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The Future of VR in Enterprise Collaboration Isn’t Clear

It’s been said many times that the virtual reality/augmented reality journey has been quite the roller coaster – and not necessarily one you’re experiencing while sitting at your desk and wearing a headset. I know that’s what it has felt like to me: Lots of ups and lots of downs. But the last 18 months have felt like the ride is out of service indefinitely, with no indication of if and when it will reopen.

As we approach the midpoint of 2024, I’d like to look at a few recent developments that have shown conflicting signs of the future of the ride through the lens of enterprise collaboration. 


Meta: A Workplace Closes, Taking Whiteboards With it

The company that changed its name to bet on the metaverse has pulled back in some areas and accelerated in others. Most recently, they announced that they will pull the plug on their group messaging and collaboration service, Workplace. Many VR observers confused Meta Workplace with Meta Workrooms, their VR collaboration app, causing a brief panic as they worried another important VR app had bit the dust. Just last month, Glue, one of the leading VR collaboration solutions, declared bankruptcy. Meta Workrooms is one of the most popular VR collaboration platforms today and it would be catastrophic to the VR collaboration space. So Workrooms staying around is important as validation that there is demand for collaboration in VR.

However, Workrooms did not escape unscathed. Meta is dropping the whiteboard feature in Workrooms – a move that makes sense because a portion of Workrooms was built on Workplace, augmenting the VR meeting room with web-based meeting content and chat. It is very possible that the whiteboard in Workrooms requires Workplace to be in the background and this might explain the need to remove it.

Losing the whiteboard feature is a huge blow to Workrooms, as Meta built the best virtual whiteboard experience on the market. Physical whiteboards have been a staple of nearly every in-person meeting, but virtual whiteboards are rarely used in non-AR, non-VR video meetings. The experience doesn’t translate to 2D tools like Zoom, Teams, and Webex.

In VR meetings in Workrooms, you can stand up to your virtual whiteboard and draw on it by holding the controller like a pen. Multiple people can simultaneously draw and attach sticky notes, pictures, and more. Nearly every meeting I’ve ever had in Workrooms has involved the whiteboard.

And it’s going away on May 30. Meta, if you are listening, please find a way to bring it back.


Apple Vision Pro: Day-One Collab with Webex Shows Promise

The Apple Vision Pro has been in the hands of users and developers for a few months. The early returns are mixed -- positive reception based on the quality of the device, but negative comments around the cost of the device and a lack of use cases for the mixed reality capabilities. I’m confident the price will come down in future editions and use cases will continue to expand as developers build more apps for enterprises.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn a Webex app was available for Apple Vision on day one. Webex leverages the life-like “Persona” feature created by Vision Pro to allow users wearing the device to join Webex meetings. The Vision Pro user can see other participants in the familiar grid, only the grid is hovering in front of them in the physical world around them. They can even pull out individual remote users from the grid, resize, and move them around to suit their needs.

The non-Vision Pro users see the Vision Pro users represented by their avatars, or Personas in Apple vernacular. Personas are created by the Vision Pro’s cameras and sensors. I was surprised by how realistic they looked; matched with facial expressions and movements, they nearly pull off the allusion that you are seeing the actual person. “Nearly” is the important word here – but I was surprised at how natural the experience felt, and I’m sure it will improve over time since this is a beta feature.

So why would anyone want to join a Webex meeting from the Vision Pro? I’ve written previously about the advantages of collaborating in VR, mainly the sense of shared presence and a more focused experience. Webex on the Vision Pro is a step in this direction and allows users to have more of a 3D experience, along with non-Vision Pro users who can still participate without a headset.

I recently saw a demo led by Mithun Baphana, Product Leader at Webex for Apple Vision Pro (and other products.) that only underscored my conviction we’re still heading toward the platform that will unlock the more focused, shared experience.

Mithun uses the Vision Pro for multiple weekly meetings and said he thinks seeing remote participants on larger virtual screens makes for a more personal experience. If you can position even 2D video users around your physical space and resize them to life-size, the result is a more personal experience. The more we can replicate the in-person meeting experience, the better the meeting outcomes.

It will be some time before we see a ton of adoption. Still, I think this is a glimpse of the future, along with an easy point of entry for folks to begin to experience spatial computing in easily accessible ways.

The other reason someone might want to join a meeting from the Vision Pro is they might already be using it for their daily work. If you are using the device as a large virtual monitor, you would prefer not to have to take the headset off to join a meeting. You could simply join as described above and have your meeting participants appear next to your desktop. The other advantage would be that joining as an avatar means your appearance doesn’t matter. Having a bad hair day? Join with your avatar, and everyone will see your best self.

I know we aren’t there yet, and it will be some time before we see mass adoption of VR for collaboration, but I believe it will slowly grow as devices and tools improve.

Kudos to Webex for planting their flag and showing leadership to develop in this emerging space.

And Webex, if you are listening, please consider copying the Workrooms whiteboard.