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Hybrid Reality: Connecting The Virtual Office

May 4, 2021
The virtual workplace’s human interaction is improving dramatically.

Have you been having video fatigue? If so, you’re not alone, it’s a trending issue in our cyber-world’s reality. Recently I ran into several studies and surveys focused on how we are doing over a year into working remotely. For the most part people our industry have adapted to the change. We have found more benefits to working remotely than disadvantages, except for one concern.

That one issue was surprising to me until I thought about it a little more. It’s video fatigue that has been caused by group video conferencing. After a year of using the technology constantly, most of us agree that a bunch of pixels is not a substitute for being the same space with other people.

Group video conferencing lacks that intangible face-to-face interaction we crave. We need that critical body language feedback to really understand what someone is saying, and that’s not happening. The bottom line is we don’t want to go back to the traditional office setting, but we definitely want our group video technology improved.

What if I said there are video platforms and mobile apps that encourage natural discussions, add non-verbal cues, and enhance interactivity? What if this new trend also brings us back to the creativity of in-person gatherings without the exposure? That sounds like a mighty tall order, but there is such a technology available that provides all of these features and a lot more.

HR = VR + AR

These video platforms are an offshoot of what has been called immersive computing. In the simplest terms developers have integrated virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) together making a hybrid world. Some authorities call this adaptation a hybrid reality (HR), which fits nicely with its function.

The improved group video conferencing happens with an adaptation referred to as an avatar-based virtual event platform. This HR variation links humans (i.e., avatars), computers, and the environment together. The avatars allow the users to interact with each other online through a virtual representation of themselves.

Avatars can range from simple cartoon like figures to complex 3D head-to-toe bodies. Spatial uses an uploaded photo of your face and some machine learning to make a digital 3D avatar of you. The avatar depicts you from the waist up, and if you’re using one of the advanced AR headsets you can move your arms and make gestures through the headset’s hand-tracking technology.

Microsoft is working on something they call “holoportation” for their Mesh platform. It will allow people to appear as themselves in the HR setting. An HR meeting with holographic features is definitely a step closer and who knows what the next-gen will be.

Interacting with Avatars

So far the majority of applications come from large events such as conferences, summits, webinars, trade shows, exhibitions, career fairs, etc. That is changing as smaller venues see the advantage of the technology. Vendor demos offer some impressive examples of people interacting via avatars in various settings. Some users say the avatar-based virtual event platforms represent a quantum leap from those 2D group video apps we love to hate.

The high-end platforms include positional audio to better tell who is talking and where they are in the room. It also helps tremendously with cross-talk, people further away speak in a lower volume. This feature adds to the sensation of being in the room with friends and colleagues. Microsoft calls it collaborating in HR to allow users to operate across space and time.

At last count there were over a hundred virtual event platforms and mobile apps, so there is a wide variety of platforms out there and interest is increasing. The quality of the experience varies with the capabilities of the platform. It also depends on the user’s hardware and the connectivity of that hardware with the internet.

The more complex the experience the more bandwidth is gobbled up and the more computing power is needed. HR applications run on VR/AR headsets, laptops, desktops, tablets, and smartphones, from a variety of web services. Currently the best results come from the platforms running on VR headsets like Hololens, Magic Leap, and Oculus Quest to name a few, but that is changing.  

The virtual workplace’s human interaction is improving dramatically. These avatar-based virtual meeting tools are becoming more widespread, especially as this technology matures. From what I’ve seen so far, I’m looking forward to going to my first virtual trade show or an engineering conference using this HR format!

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