Social Virtual Reality: An Alternative to web conferencing while ‘taking care of business’ remotely through the COVID crisis and beyond!

by Dr. Patricia C. Franks, San Jose State University’s iSchool

Introduction

Although some of us have worked 100% online for years, others were forced into doing the same by the recent (and on-going) Coronavirus pandemic.  Many employees, who had fortunately already enjoyed internet connectivity for use with personal devices, found one of their biggest challenges was finding a private, quiet, and secure space from which to conduct work from home.

Companies struggled to secure systems while making information accessible to workers.  Firms lacking trust that employees would devote the required amount of time to company business sought the assistance of monitoring software to track employee activity such as web pages, applications, text messages, file transfers and more. Other issues that were addressed included managing electronic records, records compliance strategies, and business continuity. 

Based on the successful transformation of business practices that resulted in both health and economic benefits as a result of this crisis, some companies are now considering the place of telework in their on-going business model. For example, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, announced recently that he foresees transitioning permanently to a predominantly remote workforce over the next ten years.[1]


Figure 1. Employee downloading the Microsoft Teams social platform to work from home.

Interacting in Real-Time

One factor that is difficult to measure is the long-term psychological impact on the remote workers themselves. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, once said, “Man is by nature a social animal.” Even though two-thirds (67 percent) of the respondents to a 2019 survey reported that spending too much time in meetings and on calls distracts them from making an impact at work, employees and organizations affected by the need for social distancing looked for ways to facilitate online conversations and team meetings.[2]

Microsoft saw a surge of interest in its product Microsoft Teams, a chat-based workspace, that by March 2020 had attracted 44 million people each day to its service, including 93 of Fortune 100 companies and over 650 organizations with more than 10,000 users.[3]

Figure 2. Teleworker participating in an online meeting via Zoom.

Another company that benefited from this phenomenon is San José, California-based Zoom. The company reported an unprecedented number of free participants in online meetings, including staff and students in K-12 schools. It expanded its fee-based services for existing corporate customers and added 175,000 licenses for new customers.  Zoom ended April 2020, with 265,400 corporate customers with at least ten employees, more than quadrupling from the same time the previous year.[4]

Tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom facilitate communications and teamwork via audio and video chats. Still, they don’t provide the full sensory experience enjoyed when working in a physical setting.  Psychologist Dr. Doreen Dodgen-Magee points out drawbacks that include seeing only a small square of someone’s face, viewing one’s own face during a chat which prompts us to continually assess our own image and becoming distracted by background settings, images, and noises. 

Social Virtual Reality Platforms

Enterprising individuals dissatisfied with spending much of their time in web conferences began to explore virtual reality social platforms as an alternative.

VR social platforms allow users to collaborate from remote locations. They enable users to meet up in the same virtual space and communicate through both speech and text. They also allow users to choose and edit avatars to represent their likeness—although some allow more avatar customization than others.

Businesses can use VR social platforms to improve employee productivity and collaboration from any location. Activities can include one-on-one conversations, small meetings in a virtual conference room, poster sessions in an exhibit hall, product demonstrations in virtual showrooms, presentations in a conference hall, staff training in simulated environments, and even music concerts on the beach.

Three of the most popular social virtual reality platforms are listed in Table 1. All require users to assume the form of an avatar, and some allow larger groups to participate simultaneously than others. Both Hubs and VirBELA work with a VR headset or by using a desktop version on Macs and PCs. Altspace is not supported on Macs but does work with untethered headsets like Oculus Quest.

Altspace VRAltspace VR allows users to meet people from around the world, play games, and attend free live events. For example, a record 1200 avatars attended a Reggie Watts performance.
HubsMozilla’s Hub users easily create web-based rooms to meet with others within Mixed Reality. A room is created with a single click, and then the link can be shared with others. A maximum of 25-50 in-room participants are allowed, but an unlimited ‘overflow’ crowd can observe from the lobby.
VirBELAVirBELA was designed to enable companies to grow and scale in the cloud. A record of 916 avatars were in the virtual world at one time. Users can interact in an open campus, team suites, on a private campus and through online events (e.g., conferences, workshops).
Table 1. Three VR Social Platforms for Business Use.

VR Social Platforms Exploration

The best advice I can give is to explore the options available with your user in mind.  You’ll find some work on Macs, some on PCs, but others on both.  Some platforms are web-based; others require you to download a program. Some require the use of a VR headset; while others also allow desktop access. For education, for example, access is a paramount concern, and a choice should be made that allows all students to participate.  For use in business, the decision can be made to employ a more restrictive platform—one requiring headsets or that can only run on a PC, for example.

The second piece of advice is to learn from the experiences of others. An interview was conducted with two individuals who explained their interest and experiences in different VR platforms, Robert Smallwood, Publisher of IG World Magazine and Managing Director at the Institute for Information Governance, and Marie Vans, Senior Research Scientist with HP Labs in Fort Collins, Colorado, and SJSU iSchool instructor.

Experiences using VirBELA to host an Information Governance & Infonomics Summit

VirBELA is the name of the company, the software, and the online immersive environment dedicated to driving the future of work through virtual reality. This service allows for free access to an open campus and fee-based services in the form of team suites, private campuses, and hosted online events, such as conferences and workshops.

Figure 3. Robert Smallwood

One of the early adopters of this innovative solution is Robert F. Smallwood, MBA, CIP, IGP. Robert is a thought leader in Information Governance, having published eight books on IG topics, including the world’s first IG textbook now in its second editioAmong his many responsibilities, Robert is the Chair of the Board of Governors of the Certified Information Governance Officers Association (CIGOA). In this role, he facilitated the use of a VirBELA Conference Hall to host an Information Governance & Infonomics Summit in April 2020. According to Robert, VirBELA allows “for better engagement and networking using real-time voice conversations, while also offering a fun and even playful platform.” The use of VirBELA’s platform drew attendees from around the world—in fact, it drew better attendance than physical events the group held in NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco.

When asked what prompted CIGOA’s interest in VR in general and VirBELA in particular, Robert replied:

We saw that other virtual meeting platforms generally lacked the capability for participants to interact with each other (except as text in a chat room) like they would at a physical conference. And we saw that people using Zoom can quickly get overwhelmed with all the moving faces on the screen, and distracted by the variety of often unprofessional backgrounds. When Doug Laney (of Infonomics famesuggested we look into a 3D VR platform called VirBELA, we found that it was developed at UC San Diego, and we’re based in the San Diego area, so we explored it.

Figure 4. Robert Smallwood providing a tour of CIGOA’s conference room in VirBELA.

When asked to describe their experience with the platform, Robert explained:

We decided to try it out for a summit event that we had held previously in major cities, and this one was planned for Boston, but [due to the Coronavirus] we had to move it to a virtual event. The software allows attendees to create their own avatar, and dress it how they wish, and that virtual character can actually ask questions of the speakers or hold live voice conversations with others as they virtually stroll about the room during breaks. That brings about real human interaction. The results were outstanding: better and broader attendance from around the world, including South America and the Middle East, and the attendees rated it very highly. So although it took us about 3-4 weeks to get up to speed on operating the software for a meeting, we were pleased with the results.

Experiences using Hubs by Mozilla to host virtual meetings

Hubs is a virtual collaboration platform from Mozilla that runs in a web browser. It can be used to host a conference, teach a class, showcase art, or meet with colleagues. Hubs make it easy to connect and share images, videos, 3D models, and more. With Hubs’ spatialized audio you can have conversations with everyone together or break out into smaller groups—just like you can in person.

Figure 5. Dr. Marie Vans

Dr. Marie Vans, a senior research scientist at HP Labs in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she is currently working in the AI & Emerging Compute Lab, is. a pioneer in Virtual Worlds and Virtual Reality.

Marie is focused on developing virtual reality simulations for education, professional training, and product introduction. Marie holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Computer Science from Colorado State University as well as an MLIS from San José State University’s iSchool. She has more than 55 published papers and 35 granted U.S. patents. Marie teaches a course in Design for Teaching & Learning in Social Virtual Reality in SJSU’s iSchool. Marie has used meeting rooms in both Mozilla Hubs and another virtual reality platform, Altspace, for presentations, team meetings, and hangouts.  According to Marie, “We are exploring the use of these platforms as an alternative to the typical “flat” conferencing applications like MS Teams and Zoom. Since HP makes VR Headsets, we are interested in using this platform as a more immersive experience than the 2D approaches afford.”

When asked what prompted HP’s interest in VR in general and Mozilla Hubs in particular, Marie replied:

We are interested in Mozilla Hubs for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is a web-based platform that supports a desktop version, which means that anyone can join and participate in a meeting whether they have a VR headset or not, including mobile users. Secondly, Mozilla Hubs is open-source, and we were able to download the entire project from GitHub and get it running on our own protected servers within the company firewall.

When asked to explain the importance of open-source software to the company, Marie explained:

Figure 6. Individuality expressed through diverse avatars in Mozilla Hubs.

Running the VR social platform on our own servers is very important for us as most meetings are confidential. Sharing desktops and documents are important functionalities and Hubs supports desktop sharing. There are other capabilities that are not part of the open-source version of the software that we feel are critical to our business culture. However, we are able to build on the platform to incorporate the additional functionality, which is not possible with many other social virtual reality platforms. 

Although the options for avatars in Mozilla Hubs are not as realistic as those for VirBELA, you can’t deny they are fun (see Figure 6).

Conclusion

Peter Drucker is quoted as having said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”  As a result of this crisis, we’ve all had to stop doing something old. This has prompted many innovative individuals and organizations to do something new—including exploring the use of Social Virtual Reality platforms to add the personal touch to activities that, for now, must be conducted remotely. While some of the initial interest may abate once we begin to get back to work on-premise, the benefits of working remotely will encourage many to continue to explore virtual reality as a viable alternative for some of the events formerly held in the physical realm.

References

[1] Horwitz, J. (2020, May 21). “Facebook to Shift Permanently Toward More Remote Work After Coronavirus,” The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-to-shift-permanently-toward-more-remote-work-after-coronavirus-11590081300

[2] Hess, A. (2019, November 17). “67% of workers say spending too much time in meetings distracts them from doing their job,” CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/17/67percent-of-workers-say-spending-too-much-time-in-meetings-distracts-them.html

[3] Sherr, I. (2020, March 19). “Microsoft’s Teams hits 44M daily users amid coronavirus self-isolation,” CNET, https://www.cnet.com/health/microsofts-teams-hits-44m-daily-users-as-usage-jumps-from-coronavirus/

[4] AP. (2020, June 3). “Zoom booms as teleconferencing company profits from Coronavirus crisis,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jun/03/zoom-booms-as-teleconferencing-company-profits-from-coronavirus-crisis

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