The next big thing looks to be the concept of a shared virtual collective, better known as the Metaverse. At Siggraph next week, there will be a considerable effort to spin up hundreds of thousands of developers and thousands of companies around the idea. And one of the first VR collaboration products I’m aware of to jump on it is Arthur. (Christoph Fleishmann, the founder and CEO of Arthur, expects we could reach critical mass in as little as two years.)
So let’s talk about how VR collaboration and the Metaverse are likely to converge to create a Matrix-like world — and why we need to finally address the unmet need for relationship building.
What VR collaboration tools still lack
Mainstream collaboration tools are generally good for presentations, in-person events and handling questions. In fact, questions are often better handled remotely because the tools present a “hand-raise” option and generally sequence the queries. In-person events often leave shy people unrecognized and favor the loudest voice in the room.
Modern collaboration software also offers real-time translation and speech-to-text features, which have been improving faster than similar tools for in-person events — and features such auto-notetaking and auto-summarization are coming. Still, the big driver for in-person meetings isn’t the meeting itself but the side conversations, meals, and social interactions that typically surround them.
People who travel to an event seem to make deeper relationships, discover more opportunities, and better get to know their remote coworkers. Attempted workarounds in the past have included taking a large 4K TV and placing it vertically in a door frame and using that for side conversations. But both parties have to access near-identical implementations physically, and I doubt employees want these virtual doors in their homes.
Metaverse as the answer?
The Metaverse could eventually create a “digital twin” of much of the world, but let’s start with the office. People could move to a virtual conference room for meetings, sitting around a virtual representation of the project or table they otherwise would be seeing in person. Those people then can not only use any form of communication while muted to have side conversations. You can’t do that in person without everyone in the room seeing you do it. And for deeper engagement without the larger audience knowing about it, you could open up a separate one-to-one videochat and have on-going side chats with one coworker or maybe a close-knit subgroup that is also in (but doesn’t have to be) the meeting.
As existing 2D tools advance, I expect there will be in-application features where you can open up windows into other sessions as needed, automatically muting the main event. (I can also imagine not muting yourself, making a rude comment about the speaker, and suddenly finding your career options narrowed.
But how do you create that relationship in the first place?
With digital twins and the Metaverse, you can ask someone to virtually move into another part of the simulation, much like stepping out in the hallway for a conversation — or suggest a social eSports-like activity that is made part of the experience. You’d want to do this in the tool (rather than simply asking someone to play Fortnight) to assure the activity is HR-approved. And you don’t get someone from outside the company listening to your conversation, which could convey insider information or result in someone using inappropriate language like they do in typical online games.
A lot of this will require users to modify current behavior. Still, the ongoing pandemic is already forcing most of us to meet remotely. And around 40% of employees are adamantly saying they have no desire to return to the office, a percentage I think is understated.
Those two factors alone, the pandemic and the popularity of remote work, show the need for a well-developed Metaverse. That’s why I think the next evolution of video collaboration tools will go beyond the virtual, much as Author is now, and incorporate tools to better address building and advancing personal relationships.
The Metaverse effort should help with this because it can provide a familiar experience for side conversations to create and build on relationships and then motivate users to more effectively have relationship-building events.
The industry needs to stop using the drivers for in-person meetings such as multiple-choice tests and take relationship building more seriously if we genuinely want to replace in-person meetings with something remote. It’s time to step up and create, finally, a complete solution so we can get on with work in the new post-pandemic world.