Published on April 20th, 2020 | by Emergent Enterprise0
Why Interest in Virtual Worlds for Online Collaboration Is Spiking
For many companies, trying out a virtual reality collaboration software has gone from “would like to do” to “must do.” Aaron Frank at Singularity Hub shares how this increased interest is driven by a desire to be more interactive and more like real world encounters. Meetings on Zoom and similar other softwares leave out many of the traits of a one-on-one interaction – that sense of spatial presence. That being said, interactions between virtual avatars also lacks in areas such as non-verbal cues and body language where it is often difficult to gauge a person’s mood and intent. The good news is that with the increase in usage we will all get better at this. The softwares will improve and our virtual behavior will get better. Hopefully.
By now, it’s well known that usage of video-conferencing software like Zoom has exploded as a result of the Covid-19 shutdown. What is less known is that interest in avatar-based virtual worlds and business-specific adaptations of concepts like Second Life, a well-known virtual world which peaked in mainstream popularity 15 years ago, is spiking as well.
“Yes, we’ve been getting a ton of inquiries,” said Philip Rosedale in an email to Singularity Hub. Rosedale is CEO and cofounder of High Fidelity, a software company currently building a new kind of virtual world that’s not yet been released. He’s also the creator and founder of Second Life and said it is seeing a surge in use as well.
“This is a strange moment for VR, virtual worlds, and the internet more generally. We may now truly be forced to create an equitable public commons online, where historically we’ve had the fallback of real life proximity,” Rosedale added.
While video-based software like Zoom will likely continue to be the preferred method for most remote business meetings during the shutdown, it is possible to wonder whether virtual worlds may prove uniquely useful now as well.
This point was underscored last week in an opinion article for the Wall Street Journal where Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson outlined why video conferencing on Zoom can feel so exhausting. In his view, Zoom forces people to display behaviors that are usually reserved for close and intimate relationships; what he refers to as “nonverbal overload” such as making direct eye contact for long periods of time and focusing on someone else’s face. In the real world, Bailenson points out, individuals can control their own personal space, manage their distance from coworkers, and choose their location during a meeting. On Zoom, however, there is no concept of spatial distance since the experience exists in a flat 2D window.
According to Alex Howland, CEO of VirBELA, another virtual world provider, they have also seen a massive uptick in interest these past few weeks from companies, non-profits, and government agencies affected by the shutdown.
In VirBELA, users create an avatar and navigate a video game-like environment to attend meetings, collaborate around boardroom tables, use media surfaces to display documents or websites, and interact in ways that may capture social cues (like personal space) from the real world.
The most important benefit of a virtual world, then, may be that it replicates many of the behaviors you might expect to see in the real world. There is such a thing as getting too close or far away from someone, and this sense of spatial presence can be quite convincing. The Boston Globe even reported an anecdote in which one user in VirBELA felt uncomfortable and complained because their avatar didn’t have a chair to sit in during a meeting.