Virtual Reality Meetings Are the New Awkward Teleconference

'Podrift' shows the social side of virtual reality.

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Jun 17 2014, 11:50am
Images by the author

As virtual reality advances, and especially applications for the Oculus Rift, we’ve seen VR goggles transport viewers into cult arcade games, holiday villas in Tuscany, and all manner of X-rated scenes. But where VR might be least gimmicky and most useful is likely in more everyday, mundane scenarios. Imagine entering into a virtual meeting room with a colleague from the other side of the world and discussing the day’s business as if you were actually in front of each other. It beats teleconferencing. 

I tried out this kind of virtual socialising at a VR showcase at Inition, an interactive production company that put on the event as part of London Technology Week. When I turned up at their Shoreditch offices, I bumped into Motherboard contributor Gian Volpicelli, so we had a go at holding an ad-hoc meeting in VR from opposite sides of the showroom.

Leonard Burton, Podrift's project leader

“Podrift” uses Oculus Rift to place more than one person in the same virtual environment at the same time. Its project lead, Leonard Burton, told me that the idea was to create a kind of interactive podcast. “The idea is to have an intimate conversation and bring people from around the world into the same virtual space, for the purposes of entertainment, education—all sort of things,” he said.

Sat on a chair, I put on an Oculus Rift headset and faced a Kinect sensor. Gian did the same at the other end of the room. I could see his avatar, a guy in a hat, sat on a couch opposite me. Looking down, I saw my own avatar arms and legs. We spoke over headphones and microphones whilst sat in what looked like a pretty generic meeting room or TV studio—except it was on an island surrounded by gently lapping waves, because you can do that in VR.

Another thing I soon found out you can do in virtual land, albeit accidentally, is fly. Gian and I were able to move our avatars by moving in meatspace, but I was pretty restricted given my precarious real-life positioning on a raised platform. However, I could still move in the VR environment using a pair of joystick-type Hydra controllers. Unfortunately I got a bit confused and pressed up instead of forward, and ended up hovering in the air above my conversation partner. Later, Gian disappeared beneath the floor; he shrieked over the headphones that all he could see was white space.

Burton admitted the tech was in the early stages, and the experience wasn't always the smoothest. Our avatars struggled to shake hands, but in the attempt managed to get rather more tangled than would be professionally appropriate. When I looked at my own arms, they seemed to be shaking uncontrollably, and it was pretty disconcerting to look down at my waist and sometimes see my avatar’s ass sticking out of my front, among other decidedly compromising or uncomfortable-looking positions. But despite a few kinks and our rather amateur capabilities at the controls, when it worked, the experience was as immersive as we’ve come to expect with the Oculus; it really did seem that I was talking to someone in front of me

“We’re using existing tech, which isn’t great for the end experience we’re going for, but it’s great for having a prototype and working on the problems of having an avatar in a virtual environment and that communication,” said Burton as he rescued another virtual reality wanderer from tripping over a wire. The lack of awareness of your physical environment while you’re in VR is a problem that still needs to be solved—Burton said he once sat on the “couch,” forgetting that he really had an office chair on wheels, and zoomed backwards. We had to sign a disclaimer before playing with the tech.

But this disconnect with the real world is also, of course, what’s so attractive about VR. For the podcasting scenario, Burton said the idea is that viewers could get up close and personal with the presenters and ask questions and so on. A producer could also add in all kind of elements, and you could make the scene as fantastical or realistic as you like. In the long term, he sees VR as a new way of socialising, rather than just playing in a fantasy world on your own. “It’s the whole idea of having a metaverse, and being able to step into different versions of realities, and meet up with people, socialise in various ways, play games together,” he said. 

The whole experience reminded me of a kind of extended Second Life, and it’s a clear sign of the social applications of VR as opposed to the gamer niche. After communicating with a real person in real time using the tech, the idea of Facebook wanting in on Oculus Rift suddenly made a lot more sense to me. When Facebook bought Oculus, Mark Zuckerberg spoke of the potential for “teleporting.”

Gian and I might have been leant random avatars with weird hats that didn’t have great control of their limbs, but even in that early prototype phase, and even though we were only a matter of metres from each other in reality, it did feel like we were beaming in.