Meta brings VR to business meetings - is this the enterprise gateway to the metaverse?

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 21, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
Meta's new Quest Pro headset marks its foray into persuading businesses that there's value in deploying VR technologies - could online meetings be the killer app for the enterprise metaverse?

Meta Workrooms Breakout_Screenshot
(Meta)

At its annual Connect developer conference last week, Facebook owner Meta introduced a new Virtual Reality (VR) headset that it hopes will tempt business users to step into the metaverse - a digitally constructed universe that co-exists with the physical world. New partnerships with Microsoft and Accenture added credibility to its claims, but many of us want to see pragmatic evidence that virtual reality can add value to business endeavors. Earlier this week I caught up with Micah Collins, Director of Product Management for Meta’s work products to press that point.

There's noticeable enthusiasm at Meta for the new Quest Pro headset, which retails for $1,500 USD or £1,500 GBP (but bizarrely, in view of current exchange rates, €1,799 EUR). This is around four times the price of the existing Quest 2 headset, reflecting the inclusion of a number of extra innovations designed to make it more suitable for use in a business environment. There is an outward-facing camera that uses stereoscopic, full-color passthrough to support the creation of mixed-reality images that add real-world objects to the virtual content. At the same time, users can peek at their actual surroundings around the edge of the virtual screen. The headset is less bulky than earlier models thanks to a curved battery that sits around the rear headstrap. Most important of all, there are sensors that track eye movements, facial expressions, and hand motions. Crucially, this means the user's avatar, which represents them in the VR environment, can more accurately convey their social presence by replicating non-verbal cues such as a smile, a raised eyebrow or a hand gesture. Much more than replicating physical objects or shared views of digital tools, Meta believes this ability to bring people alive in the VR environment is game-changing, as Collins explains:

That is the first use case that makes the metaverse relevant. Meta's long-term, mission-oriented investment in this space is based on the fact that myself, with a trusted identity and digital assets, will be able to show up in the metaverse and be with other people who I can likewise trust, and know, and understand.

I think the first root problem for all of these use cases is, how do I have a dependable platform for people to show up together in virtual environment? And have that be a believable experience where I show up as me, not as a block figure that is a creative expression of me, but me, and I'm recognizable and a lot of my capabilities and resources as an individual are present for me when I'm in those environments.

Practical use cases

There's a lot of skepticism nevertheless whether practical use cases do exist. When I asked Collins about use cases, his first response was to cite people such as architects sharing 3D models, or training workers for hazardous environments, but these are niche use cases that have long been served by specialist VR applications. While a mass-produced VR headset may make such applications more affordable, they're still niche. New York Times reviewer Brian Chen, an aficianado of VR headsets, thinks the Quest Pro will please gamers but still won't find a business role. His verdict:

We shouldn’t spend our dollars on a company’s hopes and promises for what a technology could become. We should buy these headsets for what they currently do. And based on what I saw, for the foreseeable future, the Meta Quest Pro will primarily be a gaming device.

But I can't help wondering whether that overlooks a commonplace use case for the technology at the level it now seems to be reaching — resolving the current shortcomings of video meetings, especially those in which some attendees are physically present while others join remotely, but also any meeting in which the discussion revolves around several shared objects or information sources. Current solutions using traditional video meetings are struggling to accommodate these hybrid gatherings, proposing expensive, AI-assisted conference room cameras that try to figure out the best view to highlight the current speaker, while attendees use mobile phones to participate in chat streams or view supporting documents. It's a broken experience that will always be limited by trying to represent a 3D gathering on a 2D plane. Why not solve this instead with VR headsets that, even for several dozen users, will cost less than equipping a video conference room?

Microsoft partnership

This is the significance of Meta's latest partnership with Microsoft, which will bring Microsoft Teams meetings and Microsoft 365 apps into the Quest environment, provide for integration between Teams and Meta's virtual reality Horizon Workrooms, support Meta avatars participating in Teams meetings, and add Quest support to Azure Active Directory and Intune. While the integration is still in its early stages, the promise of integrating VR and Quest into the existing workflows of video meetings could open a path to wider adoption, as Collins explains:

One of the key problems in the experience right now is how well it integrates into existing workflows. I think we have to recognize that VR is going to supplement and augment and improve certain use cases in someone's day-to-day work. What we're trying to do is make sure that the level of integration, the ease of, the friction of getting in and out of the spatial domain, there should be nothing blocking you and I right now from just turning on our desks, putting on our headsets and instantly seeing each other in VR.

But there's a lot of connective tissue and software and services that need to happen to make that moment possible. So that you and I can flip-flop between a low-friction, lean-back video presence experience that we're all very comfortable with and feel is fine for a certain grade of conversation. But if there's a virtual object we want to do or a virtual place we want to go to, or a shared experience that is better in the 3D environment, there should be very little barrier for us doing that.

I think that we're right on the dawn of getting some of these experiences integrated, where with Microsoft Teams coming to VR or Teams being integrated into Horizon Workrooms, we can start the meeting in Teams and then pop into Workrooms and it's the same session. There's a whole bunch of, my calendar in VR versus my calendar on my Mac, both get me to the same place and I can interact with people regardless of what modality they joined through.

Although it may yet take a while to iron out the teething problems, digital collaboration thus becomes the 'killer app' that leads to wider VR adoption. Collins elaborates:

I do think core root collaboration, being able to be together with others in a business context, is a primary use case. It's the underlying use case of meetings — Zoom is not a use case, Zoom is a solution for us trying to meet and have a conversation — that's use case number one.

I do think that with Teams investing in this space, with us understanding what is keeping people coming back to Horizon Workrooms, we do see value in, first, people coming together and then providing the content, then providing the reason, the value, for why they are together, [why] the conversation has value. Of course, you can augment that conversation with files and objects and things like that, but it's ultimately the conversation you want to have about that. That is the reason you're together.

I do think we tend to look past the obvious use case, which isn't done being developed yet. The sense that I am me, the sense that I know how I appear to others, and every time I come back to that experience, I am the same me — that still needs to be built, and built in a way that's extensible across multiple applications. So I do think the work we're prioritizing for social presence is key and is leading the industry at the moment.

Drawing people in

Is this realistic? Meta's own experience internally is that there are meetings where participating via VR makes sense — not every time, but enough for it to be worth keeping those VR headsets within reach. Collins explains:

We see it happen internally, because we can be on a meeting like this, and then, all of a sudden, a Workroom will show up and pop into the room. Not on Zoom yet, but on our own internal VC system. You'll see that the fact that people are in VR will draw people in — or the other way is that only two people join in VR, and eight people are on VC, and everyone's just like, 'Okay, I'll just come out to VC if we're just going to do it this way.'

But I do think there's a mutual pull in either direction. The opportunity to join and meet people in a different modality is a pull in of itself, so far. As that environment continues to be more capable, with the ability to experience, particularly spatial experience, but also, physically co-present experience, and the way you remember those things and go, 'Oh, I've done that whiteboarding session in VR before, that is better. I'm going to meet you over there because I'll have a better experience doing it that way.' Little threads like that are already happening.

Meta's hope is that this will bring enough people into the business metaverse to trigger gathering momentum for the technology. He adds:

When we increase access, when we increase integration, reduce friction, more people are going to be willing to try, more people will be exposed. We think that's also going to be a draw for developers to invite more people into some of these richer experiences.

My take

One of the interesting things I've noticed meeting people for the first time at conferences this year after having got to know them through video meetings is that I only know what they look like in foreshortened 2D — I've never seen them in profile, and never knew what height they are. There's an important missing element of versimilitude in the video meeting experience. I'm also aware that I already have a routine I go through before starting a video call — I pick up my earbuds, make sure my microphone is plugged in and switch on my lighting. Reaching for a VR headset instead wouldn't be any more of a disruption.

Having said that, most of my online meetings are with two or three people at most, and so I don't personally have a business case that justifies spending £1500 on a VR headset to transform those meetings, along with the computing power and bandwidth that I'd need to make it work from my home office. But I'm sure that Accenture knows some clients that might, which is why getting Accenture on board alongside Microsoft — which has metaverse ambitions of its own — matters.

What Meta needs more than anything else is for enough businesses to make the case to start investing in this technology — a 'killer app' that will stimulate growing demand and thus fuel further investment and innovation. I think Collins would happily admit that the technology is still a little too rough-and-ready for VR meetings to hit the mainstream just yet. But the current shortcomings of increasingly necessary online meetings just might create enough of a business case to start the ball rolling. That's not to say that I'm signing up to all the hype about the metaverse, a totally unnecessary term that I think creates a distraction from sensible applications of VR and AR technology — a point I plan to develop further in a future article. But could online meetings be the adoption path that brings VR headsets into mainstream enterprise use? That's a possibility worth keeping an eye on.

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