“The book was better” - Why virtual reality won’t improve online meetings
In the past year, both Facebook and Microsoft have launched plays to "enhance" online meetings with virtual reality.
When companies this big both places bets on the same technology, it seems like it's destined for success. Surely, in the future, we must find a VR headset on every mantelpiece in the hybrid workplace.
But even though the announcement videos looks exciting, impressive, and futuristic, they also show a lack of understanding about what's needed for remote collaboration. And it highlight's a common misunderstanding about how we create a great hybrid workplace.
See for yourself:
The book was better
We all have that friend that, after we say we enjoyed a movie, is there to tell us that "The book was actually better".
This remark is annoying but also a bit interesting. How can the book be better? A movie tells a story in both sound and image. It can show the worn-out texture on the main character's coat and project screams that reveal just how frightened they all were when that thing happened.
How can a book compete with that? It's just words. The author can't give you the sounds and images, just please imagine that yourself.
But even though movies engage more senses, books are still the most popular way to tell stories.
"Add more senses"
When I see these promotional videos, I can't help but imagine a meeting where an executive is arguing that "we need to add more senses". We need to give people a sense of space and a world they can interact with, not just with their mouse and keyboard but also with their hands, arms, and whole body.
And it's true. Remote work involves fewer senses. You don't hear, feel, smell, or see your colleagues in the same way.
Virtual meetings create an illusion of seeing and hearing, but you are really just looking at pixels on a screen and hearing the vibrations of your headset's membrane, not your colleagues' actual voices.
It's a good illusion though. Virtual meetings have their place.
But adding a virtual world around that? I can't stress enough how bad an idea I think this is.
This idea of adding a virtual world to a virtual meeting highlights a widespread misunderstanding about remote work: That the best we can do is to copy-paste the office.
Did we use to have 2-hour meetings in the office? Yes, let's do that online.
Did we use to stand at a whiteboard when sharing ideas? Yes, let's do that online.
Did we use to sit around the same table when talking? You get the point.
If all we do is copy-paste, remote work ends up being a lousy clone of the office. Instead, we have to avoid the limitations and play to its advantages.
Meetings need to be shorter when collaborating remote and can sometimes be avoided altogether. And we don't need to stand around a whiteboard at the same time to share ideas.
A lack of space
Think of the advantages instead. What's a unique feature of virtual meetings?
The virtual reality companies want to reintroduce "a sense of space" so "you can hear people on both sides of you with spatial audio".
It adds an extra sense to the meeting, but is a shared space necessary for communication? Absolutely not. Phone calls are one example.
In virtual meetings, the lack of shared space can actually be an advantage. It lets you communicate equally with everybody. Your audience all sees you in the same way, and you can even see yourself the same way they see you. That's unique. No physical meeting can replicate that.
In virtual reality, your body is turned into a vector-based avatar, like you were a Sims character. You can't connect with that. Humans connect with humans, not avatars.
I'll choose a grainy video feed over a high-resolution avatar any day.
Working remote isn't the same as working in an office. The ways we communicate, propose ideas and solve problems needs to be different, not a sad virtual clone of the office.