Virtual reality meetings

If two years of meetings through Zoom and Meet have taught us anything, it is that consultation through a screen does not work well. Tech companies are hard at work on the next step: conducting consultations in the virtual world.

It feels a bit awkward. When I look to the left, I see a young woman in a tailored suit taking notes on her laptop. To my right, a bald man in a floral sweater listens intently to the presentation he’s giving himself. But neither the woman nor the man really sits next to me. The meeting we are affiliated with is virtual. In reality, the three of us are in our own home offices, each with virtual reality goggles on our noses. And each with a set of controllers at hand. We need this in case we want to present something ourselves and want to control the whiteboard at the front of the meeting room.

According to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, virtual meetings like this should be the way to go. Because being physically together to collaborate or brainstorm isn’t necessary at all, Zuckerberg said last August during the launch of Horizon Workrooms. In those virtual meeting rooms – where my meeting from above also takes place – you sit around the table digitally. Unlike apps like Zoom and Meet, you don’t just see faces on a screen in front of you, but also animated versions of your colleagues. If your boss waves his arm behind his laptop to reinforce a point, his virtual self will do the same.

Dancing under a purple Einstein

Meta is far from alone in focusing on virtual reality (VR) meetings. In addition to Horizon Workrooms, other virtual reality meeting apps have been developed in recent years. One of these, Glue VR, is used by Salesforce, among others. The American technology company has recreated its Silicon Valley office in a virtual space. The company receives clients there, holds meetings and makes presentations. Visitors virtually drink coffee with each other (which are actually served virtually), shake hands and take notes on keyboards. Accenture also has its office in such a virtual reality application. The international consultancy built AltSpaceVR ‘The Nth Floor’ in the virtual world: a meeting room that offers a view over the San Francisco skyline.

“The development of virtual meeting rooms has really taken off thanks to the coronavirus,” said Alex van der Baan, CEO of Beemup. His company recreated digital versions of physical spaces at the start of the pandemic. Organizations such as GSK and the Rathenau Institute made presentations. Since then, Beemup has stopped recreating existing spaces and is more focused on delivering experiences. Beemup is now building virtual worlds with flying cars flying around and serving coffee to gorillas. “We host talk shows, live events and product launches there. In VR you don’t have to be tied to meeting rooms. You can make it funnier than that.”

The latter is also the idea behind Spatial. In this virtual world, colleagues can visit each other in special places. They range from a room full of space paraphernalia to a psychedelic bar with disco balls, dancing cartoon characters, and a picture of a neon purple Albert Einstein on the wall. Participants take a scan of their face in advance, which is pasted onto a digital character. That character (a so-called avatar) can, among other things, initiate conversations with other avatars, attend meetings, share files, use whiteboards, and take notes. Van der Baan: “If you provide a unique experience during a meeting, your message will stick around better.”

Always happy

But even without such a unique experience, meeting in virtual reality has its advantages compared to meetings through apps like Zoom and Meet, says Rob de Haas, meeting expert and author of the book Just Good Meeting. “Having a conversation is more than just talking. It is largely non-verbal. In video conferences you can hear someone and you can deduce some extras from their intonation, but you don’t see or feel the non-verbal communication. In virtual reality this is already better. There you can see, for example, if someone is really looking at you. With Zoom or Meet, you never know for sure what’s going on inside the other person, because the other person may also be texting while you’re talking to them.”

Still, according to De Haas, a lot of non-verbal cues don’t get across well during VR meetings. The technology is not yet capable of detecting and displaying many subtle movements. He doesn’t notice a cynical eye roll, for example. In fact, avatars in virtual reality apps are always happy. Even if you look at your team leader outside the room with a face like a thunderstorm. De Haas, who attended several VR demos: “It’s possible that the technology could do this in the future, but we’re not there yet.”

According to De Haas, the fact that VR headsets are bad for emotions and detect small nuances makes holding meetings in VR unsuitable for meetings where a lot of emotion is involved. Anyone who has to make joint decisions with some impact cannot afford misunderstandings in communication. “But in practical consultations about who will take on what task or meetings that revolve primarily around information sharing, it can work.”

To a 3D hologram

Compared to video meetings, virtual reality meetings are a step in the right direction, according to Pablo Cesar, professor of human-centered multimedia systems at TU Delft. But even in virtual reality we still miss too much of that important non-verbal communication. “It’s part of the reason video conferencing is so tiring. Your brain misses all those subtle cues from the other person and therefore has to work that much harder to understand what someone wants to say.”

At the Center for Mathematics and Information (CWI), César and his team are working on the possible solution. A multi-camera arrangement films a person from all angles. The film images must be converted by computers into a three-dimensional representation of the person. “That image could be projected as a hologram on VR goggles. My ultimate goal, of course, is to make people appear as holograms. But the technology is still not far enough away.”

Cesar estimates that it will be another five to ten years before we send 3D models of ourselves to a virtual meeting. But he has no doubt that he will come to it. “Digital communication with each other is better in a 3D world than through a flat screen. That’s why it’s important that we continue to look for ways to improve virtual meetings. Because although it seems that we left the coronavirus behind, remote meetings are not going to go away.”

(kg)

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