Gartner’s 2022 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies placed the metaverse at the earliest ‘innovation trigger’ phase of technology adoption, with an estimated decade-plus to go before the ‘plateau of productivity’ is reached. However, recent news suggests that the ‘trough of disillusionment’ is making an earlier-than-expected appearance.
Meta’s Reality Labs division reported an operating loss of $3.67 billion for the three months ended 30 September, and losses of $9.44 billion for the preceding nine months. Just two weeks after these troubling Q3 2022 results, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced 11,000 redundancies across all Meta divisions (about 13% of the workforce), citing “the macroeconomic downturn, increased competition, and ads signal loss” and admitting that “I got this wrong, and I take responsibility for that”.
Despite this setback, Zuckerberg said that Meta remains committed to a smaller number of high priority growth areas, including its “long-term vision for the metaverse”.
The metaverse, or at least Meta’s vision of it, is clearly proving expensive to build, and recent news coverage – including reports of sparsely populated virtual worlds, the collapse of crypto exchange FTX, and derision aimed at legless avatars – has taken more of the shine off this much-hyped component of Web3.
However, the adoption curve for metaverse technology may in fact be following the standard pattern, and an early use case is immersive virtual meetings.
Also: Metaverse: Momentum is building, but companies are still staying cautious
With remote and hybrid work now firmly established, attention is turning to the issue of proximity bias – the idea that in-office workers have disproportionate influence and enjoy greater professional success simply because they are more ‘present’ in the workplace, including in meetings, than remote employees.
Vendors of video-conferencing devices, such as Logitech and Owl Labs, are making efforts to provide a more level playing field for remote participants in video meetings, but it may be that (improved, full body) avatars interacting in virtual 3D meeting spaces will soon be a viable and more inclusive alternative.
Meta and Microsoft have recently promoted this solution and others are sure to follow, but we decided to test out the putative future of meetings using hardware and software from a well-established vendor in the field – HTC.
HTC Vive Focus 3 & Vive Sync overview
The Vive Focus 3 is a $1,300 standalone VR headset featuring optional controller-free hand tracking and, with the appropriate add-ons, facial tracking ($99) and eye tracking ($249) for a more expressive avatar experience. When ZDNET reviewed this 785g Snapdragon XR2-powered device in February 2021, we judged it to be “a high-quality VR headset with a price tag that signals its business rather than consumer focus”. Recently, Meta has introduced a similar competitor in the shape of the $1,499 Meta Quest Pro.
HTC’s virtual meeting application, Vive Sync, has a pedigree stretching back to its announcement in November 2018; it received a boost in visibility at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when it became available as a free beta, and is now a fully fledged member of HTC’s metaverse ecosystem.
Also: What the metaverse means for you and your customers
Vive Sync provides a variety of virtual meeting spaces, including meeting rooms of different designs and sizes, a trio of auditoriums, plus a sci-fi space, a scenic bay-side location and a Cloud Room.
You can set up meetings from the Vive Sync website, copying the invite to share with other participants, create them from within Sync on your headset, or schedule them directly from your Outlook calendar with the appropriate add-in. You can also upload a variety of file types to your meeting space, including 3D models, and download screenshots and other files (such as recorded audio) created in your meetings.
Once you’ve created an HTC account and set up your headset you’ll need to sign up for a Vive Sync plan. There’s a free Lite plan that limits you to five hours of hosted meetings a month, up to three attendees and 500MB of storage per meeting room, and one 3D model loaded and shared at a time.
The full Enterprise plan costs $250 per user per year or $30/user/month (a free 30-day trial of the Enterprise plan is also available). This gives you unlimited hosted meetings, up to 30 attendees and 5GB of meeting room storage, multiple shared 3D models, plus the ability to record audio meeting minutes, and share a PC desktop and a web browser. The full plan also lets you add custom branding to virtual meeting rooms, and assign roles and permissions to attendees.
As well as using a PC-based or standalone VR headset, you can access Vive Sync meetings via a desktop or laptop computer (Windows/MacOS), or a smartphone or tablet (Android/iOS) – see the full list of compatible devices here.
You’ll also need an avatar, courtesy of Vive Sync Avatar Creator, which is available for Android and iOS devices. You can base your avatar on a selfie or existing photo, and customise various parameters to get a reasonable likeness. You get a full-body avatar with decent movement characteristics, although it’s not a patch on something like Epic Games’ Unreal Engine-based Metahuman Creator.
Setting up a workgroup for virtual meetings using fully-equipped Vive Focus 3 headsets and with Enterprise Vive Sync subscriptions would be an expensive exercise amounting to $1,898 per user initially and $250 per user per year thereafter.
|1 user||10 users||20 users|
|HTC Vive Focus 3||$1,300||$13,000||$26,000|
|Vive Focus 3 Facial Tracker||$99||$990||$1,980|
|Vive Focus 3 Eye Tracker||$249||$2,490||$4,980|
|Vive Sync Enterprise Plan/year||$250||$2,500||$5,000|
|Hardware & software total||$1,898||$18,980||$37,960|
Of course you can mix and match devices and subscriptions, and put them to other uses, but metaverse meetings are clearly still a costly solution compared to traditional Zoom or Teams video grids, even with extras like video bars and 360-degree cameras for meeting rooms, so they need to deliver enough benefits to make the outlay worthwhile. Let’s see how that works out.
The Sync meeting experience
HTC lent us two Vive Focus 3 headsets (one with the new plug-in $99 Facial Tracker), so we had the bare minimum for a metaverse meeting. My ZDNET colleague Steve Ranger and I met up first in a modernist-looking meeting room with a garden and a mountainous landscape backdrop. We also met in an ‘ocean view’ meeting space with a tropical look about it. The weather, naturally, was clement – no storms or natural disasters in this metaverse.
You can get around in the meeting space by using the controller to turn around or teleport to another location, shake hands with or high-five fellow participants, and access a bunch of meeting tools on the Sync menu. Audio is spatial, so an avatar’s speech comes from the correct part of the virtual space and if need be you can mute your mic, engage another avatar in ‘private talk’ that other participants don’t hear, or even designate a ‘safe zone’ within which other users’ voices can be muted and nameplates hidden.
My Vive Focus 3 headset had the Facial Tracker plugged into a USB-C port beneath the visor. This add-on contains a mono tracking camera that, HTC says, “captures expressions through 38 blend shapes across the lips, jaw, cheeks, chin, teeth, and tongue to precisely capture true-to-life facial expressions and mouth movements on avatars”. This certainly brings an improvement when it comes to expressing oneself, although we noticed a slightly disturbing backlit quality to the buccal cavity at times.
The Sync menu provides a laser pointer along with pen, emoji, sticky note and camera tools, with text and images created during a meeting all accessible later on. There’s also access to files, a web browser, your PC desktop (if using a PC-connected headset), a virtual whiteboard and information about participants’ roles and permissions via the Sync menu. With a full subscription, resizable file, web browser and PC desktop windows can be made visible to all participants; each meeting room also has up to three big screens onto which content can be projected. With a PC VR headset you can even participate in Teams and Zoom meetings as an avatar from within a Sync virtual meeting space (again, full subscription required).
The ability to upload 3D models (FBX, OBJ, gITF or Unity Asset Bundles), manipulate them with the controller and show them off to meeting participants (only the host can interact with a 3D model) is a key benefit of Sync. We found a free FBX file of a Kinder Bueno, zipped it up with its texture file and uploaded it to the meeting space, where virtual Steve Ranger and I debated who would virtually consume the virtual snack. Obviously, design teams poring over a complex model would be more business-like, but we were up against the constraints of our free subscriptions.
There’s a lot more functionality in Vive Sync, and more to come – for further detail, check out HTC’s Vive Sync support pages. For now, it’s fair to say that Steve Ranger and I were both surprised by how engaging and even fun the experience of meeting in the Vive Sync metaverse was. Obviously the novelty element would wear off with longer exposure, but we definitely enjoyed the exploratory phase.
Is this the future of meetings?
Meetings, real or virtual, have different goals and capabilities depending on the size of the teams involved, becoming broadcasting exercises above about 50 participants:
Even without cost constraints, metaverse meetings would probably become unwieldy and cacophonous beyond about 30 users. However, with current pricing and headset wearability – up to about an hour with the Vive Focus 3 in our experience – you’re looking at much smaller teams to get any sort of return on investment.
And what return do you get, compared to the traditional Teams/Zoom video grid? The key, in our opinion, is an enhanced sense of presence – despite the artificial nature of avatars interacting in a virtual meeting space, and the learning curve for the user interface. This should be particularly beneficial for remote workers, who often feel like an ‘outsider looking in’ when meeting with office-based colleagues gathered around a table in a meeting room, mostly talking to each other and intermittently addressing a front-of-room camera and a large monitor on the wall.
There are video-based solutions to address this proximity bias, but as headset prices come down, wearability improves, avatars become more realistic, and virtual meeting software gets more capable, so small to medium-sized teams may increasingly look to the VR alternative. It could take a good chunk of Gartner’s decade-plus time horizon, though.
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