Monday, June 5, 2023

Virtual reality meetings are weird, but they beat our current reality

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The sun never sets in virtual reality. It occurred to me after a one hour briefing in a Oculus Quest 2 helmet. Joined by more than a dozen other floating avatars, we teleported to an “open-air” meeting space that could only be described as an aircraft carrier-meet-Croatian-vacation.

Beyond the vast expanse of virtual spaces, there was a beautiful sunset, but the day never darkened. When I pressed a button on the touch controller a little too long, I ended up standing next to another avatar, a fellow journalist. Then I remembered that you can’t catch the coronavirus from a digital dummy.

The press briefing was one of the few to have taken place in virtual reality, said a spokesperson for the new application. It’s called Arthur, and part of the talk is that it’s going to catapult VR for work into the mainstream, that collaborative meetings and sessions and office briefings will become… headset briefings.

The app launches today, but it’s been in development for four years. The company behind it, also known as Arthur, is headquartered in San Mateo, California, with employees scattered around the world. It got seed funding from venture capital firm Draper Associates, and it lists the United Nations, the General Society, and a major automaker as its beta testers.

Photography: Arthur VR

Taking a meeting in Arthur requires a literal suspension of reality. You only exist from the waist up (hey, like Zoom!), And your shirt sleeves tap off to reveal blue computer arms, which move depending on how you move the Oculus Quest controllers. in your hands. Your digital eyes are obscured by Matrix– stylish glasses and a headset covers your virtual mouth. Indeed, the technology cannot yet mimic facial expressions in VR, and “it’s better than staring with dead eyes,” says founder Arthur Christoph Fleischmann. My avatar was nothing like me except that he had dark brown hair.

Yet meeting in VR felt like somewhere other, if not somewhere in the physical world. I was sitting in the same living room that I occupied for most of the year, but was there with other people. I was aware that the physical microphone in my headset was on, that anything I said would be part of the conversation. It was rude to walk away and start making coffee in my kitchen.

When Fleischmann urged the group to take seats before a presentation in a virtual amphitheater (which appeared on demand, the fastest and cheapest building project ever), we awkwardly dispersed among the seats as we would in real life. And after the presentation, in which Fleischmann touted the collaborative benefits of working in VR, we teleported to a rooftop bar and used our controllers to have virtual cocktails. Everyone relaxed, although they were unreal drinks. All the while, the sun got stuck in its permanent position of almost setting. It was surreal, but it beat our current reality.

Meet me here

Arthur wouldn’t be the first to try to carve out a place for himself in corporate virtual reality. Until recently, VR headsets, as well as mixed reality headsets, like Microsoft HoloLens– were prohibitively expensive, costing over $ 1,000 per unit. Any company looking to make inroads into the industry should at least consider selling to large companies, those that could afford the nascent technology. This was the approach taken by Spatial, a buzzing New York-based startup that WIRED’s Julian Chokkattu covered earlier this year.

“We always say we’re like Zoom and Slack had an AR / VR baby,” Spatial CEO Jacob Loewenstein tells me on Zoom from his New York apartment (the Zoom meeting was my request; I was on schedule and didn’t want to dither in VR). “And we really mean it. Because if we’re successful, it’s because we’ve made this thing stupidly easy to use.


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