Virtual Reality – The New Evolution in Remote Meetings?

1 July 2020

The Coronavirus Pandemic has developed into a dual health and economic crisis worldwide which is unprecedented in its severity and reach.  For workplaces the world over, this has resulted in significant challenges to how we work and collaborate and necessitated new approaches to maintain productivity in these very trying times. The most marked of these changes has been the sudden and dramatic increase in the remote workforce as social distancing strategies have been implemented.  The ‘now-norm’ of working from home is likely to be the ‘new-norm’ for a lot of businesses going forward in the short-to-medium term, and likely beyond.

The challenges of re-evolving how we collaborate in these times for many businesses has led to many questions being asked as to how to maximise those essential group staff and client interactions. With face-to-face group meetings no longer viable in most cases, these remote ‘virtual’ meetings are becoming increasingly important and are a vital lifeline to businesses in order to continue to function. In line with this, I am being increasingly asked whether Virtual Reality (VR) meetings are a viable and productive alternative to the more traditional video-based meetings.

Currently these remote meetings have taken the form of 2D video-based meetings using established and popular programs like Skype, Webex or Zoom to name a few. There are currently significant advantages to using these programs for remote meeting. These software programs have typically been in the marketplace and used in many workplaces for an extended period of time and are, on the whole, usually quite functional and reliable. As a result, there is a largely a high degree of usability and robustness for many employees when using these programs in a remote setting. Continual improvements in internet services and speeds have allowed for higher quality video to be streamed. This has permitted greater facial and body cues to be displayed, adding to the presentation of information for the other meeting attendees. The cross-platform evolution of video conferencing programs also means that the technology is typically readily available within the home office. Coupled with the low costs in terms of hardware and software, makes this form of remote meetings easy to integrate across an organisation.

This medium of remote workplace meetings has its limitations. Workplace video-based meetings are best employed within a relatively small number of workplace personnel or when a given team-member is largely responsible for delivering information to a group. Any more than a handful of attendees often makes these meetings disengaging for many within the group. This lack of the ability to achieve high levels of collaboration within the group for remote meetings is one of the most significant limitations of video-based remote workplace meetings.

This potential improvement in team collaboration and engagement is behind the increased interest in VR as a medium for remote workplace meetings. VR meetings have the potential to provide a more immersive and engaging atmosphere for these remote meetings allowing it to be more representative to face-to-face meetings. The use of full body avatars in VR allow a greater range of social cues. These include features like eye gaze direction and body postures such as head nodding and hand gesturing, which all convey crucial information that are lacking when looking at a grid of tiny faces on a monitor. More recent advancements in VR hardware have also added hand- and eye-tracking and facial recognition technology into the mix, allowing for more realistic interactions within a VR meeting environment. Unlike video-based meetings, VR meetings allow the possibility of subsets of the meeting attendees to break off for independent discussions during a workshop or meeting as would normally happen in a face-to-face networking scenario. 

The ability to actively engage in collaborative work, particularly when utilising 3D models or concepts, is a key advantage of working within a 3D environment. VR environments provide a full 3D spatial perspective that is unattainable in 2D formats allowing for significant improvements in productivity, as shown by innovative companies like Boeing and Ford. The VR remote meeting formats are not limited to, but are ideal for many working in the engineering, resource, medical, architecture or design industries.

There is currently a plethora of VR meeting applications in various stages of development from beta and early access formats through to more established platforms. Many of these are industry or application targeted, particularly around engineering (eg. Improov, SkyReal) and architecture (eg. Dimension10, Symmetry). Likewise, there are a growing number of generic VR meeting applications to explore (eg. Softspace, MeetinVR and MeetingRoom). VR hardware developer, HTC Vive has recently released their own VR meeting platform, named Vive Sync. Although currently only compatible with the HTC Vive headset range (with plans to expand to other headset models), this represents a significant enterprise-targeted platform. Some software application providers like vSpatial are offering free access during the Coronavirus Pandemic to assist workplaces in these trying times.

These potential VR advantages all come with a large caveat though. VR as an industry is still uses relatively niche technology and this also applies to the software and applications used. There is a relatively large number of hardware manufacturers, providing systems of varying performance specifications. Software applications are also not always cross-platform (both within VR systems and also between VR systems and traditional computing systems). While it’s possible to join in with some of the VR collaboration tools from a desktop, to maximise the outcomes of VR meetings, ideally every employee attending needs access to their own VR headset. Coupled with this, is the training required to familiarise employees with VR systems and specific VR software. This initially does not represent a trivial amount of resources that an organisation needs to dedicate to this. However this should be seen as a long-term investment by the organisation as these businesses adapt to evolving technologies.

However, the question arises as to whether an organisation should be making this leap to VR remote meetings at this moment in time. This will obviously be highly dependent on the organisation (or subsets of the organisation) and how VR remote meetings may be significantly more advantageous that current video-based meetings within the current environment. It is extremely likely that for many, or most, remote applications, video-based meetings with dynamic document sharing applications will be both more efficient and cost effective than delving into the VR meeting domain. Having said that, I have no doubt that, within the ‘new-norm’ of working from home and remote meetings, rapid progress in the VR meeting spectrum will greatly speed up the development process of some of these VR applications and VR hardware. This will allow the benefits of the VR technology for enterprise to come to fruition at a much faster rate than would have otherwise occurred. 

So when should organisations be considering VR meetings within the current timeframe? Definitely within-organisations groups that are working remotely using 3D modelling and design would see some major benefits in using VR as a remote collaborative meeting modality in the short term. In addition, organisations that seek to be highly innovative in their workplace would also be early-adopters of this form of remote meetings and would see benefit in adapting the technology to fit their remote meeting requirements. These organisations could feasibly use this to highlight to external stakeholders their dedication to core values of innovation. However, for many businesses I would caution against a wholesale change to VR meetings over the currently inherent ease-of-use and cost effectiveness of traditional video-based remote meetings. The cost-benefit analysis does not currently warrant switching to VR meeting for many remote meeting scenarios, although this is likely to change and evolve rapidly in the future. Watch this space!

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