Can We Have the Metaverse Without the Goggles, Please?
This week marked my return to in-person events. The first was an event for start-ups at my local university, an event I attended irregularly before the pandemic, and attended virtually once or twice during the pandemic. This week however the event was offered as in-person only. At the back of my mind was a Microsoft article on hybrid working about the new employee 'worth it' equation, as in “is this event going to be worth the effort of dressing appropriately, driving through evening traffic, finding a park, etc?” Having not attended live events for a couple of years the answer this time was yes.
It was good to be back face-to-face again, albeit with a smaller audience than I recall. The event organizer told me they were desperate to get people back to their new purpose-built hub, hence the “in-person only” condition. Interestingly, she said that when the pandemic forced them to go virtual, their attendance levels actually went up. But when they started to run hybrid events, the overall attendance was significantly lower. Bouncing back to in-person only also appeared not to be the answer.
This is something I have been hearing over and over as event organizers desperately seek to attract crowds back to the level they were used to pre-pandemic. But it appears to just not be happening. And the hybrid event solution also seems to be problematic — not unlike hybrid working in general.
A Glutton for Punishment
My team and I were also invited to present the results of our M365 Benchmarking study at a Microsoft hybrid user group meeting this week. Here, too, the convener was keen to get people back in the room, with the same levels of interaction she was used to pre-pandemic. In this case, the venue was a little further away, typically a 2.5 hour train ride away, but I had decided the “worth it” equation was still in the positive. It was a trip I used to do a few times a month pre-pandemic, so it would be nice to revisit the experience after such a long break.
My resolve started to waiver in the early morning of the event, as the rain lashed down and announcements about potential public transport issues came out. After all, couldn’t I make the same presentation from the warm — and dry — comfort of my home office? We had made a commitment though, for at least some of us presenting, to be there live. It proved to be the right call, as my other in-person colleague messaged to say that flood waters were preventing her from getting to the train station. No problem, she could still join online!
As predicted, the train I was on was delayed. “Why did we have to stop at that station for 15 minutes?” “Why is it moving so slow now?” I could see that time-wise it was now going to be tight. “Does this train have to stop at every single station?” This piece of deja vu I could have done without. I then get a message from my colleague: “Are you there yet? We’re about to start the presentation.” Fortunately, I knew I wasn’t on first, so my remote colleagues could hold the fort. The venue was one I hadn’t been to before. No problem, I have Google Maps. It’s right here. But where is the door? How do you get into this building? Found it! In the lift to floor 10, nice signs directing me to the room where the event had now started. I cautiously open the door, hoping not to interrupt too much. I was lucky, only a handful of people to potentially interrupt ... Obviously a wet and windy day, with public transport delays to look forward to, their “worth it” equation was clearly in the negative. The majority of the audience was joining online.
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Was the Commute Worth it?
I still had to get home. More public transport delays due to the weather meant I had been away from home for more than 9 hours for a 90-minute event. However, as I write and reflect on the day, I’d still say it was worthwhile. I’d forgotten how much more interaction you get at in-person events. Even though we only chatted for a short while after the event, it was substantially more than I had experienced on virtual events. Our convener Kirsty said as much: it’s the conversations before and after the presentations that she had missed so much. And there was pizza for all who made the effort to attend in person.
Would I do it again the next day (it’s still raining)? A definite no! But it did get me thinking about how we could even get close to that experience virtually (minus the commute of course).
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The Metaverse, Without the Goggles
Earlier this year Microsoft showcased work it was doing with Accenture to do just what event organizers were looking for. Using its not insubstantial gaming capabilities, Microsoft has developed an augmented reality platform, AltspaceVR, which essentially lets us adopt our avatars and move around in virtual space, chatting and interacting in small groups, just like we had done at in-person events.
I personally don’t like avatars for work. It feels too much like I’m playing a game. The other big drawback? The need for a headset is potentially a showstopper. Many of us still have trouble getting our earphones to work consistently. But at least with earphones you can just not use them and still participate.
One technology I had experienced pre-pandemic was from an Australian start-up, iSee. Again, coming from a gaming background, the iSee software use of avatars is actually your live face on a TV screen that you can move around in virtual space to chat with different groups. No headsets required, only the camera and microphone you would use on a conference call. It even had a cool feature that if you saw a contact across the virtual room, you could teleport yourself straight to their side!
iSee is being used in the education space. As a startup this was where it got traction, and you do have to go where the early money is.
iSee, like AltSpaceVR, is still not ready for prime time (yet). Both technologies still cannot work entirely in the cloud, which is a necessary part of achieving the pervasive usage we are looking for. But when they are, my "worth it” equation will definitely fall on the virtual side.
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About the Author
Laurence Lock Lee is the co-founder and chief scientist at Swoop Analytics, a firm specializing in online social networking analytics. He previously held senior positions in research, management and technology consulting at BHP Billiton, Computer Sciences Corporation and Optimice.