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Will Virtual Reality Solve Your Conference Call Nightmares?

Some experts think we could all be having meetings in VR in the next 5 years, but there are a lot of hurdles to overcome.

Will Virtual Reality Solve Your Conference Call Nightmares?
[Image: courtesy of Linden Lab]

On Fridays, Nick Loizides shows up for a meeting. He and 30 or so people gather to report bugs on the software they’re beta-testing, get developer updates, and check each other’s work. Most of them have never met in person and are located around the world. But in these meetings, they talk “face-to-face”, make eye contact, and watch each other’s lips move in real time.

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As a 3D artist, Loizides is one of the early-invite users for Sansar, a virtual reality world by Linden Lab, the makers of massive-multiplayer social game Second Life. They hold these meetings in virtual reality, where they can travel to the worlds of the testers’ creations—beaches, outer space, elaborate rooms. It’s as close to teleportation as one can get.

Sixty-three million VR headsets shipped in 2016 (compared to 1.5 billion smartphones), with a lot of that interest around porn and gaming. Companies investing in the technology, like Linden Lab, not surprisingly, swear it’s coming to your work meetings sooner than later.

Anyone who’s ever been in a painfully slow or disjointed Skype call, yelling into the ether, “Unmute your mic!” knows that the technology—and the user experience—is sorely in need of an update. But will VR solve those frustrations, or just move them to a new, pricier, face-sweatier format?

“It gets as close as we can right now to really replicating a face-to-face type of meeting,” says Eric Boyd, a professor of marketing at James Madison University. Boyd is guest-editing an upcoming issue of the Journal of Business Research that will focus on virtual reality. “You and I, we’re having this telephone conversation, but the only information we’re really getting is what each of us is saying. We’re missing the body language.”

Video calls add a layer of intimacy with facial expressions, but reading someone’s mood from the neck up on a computer screen isn’t always enough. Are they sitting with arms and legs crossed, or are they leaning in, open and receptive? “It takes less mental effort when you don’t have to interpret and infer information,” Boyd said.

Voice and eye-tracking technology give the sense of “eye contact” and facial expressions.

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In addition to adding interactivity and information—VR could especially benefit architects walking through virtual floor-plan renderings with clients—it adds an interpersonal connection that video or phone can’t: The freedom of living behind an avatar.

“In the virtual world you learn about someone from the inside out because you don’t see the person, you see their avatar, whether it’s a likeness of that person or whatever they want it to be,” Loizides said. “But they’re much more open to being open. You’re so open because you’re protected and safe behind the computer. You’re not actually with that person with your guard up. You can really be free to express anything.”

[Image: courtesy of Linden Lab]

How Soon Will Your Meetings Be In VR?

Believers see VR as inevitably world-altering as the smartphone. The first response from many corporations and VR companies I asked about the long-coming VR revolution’s first words to me were, “It’s happening.” It’s what Bjorn Laurin, VP of product at Linden Lab told me: He predicts virtual-meeting ubiquity for the general public—for it to become as commonplace as owning an iPhone—within five to 10 years.

“We are still not at the point where people want to hang out in headsets for a long period of time,” says Derek Belch, founder and CEO at STRIVR. STRIVR is in the VR game, but not for meetings. They’re developing training content, for which there’s proven benefit over just watching or reading onboarding material. “A 30-minute meeting in VR? Not happening anytime soon,” Belch said, citing the hardware and comfort of headsets as reasons. Headsets currently weigh about a pound, which sounds light until you have it strapped to your face for an hour.

“If the comfort level of the headsets improves to the point where people want to wear them for an entire meeting, then I don’t think any of the other factors will be issues.”

Boyd also points to the many unknowns in long-duration VR immersion and comfort: Many people experience dizziness or motion sickness even in a tame virtual setting, and it’s still not clear what the effects of putting a screen an inch from your eyeballs for an hour at a time will do to you—ophthalmologists say it poses no threat to your eyes, but it can still cause eye fatigue and strain, in the same way staring at any screen might.

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VR Meetings Depend On The Future Of Remote Work

The other factor that will determine how widespread the adoption of VR meetings will be is where the trends in remote work go. Some companies are moving away from remote work altogether, in an effort to keep the company culture alive. IBM, one of the pioneers for remote work, recently gave its scattered workforce an ultimatum: Come back to the office or quit. “If people decide they still want employees in the office, it’s going to work against VR to some extent I think,” said Boyd. “Is this five years or 50 years down the road? A lot of it has to do with business practices and what businesses feel comfortable doing, and not necessarily what technology can do for them.”

Five years is optimistic, Boyd said. “I think we’re probably looking more toward eight to 10 years before we really start to see a supply of technology that can support it and people are seeing the benefits and how it can be easily incorporated in their day-to-day life.”

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.

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