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Can today’s videoconferencing tech evolve into tomorrow’s metaverse?

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I’ve been covering video conferencing since the late 1980s, when I was brought in to look at a very early deployment at Apple by AT&T. It failed spectacularly. A decade later, I’ve seen Intel’s and HP’s efforts fail as well.

The latest wave of video development was driven by the pandemic, when people were forced to work from home and video tools advanced more in two years than in the previous two decades.

As we look at the next big planned step – the emergence of metaverse and immersive virtual reality (VR) collaboration tools – it’s time to figure out what’s needed, what can be done, and if it will work. And it is essential to remember the needs of the employees themselves.

Employee engagement and belonging

The most compelling argument for virtual meetings is that they eliminate travel. The advantage of time – no commuting – is obvious, as is the reduced risk of accidents, illness, work/life imbalance and time (the need to get people to the same place takes longer than bringing them on a call, especially if most are far away).

The downside is that remote employees face a lot of issues. Without strong management, they may not have well-defined goals or milestones. New remote employees have limited chances of building the relationships necessary for advancement. And remote workers reported that if they didn’t already have relationships with coworkers, they couldn’t create them. This lack of belonging, for lack of a better term, increases the risk of employee retention and can lead to hostile behavior towards the company as the person might decide they are at a disadvantage compared to those who show up at the office. .

If you want to have a sustainable remote or hybrid workforce, you need to give workers what they need to succeed – and tie that in with raises and promotions; give managers a higher level of comfort with the performance of remote employees; and give remote employees clear directions about where they are spending their time.

The overall effort should also be aimed at helping an employee develop a deep relationship with their company and colleagues. That means virtual social events, connecting employees who have common work and personal partners, and collaborative partners that lead to stronger teams.

Team building efforts tend to fall off a cliff with remote workers, but the opposite should be true given their infinitely greater needs.

The future role of virtual reality

The market continues to reject headset options for virtual reality (VR), with the biggest recent failure being 3D television, which had relatively lightweight and inexpensive headsets compared to other augmented and VR solutions. There are two ways to approach this, and they are not mutually exclusive. One is to eliminate the helmet and use a different technology such as “hard light” or LED walls. (The first isn’t a thing yet, and the other is currently so expensive it’s not viable.)

Another path, more likely in the short term, is to create helmets that have much wider applicability than current helmets. This means making them more attractive to wear and providing compelling secondary use (like watching video entertainment, privacy and security, and safety). If I want to use a headset because it does something I want, while being useful for video conferencing, I’m more likely to try it for collaboration.

Right now, despite the hype, the Metaverse isn’t real enough to be compelling. And headsets are tightly tied to VR experiences that aren’t going to drive their mass usage. This leads to an imbalance between cost, appearance and utility. Some of the upcoming headsets are more goggle-like, arguably more attractive and cheaper, but they don’t isolate the user well from their surroundings and lack optical features that can prevent motion sickness and reduce immersion.

Getting it right is key to establishing a permanent pivot between in-person and remote meetings rather than the temporary pivot we’ve seen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For remote work to be as effective for businesses (and employees) as face-to-face meetings, any virtual reality option must be better on a number of vectors. Hardware and software need to evolve to have greater utility – and headsets should become something people want to wear. We need to ensure that as helmets become more attractive, lighter and less expensive, they do not lose their ability to insulate the user from the world around them (if necessary) and protect them against harm from transport and physical accidents.

The metaverse is not ready. And when it is, if the hardware and the solutions that define it don’t meet the general needs of the employees who use it, it will fail, taking many companies down with it. The repeated inability to even fully define the problem, let alone solve it, greatly reduces the likelihood that we will remain, as we seem to want, largely remote instead of climbing into planes, trains, or automobiles.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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