Conducting Business in Virtual Reality (part 1 of 2)

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Let’s be clear what I mean by conduct business in VR: I’m talking about VR as a tool enabling businesses to communicate with each other: meetings, conferences, seminars, presentations etc. We know that VR is proving itself admirably at specialised tasks in industry: surgeons, engineers, architects, are all recognising the benefits of this emerging technology; but what about the day-to-day stuff? The quick meeting in the overbooked corner of the office; the remote Skype call to Japan at 8pm; the conference in some dark corner of god knows where, with the expensive hotel and flight just to rub salt in. Every day, we have to conduct business, and most of the time, it’s a bit of a drag.

We’re also not discussing Mixed Reality solutions for telepresence; full body volumetric capture in real-time and a headset that can place the virtual person in the same environment. Mixed Reality headsets are about augmenting the reality around you; I’m thinking of a completely immersive new reality, a virtual reality that we can create for you.

A second chance

Remember in the noughties, when everyone wanted a piece of Second Life, and businesses were competing to build the most outrageous, extravagant, virtual offices?

An Adidas Store in Second Life

So what the hell went wrong with Second Life anyway? I played it for about two weeks, and got fed up with all the weird glitches, and surreal social interactions; maybe that’s what ultimately turned brands off also? It’s hard to conduct business in a virtual world when you keep falling through the floor, and the person you are meeting is a 12ft dragon angel.
I understood the appeal: a virtual office can be the office of your dreams: a fantastic view, as much room as you need, an AV system that doesn’t require a PHD in electrical engineering and computer science. These virtual meetings were extravagant, and wondrous; but there was a big part missing, and this was, ultimately, the real reason people walked away from Second Life: true presence. It didn’t matter how great your view was, if all you had to do, to break the illusion, was look up to see Sticky Mike from accounts staring back at you.

A new reality

Fast forward nearly 20 years, and finally we have the ability to immerse ourselves completely into a Virtual World of our own devising; hardware and software innovation has made VR viable, and accessible to anyone with the funds, and inclination. And with this new vigour, there is a desire to, once again, build virtual spaces. Virtual Reality has shown that it is a technology with a much wider reach than gamers and bongo enthusiasts; users of VR are enjoying the escapism, and the environment alone is enough to satisfy this need. Fully immersive environments are being used to help people meditate, to reduce pain in burn victims, and to awaken dementia sufferers. Innovative business leaders are recognising these uses for VR, and can see the benefits of relaxing, social spaces to conduct their business within.

Social VR

At the moment there are several Social VR platforms available that allow folks to jump into an environment, and chat with others:

  • Facebook Spaces — the popular social network that owns Oculus is all over VR with their Spaces app for hanging with your besties, but it is its integration into the platform, that allows a user to effortlessly live stream their VR experiences that is the real game changer.
  • Oculus Rooms — confusingly, Oculus has its own version of Facebook Spaces, called Rooms, which is on the Oculus Go, but is different to the Home app on the Oculus Rift, and also not the same as Facebook Spaces on the Rift! Ahhhgggg!!! Just pick one!
  • Altspace VR — these guys were probably the first to have a crack at social VR, and nearly folded until Microsoft bailed them out. It’s great to see them still out there.
  • VTime — another social VR app with a feature rich Avatar creation system, and some nice environments to hang in. They seem to be targeting business users too.
  • VRChat — batshit crazy VR that even millennials are scared of. This is the closest thing to Second Life I’ve seen for its pure and total confusion. You can be anything you want in this Social VR experience, and usually that means the person dressed as a cute Japanese schoolgirl anime character that you’ve been talking to for the last hour, is actually a middle-aged German dude called Hermann.
Participants of popular Social VR platform VRChat watch in fascination as another user has a seizure in the real world. Yes. That.

These experiences are great, but they are somewhat limited: a business would want to create their own space, brand it, and have tools available to them (apart from taking selfies).
The Social VR apps have shown that it is perfectly acceptable to have your meeting around a virtual campfire, instead of the boardroom table; and that this relaxing alternative has a huge effect on the behaviour of participants. VR has a positive effect on stress, and users are more likely to open up, and be themselves, and this is beneficial when you really want to know who you are doing business with.

Business Avatar

I’ve always been curious about why business people prefer to walk around in grey suits —effectively wearing a uniform, whilst at the same time, there is a desire to know as much as possible about the people you are doing business with. Wouldn’t it be easier to get a feel for someone instantly? If the person you were meeting with was wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt, you’d know straight away you were going to get on with this person! Right?!

Avatars from some of the most popular Social VR platforms, starting from the left: AltSpace, Facebook Spaces, Oculus Avatar, VTime, VRChat.

You can express yourself in VR, and the Social VR platforms we’ve mentioned so far have their own avatar system —Facebook probably the most familiar. The most outrageous of these platforms is probably VRChat, which allows users to choose from a huge library of characters from popular culture, as well as upload their own insane creations; you may not want to hold your meeting in a room with Godzilla and Metal Mickey.

The other Social VR tools have perfectly reasonable avatar systems, that allow you to look human, and will give you the freedom to gesture, and express yourself accordingly. Very soon, you will be able to scan your face and transpose it to your virtual avatar in real-time; you’ll then be able to see people talking, and know for sure if that guy across from you has terrible wind. Most of the time, in a meeting, you don’t really care for seeing people’s real-world expressions; you just want to know if someone is trying to interject and must be heard, or needs to leave to go to the toilet (that wind problem again). For this reason, a virtual meeting is a great way to cut through the chaff, and get to the corn; the avatars act as a visual indication of presence to everyone else, and that’s usually all that is required.

Better tools

Social VR is great’n’all, but generally, when in a teleconference, there are certain tools that are expected: whiteboards, shared screens, text chat, file exchange. You may want to build an environment for training your staff using a recognised e-learning framework; or to showcase a new product by allowing the users to manipulate a 3d model. You may also want some of your guests to enter the meeting via video conference, and see them on a virtual video wall; or play a Powerpoint presentation within the virtual space. For this, you need a better solution, and tools are emerging for just this purpose. Here at Weald Creative, we’ve been researching these tools to find out what kind of capabilities they offer.

Check out part two of this article, to find out more.