Even Meta is finding it hard to encourage employees to use VR for internal meetings. Still, as the technology improves and users gain familiarity, it may become that standard way people meet, train, and collaborate online.
It’s been a rough few months for Meta, which recently announced it was laying off 11,000 employees. CEO Mark Zuckerberg continues to consider the company’s long-term vision for the metaverse as a high priority growth area. As he commits to continuing the investment in this area, Meta is far from cashing in on his bold bet that virtual reality (VR) will morph smoothly and profitably from gaming to a serious enterprise application.
His supposition was that the business world would see VR’s potential to transform a necessary but costly business process: conferences, conventions, and meetings, in-house and otherwise. VR would make mere video calls pale in technological comparison, the thinking went; it would enliven a boring meeting, boost collaboration, especially among distributed and remote teams, create new bonds between brand and buyer, and feel cool at the same time as it saved big on travel costs.
Still, despite Apple, Sony, and other tech giants making the same bet that enterprise VR is the next big business tool, the uptake is taking time. Even Meta employees were reluctant to use Meta’s Horizon Workrooms app, which allows users, represented by avatars, to gather around a conference table. One embarrassing mistake: Many Meta employees didn’t have VR headsets, or if they did, they hadn’t set them up yet.
Still Early Days
And while industry watchers say we’re only seeing nascent adoption of VR outside of tech companies, it is clear that broader adoption will happen, and possibly quickly.
“We’ve seen VR work for a myriad of different types of calls and events, and these use cases will only increase as the technology allows for more seamless passthrough and integrates with day-to-day workplace apps,” said Chris Rayner, chief product officer at Mesmerise, a London-based VR events provider.
“Almost every CMO and HR leader we talk to is looking for ways to harness the power of the metaverse and to drive new engagement paradigms with their customers, employees, and partners,” said Allseated CEO Yaron Lipshitz. Allseated’s exVo VR event platform allows users to virtually attend conferences, conventions, and trade shows, interact with other people (delegates, speakers, vendors), and explore venues in 3D. “We are the only ones providing ‘real’ hybrid,” Lipshitz said, claiming that the attendee at an exVo event can have “the same experience as the person in the physical space.”
High Hurdles Remain
Whether or not that’s true, companies, especially those with highly distributed teams, see its value. “I see metaverse collaboration sitting in the space of being used exclusively by smaller teams for some years to come,” said Helena Nimmo, chief information officer at Endava, a software development company based in the UK. “Not because it isn’t great—it is—but because it is not accessible for everyone, all the time.”
Technological barriers for people to join and participate as equals in meetings are another problem. However, there are companies like Mesmerise that rent headsets and train users for companies that want to test the water before investing in VR hardware. Training is a must: It’s not as easy to jump into a VR meeting as it is to join a video call. “It takes time to start up the headset, open the app, and become comfortable with the VR meeting room. It also takes time to feel comfortable operating headsets,” Rayner said.
Companies can also opt to ease into VR without having to deal with headsets using platforms such as MootUp, an avatar-based VR app that works on any device, including mobile and desktop via a browser and VR headsets. “Can you get 100 percent of the audience into an event, both internal or external?” is the question MootUp CEO Danny Stefanic suggests planners should keep in mind when selecting a VR platform.
Even when platforms work across devices, there is still a learning curve for the user. And the planner, things get complex when clients are looking for deep customization of virtual worlds. Setup can take weeks or longer, especially for conferences, that have many moving parts.
There is also the literal physical headache associated with the virtual reality experience. Some people find the intensity of VR sessions overwhelming; others get dizzy or nauseous after a few minutes. That makes the idea of a day-long conference in VR simply untenable. “Long amounts of time in the metaverse can be tiring, batteries die, and attendees eventually taper off,” Rayner said. “Shorter, bite-sized VR sessions that we mix in as part of a bigger agenda have really seen the most success.”
Dr. Rolf Illenberger, founder and CEO of VR software developer VRdirect has a different approach. “For enterprises, the most obvious strategy to get started with VR is by replicating real-world environments and creating VR projects for small groups or even single users.” Some examples the company has delivered have enabled architects to work together on a 3-D model, surgeons to view the mechanics of a medical device, trade show exhibitors to demonstrate a new product to a potential client, and event planners to take virtual tours of hotels and venues. He is also seeing a surge in interest in virtual showrooms.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Even with all its issues, as VR adoption accelerates and technology evolves, it’s clear that VR is what many workers want, especially younger ones. UK-Based Owl Labs’ State of Hybrid Work report, which polled over 2,000 full-time UK employees, found that 34% of office workers think that the metaverse could improve flexible and hybrid working in the future. “It’s clear that companies need to modernize their policies and technology to cater to this growing, digital-native generation,” said Frank Weishaupt, CEO of Owl Labs, a company that makes 360° video conferencing devices.
“We envision VR to be similar to how we use our everyday working devices just like our smartphones, laptops, and tablets,” Mesmerise’s Chris Rayner said. “We’re seeing more and more companies devote time and resources into creating workspace applications in the metaverse to enable a truly interoperable space–one that allows employees to not only attend large-scale meetings and events but use their headsets in tandem with their other tech.”
Photo credit: Gerd Altmann / PIxabay