Episode 15: Facebook experiments with virtual reality meetings

September 22nd, 2021 by Yvonne Harris

In this episode of Welcome to the New Normal, we explore VR meetings.

How would you like to join a meeting in virtual reality, where your boss has chosen his looks and dress from a 3D gallery, and where colleagues and clients make artificial gestures and smiles? Could this be any less stressful than back-to-back video conferences, with an added touch of nausea?

Tune in to the Welcome to the New Normal audio podcast now and follow along with the script below.

News

How would you feel being in a meeting where your boss has a giant cartoon head, and your colleagues are all assembled avatars chosen from a 3D gallery?

Strange, unsettling, possibly slightly nauseating?

Welcome to the brave new world of virtual reality meetings, where you sit at home, don a VR headset, and beam into a cartoon land conference room.

But is this going to be a reality? Is it happening already? Are we drifting into the Matrix?

Well, it seems that Facebook is making a serious stab at it.

The company has developed a tool for the future of work called “Horizon Workrooms”, which allows remote workers to collaborate in the same virtual space.

Using the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset, Employees can create an avatar – which gives them a whole new universe of fashion options – they can collaborate with others on a whiteboard, stream what’s on their laptop, all while sitting at their real-life workspace.

Or at home in their pajamas…

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that employees “shouldn’t really have to physically be together to feel present, collaborate or brainstorm.”

And that “Video conferencing has taken us pretty far, but as we start planning to go back into the office, I’m not super excited about having most meetings be over video.”

Facebook has made a presentation video on YouTube. Look up Horizon Workspace and have a look. Let us know what you think!

But would a VR meeting be any less painful and exhausting?

Well, there’s a lot that still needs to be ironed out.

VR and AR (that’s for Augmented Reality) are still quite new, and beyond the teething problems of the experience itself, it’s expensive.

The Oculus Quest 2 headsets used in Facebook’s Horizon Workplace cost 300 dollars apiece, they are bulky, heavy, and uncomfortable.

And The video conferencing apps that Mark Zuckerberg says are tiring out his employees have their own word on the matter.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan told the Washington Post that he accepts VR and AR will have a role to play in the distant future, there are strides to be made, and Zoom, Teams, and all the other video conferencing apps have life in them yet.

He said that “The headset is too heavy, and there’s no eye contact.”

And then there’s the added problem… that some users experience what’s called a vergence-accommodation conflict,

What’s that? It’s a biological issue that occurs when the brain is confused by the distance of objects due to a 3-D environment.

What does that mean for employees exhausted by never-ending video conferencing being asked to switch to VR headsets?

It means headaches, fatigue, nausea, or a combination of the three. Nice.

Tuong Nguyen, senior principal analyst on Gartner’s emerging technology and trends team, called Facebook’s experiment “a huge nonstarter,”

Why’s that? He said Facebook was telling its employees that “we’re giving you this tool to do your job, but you might get a headache or throw up after.’”

Research

So, is digital nausea a workplace future we can look forward to? If you know what I mean?

Well, let’s follow the money.

According to research company CDC, worldwide spending on augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) is forecast to accelerate out of the pandemic.

It’s going to grow from just over $12.0 billion last year to $73 billion in 2024.

Much of this investment is coming from gaming, a huge chunk is coming from industry, government, and retail, which clocks in at 7.3 billion investments by 2024.

Another interesting one is manufacturing, using VR to navigate digital twins of complete manufacturing processes, which will get a similar level of investment.

As for meetings, who knows.

But I’m a bit old-fashioned. And in meetings where there’s a lot at stake, and where we need to build human relationships, there’s a lot to be said from eye contact, body language, the way people dress…

And not wanting to throw up!

Number

That’s 34 million VR headsets that have been sold to date.

But what are they being used for?

Well, number one is gaming and entertainment.

Gaming goes without saying, but VR is also being used to watch movies more immersively, watch sports matches, visit museums, and even go on a virtual holiday, such as Marriott’s Travel Brilliantly collaboration with Oculus which can transport you to Hawaii in seconds

I’d rather take a real vacation myself…

Then there’s health care, a big adopter of VR.

Virtual-reality simulations use actual diagnostic images from CAT scans or ultrasounds to construct 3D models of a patient’s anatomy.

These models help surgeons determine the safest and most efficient way to locate tumors, place surgical incisions or practice difficult procedures ahead of time.

Stroke and brain injury victims across Europe can now use immersive virtual-reality therapy to regain motor and cognitive function faster than with traditional physical therapy.

Then there’s space: astronauts use virtual reality hardware to prepare for upcoming missions, as well as giving them away to destress on long, lonely missions. Trip to Hawaii from space anyone?

Museums have been at the forefront of VR adoption, with sites allowing headset users to instantly transport users to the Louvre in Paris, the Acropolis in Athens, and the Guggenheim in New York City, all in one day.

A few years ago, I even took a virtual tour of the Domesday Vault on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. Interesting experience, but I’d rather have been there myself…

As we’ve mentioned, manufacturing is a big adopter, with employees using virtual-reality headsets to inspect production processes, and in design, to look at car interiors, for example, before they are manufactured, to anticipate potential problems before they arise.

The Military, of course, loves a bit of modern tech. The U.S. military often uses virtual-reality simulators to train soldiers before they are deployed, get them to understand the lay of the land, like high-tech versions of the old sand tables, used to plot battlefields in detail.

Apparently, this immersive environment is extremely important, because training that captures the attention of the learner is often retained longer and is better understood. But it’s a bit of a worrying overlap with gaming, it could be argued.

Use in meetings appears to be limited. Let’s let Facebook experiment and see what they come up with.

Rather them than us 🙂

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