VR is the future of meetings but won't solve all the problems

Branding, Communications, Corporate Affairs, Digital, Conference

Ruth Callaghan 11 Aug 2022
4 mins

I was running late.

By the time the presentation was underway, the foyer was deserted so I was left to slink into the back of the auditorium where I lingered awkwardly at the bottom of the stands.

After a few minutes hovering, I was urged to sit down so I did the climb of shame past more punctual audience members, finally finding a seat that was not too close and not too far from the next person in the rows.

Personal space matters, after all.

None of this sounds particularly unusual for an in-person event but what makes it novel is that I was sitting at home at my desk — and the full crush of social anxiety was taking place through the medium of virtual reality (VR).

The past few years has transformed the way we work and much has been written about the hybrid shift from in-person to Zoom calls, all-in video workshops to breakout rooms, collaborative whiteboarding to webinars.

Yet the complaint for many of these solutions is that they can fail to be as effective as meeting face-to-face.

In part that’s a quirk of human nature.

We are experts in reading body language — the nuance of a tilted head, the story of a curled lip — and inserting a screen between ourselves and the object of our study interrupts the constant flow of non-verbal cues we use to observe.

But a second challenge is the lack of immersion.

A Zoom webinar or Teams call taking place on a 13-inch screen or smaller can’t compete when the rest of the world intrudes, as kids land home from school or the dog needs to go out or office colleagues crack a joke in the background.

One option to address this is VR, and it’s the thinking behind Mark Zuckerberg’s drive towards the Metaverse, even if most of the focus to date is on entertainment rather than work.

The Metaverse is imagined as a series of virtual worlds, where you can meet with friends and play games (which happens a lot already).

But it also allows you to watch movies or streaming services with others in VR cinemas, buy digital or real-world clothes in VR shops, have a sit-down meeting with your accountant in a VR office, attend a lecture at a VR uni campus, or just have a better meeting with the colleagues you once used to sit next to in real life.

It’s one of the areas being explored by CSIRO’s Future of Meetings group, which since 2020 has been looking at how virtual meetings and conferences can be improved, either through VR or just better digital design.

It has been running events in a range of formats, recognising that just as not everyone enjoys networking in crowds, not everyone experiences digital events in the same way.

That means some of your audience might be more comfortable reading the post-event transcript, watching the conference on double-speed after the event, or listening to the audio as a podcast while walking the dog.

But there will also be people who have sorely missed in-person events yet are not quite ready to plunge back into a room risky with COVID, who don’t want the fuss and expense of travel, or who are open to rubbing pixelated shoulders with virtual avatars instead.

So how should you consider putting a virtual toe in the water?

The Future of Meetings group offers some core advice, with the mnemonic DAISERVE.

To be DAISERVE-friendly, an event should be Digital first (so online interaction is considered at least as important as in-person attendance).

It should be Accessible, Inclusive and Sustainable, which means considering whether the format could potentially deter some users who might be older, less technologically savvy, or lack the hardware and accessories needed to engage.

It should involve Experimentation, so you test and trial the Right tools before assuming that one is the best solution.

It should clearly articulate Value for organisers and participants and every event should go through a process of Evaluation to spur improvement.

Back to the symposium I attended — how did it stack up against the measures above?

The event was digital but had some neat options for those not geeky enough to own their own VR headset.

While VR is the preferred mode of running, it could also be streamed in 2D on a Windows machine or Mac, and CSIRO also offered access to an accessibility fund that can support people in purchasing VR sets if they meet eligibility criteria.

Sessions were recorded for later viewing and will be transcribed over time.

A Slack channel also ran live throughout the event so those not operating in VR could engage more fully with their 2D peers.

The session was also both inclusive and relatively accessible — you create your own avatar so you can look however you would like to be perceived — and there was a training session in advance of the event where I was able to learn to pick up and shoot basketballs to (slightly) improve my coordination.

There were some hiccups, however

The session was run on a VR platform known as Altspace VR, which is owned by Microsoft. Despite what should therefore be a pretty seamless addition of the platform to the Microsoft suite for existing users it took some time to get set up and log in — but that’s a challenge caused by Microsoft not the organisers themselves.

It does point to a core issue for those experimenting with new platforms, though.

People are already on two dozen different tools a day and don’t like having to add another one with the associated complexity of set up, security and passwords for a one-off event.

The presentation itself was interesting, and unlike a webinar, where you get head and shoulders and not much else, the speakers quickly take on a realistic quality, as every move of the head and gesture of the hands is translated by VR gear.

Within the crowd, I found myself trying to remember not to crane my neck and swivel around to stare at people — it’s rude in real life and weird in VR — because unlike a Zoom call, everyone can see me fidgeting in the rows.

But the most powerful impression out of the event was the mental one: for all that I talk for a living, I’m cursed with social awkwardness at public events.
Alas, that translates all too well into the virtual sphere.

So what’s next?

There’s no doubt VR events will grow in popularity, and the opportunity to offer one to your stakeholders, clients or staff should be considered.

Before you launch into the Metaverse, though, think through the DAISERVE approach, to ensure the brand events you build in the virtual world are as good as the real world used to be.

Ruth Callaghan More from author

Ruth uses two decades of experience as a media strategist, communications adviser and journalist to develop, deliver and distribute messages that cut through.

She specialises in providing strategic digital and content services for clients, using the principles of newsworthy and engaging content to tell compelling stories. She is a skilled media trainer and works with professionals both within and outside the communications industry to develop their digital, writing and media skills.

Ruth’s work in this field has included developing digital and inbound marketing strategies for clients, including use of lead generation software, content marketing and social media. She works with emerging technologies including virtual reality in campaigns and continues to write for publications including the Australian Financial Review.

When not distracted by the next shiny digital tool, Ruth likes to holiday in cooler climates with her family or hang out with her stubborn Scottish Terrier Maisie.

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