Could meetings go truly virtual and what would that mean for speakers? To find out I checked out some of the current technologies available.
As in-person conferences have been canceled around the globe recently we have instead been gathering on Zoom to “see” each other. But Zoom is “so early 2020”, and you can only get so excited about seeing a bunch of thumbnail video windows.
Let’s instead look at what is around the corner – or in some cases AT the corner – for how we could meet virtually.
Teooh has combined the virtual world with simplicity.
As a user you still have to download an app, but then the user experience is simple. You get to create your avatar to look like (or not look like) yourself and then you are let into a 3D rendered conference room where you can sit at a table and talk to the people around you, or listen to a speaker from the stage. Get up on stage and you get to speak to the whole group.
The service is up and running but lacks Android and desktop versions, but the company told me those will be available within weeks.
I attended a Teooh meeting and found it surprisingly realistic to sit and talk to another person at “my” table – just the right amount of awkwardness was there as two strangers introduced themselves to each other 😉 After one hour of listening to speakers and chatting with my “table mates” I felt less tired than I would have after a zoom call, but still felt quite engaged even though I had been talking to a 3D avatar of a person. (The downside is that if the person on the other end goes away you really would not know.)
From a speaker perspective you do miss facial expressions and body language etc so it works best for fireside chats and panel discussions at the moment.
Another 3D world for conferences is Virbela, a less smooth 3D world than Teooh, but more expansive with conference halls, meeting rooms, networking areas etc. Again, you need to download a program on your computer to run it. Walking up on the stage in an auditorium that seats hundreds did give me almost the same “buzz” as walking into a real one.
The services are out there to do virtual 3D meetings, but it is what is right around the corner that is thrilling.
Facebook is getting ready to launch “Facebook Horizon” a community for their Oculus Rift – and while the marketing for it right now is targeted very much toward “family fun and gaming” it will push people into the idea of meeting in virtual worlds. Facebook will make meeting virtually feel mainstream, and when we are used to playing virtual games with our friends we will get used to doing virtual meetings with our colleagues, just like Facetime with grandma made us ready for Zoom meetings with the boss.
But it is when you look at how quickly the technology has become better we are now at a place where giving – and enjoying listening – to a virtual speech will become a real possibility. I am talking about VR Face Tracking. The way Facebook has been developing the technology of virtually, and in real-time, generating facial expressions is a game-changer. Suddenly you will not meet a virtual avatar with a generic face – you will meet an avatar that shows you the actual facial expressions of the person you are talking to virtually.
Combine that with advances in real-time 3D rendering that creates environments that are so “life-like” that it is eerie. Take a look at the recently released Unreal engine 5 that runs on a normal PlayStation. (Again, do check out the video to get the real effect!)
Combine all of these hints of the future and you can easily see that we are not decades, but months (!), away from being able to generate 3D worlds where we all meet virtually in a quality that is stunning.
Do I think I will deliver a speech wearing a VR-helmet (or having a camera tracking my head movements) so that my speech will be broadcast to hundreds, or tens of thousands, of virtually connected audience members whom each go and mingle with me and each other after the speech in a beautiful, virtual world? Yes. And I think it will happen way earlier than most people think.
And I think it is going to be amazing.
As amazing as meeting in real life? No. But amazing in other ways.
It is the future. And it is – almost – here.