The idea of putting on a virtual reality headset and stepping into a meeting room with colleagues or customers from around the world has been percolating recently, especially in light of Coronavirus. Travel is expensive – sometimes sickening – so why not hold a virtual meeting? In many cases, this is an effective, cost-reducing way to hold a meeting. But as you consider it, here are seven things to consider:
1) VIRTUAL BUSINESS MEETINGS AND VIRTUAL REALITY BUSINESS MEETINGS ARE TWO VERY DIFFERENT THINGS.
Sometimes you will hear a Webinar – like Zoom or WebEx called a virtual meeting. It makes sense because they’re more engaging than a standard conference call. With the growth of Zoom and other meeting tools, the ability to hold effective remote ‘virtual’ business meetings has increased dramatically. With a phone/computer-based remote meeting, information can be provided by voice, video and slides primarily. Users can ask questions through voice as well as chat features. However, a phone or computer-based meeting has a lot of limitations (to avoid confusion, we will call virtual business meetings ‘remote’ meetings). Meetings in virtual reality are different. They are also effective and affordable but have their own unique set of use cases. Let’s consider some the contrasting differences between the two.
In a remote meeting, you access it through a phone, computer or tablet; but in a virtual reality meeting, you enter through a headset (or glasses in the next 24 months). Once you have the headset on, it is the device that delivers all audio and visual in a complete 360 surround world. Many users who engage in a virtual reality world, lose track of the fact that they are in a virtual world and not a real world.
In a virtual reality meeting, the attendees enter into the shared space – using a virtual reality device like a headset – that exists in the online world housed on a cloud server. The VR room looks like other meeting rooms with windows, tables, a projector and screen. It might even have a white board to write on. As they enter, they would typically greet each other as if they were in a real meeting and then get down to business.
Inside this virtual reality meeting, they can watch a video, see slides, hear a live speaker and interact with the presenter. But then it gets really virtual. Imagine that the presenter is with a manufacturer of large earth moving equipment. The attendees are asked to rise from their chair and ‘walk’ to the warehouse where they get to see a lifesize virtual version of piece of equipment that is central to the discussion. Everyone in the room is able to walk around the piece of equipment, examine it, touch it with haptic feedback, they can even climb up into it and potentially drive it. The expert stands next to them and answers questions all the while teaching the best ways to introduce it to new customers.
Or perhaps you are a creative arts company rather than a manufacturer. And perhaps you want to hold a brainstorming session where all of the participants are deeply engaged in the process. This is more than the standard engagement from a conference call where some participants are working on their computer or surfing the Web as they listen to the call. Instead, participants with a headset on are forced to be all in as they engage in the meeting.
Or consider the professor who is teaching students about human anatomy. Actual real-world human cadavers are very expensive, but a cadaver in the virtual classroom can be used over and over and each student receives their own to learn with.
2) YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE A VIRTUAL REALITY HEADSET TO PARTICIPATE, BUT IT DRAMATICALLY IMPROVES THE EXPERIENCE.
If everyone in your company was playing softball on a particular day, but you were unable to be there and chose to watch through a remote camera that is what it is like to be in a virtual reality meeting and watch through a computer monitor. It’s possible to participate through a 2D screen. In doing so, you would generally get the idea of what happened and could even provide input from afar, but there’s a big difference between true participation and remote participation. Virtual reality business meetings have a level of interactivity between participants that is unmatched by conference calls or Webinar virtual meetings. Ideally every participant has a headset on. But in those cases where one person does not have access to a headset or does not like the feel of virtual reality, viewing through a 2D monitor is a viable option.
3) YOU NEED A VIRTUAL REALITY HEADSET, BUT DON’T BUY THE WRONG ONE.
No surprise – a virtual reality meeting needs a virtual reality headset; but getting the wrong headset could lead to a big waste of money. I could explain the difference between 3DOF headsets and 6DOF headsets, but you can Google it. Suffice it to say, the least expensive headsets on the market will not work. The good news is that the most expensive headsets are not required either.
Headsets to look at buying: Oculus Quest, Vive Focus PLUS, Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus Rift S, HTC Vive and Vive Pro are all good headsets and readily available. The Quest and the Focus PLUS do not need to be connected to a computer to work. The rest will need to be connected to a fairly powerful graphics computer so if you go that route, double check to be sure the computer will work with the headset.
Headsets NOT to buy: Oculus Go, Pico Goblin or G2, Samsung VR or Google Cardboard.
4) VIRTUAL REALITY MEETINGS – LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE IN THIS WORLD – TAKE SOME GETTING USED TO.
The first couple times you step into a virtual reality world and interact with other people, it is amazing, strange and a little bit awe-inspiring all rolled into one. Newbies in VR worlds will typically begin doing strange things that they wouldn’t do in the real world. They might stand on top of the conference table. They might walk on stage and begin poking the presenter, I’ve seen odd things happen when people first experience a share virtual reality experience. So, it’s good to have a bit of time at the beginning to teach people about the experience, let them get used to it and lay down some ground rules. The novelty is cool and it can be mind-blowing to people, but after that novelty begins to wear down a little, business can happen.
5) NOT EVERYONE IS COMFORTABLE IN A HEADSET FOR MORE THAN 20 – 30 MINUTES.
As people get used to new virtual reality hardware, they may find it very natural and enjoy the experience, or they might not have a tolerance for more than 20 – 30 minutes with a headset on. We recommend initially keeping virtual reality meetings to no more than 30 minutes as people develop VR tolerance. In virtual reality games, sometimes people get nauseous due to the movement in that game. However, we find this is generally not the case in social virtual reality, like VR meetings. We also find that younger users – no surprise – adapt to virtual reality much quicker than older users. This is our own anecdotal observations, but it seems to hold true.
6) A STRONG WIFI INTERNET CONNECTION IS CRITICAL.
Because you are participating in a virtual online world, all of your actions from the location you are in, are transferred through your Internet connection to the server where everyone’s interactions are processed and distributed out to everyone else. It is this speed and constant data connection that allows the meeting to run smoothly. A poor Internet connect only leads to frustration. Getting kicked out of the meeting due to Internet disruption not only takes from the person who loses connection, but everyone in the room. It’s not unlike being on a conference call while driving through the mountains of Colorado and dropping out and dialing back in. Same issue and it should be avoided if at all possible.
7) WHILE BUSINESS MEETINGS IN VIRTUAL REALITY ARE NEW, THEY ARE NOT UNPRECEDENTED.
If you have never experienced social VR or the interaction in a virtual world, then I would encourage you to give it a try. The organization, Educators in VR, recently held a weeklong virtual reality conference in AltSpace VR, the online VR community owned by Microsoft. Facebook is releasing their own virtual world, most likely in Q2 of 2020. Even more, HTC is planning to hold it’s developer conference completely in their virtual reality world. In order to give it a try, get a headset, download the Altspace VR or Engage software and take it out for a test drive. You will find it is a magical place with infinite possibilities. However, like other new technologies, at some point you have to dive in and for the cost of a $400 headsets from Best Buy, Walmart or Amazon, you can be in business.
8) YOU CAN MAKE THIS ALL WORK, EVEN IF YOUR CLIENTS, EMPLOYEES OR DEALERS DO NOT HAVE VR HEADSETS.
While VR headsets are dramatically more affordable, not everyone is going to have one for awhile. Don’t let that stop you from moving forward. Most communities of any size now have a local virtual reality arcade. These arcades are more than happy to rent a VR stall or headset for 30 minutes. It might typically cost $15 – $25, but a phone call can help you arrange the details for your customer or employees.
A plane ticket and hotel room will almost always cost more than $500, not to mention breakfast, lunch and dinner. As the world begins to rapidly embrace virtual reality and the obvious use case for remote VR business meetings, it only makes sense to begin exploring where it might work with your organization. For full disclosure, our company – ChalkBites – has a virtual meeting space where we host business meetings.
Steve Grubbs is founder and Chairman of Victory Enteprises, a technology consulting company specializing in augmented and virtual reality. He served as Chair of the House Education Committee in the Iowa Legislature and has a law degree from the University of Iowa. You can reach him at email@example.com.