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The Excessive Need for Virtual Reality: Why Now?

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The year was 1994. Bill Clinton was president, “The Sign” by Ace of Base was the number one song (a bad year for music), and I was just getting started in the telecommunications industry. America Online (AOL) was mailing out CDs to access its service via dial-up modems, cell phones were only starting to catch on, and we actually got excited when we received an email. Fun times.
 
In 1994, we also got a glimpse into the tech future in the form of the Hollywood blockbuster movie, Disclosure. One of the key subplots of the movie is the virtual reality (VR) system Michael Douglas’ company was developing, at a time when nobody knew what VR was. For most of us, this was our first visual exposure to the subject.
 
At several times over the last few decades, various attempts were made to harness VR, in both the business and consumer worlds. In the consumer world, we had (and still have) Second Life, the popular VR platform where people can log in and immerse themselves in a virtual environment.
 
I recently logged into Second Life and was reminded why I never liked it. It’s dark, confusing, and as a general rule, I don’t like being approached by strangers. Even with a million active users, there is an uncomfortableness that can color how folks perceive all VR platforms.
 
There have been several attempts to replicate the VR experience in the business world, but none have been able to stick around or go mainstream. The closest viable service came from Avaya with Avaya Live Engage. This VR world allowed organizations to build virtual offices, where they could conduct training, host virtual meetings, and even tradeshow type events. I really loved Avaya Live Engage and feel that it was one of the most innovative and forward-thinking communications solutions I’ve seen in the last 25 years and was very disappointed when Avaya pulled the plug on it in 2016.
 
Cisco played around with adding VR to Webex, as demonstrated at Enterprise Connect a few years ago. But like Avaya, they halted further development.
 
Up until now, VR was a solution looking for a problem. That's why it has mostly failed to gain traction. Today, we are facing a big problem that needs an even bigger solution, one that VR can address.
 
As we navigate through the challenges of COVID-19, one of the things we are realizing is that we aren’t adequately prepared for a global pandemic. While we have seen a huge growth in tools like Webex, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, these tools fall short in a very critical area.
 
With the myriad of conferences that have been canceled and postponed, it’s obvious we don’t have an effective way to replicate the conference experience with technology. To be clear, we will probably never be able to replicate the value of in-person communications, but for those times like now, we need better solutions to fix the problem.
 
What does VR offer that current online meeting tools can’t?
While part of the value of VR is to provide a more immersive experience, where it really excels is allowing for impromptu one-on-one or small group conversations in the context of a larger audience. Call it casual conversation or networking – it’s one of the primary reasons we go to conferences in the first place, and current communications tools make it difficult to, for the lack of a better word, mingle.
 
Current collaboration tools are designed around defined team communications or limited to one speaker at a time, as is the case of Webex and Zoom. These tools are great for presentations and can even handle a Q and A segment, but aren’t conducive to individuals in the meeting peeling off for private conversations on the fly.
 
With VR, you can do exactly that – find folks to talk to in a large room, and engage in the types of conversation that motivate us all to attend these events in the first place. The ability for individuals to control whom they engage with, in an online meeting is something virtual reality does better than any other communications technology out there. Again, I don’t think this would replace in-person events entirely, but in times like this, we could substitute the virtual world for the real one until things stabilize.
 
There are a handful of companies developing in this space, but it seems to be slow coming and limited to certain devices.
 
There are two companies that I think could lead the way:
 
Facebook – In 2020, Facebook has massive popularity on a platform that could have existed, to some degree, in the 1980s. So, the question becomes, what does the next generation of social media platform look like? With the company’s acquisition of VR headset leader Oculus, and the announced new VR world Facebook Horizon, it’s clear which direction they're heading in.
 
While Second Life is dark, realistic, and can be intimidating, Facebook Horizon is bright, cartoony, and more inviting to a mass audience. While Facebook Horizon might not ever be developed for business use (though it could), the impact could be huge as consumers get introduced to virtual reality technology at home, allowing for easy adoption in the enterprise space later on.
 
Microsoft – One of the more promising VR startups out there is a company called AltspaceVR. In 2017, Microsoft acquired them. I have no insight into what Microsoft’s plans are with VR, but let me propose the following questions to ponder: what if LinkedIn was enabled by VR? Couldn’t that fundamentally change the way we network, and who we network with? I imagine a virtual office complex with millions of people from around the world, that are able to network in a virtual world in ways we just can’t do today. If this isn’t the future of LinkedIn, it will be its replacement.
 
I know this is a lot of speculation about what VR could be in the future, but I hope that someone will solve this problem soon so that we are better prepared for the next crisis that limits our ability to meet in person.

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