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VR needs to join the conference room now

Virtual reality
Michael Björn 

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

Category, topic & hashtags

I spend a lot of time in teleconferences. This is partly my own fault, since I have a work situation where I have two different employers that are physically about an hour apart from each other by airplane.

Unfortunately, these meetings typically have moments that go something like this:

Pat: "So are we about to conclude the meeting then?"
Tom: "Could I quickly give an overview of Project X before we finish?
Gemma: "Yes, sure. Yeah."
Tom: "OK, so right now we are designing the fieldwork. Can you see my screen?
Gemma: "No, we can't see anything. Are you sharing it?"
Tom: "Not sure, how do I do that? I can't find it in the menu??"
Ron: "It is not a menu, there is an icon you need to click."
Tom: "OK, I can't see any icons.
Tess: "It looks like a computer screen or TV set with an arrow pointing diagonally upwards.
Tom: "... sorry can't find it!"
Ron: "It is not on the top, it is on the bottom, in the middle."
Tom: "Ah! There it is! OK, now I'll click that, and I just need to p...."
Gemma: "Tom..."
Pat: "What happened?"
Michael: "I think we lost him."

Due to all the (usual) complications, these meetings tend to run late which often means I only have a few minutes to prepare for the next teleconference. I often log off, have a headache and feel totally exhausted.

Does any of this sound familiar?

We talk a lot about automation, artificial intelligence and so forth. Wouldn't it be great if we could solve some of the everyday hassles, too?

Better use of time

I think it's time to take digital commuting seriously. Consider this: according to the World Bank, there are almost 3.5 billion people in the global workforce, and a 52 country study showed that we commute between 39 minutes and 1 hour 37 minutes every weekday. That means literally billions of hours in vehicles every day – a significant portion of which could be done digitally instead.

And in our 2019 consumer trends report, we see that 75 percent think that digital commuting, as opposed to physical commuting, will be mainstream in 5 years – specifically in order to lessen the environmental impact.

I am one of them. The travel I need to do for work is giving me anxiety about the impact on the environment.

In order for digital commuting to really happen, we need to solve some underlying issues. And that, I believe, is immersion.

Today, we still haven't met until we've met. But if it feels like a real meeting, then it will be so much easier, and productive, for everyone.

VR tech set to revolutionize work meetings

I use VR on a daily basis outside of work and, after a couple of years, I am still totally taken away by how immersive a proper VR setup really is. Playing Skyrim in VR is almost like being there and as far as I am concerned not even comparable to playing the same game on a flat screen.

For this reason, I am not surprised that more than half of the weekly AR/VR users we interviewed think avatars will be commonly used in online meetings within a year.

If you have been hanging out in Rec Room, VR Chat or AltSpace VR recently, like these respondents may have done, it is easy to think that online meetings in VR could happen on a broader scale soon. In fact, more than half of survey respondents say they would like to use avatars for immersive online meetings today. And although it's still a bit rough around the edges, the technology is already here, is available for the price of a single airplane trip, and the new standalone headsets come with inside-out tracking so it is not difficult to set up. Add a 5G link and you could transform almost any space into a virtual office.

But, wouldn't that be like entering the Matrix?

In a way, yes. Jak Wilmot, the co-founder of Atlanta-based VR content studio Disrupt VR, recently spent 168 consecutive hours in a VR headset. Not only did he survive the experience, he also thought about people as if they were avatars afterwards, so what is perceived to be real might be more about what your frame of reference is...

Making digital commuting a reality

Obviously, the current generation of VR is not like being there in reality. But it is getting closer, which is why we named one of our 2019 trends My digital twin. As many as 48 percent of AR/VR users think avatars will mimic their face so well that it will be no different to looking in a mirror. This would mean that meeting up with other avatars would be like seeing people for real. And this is not science fiction, Facebook has, for example, already developed technology like this, which they call Codec avatars.

I'd like this kind of technology wrapped up in a business model that doesn't involve selling my facial expressions to third parties. And I would like to see the telecommunications industry focus on immersive communications as a an environmentally sustainable killer app for 5G. It is time to make digital commuting a reality – a reality that lets people truly meet without having to meet!

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