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The Emergence of Providers Focused on Memorable and Immersive Experiences
In my last article, “What’s Next in Cloud Meetings?” I pointed out that VR and AR/MR technologies can rise to the challenge of helping workers to continue collaborating remotely, and that vendors must deliver the technology that helps workers maintain both productivity and collegial relations with their coworkers.
During the 2020 pandemic, a number of startups began to emerge with the ambitious objective of solving remote work isolation for millions of individuals and promising to massify elements of the gamification world including collaborative GUIs that do not require any demanding provisioning or expensive and bulky AR/VR hardware.
While many are creating 2D/3D online spaces where avatars can move around freely and interact with each other using spatial audio and video, others use different types of gamification elements to help individuals connect and collaborate more casually. Here is an overview of some of these companies:
Gather — Launched in May 2020, Gather has brought together millions of users via customizable 2D retro mid-1980s aesthetic spaces, from a space station to city rooftop, to inviting office spaces for meetings, and happy hours. In Gather, an individual’s pixelated blocky avatar can easily pop over to a teammate’s desk, perform “shoulder taps” to prompt a co-worker to chat, brainstorm ideas on whiteboards, edit shared documents, or start a virtual game of pool. Gather can handle virtual events, conferences and offices with 20 to 2,000 individuals.
Hopin —The company allows clients to host full-scale events, creating an online venue with a backstage for pre-event preparation; a stage for broadcasting presentations; multiple rooms that attendees can move in and out of during the event; one-on-one ad hoc meeting and breakout rooms. The unscheduled nature of the event platform, which allows individuals to easily get where they want, and spark meaningful conversations both during and after the event, has inspired providers such as Zoom and Cisco to diligently invigorate their events capabilities during the new normal. Zoom introduced Zoom Events in May 2021 and Cisco acquired event platform provider Socio Labs during the same month. Hopin doesn’t incorporate AR/VR in its collaboration spaces as of now.
Kumospace —The company’s gamified 2D video calling platform saw a hundredfold boom of users in the seven months from August 2020 to March 2021. Kumospace now boasts tens of thousands of enterprise customers, including companies such Google, Shopify, and Facebook. To move across the 2D spaces, individuals can either click their mouse or tap on the screen to where they want to, with the user’s video image moving to that location. Individuals can also zoom in and out to view more or less of their surroundings.
Like many of the companies mentioned here, Kumospace uses spatial audio that allows sound to be amplified due to proximity. The closer the avatar is from another person or group of people the sound becomes louder and audio grows fainter when people separate. The technology allows groups to organically form and dissolve in different areas of the same space at the same time. Hosts and co-hosts can add drink stations where guests can pour themselves virtual drinks that empty after some time. Spaces can be customized with furniture, music, YouTube videos, and more. Today, more than a million people use Kumospace virtual offices, bars, parks, and beaches for work and play.
Mozilla Hubs — The open source VR chat room project by Mozilla initially launched in 2018 as a fun and geographically independent way to bring people together in 3D settings to create, socialize and collaborate. While initially designed to be used with a VR headset, Mozilla also created the UI for both a desktop and mobile device experience during the pandemic. In Hubs, individuals choose avatars that can be easily customized (you can be a red fox, if you want).
During the pandemic, Hubs was used by different educational organizations around the world for creating shared virtual spaces in the browser. Students can converse with each other using spatial audio, leave text messages for others, play with 3D objects, watch video, and hang out, in general. The avatar’s head moves when the user speaks, and avatars can walk, run, as well as fly throughout the environment. Even NASA has used Mozilla Hubs for some of its projects.
Nooks — Nooks’ interface looks similar to Slack’s, but instead of persistent chat rooms, Nooks provides customizable video spaces for workers to work, collaborate, and hang together without calendar invites. Workers can tap someone on the shoulder to whisper without disturbing everyone else in the room, glance around to see what app or website teammates are working on, and easily get on the same page. If the individual is working independently, he/she can still see his/her teammates to stay connected. Fun spaces can be also created to take a break and socialize with teammates. Nooks integrates with different apps, including Asana, GitHub, Google Docs and YouTube, among others. Nooks differentiates from other startups in the market by providing spaces to hang out with one another instead of 2D/2D walking avatars that need to be moved around a virtual office plan. The tool is full of gamification elements that make the service attractive for users to spend hours of engagement during the day.
SpatialChat — As one of the first startups to launch a spatial video service in the market, SpatialChat was repurposed in March 2020 to create all types of 2D virtual spaces for remote employees, and has since gathered thousands of paying organizations and hundreds of thousands of monthly active users for remote networking events, poster sessions, conferences, training sessions, and offices. SpatialChat recreates in-person office interactions: Large groups can split up into different clusters by topic to talk. Individuals can walk to a colleague’s table to quickly ask a work-related question, or hang-out in a virtual water cooler/office kitchen room.
Teamflow —This startup creates a 2D virtual co-working space for people to hang out with colleagues in a virtual office, bringing back the opportunity for spontaneous conversations. The objective is to evoke the energy of working in the same room and the spontaneity of hallway conversations, by providing users with a bubble that lets them float around a customizable virtual office plan and listen in on the conversations near their bubble, just as on-premises workers only hear the conversations close to them. The worker can move around freely using the computer’s cursor like a video game. The service uses spatial audio and complements its experience with collaboration tools such as screen sharing, whiteboards, sctratchpads, timers, and integration with third-party applications, including games. Unlike traditional meeting services that are only opened for scheduled conversations, users can open Teamflow whenever they are ready to drop into a shared environment and say “Hi” to other teammates.
All above examples clearly show a first wave of services that allow workers to have immersive/memorable experiences in virtual environments without costly VR headsets.
It is important to note that during the pandemic, both large firms such as Facebook and Microsoft, and a dozen smaller VR providers (including names such as Big Screen, Engage, FrameVR, Glue, MeetinVR, Rec Room, and Spatial) focused on the VR/AR industry and made a strong push to conquer the business space during the last 19 months. However, most of those immersive experiences are mainly created to work with a VR/AR headsets, with limited browser or mobile interactivity for no VR/AT headset users.
Among the current UCC providers, BlueJeans by Verizon was among the first cloud meetings companies to announce (at Enterprise Connect 2021) a differentiated 2D/3D immersive workspace and digital hub designed to better connect and unlock the creative potential of hybrid workers. The idea is to recreate persistent office spaces that can be joined on a more spontaneous, unscheduled way, instead of a fixed, scheduled meeting space. Other UCC providers are expected to follow along.
While most formal cloud meetings will continue to happen in scheduled video grid layouts, existing global cloud meetings providers should definitely look at complementing their current solutions with these types of options in order to help remote workers feel more connected.
Technology should definitely help individuals to strike a balance between the benefits of working remotely while re-creating some of the lost moments that they used to have in the office. Whether via 2D/3D AR/VR experiences or via various gamification elements, this may be one of the upcoming battlegrounds for the leading enterprise communications and collaboration providers.