If there is any positive result of the current Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that it has forced us to revisit and accelerate all initiatives that allow us to work from disperse locations, increase social distancing and reduce travel. Although remote collaboration tools are a must-have to keep businesses running during these difficult times, it’s clear the increased usage will have ripple effects down the line. I don’t expect us to go completely back to collaboration the way we did before.
Now that we’ve seen the possibilities, it will change the landscape significantly. Whether it’s for financial reasons (fewer customer site visits, less office space required) or for more social reasons (less traffic on the road is good for the environment, improved work life balance) there is value in enhancing our remote collaboration possibilities. Of course, people are still social creatures, so there is still a lot of value in physically meeting people as well. The balance will shift, but there will be a rebound after Covid-19 as well.
New technology to collaborate
Much has been discussed around the use of augmented reality to help remote service or maintenance workers if they run into a problem that requires support. Many IFS customers are already using this successfully to counter some of the Covid-19 challenges, and it’s easy to see the value even beyond this pandemic. This type of capability can be used in many different “remote” use cases because it delivers virtual hands-on assistance regardless of location.
But what about the office? What about the many business meetings that we run during the day? We were already accustomed to using audio conferences. And during the past months, the use of video conferences has exploded. We have grown beyond our “video-shame” and are now mass adopting tools like Zoom, or the newest versions of MS Teams. But what’s beyond? What’s next after video conferencing? Could it be Virtual Reality? The IFS Labs team decided to find out.
VR in practice
Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology that appeals to our imagination. From the Lawnmower Man to the Matrix it kind of feels cool to live (or work) in a virtual space where everything is possible. But, as with a lot of new technology, adoption has been much slower than expected.
Most of the VR uses we have seen in the past couple of years have focused on gaming and entertainment. In business, we see mostly experiments and proof of concepts, more often than not, centered around training.
In the context of the challenges we now face in remote collaboration, let’s see how far we are from actually being able to use VR for our business meetings. Would there be any value in that?
Influence the working environment
With VR it is possible to control the environment in which a person works. There is unlimited space and ability to collaborate. Imagine someone sitting in a busy coffee shop or an aircraft. By using VR that person could work in a virtual environment, with perfect lighting, no background noise, unlimited screen real estate and even meet with colleagues.
While sitting on an aircraft people can watch your screen. Similarly, engaging in a video conference in a coffee shop might be awkward as well. Virtual reality is the ultimate way to ensure no one around you can see what you’re doing.
3D versus video
One of the limitations of today’s video conferencing platforms is the limited interactivity that you have in real-life situations. Break-out in smaller groups, a side-chat with your colleague, looking around in the room; in a 3D virtual environment, these things are easier and can be better controlled.
There is no limit to the design of meeting places. Depending on the need and purpose of the meeting, space can be designed to most optimally support collaboration. Imagine your next appraisal taking place on a white beach while you’re lounging in a beach chair. Or, more seriously, meeting in a virtual planetarium while teaching the inner workings of our solar system.
And this sounds cool, right? So we put it to test and tried it in IFS Labs. And yes, it kind of works. But, to truly be a game-changer a few challenges need to be overcome.
There are plenty of choices of VR sets, but they all come with serious limitations. Being it field-of-view, resolution, weight, or any of the other drawbacks, some serious acceleration needs to happen before it will be deemed “worthy” enough by most potential users. Today it still feels like a lesser experience compared to video, and until resolved it won’t gain major traction.
In my opinion, the most critical to resolve is inter-operability between platforms. There are several different VR meeting platforms out there. Each of them has different features and functions. None of them support every single head-mounted display device out there. Some of them support 2D participation. As demand increases these platforms will grow more mature but are they at a stage that they are adolescent enough to appease the innovators of the world.
Input and control
Another challenge is to control your actions in the meeting and provide input. For example, text entry in VR is fundamental to the success of virtual meetings, but far from resolved.
We have been using a mouse and keyboard for decades, but still, they provide us with a lot of precision in what we want to do and enter, which VR devices lack. Whether it’s gestures (think how HoloLens works), virtual keyboards, or a combination of a physical keyboard in the real-world visualized in the virtual room (merged reality) it’s something that provides a significant performance gap between working on traditional means and using a VR headset.
We all know the value of non-verbal communication. That’s why video conferences work so much better than audio-only. Not only because we can see others paying attention, but we also see how that person responds to what we see. As soon as we go all avatar, that’s gone.
Some platforms show mouth movement if the person is talking but all other non-verbal communication isn’t there yet. It will likely require a combination of webcams, AI-driven sentiment analysis, and advanced mimicking of the avatar used in the virtual world. Needless to say, we’re not there yet.
What do we learn from this? We still have a very long way to go before we mass-adopt virtual reality for business meetings. We probably will never approach the efficiency level of face-to-face meetings.
But as history taught us, innovation prospers under pressure. Covid-19 and the subsequent “new-normal” has forced us to look at alternatives. And VR might be a better alternative to video conferencing. It’s going to take a while before it is, but as Bill Gates said in 2008; “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”.
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