We are in the coronavirus times, and the outbreak of this disease has changed in a way or in another the lives of many people. One of the biggest consequences is that many people are now quarantined, or have problems traveling in the world.
Many conference organizers are canceling their events, even important ones (like F8, MWC, GDC) because of concerns over the coronavirus. Many companies are canceling meetings, work travels or have to force their employees to work from home.
Health is a priority over business for sure, but business is important to eat and pay the bills, so everyone is looking for alternate ways to perform the same tasks, but remotely. For this reason, these days I have been contacted by many companies and institutions that know that I have an expertise in the field and that are thinking about doing their events or meetings over virtual reality. I’m happy to help them overcome this complicated moment, but I think that it is worth understanding that VR is not always the right choice for this kind of things.
I am a VR enthusiast and someone may think that I want to always use VR. Actually, as a person, yes, I would wear a headset most of the day, but as a professional, I have to find the best solution to fit the needs of my customers and avoid using VR when it is only a gimmick. So, here you are my guidelines on when VR is useful for meetings and events and when it is not.
Skype vs VR: 2D video is ok most of the times
Let’s start with a harsh truth: most of the time, using videoconferencing solutions (like Skype, Zoom, Webex) is enough, and it is even better than VR.
2D Technologies are on the market since a longer time, so they are more functional and reliable. Furthermore, they can exploit the fact that we mostly interact with technology through displays that are 2D exactly like them. Not to mention the fact that in most cases, we don’t even need all the features offered by VR: to have a phone call where I just have to talk by voice, having a 3D hologram of the other person may be something cool, but it is not mandatory at all.
Videoconferencing has several advantages over VR meetings, if you don’t need special VR features. Some of these advantages are:
- More stability: VR meeting solutions are currently buggy, since the technology is pretty new. For instance, when I organized my blog birthday party over Mozilla Hubs, half of the people had problems joining it (mic not working, the system refusing them to connect, etc…). Skype sometimes messes with something, but most of the time, if you have a good connection, it works well;
- Less friction: if someone calls me over Skype, I just press a button on my PC and I start speaking. If someone wants me to join inside MeetinVR, for instance, I have to put my headset on, launch the application, login, join the room, etc… Additional steps that are still a bit a nuisance;
- Better face-to-face interaction: in a call over Skype I can see the other person in 2D, but I see the 2D stream pretty well: I can see his/her face and body exactly as in real life. Thanks to this, I can have all those subtle cues that are fundamental for our communication: remember that 55% of our communication doesn’t involve the voice at all, but body posture and facial expressions. In VR, you lose a good part of this communication: without full-body tracking and facial muscles tracking, it is all lost, and the communication is impoverished. Not to mention the fact that in some XR platform there is the uncanny valley effect that makes everything a bit weird;
- More connections: the best VR solutions can host some thousands people for an event, and these are in cloned rooms separated by each other. In a single room, usually everyone can see/hear max 50-100 people. On Youtube or Twitch, a stream can have millions of people watching it and interacting via a live chat;
- More easiness of use: most people already know how to use Skype, and can use it easily. With VR solutions, you have to teach them each step to follow and it is not always easy (trust me, it is quite difficult);
- More freedom: let’s be honest… how many times during a boring Skype call we have pretended to listen and in the meantime we kept doing stuff at the keyboard? It happens. If you’re in VR, well, you are in VR, and you can’t see what your colleagues are doing, and you also can’t escape the event 🙂
There are also others, but I think you got the point. XR is a new technology, and we’ll need years until XR meeting solutions will find a form so that they’ll be natural to be used like current 2D videoconferencing solutions (with more added benefits). So, for most uses, Skype is still the best. Webinars are still very good to make online lessons. And so on.
Some days ago, jokingly someone asked me “Why are we doing this meeting over Skype? If you really think that VR is the future, you should always use VR”. The answer is: in some years, it will happen, but not now, now the most efficient solution for this meeting is still Skype. We can see each other, we can talk, everything works well and we are all happy about it.
So, why bother about VR meetings?
After the last paragraph, you may wonder why there is so much attention for XR meetings solutions: Spatial, for instance, continues to raise million dollars investments. The reasons are two:
- Investors think about medium-long term. In 5 years, solutions for XR meetings may become truly big, fixing most of their problems, so the time for investing on them is now. If in the future you can have the possibility of meeting someone in 2D or in 3D, with the 3D meeting being natural, frictionless, and stable, what would you choose? I would go for the 3D for sure, because it would be more similar to meeting in real life;
- VR and AR meetings offer features that 2D conferencing system don’t have and will never be able to have. These are the reasons for which these applications are already valuable today. For instance, while it is easy to share a PPT on Skype, try sharing a 3D model made with Blender over it. Good luck with that.
So, we should keep an eye on these systems to be at the forefront of others when they will become popular. And use them when they can be an added value already now.
As a great endorsement of how VR can be important even now, HTC has just announced that its annual VEC event will be all in VR (on the ENGAGE platform)
When to use VR for your gatherings?
So, after all of this, let me answer the mother of all questions: When you should use VR for your meetings/events? Let me give you some ideas:
- If you love VR. Ok, we VR lovers like to experiment with VR for everything, so maybe we just use VR because we want. It is not a smart reason, but you must accept us for what we are 😀 ;
- If you want to empower your brand. You may choose to make your event in VR to show to your customers and partners that your company is so innovative that already employs the technology of the future to organize its events;
- If you want to share 3D elements. VR is in 3D, and gives you a full spatial perception. If you want to discuss over a prototype of a motorbike, or you want to modify the design of a car together, or you want to showcase a house to your customers, doing it over Skype is not satisfactory. In VR there are various tools that make this possible, and that already make companies spare lots of money and time. People can meet in VR and explore a 3D element together, examining it from all positions, and modifying it together, exactly as if it was there in front of them in real life. This is very important for who works in design, or architecture;
- If you need your whole human body. This can be a subcategory of the previous point. If you want to teach someone how to dance, doing it on video is possible, but if you can teach him/her in VR is far better. If you need to exploit all your body, in its 3D form, then VR is more suitable;
- If you need to depict an impossible situation. Do you want to have a meeting on the lunar surface so that to make an astronomy lesson more interesting? Do you want to have a speech underwater? Do you want a meeting where everyone is a dragon and throws fires and bananas on other people? With VR you can do that, and amaze everyone. It is more difficult to create this kind of situations with standard tools;
- If you want something crazier. Skype meetings are all boring, let’s admit that. With VR, things usually start getting pretty fun soon. I’ve just organized a meeting on the VRrOOm Social XR platform and after few minutes there, people started having fun changing avatars and choosing the craziest VRChat avatars to impress the other participants (e.g. a talking milk, a cute fox, etc…). Everything can become more informal and help in relieving the tension if you are in VR. This can also be a drawback if this is not what you want, of course;
- If you need spatial awareness to mimic real-life networking. On Zoom, if you are twenty people doing a meeting, you are twenty people doing a meeting all together. If you’re following a Webinar, there is someone talking and the other ones listening. In VR, if you’re twenty people in a space talking, you can go with another one participant a bit distant from the other ones to discuss a private thing for a fast chat and then come back. After a workshop in VR, the people in the audience can separate in little groups and talk to each other, exactly as it happens in real-life workshops. In general, if you need a situation with talking groups continuously changing, VR may be better for you. So a networking aperitif in VR is doable, in video far more clunky.
- If you want to simulate some events in a way similar to what happens in real life: presentations over the web are nice, but they are just a voice over some images. In VR you can see the rough body movements of the speaker, and the situation feels more real. You come back as you have been there. If you want to convey this sense of similarity, then VR is what you need;
- If you have to do something emotional. Probably the VR meeting I will never forget has been the virtual funeral of Chris Long. People from all over the world remembering one of our best community members, someone singing, some others reading poetry, others dancing. I have been to some funerals in my life, but this has probably been the best I’ve participated in: it was full of art, of sincere words, of true love, and also of originality. I remember when in the end we all created planes that we made fly in the sky for Chris. I cried in that headset because the situation was very moving, even more than in real life. No movie could have given me that sensation. Only VR could. So, if you need to do something emotional, VR may be the key.
These are just some suggestions, I’m sure you can come up with other good reasons to use VR… and I invite you to write them in the comments!
So, for instance, there is no reason now to make a group Skype call using VR, because you just need to use your voices and see your faces, and it is enough. But if you want to discuss visual design, probably jumping over VR may be a smart idea. If you just want to show some slides and talk with people listening to you, a webinar may be enough, but if you want to make a networking event, VR may be more suited for it.
As always, it depends on the particular situation: think about what are your needs and pick the easiest solution that can solve them