Meeting in 3D – Virtual Reality offers these opportunities in corona times

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researchers can walk around molecules. Take one atom, put it away, dock another. And talk to your colleagues about it – no matter where in the world you are. An app called Spatial enables such meetings in virtual reality.

The world’s largest pharmaceutical company has been working with it for around a year. Even pure communication is now going better, Nathan Yorgey reports: “In a video conference with more than five people, everyone is interrupting each other. Nobody talks, in the best case one talks and everyone else listens. “

Yorgey is director of digital innovation at Pfizer , an evangelist for new hardware, software, and ways of working for the Viagra and Enbrel companies. In times of the corona virus, this mission proves to be particularly valuable: Technology enables collaboration despite all curfews – including virtual reality (VR) as the researchers use it.

Even if many offices in Germany and elsewhere are slowly filling up again, colleagues will rarely meet in crowded conference rooms in the future – because of the risk of infection, because some have learned to appreciate the home office during the Corona curfews or because companies will try in the recession, office space and reduce rent.

This could be an opportunity for technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR): video conferences and mass calls are rarely collaborative. Talking about a physical object like a building or body design is even more difficult. Virtual spaces in which users go with their smart glasses promise spatial flexibility and close cooperation at the same time.

Some companies see the future of work in it – namely Facebook , which recently showed in a short video how an office can one day be upgraded using data glasses. Skeptics, on the other hand, point out that despite all the advances, the devices are still niche products, both privately and in companies – and there is a reason for this.

A permanent winter?

This is how Benedict Evans sees the technology in a permanent winter, the end of which is not in sight. After years as a partner of the renowned venture capitalist Andreessen Horowitz, the Briton has just switched to the British competitor Entrepreneur First.

He saw Facebook take over hardware startup Oculus for $ 2 billion to expand VR to the next social platform. How the ambitious start-up Magic Leap raised billions of dollars, also from Andreessen Horowitz, to develop hardware and software for consumers.

And he saw how none of these made a breakthrough for VR. The devices were always too heavy, the operation too complicated, the applications too modest for the technology to become as pervasive as the smartphone.

Sure, there is some progress: Facebook is taking over promising game studios to finally help Oculus make a breakthrough among end users. The company has just officially completed the beta phase of the “Oculus for Business” VR platform, in which selected companies were able to experiment with the new technology, for example in the area of ​​employee training.

Industrial workers use the Hololens from Microsoft to learn the work steps on their machines, the US military recently bought 40,000 glasses from the company with a thermal imaging camera in order to be able to display soldiers in enemy territory, such as maps or a compass. Also, Apple has demonstrated its ambitions in the area just once: The iPhone maker has completed the acquisition of NextVR confirmed a company that has specialized in concerts and sporting events via virtual reality to transfer.

But just as significant for the state of the industry is Magic Leap, the once hyped start-up that has not yet slipped away from a large corporation. The Florida company is said to have sold only a meager 6000 copies of its latest glasses. Most recently, the company made headlines because it fired 1,000 employees, half of its workforce, and the landlord of its Seattle office sued it for rent arrears.

Figures show that it is a niche: The market researcher CCS Insight assumes that sales of VR and AR glasses were around ten million units last year, an increase of around 20 percent. During the same period, the smartphone manufacturers sold around 1.5 billion devices.

Evans is now comparing VR enthusiasts, who always see the iPhone moment of technology imminent, with Communists who explain the humble reality of their ideology with the same excuse: “Real VR” has simply not been tried yet. “It says a lot that we are all locked up at home and video calls have become a mass phenomenon, but VR does not,” Evans writes in his well-known newsletter. “This should have been a VR moment and it’s not one.”

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg evaluates it differently. “The fact that we switched to remote working enables us to improve some future technologies that we are working on,” he recently told the employees in a livestream with a view of their own products.

As proof of these statements, the head of the VR and AR department, Andrew Bosworth, had his Twitter followers look at the future of work as the company envisions on the same day: he published an eight-second video taken from Oculus glasses has been. The user arranges three virtual screens in front of him by hand gesture and then starts typing on a real keyboard. The idea: In the mixed reality, even large screens have space in the smallest study.

Zuckerberg sees 50 percent of his workforce working permanently outside the company offices within ten years. In this way, the company could also develop a better understanding of customers and advance the state of the technology. The example shown by Bosworth illustrates this well: In Facebook’s generous offices, employees might not even think of promoting future technology as a means of saving space.

Virtual training for nurses

At Spatial, corona effects are already evident on the customer side: The number of active users has increased by more than 1000 percent since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, says Jacob Loewenstein, Head of Business of the New York start-up – even before the company decided two weeks ago to offer the app for free for the next few months. Many hospitals are now training new nurses there, students from the University of Arizona are meeting for their course on afro-futurism in Spatial.

But Spatial’s bread and butter business are large companies: Loewenstein says that every fourth company in the 1,000 US companies with the highest turnover has already contacted Spatial and shown interest in the app. Ford, Deutsche Telekom and chip manufacturer Qualcomm are already customers. Mattel designs analog toys in virtual workrooms, the French major bank BNP Paribas designs real estate projects in the app.

At Pfizer, it’s not just researchers who circle molecules – the company has planned an entire production line with the Spatial system. To do this, employees from different departments, such as maintenance, occupational safety or electronics, some of which are spread across different locations, must come together. So far, this was an asynchronous process that lasted several days and in which each specialist shared his expertise in writing, the company reports. Now this will be done in a meeting in less than two hours.

Anyone who uses Spatial with VR glasses transforms their living room into a conference room. A portrait image becomes a 3D avatar, which floats as an upper body through the room, can float towards colleagues or can hover in a corner for a dialogue – unlike a large video call. Nevertheless, thanks to immersion in the virtual space, the concentration is greater than that of the 2D video conference, says Pfizer Director Yorgey. “Nobody checks in parallel on the Internet what he cooks for himself today.”

Virtual objects, presentation slides or documents can be grabbed from the wall and pushed into the room. The integration with other apps like Slack or Microsoft’s collaboration app teams is the big advantage, says Yorgey. In addition, not everyone needs data glasses: You can also take part in a 3D meeting via classic video conference and see all presentations and documents. A 2D participant can only manipulate the objects himself.

Meeting each other alone does not justify the purchase of VR glasses for an entire department. “If you just sit around a conference table, Spatial is an over-engineered solution,” says Yorgey. As if you were “ buying a Ferrari to always drive 20 miles an hour.” In addition, there is the current price per unit of $ 3,500 for a Hololens 2 – which is more worthwhile if you save long-term working hours, business trips or office space.

Training employees is an even bigger problem than the cost of the hardware, says Yorgey. Finding your way around the menu of a Hololens or quest is more difficult than starting a video conference – especially for colleagues who are new to brand new technology. “We have a contract with Webex – we keep it too.”

Even Greg Sullivan from Microsoft is cautious about overselling Hololens and its applications: “People will continue to enjoy traveling and meeting in person,” says the software giant’s director of mixed reality. There are already many meetings that would have been better to send an email. “They shouldn’t be a 3D meeting in the future.”

But Sullivan emphasizes the social advantages of a colleague meeting in 3D instead of video. In Microsoft’s own Altspace VR app, which he uses with his team, everyone can individually design their avatar. “You can show your personality,” says Sullivan – this is particularly important in times of home office. Since he and his teammates had to leave their Microsoft headquarters office in March, they have held a virtual meeting every Thursday morning at 10 a.m. as a substitute for discussions in the coffee kitchen.

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