Video Conferencing Goes Virtual – Part 1

By: Bob Tamburri

On the Road to Virtual Reality

In the not-too-distant future…

It is morning and a sliver of sunlight breaches your curtains as you ruffle through the warmth and comfort of your covers to attempt a rise to consciousness. After taking a few moments to get your bearings, you glance over at your clock and observe the time – 7:45am. With that, an inner voice tugs for your attention, “7:45am!  Holy shit! I have a meeting in 15 minutes.”  A mild sense of panic sets in as you quickly rise up and rush to complete your waking process. Still in your pajamas, you lumber towards your office in the other room, where you fire up your laptop. The time is now 7:58am.

As your computer comes to life, you don some rather sporty headgear, which look a lot like a pair of ski goggles. As the clock hits the 8:00 am mark, an image begins to coalesce in your field of view inside your visor.  Several other people appear to be sitting across from you at a conference table. You recognize some of them, but a few look unfamiliar. No worries, as each individual has a name, title, company and location appearing directly below their image.  You notice that several of these indicate locations across the globe, while you and others in attendance are in various parts of the USA.

Your gaze is then interrupted by a voice saying, “Good morning, everyone”. Thus your meeting commences.   The introduction is conducted by someone from an overseas office.  At that point an image of a world map appears to hover over the middle of the digital table.  As they progress with the presentation, their simple hand gestures cause the image to zoom to the appropriate geographic area. With subsequent hand-gestures, various parts of the map are highlighted with supplemental images and information (stills, video, graphs, text, etc.) displayed. All of this is shown in a 3D format, appearing to float above the table.  When your turn comes, your image appears to all participants, highlighted on the screen along with your presentation material. Rather than appearing in your sleepwear, you’re sporting a dark blazer, blue shirt and tie.  Your hair looks neatly combed, and the drowsy expression on your face is replaced by one of alertness. After all presentations have finished a discussion commences while a central image containing graphs and data is being manipulated in real-time (again via hand gestures) by various members of the group.  At the conclusion of the meeting, everyone signs off and a logo appears on your screen linking to a recorded meeting log on a cloud server.

Welcome to videoconferencing in virtual reality! The images of the people you interfaced with during this meeting (including your own) were not of the people themselves. Even though this was treated as a video conference, no live video was used during this meeting. Rather, each person attending the meeting did so via their avatar, or digital representative.  Along with the participants, all shared content was viewed and controlled in a fully immersive, 3D virtual world. VC has now become VRC – Virtual Reality Conferencing.

State of Technology: Then & Now

Long a staple of science-fiction and tech fans alike, neither the concept, nor the associated technologies of virtual reality (VR) are new, but as anyone who has followed developments by companies such as Oculus, Google, Samsung, Microsoft and Sony can attest, it has certainly been getting its share of press in the last few years. VR first appeared in the tech mainstream back in the 80’s & 90’s as something of a novelty but was ultimately deemed not ready for prime-time.  Though still in its infancy, the promise it held for visionaries of the time should not be underestimated. Applications for medicine, travel, entertainment and, of course, business would be the obvious beneficiaries of such technology.  However, it was the gaming industry that initially embraced VR, even though it did not really live up to the promises at first. 

After the long wait for the technology to mature, patience may have paid off. In recent years, advances have enabled a rebirth of this one-time curiosity. Improvements in video resolution, along with lightweight and flexible display technology (such as OLED) now allow better image quality, greater design flexibility and more compactness.  In addition, processing power has advanced by orders of magnitude with smaller size, more highly integrated functionality and far greater speed than those of 25 years ago.  The once pixelated, low-quality images are now good enough that individual pixels are no longer visible even when viewed up close.

We are now gaining access to technology that not only makes VR possible, but practical as well. Early VR suffered from low image quality and early CGI technology was rudimentary by current standards, not the photo-realistic images we’re used to today with characters and environments barely distinguishable from reality. It also had major issues with latency, which given the nature of VR (interfacing with your environment in real-time), made it practically unusable. Many people suffered from vertigo and nausea due to the time-lag experience. In addition, the hardware was expensive and cumbersome, to say the least, and was therefore exclusively reserved for use at theme parks and gaming arcades.  So, what will it take to get this technology into the mainstream of the business world?

Trends

Before we get deeper into how VR may become the heir apparent to VC, let’s pause to recall what has made videoconferencing so appealing from the beginning.

Once upon a time, business people had the option of either meeting in person or via a phone call. Face-to-face meetings were the most desirable, but they were time-consuming and costly. Before phone-conferencing, phone calls were only good for one-on-one discussions and did not lend themselves to any kind of group discussions, let alone collaboration. The digital era changed all that. With audio, and ultimately video, conferencing, practical, collaborative remote meetings could be held. As more and more companies looked to improve efficiency and reduce cost, the use of remote conferencing technology boomed. In-person meetings, though still essential, have largely been replaced by remote meetings. The technology in both these areas have improved vastly over the last several years and show no signs of letting up.

One thing is still missing. While remote meetings have become commonplace in the business world, they cannot truly replace the face-time aspect of in-person meetings. One could argue that there is an innate and effable quality in meeting face-to-face (FTF).  Aside from the consideration and respect that it helps project towards your clients and associates, there are other aspects such as being able to make eye contact, read body language or pick up other subtle cues from the other participants. Then there are the social activities that are often associated with FTF meetings such as engaging in facility tours, staff introductions, golf outings, lunches, dinners and parties. These cannot be replaced in any measure by a remote meeting. That said, remote meetings are a practical reality and thus, inevitable. They have their place for situations where expediency and convenience are most desirable.

The question is, can technology ever offer us something which approaches the full-contact experience of a FTF meeting?  Can it ever be immersive enough that we feel like we are there? The short answer is most assuredly yes.  It’s just a matter of time. Technology development tends to move in cycles, with separate but interdependent technologies reinforcing each other in highly synergistic ways that we sometimes don’t anticipate.  Advances often come from unexpected sources. For example, who would have guessed 15 years ago that Apple would be in the phone business or that internet moguls like Jeff Bezzos or Elon Musk would be in the space hardware business. Wherever it comes from, you can bet a new technology will first creep up slowly before it rapidly spreads like a case of poison ivy. There are already companies providing VR meeting apps that are below everyone’s radar.  Examples like vTime, Meeting Right VR and AltspaceVR are being downloaded by tens of thousands of users. Granted, these are not much more that social media tools for smart phones and many are not really set up to properly conduct larger business meetings. However, the concepts are there, if only with demo quality, and it’s just a matter of time before it’s refined enough for the CEO set.

In our next installment, we’ll examine the components needed to deliver a truly seamless VR conferencing experience.

Video Conferencing Goes Virtual – Part 2                                                                          Video Conferencing Goes Virtual – Part 3

 

Bob Tamburri is a veteran of the AV industry who (among other things) has been a Product Manager for companies such as TOA and Sony and has been heavily involved in bringing new products and technologies, including ones for audio production, sound reinforcement, AV presentation, conferencing and life safety to market.  He is a charter member of the World Future Society, which analyzes & reports on technological and social megatrends. Bob is also an accomplished trainer, technical writer, craftsman & musician.

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