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Saturday, May 18, 2024

VR Meetings Are Weird, but They Beat Our Current Reality

The sun never sets in virtual reality. This occurred to me after an hour-long briefing in an Oculus Quest 2 headset. Joined by more than a dozen other floating avatars, we teleported our way around an “outdoor” meeting space that could only be described as aircraft-carrier-meets-Croatian-vacation.

Beyond the vast expanse of virtual breakout spaces was a stunning sunset, but the day never grew dark. When I pressed a button on the Touch Controller a tad too long, I ended up standing unnervingly close to another avatar, a fellow journalist. Then I remembered that you can’t catch the coronavirus from a digital simulacrum.

The press briefing was one of a few ever to occur in VR, a spokesperson for this new app claimed. It's called Arthur, and part of the pitch is that it’s going to catapult VR for work into the mainstream, that meetings and collaboration sessions and deskside briefings will become … headset briefings.

The app launches today, but it’s been in development for four years. The company behind it, also named Arthur, is headquartered in San Mateo, California, with employees scattered around the globe. It has secured seed funding from VC firm Draper Associates, and it lists the United Nations, Societe General, and a large automaker as its beta testers.

Taking a meeting in Arthur requires a literal suspension of reality. You exist only from the waist up (hey, just like Zoom!), and your shirtsleeves taper off to reveal blue computer arms, which move according to how you move the Oculus Quest controllers in your hands. Your digital eyes are obscured by Matrix-style glasses, and a headset microphone covers your virtual mouth. This is because the technology can’t yet mimic facial expressions in VR, and “it’s better than looking at dead eyes,” says Arthur founder Christoph Fleischmann. My avatar looked nothing like me, except that it had dark brown hair.

Still, meeting in VR felt like somewhere else, if not somewhere in the physical world. I was sitting in the same living room I’ve occupied for most of the year, but I was present with other people. I was aware that my headset’s physical microphone was on, that anything I said would be part of the conversation. It felt rude to step away and start making coffee in my kitchen.

When Fleischmann urged the group to take a seat ahead of a presentation in a virtual amphitheater (which appeared on demand, the fastest and cheapest construction project ever), we scattered awkwardly among the seats the way we might in real life. And after the presentation, during which Fleischmann touted the collaborative benefits of working in VR, we teleported to a roof-deck bar and used our hand controllers to pick up virtual cocktails. Everyone loosened up, despite these being unreal drinks. All the while, the sun remained stuck in its permanent position of almost set. It was surreal, but it beat our current reality.

Meet Me Here

Arthur wouldn’t be the first to try to carve out a space for itself in enterprise VR. Until recently, VR headsets—as well as mixed-reality headsets, like Microsoft’s HoloLens—were prohibitively expensive, costing over $1,000 per unit. Any company looking to make inroads in the industry had to at least consider selling to big businesses, the ones who could afford the nascent technology. That was the approach Spatial took, a buzzy New York-based startup that WIRED’s Julian Chokkattu covered earlier this year.

“We always say we’re like Zoom and Slack had an AR/VR baby,” Jacob Loewenstein, Spatial’s head of business, tells me over Zoom from his New York City apartment (the Zoom meeting was my request; I was on deadline and didn’t want to dither in VR). “And we really mean it. Because if we succeed it’s because we’ve made this thing just stupidly easy to use.”

Part of that ease of use comes from the fact that Spatial is cross-platform, running the web as well as AR and VR headsets like Oculus Quest. Your colleague could be experiencing the app in VR, using pop-out versions of Google Drive or Microsoft 365, but if you don’t happen to have a headset nearby, you can join via weblink on your laptop and still get some of the three-dimensional benefits. (Arthur is also testing a web client and plans to support AR in the future.)

Both Lowenstein and Anand Agarawala, Spatial's chief executive and cofounder, say the pandemic has been good for business. The company made its $20-per-month Pro app free this spring and saw daily users jump by 130 percent. There have been more than half a million “meeting joins” in the Spatial app. Recently, the number of people joining Spatial meetings from VR headsets surpassed the number of web users.

Agarwala says Facebook’s release of the $299 Oculus Quest 2 this fall has helped drive business, too. “We saw demand all summer long, with people asking us, ‘Where do I get a headset? We just want to get in [the app].’ And now all the travel budget they’ve saved this year, they’re dumping into the Quest,” he says.

But whether the pandemic has been a true boon for VR depends on who you ask. In September the research firm IDC put out a report forecasting that the market for VR headsets would decline nearly 7 percent in 2020. Jitesh Ubrani, one of the authors of the report, noted the market would potentially bounce back in 2021 and that VR for enterprise could grow to over half the total VR market by 2024. This year, though, VR was set back by hardware production issues in the first half of the year, something that affected the tech industry broadly. Even if you wanted to spend the dough on the original Oculus Quest or the HTC Vive Pro or the Valve Index, they were hard to come by.

Face to Face

I didn’t need to ask an analyst about the numerous peculiarities of VR. Getting set up in Arthur wasn’t hard, but it took time. I went through an onboarding session with Arthur’s incredibly patient business operations manager, Simon Berger. This involved downloading the app and authenticating using a hand controller and a virtual keyboard.

Then there was the VR press briefing itself, a day later. As soon as I logged in, I realized I didn’t really have a good mechanism for taking notes, which is paramount for a journalist. The Arthur app does have a notepad, but using the hand controller to take notes seemed arduous, and I was completely cut off from the physical keyboard and voice recorder I use in the real world. You can record video and audio from the headset, but it’s all stored locally until you export it.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t potential in VR for work, or that the companies working on these apps are blind to the barriers. The technology just hasn’t fully arrived in time for the pandemic. “I think if VR headsets were available en masse in April, you probably could have convinced every Fortune 1000 company in the world to buy VR headsets,” Spatial’s Loewenstein says.

If I’d heard that statement back in April, I might not have believed it. But now, nine months into the pandemic and working solo from home, I can at least see the appeal. During my Arthur VR onboarding, the company’s founder, Christoph Fleischmann, just happened to “drop in” on our meeting in VR. It was no doubt planned, but the remarkably good spatial audio and the sudden appearance of this new person in my virtual world had all the markings of real-world spontaneity. I heard myself saying “nice to see you” to an avatar of another human, and meaning it.

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