Episode 43

Working in the Metaverse

You’re already working in the metaverse, and you’re about to become more comfortable with its next iteration. Erin McDannald, CEO of Environments, spends this rich half hour sharing the steps she and her company have taken to design and immerse their staff and clients in digital twins, to meet and collaborate, conduct training, manage logistics and distribution, and choose lighting solutions while walking together in a park. Guarantee: your mind will stretch, and you’ll want a digital twin of your workplace as soon as you can get your hands on it!

Featured on the Show
“The world isn't ready for the virtual space to look any different than the physical space, yet they need the association with the physical space to understand that we can make money or increase revenue in these virtual spaces similar to the way we go about our business in the physical space. But creating a space that doesn't have the brand association doesn't do justice. So it's really about immersing people in your brand as you give them tools to think in different ways that they haven't before.”


CCB: [00:00:03] Welcome to the ONEder podcast. This is your host, CCB. And we have another interesting conversation today with someone who is, I'm going to say, on the bleeding edge of a part of our world of space. And the reason why I, why we're talking with Erin McDannald and I'm going to introduce her in just a minute is because I read an article that in Work Design Magazine recently that she had authored and it was talking about collaboration, employee collaboration, employee engagement, but in the office slash metaverse. And I was like, Whoa, wait a minute, let's stop and think about that. We have conversations on a daily basis about employee engagement and collaboration and what are the tools that might support that. So, we're going to have a very lively conversation, and I'm going to say, welcome, Erin. We're so glad that you could join us.

Erin McDannald: [00:01:02] Thank you for having me.

CCB: [00:01:04] Okay. So now I'm going to say, instead of me introducing you and reading some lovely bio, how about you tell us a little bit about yourself? What's your backstory? How did you get to where you are today?

Erin McDannald: [00:01:15] Sure. My background is in interior design. My father was an architect, so I kind of grew up in the industry, if you will. I became interested in lighting when I was in design school and I worked as an interior designer for a short period of time after I got out of school, but quickly moved to the lighting industry. And for the last 22 years, I have worked and eventually owned a Lighting and Controls Manufacturers agency. And we assist in design, procurement and implementation of major lighting and building controls projects in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. And so, as part of our jobs, we have to learn how to talk to electronic devices and buildings so we can communicate and control them. And we need to know how to connect to software to these devices also. So, in our journey, we found a lot of limitations to scaling buildings and control systems, particularly closed protocol systems. So, meaning they spoke their own language or dialect and no one else could understand how to talk to these other building control systems. So, during the pandemic, we developed a software that would allow you to scale easier. But how we decipher the data became, it made I,t was difficult and it was another problem for us to solve. So, we built a digital twin, which is basically just a 3D model of our office space and put it in a gaming platform. And that's how we kind of.

CCB: [00:03:03] So it's like dog fooding your own. Yeah, work on your problem and move that forward.

Erin McDannald: [00:03:09] Absolutely. Yeah.

CCB: [00:03:11] Wow. Well, so one of the one of the sentences that that grabbed me was the idea of introducing the metaverse into a company infrastructure presents a new way to stay connected in hybrid work environments. So, everybody we know is concerned about hybrid work and who's coming into the office and how often they'll be there and how are people going to connect. And so, since you've been thinking about it, what are some of the key attributes that you believe are going to be beneficial by introducing the metaverse?

Erin McDannald: [00:03:42] Yeah, well, I think that we know that productivity is up and some of the numbers I've heard are as high as 22% in a hybrid environment, especially people at home. But we know that collaboration points are down and that could be somewhere around, I've heard as high as 12%, but everybody seems to have a number hovering around there. And quantifying the cost of collaboration I think can be clearly quantified if you scrutinize your 2020 numbers, because that was the year we lost the collaboration completely and had to rebuild it in a different way. And so I think that, I think that when it comes to what we lost in a hybrid environment, when we're trying to regain in a hybrid environment through what I'm using as the metaverse, I think what started our journey was I decided that we would put people in our digital twin and thinking that people would go in and collaborate there. And it really wasn't, it wasn't the case. There's so much taboo around the metaverse that they, they definitely resisted the idea of that. And so, we had to kind of shift gears and create intent. And in intent comes ease, and with ease comes collaboration. So we learned some big lessons already in the last couple of years from this project we've been working on.

CCB: [00:05:18] Wow, that's so interesting. I'm going to say we had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with a number of leaders in the, in our Bay Area across industries. And they were talking about what are the new metrics in today's world for successful environments. And the clear thing to them was about innovation. So, collaboration can be you can collaborate and work with. But what's the outcome? And innovation was one of the key concerns, that are we losing that vital element? And this was biotech and high tech and consulting people having a conversation around this. So, I think it's really fascinating to have that lessons learned and understand what, what are some of the things to ensure that you accomplish when you're building this and what are some of the pitfalls?

Erin McDannald: [00:06:21] Yeah, obviously intent is one of them. Number two is especially if you're, you're bringing your company into the metaverse., you don't announce that you're going into the metaverse. You should never just do that, because it's a broad statement and people are very nervous about that. Instead you bring tools. Instead, you just you don't even mention that it's in the metaverse. It is a tool that is on a gaming platform that you can use, whether it be a meeting tool or a new way to present PowerPoint that's more engaging, because you're using more of your senses to engage with, with a, with a storyline or, or whether it's some sort of other collaboration or engagement tool that you've built for HR or whatever, showing that we're celebrating this person because he's been here for 20 years. So, it's about creating these tools with intent. That's just it really is the underlying theme of it all. And there's a lot of different ways to do that for every different sector of business.

CCB: [00:07:34] Well, thank you for raising that topic, of all the different industries that potentially could be utilizing this tool to enhance their productivity, enhance their, I'm going to say, culture as well, because we know how important culture and purpose are to a lot of employees today. So how about if you talk a little bit about ...I mean, I was looking at and forgive me for kind of bouncing around here, but I was looking at different types of tools that, or different types of activities that could be taking place in this fourth space, if you will. Because we had home, we had work and there was always the third space, that's the coffee shop, and we're kind of thinking about it as the fourth space. So there's another place that you have to do this, and you can build brand awareness and yes, you can do training. There are events that can take place and meetings for sure, and then it gets a little bit more hazy when you're talking about kind of sales and retail, not retail so much, but sales in a larger kind of corporate sales environment. How does that work with the customer?

Erin McDannald: [00:08:51] Well, yeah, we needed a way to sell digitally and that's been interesting. So, we're creating these, for us or we sell lights, so we've created these parks that you can drop your avatar in and walk through with other people. It's really interesting I was having this conversation with one of the leaders at HOK the other day, and we were talking about the "zombie syndrome" in the office, where in a physical office there's a lot of people that are really just not engaged. They look like zombies all the time. And she's like, "I can't understand why that is, since that sort of happened post pandemic and why are they not engaged? Because they're back at the office." And I think it comes down to this. There's, when you're on Zoom, you're only using a certain number of channels of input and increasing the channels of input can increase your engagement and attention to the matter. You're not multitasking because you're forced. You're having to move your avatar, you're having to be engaged. And with that engagement comes memory tagging and better recall when it comes to your brand and product. So, we were finding, we're finding that the days that we work in the metaverse not only give us joy, but better recall, which is interesting.

CCB: [00:10:22] That's very, very interesting. I mean, looking at kind of neuroscience and the way that the brain works and that whole idea of holistic engagement definitely does have the opportunity to tap more of the senses. Which also does more for engagement. And then there are those elements that do memory and that do increase synapses, etc., etc.. So wow. So, so you worked on it for yourself for Environments, right.

Erin McDannald: [00:10:58] Right.

CCB: [00:10:58] And, and you're bringing customers into the world and does that translate into “oh, I'm interested, how does this work?”

Erin McDannald: [00:11:06] Well, there's…it's coming from both directions now. A year ago, it was much different. Now we have companies that will go to their go to architects, our local architectural firms and say, I would like to have a digital twin with my project and how do we how do we use the digital twin to create revenue? And so that there's a lot of questions in that. But it's really interesting because, you know what surprised me the most? The quickest and biggest adopter of the digital twin in a metaverse situation is distribution, because they're doing asset tracking. They want to know where their forklifts are, and they want to know that their refrigeration units are going, and they want to have spatial, be able to make spatial decisions based on where the trucks are at the bay. So, there's a lot of moving parts in real estate, in distribution. So that was the first one to kind of take-off. But, you know, obviously there's retail, as we talked about.

But there was one that was really interesting to me. The Vancouver airport created a digital twin of themselves and they're using it to make spatial, intelligent decisions when it comes to the planes are coming in. Can they fit at the gates, because some of the planes are much larger? And whereas the traffic in the terminals and how long are the lines for security, and then I guess the gift shops want a piece of their digital twin to, to bring some Vancouver branding to it. So, it's been really interesting to see how different companies are using it. And it's a matter of having the right companies on board to be able to program them, you know, for each individual company right now, because there's no protocol quite yet decided for what a digital twin can do, and no real roadmap of how it can make money. But we know that from our experience that it's given us a significant increase in our brand equity, giving us exposure to a lot larger income opportunities than we were before.

CCB: [00:13:28] So that being said, what, what do you like from a resource standpoint? How much do you have to invest in resources at, you know, at Environments.

to, to get this moving. And it, it feels like there's a learning curve or an education component that has to be a part of it that not everybody, I mean, everyone at the beginning, but not everybody's going to be able to embrace it or absorb it as effectively. Are you seeing this?

Erin McDannald: [00:14:03] Yeah. I mean, it's good for us because it ties into our building control systems, and how we decipher the data that those systems are putting through or also have created these apps. At the end, users can have to be able to control their climate and understand that the air is clean around them. So we're taking it to all these different levels, and we're, the people part and the experience part of it is something that's been really an extra. And the amount of the amount of people it takes to kind of create those experiences, I guess it depends on how big the project and how deep the client would like to go. But it's a matter of programmers, so on staff, yeah. And they have to, that's important.

CCB: [00:15:03] So there's a much more, I'm going to say holistic set of skills that's required, that are required, than you're, just your standard design practice.

Erin McDannald: [00:15:22] Yeah, you have to be able to take it a little bit further. You have to be able to, the goal is to be able to connect it to the physical space eventually. So, we're designing it as if now we're designing it to be connected to the physical space. So, the idea behind it is smart windows. We would prefer not to design that with anything that we put on our bodies to have to wear to engage. So, it's literally about the screens that we're using, and smart windows and smart displays throughout the office to be able to interact with these environments from a physical place.

CCB: [00:16:05] Everything that you say is just like, kind of makes my brain do cartwheels.

Erin McDannald: [00:16:10] I know it does. It was it was interesting because there is a lot of, you read some of the futurist books and they say this is where it's going. And, you know, and I'm like, well, wait, we can do that right now. We know how to talk to things and get them to talk to us. And we understand smart displays and how to how to get them to engage and to, why shouldn't we build it Right Now? We're in digital twins as architectural industry, but this is where we've lived for years. So why not begin to converge the two worlds? Especially because we had to, we had to leave and go home in 2020 and we couldn't be in these buildings. So, we have to provide these, these points to anchor, you know, be able to be agile from. So, if we're not in the office, then we can connect to our brand through these digital environments. But it's not just office space or anything. I think that we as humans communicate in a 3D environment. It's not natural to look at text all day on our screens. It's more natural for us to be engaging in these environments. And so, if our digital environments look like our physical environments, it can be sort of received by a human in the way the same way that mimicry is received by a baby, which is ultimate flattery. So I think there's something to that.

CCB: [00:17:49] I'm going to say I've only dabbled in working in the metaverse and we've had little exercises, but we don't do it on a regular basis. So, and I am not of the gaming background, so I'm not playing in that world. And I just wonder what, from an adoption standpoint, and this gets back to there are organizations that are going to be more interested or further along on the continuum in accepting and embracing. But then what about the people, and how are you seeing in your experience? Are there, what's the learning curve or the adoption amongst the individuals?

Erin McDannald: [00:18:32] Sure. Well, you know, the inspiration behind this moving forward to putting people in our digital twin came from my children during the pandemic when they were on Zoom all day and unengaged, and then went on to ROBLOX after they got off of Zoom and became engaged. So I asked myself that question, Why are they engaged in that? That digital environment, not the other, its because it's a 3-D immersive environment so that they're, they're more engaged than that. And so I feel like I you know, the adoption came it occurred to me that their perspective of a digital engagement and a physical engagement were no different than each other. So it's really interesting. They would go up to each other in ROBLOX and they would say hi to each other. They would just pump it down and say, Oh, it's so good to see you, Reagan. Are you building a house across the street from me or whatever? And it was just a beautiful conversation. So I thought, okay, they don't understand it. But then the opposite end of the spectrum is the baby boomers. And they we look, they there is a perspective on the digital engagement, as it is, is lesser of a type of engagement.

Erin McDannald: [00:19:50] They value it less. So, I thought to myself, there's got to be somewhere in the middle, like we don't have to go to this virtual world and completely replace it, but it could be augmented with purpose. And so that's where these engagements came. So you don't go to your employees and say, we're going into the metaverse because the baby boomers will look at you like you're crazy. You just introduce a new tool, a new sales tool or a new meeting tool. Like here we go, we're going to go in. And this meeting tool, when you go into this meeting tool, you'll have to walk through our office and you'll be exposed to our office. And you might see other people that you know in there. And in that comes engagement. But forcing people to go sit in an office and engage for collaboration time is just it's the worst way to approach something like this and to get engagement. It's in inviting people to engage digitally differently than they did before.

CCB: [00:20:57] Yeah, one of one of our good friends at One workplaces is Brett Hautop, who used to be the head of design for LinkedIn, and now he's doing consulting with other organizations about what space might need to look like and how it might serve your organization, and taking it individually and looking at each one of his clients in there with all of their unique needs. And one of the things that he has been talking about, which I think you're speaking you're speaking a solution, is the nature of the of conference rooms. And like who decided that a rectangular, long, rectangular table was a smart thing to do for communication and conversation. And so the technology needs to change to be more supportive, but also the envelope needs to change to be more supportive. And what a fascinating way to kind of almost beta test what. So instead of making the investment in three D completed physical space, what about using the tool to test it? Test out different options.

Erin McDannald: [00:22:22] Exactly. Yeah. I gave a lot of thought about what our what our virtual space would look like, and I came to this. The world isn't ready for the virtual space to look any different than the physical space, yet. They need the association with the physical space to understand that we can make money or increase revenue in these virtual spaces, similar to the way we make we go about our business in the physical space. But creating a space that doesn't have the brand association, doesn't do justice. So it's really about immersing people in your brand as you give them tools to, to think in different ways that they haven't before. It may be in a three- or four-dimensional way. We're designing a conference room right now where we're trying to draw in several dimensions so that we can turn things around and look at them from different perspectives.

CCB: [00:23:42] Yeah. Yeah. That's just so fascinating. I think about a number of the design exercises that we've gone through to try and get at what are, what are better solutions and, and yeah, of course you could do mockups and yes, you can do renderings, but, but being able to actually go into the space and hang out and figure out, would be so much more effective. So who are your who are all of your clients?

Erin McDannald: [00:24:12] Well, we're actually our clients are a lot of mid-market clients right now. And we're and we're and we've gone through the building control sector with them and they're interested in expanding upon it. And we've designed, we think, some solutions that are equitable for the mid-market world, which is really important. Because in building controls for us, there were no there wasn't a solid return on investment in a mid-market, intelligent office solution. And so, we had to we had we had to solve that problem. And bringing people in and creating engagement was the answer to that problem. So, our clients are corporations, distributors. We're working with some higher ed smart campuses. We kind of run the gamut of what we're working on right now. Some retail.

CCB: [00:25:18] Wow. Um. Ok, I told you it was going to come fast. And this is almost 30 minutes and I'm like, Wow, there's been so many, so many thoughts. I will tell all the listeners that on the, when we release the podcast, there'll be the web page that has the transcript as well as all the links so that you can see more about Erin and Environments and, and any of the, the specific topics that you've referenced that we can give links to. But if what, what pearl of wisdom would you share with organizations or with folks that are considering augmenting their environments with a digital twin?

Erin McDannald: [00:26:10] I think that we would not look at it as a disruption but an integration to our digital environments. And I think we're just inviting people to look at our digital environments in a different way. And to enforce the importance of our physical spaces. I think that ultimately that that's key for us is that our physical spaces are important. Our person to person collaboration is important. But when you cannot have that, there has to be amazing tools.

CCB: [00:26:50] Well, you've certainly opened the door to the creation of some really amazing tools. I want to say congratulations for all the good work and thank you so much for sharing with the ONEder podcast.

Erin McDannald: [00:27:03] Thank you for having me. You can, can I give my website? Yeah, you can find us at www dot Environments dot tech, and I really appreciate you having me on today.

CCB: [00:27:16] Great. Thanks so much. The podcast is available on all streaming services, so you'll be able to listen to this. And we're encouraging folks that that are starting to return to office locations to listen to podcasts on their way in. Now you have a little bit more time to do this again in a different way. So, we're very grateful to have had you with us today, Erin. And thanks a bunch.

Erin McDannald: [00:27:41] Thank you.