The COVID-19 pandemic presents novel problems for teams and businesses across the world to complete their work that, while social distancing and stay-at-home orders may have slowed, did not halt entirely as people still need essential services and their critical operations to continue.
Social distancing and stay-at-home measures urged by the WHO, CDC, and put into place by various governments at the local and national level, has made it hard for teams to solve their problems because businesses are required to close and remote workers must remain at home when they are used to meeting in person to solve their problems.
Video Conferencing Solutions
As a result, people across the world have turned to remote video conferencing or voice over internet protocol (VOIP) solutions to meet with clients, friends, colleagues, and to talk to grandma. In addition, as workers move their offices home, many are missing the social and distraction-free aspects of the workspaces their offices typically provided. It’s hard to review documents when you have children at home to watch and educate.
There are numerous powerful and free online solutions for remote communication between two or more people. While talking or texting colleagues on the phone remains an effective way of contacting people remotely, many of the popular platforms employed during the COVID-19 pandemic have been focused on video conferencing and other group-based meeting platforms. This is probably due, in part, to people searching for solutions that allow them to be quasi-in-person with those they want to communicate with and the widespread availability of smartphones and webcams on laptops.
Zoom, for instance, is a popular free-to-use video conferencing application that allows users to meet up online using their phone, laptop, or other device to connect with others, even without signing up for an account. In the middle of a stock market disaster Zoom is having a moment as the most downloaded video conferencing application in the App Store for iOS. With Zoom users can schedule or start a conversation and invite others, even if the invitees do not have Zoom accounts. Zoom also offers a paid service for users who want meetings longer than 45 minutes per call provided by the free service. Google offers Meet and Hangouts, both free to use, but require a Google account (which, who doesn’t have one by now?) to access.
There’s also Skype (great for one-on-one in teams), Slack, Facetime for iPhone users, WhatsApp, Discord, and a host of other chat and video conferencing applications that one could choose to use. These all pretty much work the same in the basic functionality as video chat services, so choosing which one to pick is dependent on which service the audience you want to connect with is likely to use and what the purpose is. Zoom, for example, is so popular because it doesn’t require an account to join a meeting and start connecting. Google is likewise nice to use because nearly everyone has a Google account in 2020. On the other hand, Slack video chat is good for one-on-one between teammates, while users might find that Zoom or Google Meet/Hangouts are better used for online presentations or group video chats with more than two people. Needless to say, these are just several of the many video conferencing solutions available today.
The main problem is that video conferencing for many teams and individuals is not enough for people to stay on task and discuss problems together because the other person is usually just a box on the screen. You cannot interact with that person in the box other than screen sharing or what that person, or you, show on their camera.
In that way, the opportunities for group problem-solving on Zoom and other video conferencing services for many different types of work are limited. In the face of COVID-19, and possibly future pandemics or emergency situations, remote meeting arrangements that come close to in-person meetings are likely to become more popular, especially as the use of head mounted virtual reality displays becomes more pervasive.
Enter Virtual Reality Headsets
One solution to achieve these quasi in-person meetings and experiences is by using virtual reality (VR) headsets currently available on the market to enable people to work with their teams and connect with others across the globe. Consumer virtual reality is today available at an approachable price-point and can provide many of the same benefits as in-person communication without requiring people to be in the same location.
While consumer virtual reality is just now in the genesis of what this technology could and likely will develop to in the coming several years, the current offerings from Oculus, HTC, Valve, Sony, and others could help people connect during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Familiarizing oneself these technologies now could prove useful during the developing COVID-19 pandemic as well as in any future potential emergencies that require people across the globe to stay at home.
Particularly noteworthy have been the recent offerings by Oculus, Valve, Sony, and HTC. These companies have been making headsets at various price points for different consumers from more basic models to enterprise-level setups that run in the thousands of dollars. Oculus makes its Go headset, for instance, which is priced approachably around $200. It also sells more beefed-up headsets with better fidelity and immersive hand tracking for closer to $400. HTC has also released some offerings in 2019 that are approachable at around $600 to set up. Valve, one of the highest regarded video game developers, offers the Valve Index, which, at around $1,000.00, is more than the average new virtual reality consumer is willing to spend, but appropriately priced given the high graphical fidelity and immersive experience provided by the kit.
I purchased an Oculus Quest in November 2019 (released May 2019), and, each time I put it on my head, am still blown away by the immersive experiences and ability to, in a moment, be in another place. The Oculus Quest is the first consumer-ready virtual reality headset to be completely wireless and not require a desktop computer to function. All that is needed is a smartphone to and the Oculus device itself.
This is a major step for consumer virtual reality products because the snag for people interested in jumping into virtual reality has long been that the most immersive virtual reality headsets required the user to have a virtual reality-ready computer that would cost at least $600 (and typically exceed $1,000). When you add the price of a $600 headset (in some instances) on top of that (and that’s not including the cost of any applications), the price could get prohibitively steep, very quickly.
The other problem was that many of the older virtual reality offerings to consumers from the 2008-2018 era required the user to set up mounted sensors in their room to track their head and hand movements in virtual reality through sensors located on the headset and on the hand controllers. These sensors could be finicky and, with the wire coming out the side of the headset, together could be a cumbersome pain to set up. If you didn’t mount your sensors, you might often need to reset or recalibrate them the next time you used your headset. If you didn’t mount these sensors, there were no virtual reality headsets, at that time, that would allow you to get a full six degrees of freedom in the virtual world.
Oculus, HTC, and others have remedied this problem in their recent offerings by creating headsets that provide a full, immersive, six degrees of freedom, virtual reality experience completely free of wires and mounted external sensors. This technology is known as “inside out” tracking and allows the user to feel as though they are actually immersed in a different location or universe without wires connecting to the headset or the need to set up sensors. These setups use “inside out” as opposed to “outside in” tracking because cameras in the headset look out to the user’s hands and movements, rather than cameras in the room looking in to the user to keep track of the user’s movements in the real world.
While this post is focused on the teamwork and communication options available in virtual reality, this article cannot be complete without mentioning that the vast majority of development for virtual reality software has been in the realm of game and art application development. From meeting with friends, strangers and others to play poker, table tennis, basketball, fighting Darth Vader in Star Wars, the options are literally endless for what virtual reality can provide. There are also options for artists to create in 3 dimensional spaces—think of it like Microsoft Paint in 3D, with the artists ability to also walk around and examine their creation from all angles.
While many of the experiences accessible in VR are game-focused, developers for these devices have also focused considerable efforts on developing applications for socializing, communication, art, and even productivity. When you meet with others in virtual reality, the audio, like the video, is meant to be immersive in six degrees of freedom. This means that when you turn your head away from someone who is talking, the audio typically gets less loud or you can only hear it through one ear. These small details are what makes VR stand out as an immersive way to connect with others remotely, better than standard video chat.
Some VR Meeting Options
I suggest everyone experience for themselves how immersive virtual reality can be, especially for working and meeting with others, and even on a lower-fidelity system. The Oculus Go, for instance, is a high-quality headset offered an accessible price, and can be used to perform many of the group meeting and other tasks offered by beefier headsets like the Valve Index, Vive Pro, or Oculus Rift S.
Here are some options for some of my most-used virtual reality applications for communication and collaboration that can be used today to start meeting up and with others in virtual reality for quasi-in-person communication.
- Rec Room
Rec Room is a great application, not just for meeting up with others to collaborate, but because it also has options to play games with friends like paintball, bowling, frisbee golf, basketball. The list goes on and on as to what you can do in Rec Room.
You can also invite people to your “dorm room,” which is basically your private home-base in Rec Room, to chat and discuss problems. There’s a whiteboard in the dorm room for groups to write things down and figure out problems together, but there is no option by default for screen sharing. Rec Room is best used to meet and discuss with others in VR without any need for screen sharing or note-taking in virtual reality. The whiteboard in the dorm room is complete with colored dry erase markers and is a nice touch.
Rec Room also provides the option for users to design their own rooms, so the options for various environments to meet in is endless. There are also a great deal of community-created rooms that can be used to get the environment you want for your meeting.
I frequently use Rec Room to meetup with a close friend of mine who lives across state. We typically meet up in the dorm room, catch up for a bit, and then go play games like pool or paintball. The time we spend catching up in the room is very cool because it feels just like we’re physically in the same room together talking when in actuality he’s many miles away at his own apartment.
- Big Screen
Big Screen is first and foremost an application for people to watch streamed content with other users in a virtual theater or other environment. Big Screen is best used for teams to either meet up and discuss something streamed by the group host from their computer for everyone to watch, or just talk in general in a virtual space. There are many different options for environments so teams can get the right feel for their meeting. For instance, a group yoga video could be watched by a group in a forest environment on a big projector screen, or a study group could meet in a large living room to stream a class lecture or go over their notes that they can stream to the rest of the group.
- VR Chat
I am hesitant to suggest this one because there is so much weird stuff happening in VR chat because of the great mass of people on VR chat. VR Chat lets users pick from a variety of strange avatars (or even design their own) and allows them to meetup in virtual environments. VR Chat, like Rec Room, also provides users the ability to design their own rooms and objects, which means options for objects and virtual environments is virtually endless if the user has the knowledge of how to code the room.
Don’t know how to code or design a room in virtual reality? No worries. VR Chat, like Rec Room, comes with a bunch of public rooms that do not require coding from which any user can setup a private or public meeting and start connecting with others in minutes. What will be most missed is the ability to work on a whiteboard with others unless you find or program a room with a whiteboard. Users can also screen share to others in the room if they set up a streaming application on a computer.
- Immersed VR
This application is still being developed but a working beta is available from the developer’s website for Oculus Go and Quest. I have not yet used this application with another person so I cannot comment on the audio quality, but the software is powerful in that it allows you to open several different tabs in the browser, creates a shared work environment like an office for users to meet in, and allows users to stream content and write on a white board and use other objects together to get their work done.
Assuming the audio between users works (which it appears to in various YouTube videos I watched showing Immersed VR), this is probably the best free option at the moment for a virtual office environment without the overhead. At a time when people cannot go to the office and solve problems together, or even just sit down and focus on their work together, Immersed VR is a very powerful solution.
AltSpace is a popular application to host public and private events in virtual reality. From talk shows, to yoga groups, to open mic nights, there are unlimited options for public and private groups to meet in Altspace to connect. A yoga instructor can move their classes to Altspace, or a thinktank can move its meetings to private Altspace offices.
In addition, Altspace has a robust event scheduling system, group chat controls/moderating functions, and has an active user population. Users can choose to host their event in a room that has the proper features for what they want to do. For instance, if a white board is needed, the host can choose a room that has a white board. If an open microphone or other event is wanted, the host can choose to make the room a stage environment. Another useful aspect of Altspace, like Rec Room and VR Chat, is that users can create their own rooms and program their own objects in those rooms, so the options for various collaboration tools and techniques is endless.
MeetingRoom.io is a solid solution for groups and virtual offices. The application offers many different tools including virtual whiteboards and a host of other features for group collaboration and problem-solving.
This is just the beginning of virtual reality as a tool for students, businesses, teams, families and friends to actively engage with each other from across the world. Sales of virtual reality headsets are rapidly grow, as evidenced by the consistently low and sold out stock of Oculus and other popular headsets across the world. As more people purchase virtual reality headsets and want to interact with their loved ones or colleagues remotely, its likely they will reach for a virtual reality headset to meetup with that person in an environment that simulates an in-person meeting rather than their smartphone.
In addition, not only does virtual reality reduce various physical and other barriers to setting up meetings, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, but virtual reality saves travel time and can even be used by businesses to one day to occupy a virtual office with no need to rent commercial space. Virtual reality could indeed make it possible for businesses to be completely remote yet still have an “office” for its employees to go through via their headsets. While we do not know what the future will bring during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can be sure that people will continue to seek out quasi-in-person communication methods, and VR is likely to be the next place people go after video conferencing to achieve that goal.
For those looking to purchase a virtual reality headset, I would suggest looking up reviews on YouTube as well as checking out Reddit.com/r/VirtualReality to see what the virtual reality community says about a particular piece of virtual reality hardware. There’s also Reddit.com/r/Oculus and /r/OculusQuest on the Oculus side of virtual reality headset information for additional reading on headsets and to get community advice.
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Header image courtesy of Eugene Capon, available from Pexels.com