expert in creating physical projects offer to the metaverse?
As the metaverse becomes a more prominent space for work, play and learning to take place, one will need to fill that digital space with familiar, interesting structures to interact with. This will be a key factor in making the metaverse digestible and comfortable for individuals to transition into for their daily activities and responsibilities.

When designing the digital replica of our office at Environments, it was beneficial to have an existing architectural design to copy, giving our staff a familiar location to conduct their work from home.

Architects and designers are experts at understanding how users interact with the environment around them, but that does not have to be limited to physical spaces. The metaverse gives them a unique opportunity to apply their years of knowledge in traditional architecture and design to something more open to creativity and imagination.

Development into the metaverse also creates a rich opportunity for companies to connect to and expand their own brands and brand experiences. Through customized experiences and interactions with and for their staff,customers and visitors, metaverse environments fortify brand identity and connection.

Talk us through this process, step by step.
The Environments team is filled with architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) professionals who have years of experience crafting physical projects. When we created our own metaverse, we had our data architects and AEC professionals on staff upload a replica of the Environments office to a gaming platform. From there, we created avatars that can be customized to closely resemble our staff members.

Our system is integrated with Microsoft Teams, so every time people are “available,” their avatars have green lights above their heads. This makes it easy to know when you can stop by their virtual office to chat. We currently have a team of five who are working heavily in the metaverse — with and without VR headsets — and are onboarding more staff members after additional beta testing.

What real estate sectors lend themselves to this?
At Environments, our initial idea was to lend this technology to the benefit of remote and hybrid office workers, including our own business. However, as we explored the possibilities of what we have created, we have found great interest in other industries including education and retail.

One major topic within facilities conversations is the digital twin. The digital twin works, but we’ve found both the interest and the ability to expand upon what we see as a foundation. If you have or are pursuing a digital twin of your space, why not personalize this environment with avatars, special features and more to make it truly work for you and your business? There is so much that can be done for an endless array of use cases. Within our own company, our first goal was to connect all our digital systems under one cohesive and accessible platform. From that, came the metaverse.

For education, many educators see the metaverse as a way to bridge the gap between learning remotely while retaining the necessary social interaction found in traditional physical learning spaces. As parents and students experienced during the pandemic, not all students can sufficiently learn over Zoom. Students need interaction and collaboration just as much as adults do in the workplace. I also like to look toward fictional works such as “The Magic School Bus” for inspiration in applying the metaverse to education. The metaverse can “transport” students right into a digital recreation of the lessons they are learning, from sitting in on the signing of the Declaration of Independence to shrinking down to the size of a molecule!

In addition, duplicating retail stores via the metaverse and creating a “store” to explore in the digital world allows for an in-person experience with the convenience of shopping at home.

For distributors and warehouse settings, monitoring and understanding the function of their equipment and building is of the utmost importance. In large spaces containing so many systems moving parts, especially that which may be costly to repair and replace, IoT-enabled tracking technology is essential. Staff can easily track the location of machinery, like forklifts and carts, monitor the temperature and humidity within a refrigerator and so much more. These rich insights can help to both anticipate and mitigate repair needs, saving the facility money and time.

Within the hospitality industry, the metaverse presents incredible opportunities to sharpen brand experience and attract more visitors. When visiting restaurants, hotels and venues of any sort, guests are looking for a positive and memorable experience. This experience is built by many factors that the metaverse can enhance and help extend into the digital world. From an elevated walkthrough that makes a space accessible for guests across the globe, to immersive interactions that make visitors feel personally welcomed, the metaverse can help hospitality brands reach even more clientele.

How are these designed differently from “real” projects?
Without concerns of material limitations, gravity and space, designers are able to let their creativity run wild, and spaces can be made in the most optimal way for their users, rather than the most practical way for the builders.

As the metaverse continues to be adopted by the general public, it is bound to continue evolving. As of now, designs in the metaverse often emulate physical architecture and spaces to make for a more comfortable transition for individuals entering the metaverse for the first time. While the current goal of the metaverse is to replicate existing concepts, such as a physical office, that won’t be the case in the future. Once people get used to using the metaverse, it won’t need to look like a familiar office, but rather, can act as a free-standing extension of the existing physical office.

Do these go on the blockchain? Can they be “renovated” in time?
We are not building on the blockchain at this time, but rather, housing on servers. One of the most incredible benefits of the metaverse is its flexibility, aptitude for growth and, yes, ability to be renovated and updated. The freedom and continual development potential is immense.

In the metaverse, you’re not dealing with bad soil, zoning or NIMBYism. Is this freeing?
The metaverse gives architects and designers the unique opportunity to let their creativity run wild without the limitations of space, materials and even gravity! Moreover, spaces are no longer (literally) set in stone, as the metaverse gives architects and designers the capability to go back and update their spaces much more easily, modernizing spaces to new trends, company branding and societal standards.

Is this a fad?
With Fortune 500 companies and Silicon Valley giants alike exploring their abilities to apply the metaverse to their operations, the metaverse has certainly become a trending topic as of late. That being said, it will continue to grow in prominence and evolve as culture and needs shift.

The pandemic may have forced us to quickly adopt remote and hybrid working environments, but tech companies were always heading in this direction; the metaverse is a natural evolution of the digital age. Today, we need computers, smartphones and countless other forms of technology to operate our daily lives. The metaverse seeks to improve our digital experiences by giving users a quasi-three-dimensional space to exist in, rather than a two-dimensional window into the digital world.

It is important that we stress the continued value of physical real estate. We still firmly believe in the value of our physical spaces. These are meaningful environments where we meet, host, interact and grow alongside our companies. Having a physical presence in our communities matters. We are not growing out of our physical real estate, but rather, expanding into hybrid and digital worlds where, in such a fast-paced world, even more development and interpersonal connection is possible.

A place where physical and digital worlds meet, the metaverse represents incredible accessibility and opportunity for both people and brands. We are immensely excited to be at the forefront of such change.