Avatars & Conferencing: With Virtual Reality It's Déjà Vu All Over Again

July 28 was one for the books because it was the first time I attended a meeting via virtual reality -- or rather, a demo of a meeting via virtual reality. OK, OK... it wasn't really a meeting because I was the only one in the virtual room.

Somebody else was supposed to be there, too, but he couldn't get his avatar working. So I spent my time spraying a virtual super soaker onto a virtual whiteboard and smacking the non-virtual demo guy a few times as my non-virtual hands flailed around. (In other words, this "business meeting" was considerably more productive than most.)

The demo, which took place on the Cisco Live expo floor, was the same as the one presented onstage at Enterprise Connect earlier this year. Same table and coffee cups. Same virtual Spark Board and buddy list. Same disembodied ghost representing the other guy in the room. Same squirt gun. (By the way, I'm now advising clients to equip all their conference rooms with squirt guns.)

Author attending conference via virtual reality at Cisc .... OMG! Is that really how my hair looks in VR goggles? (Photo credit: Dave Michels)

Also the same: the ability for a real person to draw on a real Spark Board in the real world and have it show on the virtual Spark Board in the virtual world. And vice versa. That is very clever, because if this takes off providing a consistent experience for conference participants in and out of the virtual environment will be vital.

But it's not going to take off. Here's why.

Avatars -- Just Like the Movie, Only Not Cool

The problem with virtual reality conferences -- at least of the kind I demoed -- is they're predicated on avatars. And when it comes to avatars, we've walked that road already and learned that it leads nowhere.

Hark back eight or 10 years when we were all agog over virtual world conferencing. Second Life had been promoting its site for business meetings, then introduced virtual world software that enterprises could deploy on their own networks. Cisco set up a virtual environment where its resellers could interact. IBM launched its own collaboration-centric virtual world, where "people can select colleagues from their Lotus Sametime contact list, and then invite them to... meet in a [virtual] boardroom, an auditorium or a collaboration space."

Some of these immersive conferencing services live on, like Immersive Turf and ProtoSphere. Businesses continue to use them, mainly for training and large corporate events. Others were less fortunate. IBM Sametime 3D disappeared long ago, while Avaya Live Engage got the hook late last year.

There are any number of ways to explain why immersive services didn't take the corporate conferencing market by storm. Generally speaking, I think it was a solution without a problem. It aimed to make business meetings more fun by bringing an online gaming experience to the workplace. But it didn't make meetings or employees more productive. Plus, it could be really expensive.

Drilling down a bit, the VoIP quality wasn't all that great. Network issues could cause everything to freeze up for some, but not others. And then there were the avatars. Personally, I found them awkward to use -- everything from dressing them up and picking a hairstyle to memorizing a dozen keyboard commands to wave, point, clap, and make other gestures.

Interacting with others could border on the surreal. Eyes stared blankly, lips didn't move. Maybe there's a generation of employee this really works for, or a type of business meeting that really benefits from an immersive world populated by cartoon cutouts. But I was always like, "I just need 30 minutes with Hank in Marketing to discuss the product launch. I shouldn't have to choose a marionette and learn how to work its strings to do that."

Meetings in virtual reality are the same. Headsets and handheld motion controllers may make it easier to control the avatar and navigate the virtual environment (though there's still a steep learning curve if you're not already familiar with how to use them). But -- whether it's the Bank of Ireland testing AltspaceVR or Studio323 transitioning from video conferences to vTime -- we're back to pretty much the same kind of avatar-based meetings from a decade ago. And avatars -- while maybe fun when playing online games -- are at best a distraction, at worst a hindrance when it comes to your garden variety business meeting.

Cisco, to its credit, recognizes this. At Cisco Live I sat down with one of the Collaboration Technology Group executives, who explained the demo was just that, a demo. It was great to have in the booth. It was great to show on stage. But the company has no real expectation for the Oculus-Spark integration to wind up as a shipping product. At least not in its current form.

VR in the Workplace

Before you classify and dismiss me as a luddite, I need to say there are many great use cases for virtual reality in the workplace. Realtors and hoteliers are finding it extremely useful for property visits. It will be great for retailers letting customers see what, for example, their kitchen remodel will look like. It will be a great way for architects, engineers, surgeons, and others to interact with complex 3D models directly relevant to their work. And communications and collaboration will undoubtedly be part of that.

I also think that emerging technology will completely transform business meetings of the conference room variety. But this won't take the form of cartoon cutouts being pushed through some kind of corporate fantasyland. Instead it will involve mixed reality, 3D meshes, projectors, and holography. But these are years away from finding their ways into orderable products, much less into your conference rooms. In the meantime, I fear we'll need to make do with old-fashioned 2D video conferences.

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