What’s Next After Zoom?
Virtual Reality (VR) allows collaboration between distant colleagues, simulating the feeling of being co-present in the same location. Its use in business consistently returns measurable improvements in training, often surprisingly so. For example, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article, VR reduced training time for Wal-Mart workers from eight hours to fifteen minutes.
The efficacy of using Virtual Reality for training and education during the pandemic has been enhanced by the successful launch of the Oculus Quest mobile VR headset by Facebook in May of 2019. The successor to the original Quest, Quest 2, is a more powerful, cheaper ($299) and lighter model. Thanks to its improved optics (1832 x 1920 Resolution Per Eye) users can now read a document or web page, making it much better suited to business than its predecessor Quest.
KLM Airlines executives have been using the Helsinki-based Glue VR collaboration platform to reduce the need for corporate travel. HTC held it’s international ecosystem conference last April on the Engage Platform, with hundreds of fully embodied avatars, each representing a person somewhere in the world in a VR headset. eXp Realty (NASDQ: EXPI) is a fast-growing international real estate broker with no physical offices. Instead, they meet online using a platform powered by Virbela, a 3D virtual world for business that users navigate using the 2D screens of their laptop computers, like a super-simplified Second Life for business.
Virbela was founded by an organizational psychology doctoral student Alex Howland in 2012 at UCSD. An early customer, Glenn Sanford, founder of eXp Realty, liked Virbela so much, he bought the company in 2018. Virbela’s business has more than tripled during the pandemic. EXPI, which traded at $7 March 18th, is trading at $77 today. In addition to offices, meeting and event spaces, and classrooms for online learning and training sessions, Virbela offers an Expo Hall for conferences and trade shows and just introduced a virtual entertainment venue for live music. Howland says they are working on a web-based solution, Frame VR, which will reduce friction for enterprise users concerned about downloading software.
Ireland-based VR Education Holdings (VRE.L), founded by David and Sandra Whelan in 2014, found early success with the first VR Space simulation, Apollo 11. They introduced the PC and VR Engage platform for education and training in 2018. Engage provides enterprises, schools and institutions a VR platform full of varied classrooms and environments. Institutions pay a license fee, but importantly, individual teachers can buy a $10/month subscriptions, enabling private classrooms and custom content upload. Engage offers a modest library of 360 videos, that can be viewed as a group. Users can also upload links to YouTube videos. Many environments have working scenes and whiteboards, or you can just spawn one. Engage is the only VR collaboration app we know of that will enable a fully embodied conference attended by 1000 simultaneous users (avatars), as they did for HTC’s Ecosystem conference last Spring. HTC liked it so much, they invested in the company and are now resellers of the Engage platform. Since March, VR Education Holdings’ share price has tripled as well. In May, new Fidelity employees participated in team-building exercises, games and some training with the VR headsets in Engage.
Spatial is one of the best known startups in remote collaboration. They demoed their remote telepresence platform from Mobile World Congress with Microsoft HoloLens creator Alex Kipman in 2019 and raised $22M in venture capital. The company was built to bring mixed reality into the workspace, to enable distant colleagues to be present as if in the same place. While that use case is developing slowly, Spatial is integrating devices we are already using, PCs, tablets, smartphones and VR. Thanks to an early deal with Oculus, Spatial has been available on the Quest since 2019. Inside of Spatial, users can create private rooms, spawn and drag browsers around, participate in Zoom calls, watch videos, spawn 3D objects, and do just about everything you do in the office. One of Spatial’s most distinctive features are its avatars, created using a proprietary AI algorithm that creates a fully dimensional, recognisable avatar for each participant from 2D photos. At the moment, Spatial is the only major collaboration platform that’s entirely free.
Helsinki-based Glue, which has been in development since 2018, is distinguished by its detailed colorful avatars and relaxed vibe. A recent update has added hi-res images, enhancing document clarity, and private voice to text note-taking. Glue’s added capacity, so it can now accommodate groups up to forty. They, too, are multiplatform. VR users (Quest and Steam) and PC users (Mac and Windows) can collaborate in real time, using features like whiteboards as they would in the physical world.
Remote collaboration site Arthur recently announced $2.5M backing by investors which include venture capital celebrity Tim Draper. The company says the UN and Societe Generale were its pilot customers. Arthur’s avatars are relatively realistic and are dressed for business. Christoph Fleischmann, founder and chief executive officer of Arthur, said in a recent interview that the system provides “remote collaboration without reducing the ability to be creative or efficient with your colleagues, while simultaneously elevating productivity to a whole new level through the company’s advanced technology and intuitive user interface.”
VR use within businesses is forecasted to continue to grow up to $3.12 billion in 2023, according to ARtillery Intelligence and a PwC report last year predicted that nearly 23.5 million jobs worldwide would be using VR to meet and train remotely by 2030. The UK-based The Leadership Network (TLN), a VR learning company, is an Independent Software Vendor (ISV) for the Facebook (Oculus) Business platform. They introduced Gemba in 2020 to support remote training at scale. Each employee or member has an Oculus Quest 2 VR headset delivered to their doorstep. Gemba has its own virtual spaces and provides customer support. “We all must adapt and innovate if we are to stay ahead of the game,” said TLN CEO Nathan Robinson. “What we hope to show is how VR can enhance every industry, every workplace and create economic opportunity like never before.”
We’d be remiss if we failed to mention there are drawbacks to using the Quest for enterprise applications. While it has the advantage of being cheap, users must wirelessly tether the device to the user’s smartphone. Problematic if employees must do so with an unsecured, personal device. Also, the Quest cannot be managed or updated remotely. For these reasons, enterprises might gravitate toward the $900 Pico Neo. The Neo costs three times as much as the Quest, but it’s not so much more that enterprises might prefer a more powerful, more secure, private solution that can be managed remotely.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.