Working meetings in the metaverse: tested HTC Vive Sync

Gartner’s 2022 technology hype cycle places the metaverse at the very beginning of the “innovation launch” phase of technology adoption, with another ten years to go before the “performance plateau” is reached. However, the latest news suggests that the “trough of disappointment” is coming sooner than expected.

Meta Reality Labs reported an operating loss of $3.67 billion for the quarter ended September 30 and a loss of $9.44 billion for the previous nine months. Just two weeks after these disturbing results for the third quarter of 2022, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the layoffs of 11,000 people across all Meta divisions (about 13% of the workforce), citing “a slowdown in macroeconomic growth, increased competition, and a loss of signal advertising.”

Despite this setback, Mark Zuckerberg said Meta remains committed to a small number of high-priority growth areas, including its “long-term vision for the metaverse.”

Immersive meetings, specific use case

The Metaverse, or at least its vision of the Meta, is clearly proving expensive to build, and recent media coverage, including reports of sparsely populated virtual worlds, the collapse of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange, and legless avatars, has taken on a little more luster. from that vaunted Web3 component.

However, the metaverse technology adoption curve may actually follow a standard pattern, and immersive virtual encounters are an early use case.

Now that telecommuting and hybrid work are well established, attention is turning to the problem of proximity bias, i.e. the idea that incumbents have disproportionate influence and achieve more career success simply because they are more “present” in the workplace. including in meetings than remote workers.

Video conferencing device vendors such as Logitech and Owl Labs are working to provide a more level playing field for remote participants in video meetings, but avatars (enhanced, full-body) interacting in space, virtual 3D conference rooms will soon become viable and more inclusive alternative.

To get started, choose your version and create your avatar

Recently Meta and Microsoft have promoted this solution, and others will certainly follow suit, but we decided to test the hardware and software from a well-established vendor in this area: HTC.

The author, in the form of an avatar and in real life. Screenshot: Charles McLellan/ZDNET

HTC’s virtual meeting app, Vive Sync, was announced in November 2018. It became more prominent at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic when it became available for free in beta. Now it is an integral part of the HTC metaverse.

Vive Sync offers a variety of virtual meeting spaces, including meeting rooms of various designs and sizes, three auditoriums, as well as a sci-fi space, a bay scenic spot, and a cloud room.

You can host meetings from the Vive Sync website by copying an invitation to share with other participants, creating them using Sync on the headset, or scheduling them directly from your Outlook calendar using the appropriate add-on. From here, you can also upload various types of files to the meeting space, including 3D models, as well as upload screenshots and other files (such as audio recordings) created during your meetings.

Once you’ve created an HTC account and set up your headset, you’ll need to select a price. There are two versions. The first, Lite, is free: it limits you to five hours of hosted meetings per month, three participants and 500MB of storage per meeting room, and one 3D model to download and share at a time.

The second full version costs $250 per user per year or $30 per user per month (a 30-day free enterprise trial is also available). It allows you to host an unlimited number of hosted meetings, accommodate up to 30 participants, have 5 GB of storage space for conference rooms, share multiple 3D models, save minutes of audio in meetings, and share your PC desktop and web browser. The all-in-one plan also allows you to add custom branding to virtual meeting rooms and assign roles and permissions to attendees.

In addition to using a PC or standalone VR headset, you can access Vive Sync meetings via desktop or laptop (Windows/MacOS), smartphone or tablet (Android/iOS).

Finally, you will of course also need an avatar through the Vive Sync Avatar Creator, which is available for Android and iOS devices. You can create your avatar from an existing selfie or photo and adjust various settings to achieve an acceptable likeness.

Lots of features for a fun first experience

HTC gave us two Vive Focus 3 headsets (including one with the new Facial Tracker plugin), so we had the bare minimum to meet the metaverse. My ZDNET colleague, Steve Ranger, and I found ourselves for the first time in a modern conference room with a garden and mountain landscape as a backdrop. We also ended up in a tropical meeting room overlooking the ocean. The weather was naturally beautiful—no storms or natural disasters in this metaverse.

The HTC Vive Focus 3 Face Tracking Headset is a mono camera that connects to the USB-C port under the visor and captures your expressions. Images: Charles McLellan/ZDNET

You can navigate the meeting space with your controller to turn around or teleport to another location, shake hands with or congratulate other attendees, and access a variety of meeting tools from the Sync menu. The sound is spatial, so the avatar’s speech comes from a good part of the virtual space. If necessary, you can mute your microphone, engage another avatar in a “private chat” that other participants won’t hear, or even specify a “safe zone” where other users’ voices can be muted and numbers hidden.

In my Vive Focus 3 headset, the Facial Tracker was connected to the USB-C port under the visor. This accessory contains a monochrome tracking camera that HTC says “captures expressions with 38 blending shapes on the lips, jaw, cheeks, chin, teeth and tongue to accurately capture facial expressions and realistic mouth movements on avatars.” It certainly brings an improvement when it comes to self-expression, although we did occasionally notice a slightly unsettling quality to the mouth lighting.

Vive Focus 3 with face tracking in action. Screenshot: Charles McLellan/ZDNET

The Sync menu has a laser pointer, as well as tools like a pen, emoji, stickers, and a camera. Text and images created during the meeting can be accessed later. The Sync menu also gives you access to files, a web browser, your PC desktop (if you’re using a headset connected to your PC), a whiteboard, and information about member roles and permissions. A full subscription allows you to make a resizable file, web browser and PC desktop windows visible to all participants. Each conference room also has a maximum of three giant screens onto which content can be projected. With a PC VR headset, you can even join Teams and Zoom meetings as an avatar from the Sync virtual meeting space (again, full membership required).

A key advantage of Sync is the ability to upload 3D models (FBX, OBJ, gITF or Unity Asset Bundles), manage them with a controller, and show them to meeting participants (only the host can interact with the 3D model). We found a free Kinder Bueno FBX file, zipped it along with the texture file, and uploaded it to the conference room where Steve Ranger and I discussed who was going to eat the virtual snack virtually. Obviously, design teams looking at a complex model would be more professional, but we ran into the limitations of our free subscriptions.

3D model (FBX file) loaded into Vive Sync, with controls visible.
Screenshot: Charles McLellan/ZDNET

There are many more features in Vive Sync and more to come. At this point, it’s fair to say that Steve Ranger and I were surprised at how interesting and even fun the experience of meeting in the Vive Sync metaverse was. Obviously the novelty element wears off over time, but we really enjoyed the exploration phase.

Is this the future of meetings?

Even with no cost limits, metaverse meetings are likely to become unwieldy and cacophonous with around 30 participants. However, given current prices and headset wear times – up to an hour with the Vive Focus 3 in our experience – it takes a much smaller team to get any sort of return on investment.

And what ROI do you get compared to a traditional Teams/Zoom video grid? The key point, in our opinion, is the enhanced sense of presence, despite the artificial nature of the avatars interacting in the virtual meeting space and the user interface learning curve. This should be especially useful for remote workers, who often feel “out of place” when faced with office colleagues huddled around a table in a meeting room, mostly talking to each other, and occasionally turning to the camera located in front of the room. , and to a large wall screen.

There are video solutions to address this proximity bias, but as headset prices drop, wearing comfort improves, avatars become more realistic, and virtual meeting software becomes more capable, small and medium teams may increasingly turn to a VR alternative. . This, however, could take up a significant portion of Gartner’s ten-plus year time horizon.

Source: .com

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