Beyond Video Conferencing: Exploring the Possibilities of VR-Based Collaboration

My working hypothesis is that the era of video conferencing will be remembered as an awkward in-between, a brief Brady Bunch-style interlude separating the era when telephones offered the only option for synchronous connection at a distance from an era when VR enables us to be present at-a-distance in far richer ways.

I.

Ever since I read Jaron Lanier’s visionary Dawn of the New Everything, I’ve been sold on the idea that we’re headed towards a VR future. I’ve been slow to do anything about it, though. The VR hype-cycle is notorious for proclaiming revolutions that never happen, and I’ve never been a gamer or an early adopter of new media formats. If anything, I’m a bit analogue: I spent a weekend last month working on old 8mm home movies and 35mm slides.  I’m more into shadow puppets than avatars, and the buttons I’ve been pressing most lately are the ones on my new accordion. And though I’ve been in ed tech since the 90s, I’d rather kids dig in dirt than spend any more time in front of screens.

So, unlike many who are bullish about the future of VR, I’m less interested in things like gaming and the consumption of media. In fact, the idea of experiences that further isolate us in technology seems downright dystopian—we already spend too much time alone with a screen, automatons scrolling to the tune of algorithms designed to monopolize our limited attention.

On the other hand, being in VR together feels could offer untold potential to be social, collaborative, creative, educational, or therapeutic in new and generative ways. Learning, creating, collaborating and healing all happen with others—in community, in organizations, in relationships. The communities, organizations and relationships have to be real, but who’s to say they can’t happen (or even happen better) in VR?

So, when so much of life suddenly became virtual a few weeks ago (#COVID-19), I stocked up on groceries and some emergency supplies, and ordered an Oculus Quest headset.

IMG_0468
Selfies aren’t easy in a headset

II.

I’ve been working remotely since 2014 and am accustomed to most of my human contact happening via Skype, Zoom, Bluejeans, Connect, Whereby, Hangout, or Meet. But my long term hope—and my working hypothesis—is that the era of video conferencing will be remembered as an awkward in-between, a brief Brady Bunch-style interlude separating the era when telephones offered the only option for synchronous connection at a distance from an era when VR enables us to be present at-a-distance in far richer ways.

I intend to start blogging about my explorations of VR collaboration: playing, learning, working, brainstorming, and doing things together online. I’ll be learning in my different roles: co-founder at a start-up located on another continent and president of a non-profit; as well as someone trained as a mental health counselor, organizational consultant, and executive coach.

My guiding research question is how to meet each other (be social, collaborate, learn together, etc.) in VR. It’s probably obvious that mimicking real life isn’t the best choice–having a bunch of avatars sitting around a virtual table is no one’s idea of a good time.  But what choices will emerge? Figuring out meetings in VR will require us to inquire about meetings in general. Specifically, we’ll need to rethink how to align the form of a meeting with the goal of a meeting.

What do a bunch of people sitting around a table do best? What about people at lunch? Or people with whiteboards and sticky notes? What about two people across a table or on a couch, or a group of people in an art studio or on a factory floor? And how do these formats relate to the purpose of the meeting: decision-making, information sharing, brainstorming, planning, getting-to-know, processing, creating, learning, or healing. Some methodologies have a well thought out taxonomy of meetings (scaled agile development, for example, with daily stand-up scrums, longer biweekly sprint-plannings, and quarterly days of project interval plannings). But most meetings happen around tables, in meeting rooms, for an hour or two, regardless of its purpose or desired outcome. That homogeneity is even more enforced on video platforms.

I’m not sure what this looks like in VR, but I know the possibilities are endless. I only began my exploration a few days ago. My first attempt was with a Norwegian colleague in a 3d art program called SculptrVR. I’d intended to experiment with virtual 3d whiteboards or sticky notes, or virtual rapid prototyping, but in an hour we never really got beyond playing together–exploring the tool, creating objects and exchanging our creations with each other, building on each other’s objects, etc. One thing, though, was immediately obvious: it felt so different form anything I’d ever felt before. When he sculpted a face for my avatar, it felt very intimate. His avatar circled me like my stylist giving me a haircut. When we played with each other’s creations, it felt generative and exciting. We were giddy and could hear the smiles in each other’s voices the whole time. We had a different relationship in VR—playful and present, curious and a bit nervous. The potential seems endless.  It made me eagerly anticipate more.

III.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably in one of two categories. The first is a lot like me—you’ve probably heard a lot about VR and thought, “I should probably check that out,” but you never really have. The second category is probably way ahead of me and has a ton of experience with what I’m just beginning to explore. If you belong to the former category, I hope you’ll keep reading my entries and consider trying it out. If you’re in the latter, I’d love your expertise, experience, etc. Please be in touch.

In the meantime, stay safe everyone. Let’s be creative in making our virtual togetherness as meaningful and generative and supportive as we can. The future might depend on it.

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