In-person meetings have been a staple of the business world for as long as there have been roads, and the rise of airlines made business travel a key driver of global commerce. Businesses are driven by human interaction, whether it’s an executive meeting with business partners or a sales agent calling on a would-be client. That personal touch can make or break a business deal.
For organizations, meetings are essential for productivity, collaboration, and socialization. But the social distancing measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have caused businesses to reassess what travel is considered essential, and also driven the adoption of technologies like virtual reality (VR) and other related technologies, such as augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and even extended reality (XR).
The result is a mass experiment and redefinition of business meetings. What if face-to-face meetings were done in a virtual environment that combines the physical world and computer-generated images? Can the electronically mediated interactions substitute for the intimacy that in-person meetings generate?
Defining computer-generated reality
First, the definitions. For a clearer perspective, let’s use virtual reality as an umbrella term to include AR, MR, and XR. Although these ‘realities’ vary in scope and depth, they all involve a computer—hardware and software.
Intel defines VR as using head-mounted display (HMD) equipment to provide a fully immersive virtual experience of computer-generated imagery and sounds that mimic a real world or a different environment. AR combines real-world images with new layers of computer-generated images and digital information that supplement perception.
With the use of sensing and imaging technologies, MR integrates real-world and digital elements. It allows interaction with the physical world and computer interface where users can manipulate virtual items and objects. MR blurs the line between real and virtual worlds.
A new reality in business and the workplace
The pandemic has dramatically changed the world—economies, businesses, and social interaction. Governments, organizations, and companies combine remote and in-office work environments to maintain operations during the crisis. Such a setting, which will likely continue at least somewhat post-pandemic, creates a demand for electronically facilitated human interaction through software technologies, including business intelligence and virtual reality.
Remote work can build a lonely, isolated workforce. To reduce the feeling of isolation by remote workers, virtual reality offers an immersive experience where team members experience an office-like group meeting where they can interact with each other just like they do in the real world.
Virtual reality for meetings and collaboration
Teams use collaboration tools like Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet for meetings, screen sharing, and group discussions. But these tools, although useful for productivity and communication, do not address isolation and remoteness as much as VR environments can.
A VR platform creates an avatar that represents a person in a virtual meeting room. It mimics a round table setting where a person can share presentations, demos, or videos live. Participants can raise their hands to ask questions, move around, or chat with other participants to simulate a real-life meeting. It’s as if they’re sharing the same physical space.
In a sense, virtual reality fills the gap in human communication due to distance, as it enables employees to decipher the nuances of body language.
Microsoft is leading the way in applying virtual reality in the workplace through its Microsoft Mesh platform, which offers tools to make remote work and collaboration simple and more exciting. With Microsoft’s MR platform, imagined and real worlds mesh together to further enrich a remote worker’s experience in a virtual workplace.
VR can be an effective tool for training, meetings, presentations, and entertainment, like concerts and filmmaking. And it can be just as effective in team collaboration as it “provides in-situ opportunities without being on site.” To address isolation, VR enriches employee engagement and interaction by providing a sense of realism where people can feel positive emotions when collaborating with teams.
Can the intimacy of physical meetings be replaced?
Virtual reality facilitates seamless interaction of people from different locations in one place. It lessens the costs of business meetings that involve travel, enhances the workplace experience of employees opting for remote work, and enables organizations to explore possibilities in the intersection of business and technology.
While VR bridges physical distance with a real-life-like experience in an artificial environment, it cannot fully replace the intimacy of face-to-face human interaction in a traditional venue-based business meeting. While there’s no perfect alternative to in-person connection, organizations might find it advantageous to get the best out of both virtual reality and physical interaction. And investing in VR technology could also allow companies to fill talent gaps by more effectively integrating remote employees.