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

The shift to video brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and remote work needs may have abated, but it's not going away. The question now is how it might morph into something new.

A businessman stands in front of maze strewn with clouds.

I’ve been covering videoconferencing since the late 1980s, when I was brought in to review a very early deployment at Apple by AT&T. It failed spectacularly. A decade later, I watched efforts by Intel and HP also fail.

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

As we look at the next anticipated big step — the emergence of the metaverse and immersive virtual reality (VR) collaboration tools — it’s time to scope out what’s needed, what can be done, and whether it will work. And it’s critical to remember the needs of employees themselves.

Employee engagement and belonging

The most compelling argument for virtual meetings is that they eliminate travel. The time benefit — no commutes — is self-evident, as are reduced risk of accidents, illness, work/life imbalance, and time (the need to get people to the same location takes longer than getting them on a call, particularly if most are remote). 

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 to create relationships needed for advancement. And remote workers have indicated that if they didn’t already have relationships with colleagues, they couldn’t make them. This lack of belonging, for lack of a better term, increases employee retention risk and may lead to behavior that’s hostile to the company because the person could decide they’re being disadvantaged in comparison to those who show up at the office. 

If you want to have a sustained remote or hybrid workforce, you have to give workers what they need to be successful — and tie that to raises and promotions; give managers a higher level of comfort with remote employee performance; and give the remote employees clear guidance regarding where they spend their time. 

The overall effort also has to be focused on helping an employee develop a deep relationship with his or her company and co-workers. This means virtual social events, connecting employees who have common work and personal, and collaborative partners that lead to stronger teams. 

Teambuilding efforts tend to fall off a cliff with remote workers, but the opposite should be true given their needs immeasurably higher. 

The coming role of virtual reality

The market continues to reject headset options for virtual reality (VR), with the largest recent failure being 3D TV, which had relatively light and inexpensive headsets compared to other augmented and VR solutions. There are two ways to approach this, and they aren’t mutually exclusive. One is to eliminate the headset 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 isn’t viable.)

Another, more likely near-term path is to create headsets that have far broader applicability than current headsets do. This means making them more attractive to wear and providing a compelling secondary use (such as watching video entertainment, privacy and security, and safety). If I want to use a headset because it does something I want, while also being useful for videoconferencing, 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 tied tightly to VR experiences that aren’t going to drive their use en masse. This leads to an imbalance between cost, appearance, and utility.  Some of the headsets coming soon are more like glasses, arguably more attractive, and less expensive — but they also don’t isolate the user well from their environment and lack optical features that can prevent motion sickness and reduce immersion. 

Getting this right is critical to making a permanent pivot between in-person and remote meetings rather than the temporary one we saw due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For remote work to be as successful for companies (and employees) as in-person get-togethers, any VR option has to be better across a number of vectors. The hardware and software need to evolve so they have greater utility — and headsets should become something people want to wear. We need to make sure that as headsets become more attractive, lighter, and cheaper, they don’t lose their ability to isolate the user from the world around them (when needed) and protect against motion sickness and physical accidents. 

The metaverse isn’t ready. And when it is, if the hardware and solutions that define it don’t address the broad needs of the employees who use it, it will fail, taking a lot of companies down with it. The repeated inability to even fully define the problem, let alone address it, significantly reduces the likelihood we will remain, as we seem to want to, largely remote instead of clambering onto planes, trains, or into automobiles.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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