Is VR technology set to take over the videocall space?

Are virtual reality meetings the next logical step from videocalls in a post Covid world?

While the coronavirus pandemic has decimated certain job markets, it has inspired tech companies to innovate and keep businesses thriving from a remote setting. In a radically shifting 12 months, we’ve adapted into something of a Zoom-centric society where people are accustomed to living out something close to their ordinary lives through the guise of online platforms.

With record spikes in digital subscriptions, ecommerce, and gaming, we’re now consuming more digital media than ever before and the line between convenience and technology is constantly being blurred. Where once the prospect of week at home filled with online workout routines, medical appointments, shopping, and evening socialising would’ve been considered farfetched and a little unnerving, in 2020 it has become the new normal.

We’ve utilised technology to keep on keeping on in the best way possible, but a number of savvy start-ups are looking to up the ante further. Social distancing rules are still in place (vague as they may be) and people are looking for more personal and efficient ways of communicating remotely for both work and play. The consensus within the industry is that the answers reside within AR and VR technology.

Tech engineering firm Spatial have likened the current video-call experience to feeling like a ‘box in a grid,’ and are pioneering bold concepts to take virtual meetings to the next level. To date, AR has largely been used to create novel gaming experiences like Pokémon Go and goofy selfie filters for social media platforms, but Spatial envisions a time in which we won’t be manifesting showering frogs, or T-Rexes into our living spaces, but realistic avatars of our friends, families, and co-workers.

Described as the Google Docs of augmented reality, the Spacial app uses machine learning to turn a single photo into a digital 3D model operable from the waist up using hand tracking integration – while mimicking face and lip movements with AI. From here, users can join meeting rooms and interact with others freely, bringing digital assets into the space such as videos or product designs to be viewed and manipulated by everyone.

You’d be right in thinking the results can be a little freaky and a lot funny… I dread to think how many dabs will be performed a month into launch. However, those lucky enough to try it will quickly fall into a sense of uncanny valley, with the technology offering up a world that feels a little realer than Zoom, but far less whimsical than a game.

Spatial is adamant that the future of ‘mixed reality’ meetings will take place through slick and immersive devices like smart glasses, but for now are forced to develop and test their tech using the bulkier assortment of VR headsets on the market today.

Firmly in the same bracket, Facebook is getting in on the act with ‘Infinite Office’ for the Oculus Quest, bringing a digital panoramic screen based on the Oculus Browser into the user’s real space, or an immersive digital background for those yet to do the tidying. With the headset on, real time alerts pop up from people’s phones and emails, and they can work using a combination of compatible keyboards and hand tracking to simply navigate between displays. Frankly speaking, I want one and I’ve been physically back at work for over a month.

We’re not trying to suggest that the idea of utilising VR for purposes other than gaming is a brand-new concept. Mirosoft’s HoloLens being used to draw up blueprints for product designs and industrial projects, Apple has reportedly hired over 1000 engineers to work on smart glasses, and Google released demos for ‘Glass’ way back in 2013. What we are undoubtedly seeing is an accelerated effort on an industry wide scale to capitalise on trends created by Covid-19.

All these developments are extremely exciting, but truth be told we’re probably a ways off fully realising the concept of VR meeting spaces for mainstream consumption. When talking logistics, we’d need 5G networks to be up and running to minimise the latency and glitches we experience even now on 2D Zoom calls, and cloud computing will be integral to compensating for the heavy processing power used by VR headsets at present.

Then we get to the fees. With HoloLens 2 units selling for $3,500 a pop, how much will a pair of mixed reality glasses go for? For now, I think we’re probably good with Zoom.

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