‘Virtual reality won’t solve hybrid work anytime soon’

In the new era of hybrid work, most workers would agree that their jobs would be harder and less fun without video conferencing. But the rise of Zoom fatigue suggests video conferencing still has a number of issues that need addressing.

According to Professor Jeremy Bailensonfounding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), with video conferencing humans have effectively taken one of the most natural things in the world – an in-person conversation – and transformed it into something that involves a lot of thought.

We also have busy work lives and are often multitasking which means we’re not always 100% focused in video meetings – it simply isn’t immersive enough to garner our full attention. And while we can change or blur our backgrounds easily enough, we’re not always looking as professional when we’re at home as we might when we’re in the office.

Meta, previously known as Facebook, is looking to change all this with its Metaverse, which it announced last year and has pitched as ‘the next evolution of social connection’. After years of controversy and amid dwindling popularity, Facebook is investing heavily in building its immersive virtual reality world in which people will be able to connect, work and play in real-time. The key to Metaverse is Facebook’s AR goggles – something CEO Mark Zuckerberg refers to as a ‘holy grail’ device that will “redefine our relationship with technology”.

While the idea of ​​a limitless virtual reality world is certainly compelling, Metaverse remains very much in development and may not be launched for a few years yet. The latency issues that come with virtual reality, which can make it a dizzying experience, still need to be ironed out. And even then it remains to be seen whether it will be used for work as well as entertainment.

Its success will also be dependent on it being able to sell large numbers of its AR goggles – the first generation of which are likely to be large and clunky. It may take many more years to create lightweight AR goggles with mass appeal.

Cisco meanwhile has developed a collaboration solution aimed squarely at hybrid work with Webex Hologram – which creates photorealistic, real-time holograms of meeting participants to give them the feeling of being in a room together. The impressive technology, which is based on augmented reality rather than virtual reality, also lets users interact with digital content so they can co-create – something that Cisco believes could be extremely valuable to product designers and engineers. However it is a highly sophisticated product and likely comes at a cost that most businesses would struggle to justify for the foreseeable future.

Google has taken a similar holographic approach with its next-generation video collaboration product Project Starline, except users won’t have to wear a headset. Instead the participant sits in a booth facing a “light field display”, surrounded by depth sensors, cameras, and lights. The user can then view another user on the display in 3D and vice versa. But while Google has said it plans to make the technology more affordable and accessible, it is currently only available in a small number of Google’s offices and is unlikely to make it into our home offices anytime soon.

The good news is the video conferencing market is more competitive than ever and having seen stratospheric growth over recent years, video conferencing platforms are working hard to retain and grow their user base. As well as eliminating points of friction and making them easier to use, we can expect these more familiar collaboration tools to become more powerful and engaging.

Developments in spatial audio technology mean that speech will feel and sound more natural, while AI is also helping to eliminate background noise. Meanwhile augmented reality technology is now being used to improve the virtual meeting experience and give users a sense of comfort through the meeting. For example this technology is now being used to bring multiple participants into the same virtual meeting room rather than a mosaic of different rooms. And platforms such as Zoom are now offering beautification tools to help participants put their best face forward and feel less self-conscious.

Augmented reality technology can also make meetings more fun and engaging, for example by placing participants in 3D backgrounds or giving them photorealistic avatars. As such it will provide users with new ways of communicating and can be seen as a stepping stone to the virtual reality world of Metaverse. Ultimately the 3D rendering technology that is used to capture faces and apply filters today will be used to create our faces in the virtual reality worlds of tomorrow.

Dmitry Ogievich is CEO and co-founder of Banuba, which is transforming video communication with AR technologies and is trusted by more than 100 global businesses.

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