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Twenty years ago, asking "Will virtual reality replace conference rooms?" was a science fiction scenario. Think about the "high-tech" tools you used at work back then. Google had just been born. Wi-Fi networks were at their dawn, “landline” desk phones were widespread, and email was just surpassing snail mail as a means of communication. If you had a meeting somewhere other than your own office, you got in your car or on a plane and traveled to meet with clients and partners.
Seems a bit surreal to think of just how quickly things have changed in that timeframe. Today, nearly every task performed in design, enterprise, or corporate environments revolves around a smart device. Cell phones, enterprise chat and project management software, and video conferences have replaced many of the meetings that required us to travel.
So where's virtual reality in this spectrum? The issue with smart devices is that there is always a device between us and those with whom we are interacting. A web conference presents us with an efficient and cost effective way to “see” our partners and clients, but tech glitches and screen distance mean that remote interaction still can’t hold a candle to meeting in person with a colleague or a customer.
Many companies have lashed back against telecommuting for this reason. In the last few years companies like IBM and Yahoo! pushed for employees to return to the corporate office because data showed productivity was declining. The remote employees weren’t gleaning information from the senior staff and developing the same way. Projects took longer because sending information back and forth was elongating the communication process, as opposed to just sitting in a room together and hashing it out.
Immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) hold the potential to solve the remote collaboration paradox because they offer a more interactive experience. Imagine being able to dock your laptop, iPad, Android, or Microsoft Surface tablet with the rear camera directed towards an open room. Next, you would open your favorite conferencing app such as Skype, Zoom, WebEx, or GoToMeeting. Instead of seeing webcam images of your coworkers and clients laid out like The Brady Bunch grid, the software would position digital representations of them around a conference table on your screen. You could see not only their faces, but complete digital bodies, allowing you to view their gestures as they speak and even detect expression. As one of your coworkers gets up to present, the content takes over the primary space on your screen, allowing you to mark it up and share with every person in the room, or keep the notes for yourself.
Certainly, immersive video tools like AR and VR face adoption challenges. The key element to their success will be whether or not the return on investment improves the bottom line by making workers more efficient at accomplishing their tasks. We currently see wireless video presentation technology gaining widespread adoption, but the interactive portion of it has been exceedingly limited. The vision of multiple people sitting around a table and marking up a design document still hasn’t been fully realized in the digital age. We lose out on the collaborative effort when we have to ask someone else to make a change – no matter how small. We take digital screen captures and mark them up with another piece of software so that they can be saved for our own personal records as well as distributed to the other meeting participants as a record of the meeting.
How can virtual and augmented reality improve on this digital collaboration? In a virtual environment, be it fully immersive like VR or just overlaid in your existing environment like AR, the content itself takes over your experience. You have the potential to digitally walk into the presentation and manipulate it, comment on it, and collaboratively augment any portion of it.
Since the digital meeting and collaboration environment is not an architecturally fixed environment, the space required for the activity will be called up by the attendees to meet their needs. Looking to have a board meeting with 25 people, all able to sit around a table and discuss the matters facing the company? Call up that environment. Would you prefer a think tank? How about a room where every member of the team enters and all the virtual walls double as whiteboards, where your engineering team can mark up every inch of space available as they create and develop the next products? The best part is the data “lives” in the environment, accessible to the team each time they return to that virtual room. There’s limitless space to continue the product development — just add on more wall space. With the content being digital, the wall space is also able to be archived.
There’s no longer a need to hope that the brainstorming session didn’t get erased, or a concern about items lost to the moment, as past conversations could be recalled in a voice search.New participants could be added to each session as development proceeds, so that a product could go from wall sketch to a fully interactive 3D prototype to a completed product with a marketing campaign in one virtual realm.
These virtual meeting spaces are starting to emerge. The one getting the most attention right now may be Oculus for Business, but there's also Cisco Spark VR and Microsoft's acquisition of AltSpace VR. It isn’t the software and applications that we’re waiting on — it’s the physical interactive portion.Virtual reality is designed to remove you from your current space and place you in a digital space. However, once you’ve entered that virtual environment, the rules of the natural world don’t necessarily apply. If you see an object in the virtual space and you reach out to touch it, there is no tactile response. You might be able to manipulate that object, but it isn’t always easy to tell when your digital hand is properly aligned with the digital object to create a reaction.
The same could be said about the augmented reality content.Entering into either space typically still requires a form of goggles. These are becoming less cumbersome for people to wear, but they are still a barrier for most adopters as the technology in these environments takes an adjustment from the real world experience that we get from sights and sounds.But the field is rapidly evolving. This year, Apple launched their ARKit at the World Wide Development Conference. ARKit is a platform allowing developers to create augmented reality experiences for the iPhone or iPad. The new iPhone uses AR to position objects in space. Significantly, as The Verge reported:
ARKit enables what Apple refers to as “world tracking,” which works through a technique called visual-inertial odometry. Using the iPhone or iPad’s camera and motion sensors, ARKit finds a bunch of points in the environment, then tracks them as you move the phone. It doesn’t create a 3D model of a space, but it can “pin” objects to one point, realistically changing the scale and perspective. It can also find flat surfaces, which is great for putting digital props on a floor or table.
Will virtual reality replace conference rooms, eventually? The technology will likely find its first applications in retail and entertainment with design applications to quickly follow, but make no mistake: VR and AR are coming to the corporate collaboration space sooner than you think. It's time to start thinking about VR as an important part of your digital transformation toolkit.
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