‘The metaverse is a network of highly immersive virtual worlds focused on social connection’

Rob Hilton, CEO of PixelMax

In an exclusive interview, Business Leader chatted with Rob Hilton, the CEO of PixelMax, who gave us a rundown on the metaverse along with the challenges facing this emerging technology.

To the uninitiated, could you explain what the metaverse is?

We’re really talking about the next generation of internet. Effectively, the metaverse is a network of highly immersive virtual worlds focused on social connection. The connected 3D world is focused on social interaction, and using virtual and augmented reality, it’s basically taking computer game technology, broadening it and opening it out to the real world.

What are the benefits and challenges of the metaverse?

I guess its main benefit is going to be its unlimited potential. It’s also very new. No one’s really defined and actually nailed what the metaverse is.

The immersion the metaverse will create is going to be amazing. Effectively, you’re creating a virtual world where you will be able to interact socially and professionally. You’re decentralising a lot of things that have become very centralised, and what we’re seeing with the work we’re doing is very much about creating a much more immersive experience.

I think there’s a good chance for higher productivity and happier employers, if it’s used correctly. Also, those geographical boundaries of talent start to drop away because you’re in a non-physical space. So, I think it’s an exciting time.

Does the metaverse utilise technologies already found in computer games?

Here at PixelMax, we use gaming technology, and there’s lots of different approaches and types of code that can be used. But in essence, it is gamification in the simplest sense, and then what will differentiate is how people want to use the metaverse and what they want to apply in that environment.

Avatars exist in computer games and effectively, you are an avatar, but your ability to be able to interact and be in control of your avatar, discuss, ecommerce and things like that, I think that’s where the metaverse will take things to the next level.

As you said, the concept is still relatively unknown. So, how do you get people to accept and take part in the metaverse?

I guess when you’re not in the know, it sounds quite intimidating, but it should be enjoyable and accessible to everyone.

Usually, the biggest innovators face doubts. We can’t imagine life without the internet now, but in its early days, there were doubters and naysayers out there. But I do think it’s important to let people join when they’re comfortable.

People have also started to really think about their business model now, and with those real innovative companies, they will take that leap, and then I think traction will build from there.

As we continue to battle the pandemic, will the metaverse continue to accelerate, or could it take a step back if we come out of it?

The policy of having to work from home is relatively new, but the concept of remote working and a dispersed organization has always existed. It’s just not been tackled in the construct of the mass deployment of remote working that we all went through globally. So, I think people are coming to terms with the fact that there’s a different way of working now. Therefore, there’s an expectation that employers are going to offer them a different way of working, and we absolutely see that the immersive technology in the metaverse has a really big role to play in that.

So, what will be required for businesses to successfully utilise the metaverse in their own workplaces?

One, you’ve got to have the vision as this is a completely emerging market. Using UEFA as an example, they’re trying to attract their fans in a different way and give them something innovative and different to do. So, what we do is kind of lead this from an architectural perspective to help clients unlock their thinking, creating content for them that helps navigate what they think they want and how they want to use it.

We also don’t have the interaction with our colleagues and friends that we did pre-COVID-19, so wellbeing initiatives are mostly based around being face-to-face. But as we start to see more clients realise that there’s an opportunity here with the metaverse, I think momentum will pick up quickly.

Do you think it could replace face-to-face contact?

Not in its entirety. Humans need humans. However, we all know that relationships are predominantly built physically as well as verbally. So, I don’t think it will ever fully replace face-to-face interaction, but I think the metaverse will absolutely complement the physical space.

So, if it does get rolled out successfully, what sort of impact could it have on the employment market?

The metaverse will create new job roles that we don’t even know are going to come yet, and I genuinely believe that the metaverse will assist employers if they adopt it correctly. And like I said earlier, those geographical boundaries become less of an issue if you deal with it appropriately.

I see there are a few negative opinions on big tech. How does the metaverse industry change that attitude?

If you’re using it in the context of a workplace, as an organisation, you must govern policies and procedures, and therefore, the behaviours that come you would expect them to be no different in a metaverse than in a physical workplace. So, it will very much depend on how the metaverse is used and how its governed.

With a fully decentralized metaverse, there are clearly challenges. I don’t think tech is the challenge, but I think there are probably challenges around some of the legalities of how you go from one world to another, which the industry will work through in the fullness of time.

But I think it’s inevitable there will be doubters. As with all of these things, once they gain traction, and people start to really see the value and the validation of the value, some of them will drop away.

In years to come, will code of conduct policies come to include behaviour on the metaverse?

Oh, absolutely. If you look at code of conduct on a video conference, all companies have done is just extend their conduct policies a little bit more. And whether you’re in the metaverse or in a physical room, we all know what good and bad conduct is – or at least we should do – and so I can’t see it being any different.

What about cyberattacks? Is the metaverse vulnerable to them?

Like anything that’s through the internet, it is subject to cyberattack. We are constantly investing in security, as are the cloud infrastructure providers, but if you look at the likes of the Pentagon, who keep getting cyberattacks, and various other large companies, it is a real threat.

I’d like to think in the context of the virtual workplace, dependent on what the client was doing, security protocols would be very important.

Could the cybersecurity industry grow in coalition with the metaverse?

Definitely. Some of those organisations are huge now because we all need technology, and the security provisions required are only ever going to increase.

If you are exposed to a cyber-attack, it’s also very costly, not just because of data protection and all of that but the level of disruption that it creates. So, anywhere where there’s new tech being deployed, there’s lots of opportunity for those types of companies to capitalise on new areas of growth.

After nearly two years of video conferencing, many are experiencing what has been called ‘Zoom fatigue’. How does the metaverse avoid falling victim to something similar?

With a video conference, we are just sitting on one end and talking through a screen. The difference with the metaverse is that you’re actually navigating through it. The vision for PixelMax is that you can go and speak to people, and whether that be via text or bumping into them, having a video conference or just talking, you can engage with content.

So, effectively, you are much more engaged in the process because you are driving yourself through that environment. It’s a different type of engagement which you’re much more in control of, rather than just giving out or receiving information with two screens in the middle.

Is there anything else upcoming in the tech world that could also help with immersion and engagement?

Blockchain, cryptocurrency and NFTs – they’re obvious ones. Moving away from the immersive side of things, there’s a new tech code of practice called matter that is starting to gain traction. I think there’s about 100 smart home products that are expected to initially adhere to that standard, and suddenly all your different tech brands will all be able to start talking to each other. That’s probably something we’ll see rolled on a much larger scale over the next five years.

But in terms of immersion, it will very much be the features and the functionality, such as being able to integrate with third-party apps, where you start to have everything in one place and you’re in a much more immersed environment.

In terms of sustainability, does the metaverse help or hinder that?

It can help because if you’re not traveling to and from the office, there’s cleaner air, less use of fuel, etc. But the counter is that data centres and servers consume lots of energy. Certainly PixelMax, we’re striving for our B Corp certification, and we’re committed to ensure that any infrastructure that we use to deploy our technology is the best for the user and the environment.

What is positive is that cloud infrastructure and energy providers are looking beyond carbon offset techniques now and are really starting to use technology and innovative designs that produce and distribute cleaner energy, which then makes it much more accessible for either your cloud infrastructure providers or us as more end users. I think that will take time, but it will benefit everyone and, more importantly, the environment.

Do you think other companies should look to become a B Corp?

I think every organisation should, but it is a commitment, both in terms of management and costs. But I believe that every organisation should be going for B Corp, or there must be one hell of a compelling reason why they’re not.

When we did it, we were in a fortunate position to be growing the business and the team, so we decided to get it established early. We’ve grown from around eight to 35 people in the last nine months or so and getting some of those policies and procedures written in a manner which complements the B Corp approach is much easier than trying to do it when you’ve got 150 employees and you have to undo a lot of behavior. So, as the company grows, it’s part of the fabric of the business and that was the intent.

Going back to talk a bit about your background now, how did you go from working in the corporate world to the CEO of a start-up like PixelMax?

I left school at 16 and learned how to build aircraft, went to university, stayed in aerospace as a project manager for many years, and then I moved to London. But they don’t build a lot of aircraft in central London, so I jumped over to the construction industry.

I was a professional services engineering consultant, and then a program director and practice leader globally for Mott MacDonald. But in my spare time and working in parallel with my other co-founders, Andy Sands and Shay O’Carrol, we were effectively digitally twinning, so creating 3D environments – factories predominantly – and using this gamification technology to help organizations network, promote, inform and educate its users.

Then the pandemic hit and we’d just signed a big contract with Airbus, which would have taken us global. But as quickly as they signed the contract, they said ‘we need to pull out because all the planes have stopped flying’. That left the business in a bit of a pickle, but we took the bounce back loan, pivoted and created an eventing platform and that got us through angel and early seed investment, and that’s enabled us to kind of grow and drive the business forward.

Early seed investment was a trigger for me to have to make a decision. That wasn’t my decision alone, but I came over in June last year, and I’ve been working with the guys to continue to grow the business since.