Thanks to VR, Your Next Business Meeting Might Be With Robots
If you’ve seen one slide deck in a meeting, you’ve seen them all. Unless, that is, you’re a featureless robot, and everyone else in the room is a featureless robot, and the person talking you through the presentation is a featureless robot. Not in that mondays-amirite office-humor way, either; I don’t mean corporate drones, I mean literal featureless robots.
Oh, and the meeting room is perched on a hilltop surrounded by nothingness, and the dozen or so robots in the room are VR avatars for people who physically speaking are all over the country (and even as far away as Italy). This is a press conference—or product launch, or presentation, or robot uprising, or whatever you want to call it—for virtual-reality company AltspaceVR, to announce that it’s finally cracked telepresence for the Samsung Gear VR mobile headset.
Social applications have been one of the toughest puzzles for VR engineers to crack for a host of reasons: networking, avatars, real-time interactions, voice and video throughput, and all kinds of things that your computer or phone would rather not have to worry about while it’s rendering a fluid virtual environment. That being said, if you’ve ever had to attend a tech conference or fly across the country for a two-hour meeting, the promise of being able to skip the travel in favor of a virtual confab is an attractive one. What those of us in this room are experiencing is the very first glimmer of that future.
The virtual meeting room where the press conference took place. The featureless robot at the front of the room is clearly in charge; I know this not only because it has arms—the rest of us don’t—but because it has an unerring knack for knowing who each featureless robot is. “Hey, Peter!” it says cheerily as soon as the AltspaceVR app pops me into the meeting. A dozen robot heads swivel toward me. (This is exactly as unsettling as it sounds.) The robot with arms is Eric Romo, AltspaceVR’s CEO. In real life, he’s standing in the company’s Redwood City, CA headquarters wearing an Oculus Rift prototype—it’s that system’s positional-tracking external camera that brings his arms into the virtual environment.
— Bill Bode (@pizzatime) September 14, 2015
On the huge screen at the front of the room, Romo talks through a few slides, then gets to the fun stuff. First, the front page of the New York Times‘ website appears. “This is what you might consider ‘proof of life,’” Romo jokes. He means the date on the web page, but I’m standing toward the back of the room, so the tiny date image is still a little pixelated. After all, even a virtually giant screen is still only a small portion of a Samsung Galaxy S6’s screen, which is only a couple of inches away from my eyes. I move forward to get a better look—locomotion in AltspaceVR is a bit like Google Street View in that you look at the ground where you want to be, and then swipe the Gear VR’s touchpad to move toward it—and sure enough, there it is.
Then Romo advances the screen to a video of the now-ironic “Who Wants a Stylus?” moment from Steve Jobs’ 2007 Macworld address. “Oh, that’s cold,” I say without thinking—after all, talking to the screen in VR has always been like talking to your TV during a movie or a single-player video game. No one’s there to talk back. Except in Altspace, where the collected journalists laugh…or at least titter politely.
The interesting thing isn’t that there’s a video playing in VR; that’s a mainstay of virtual movie theaters. The interesting thing is that the YouTube video is streaming live. Streaming video is possible in VR; earlier this year, I conducted a live VR video chat session with the company NextVR while they were on the beach and I sat in my office. But streaming a video to a group of people dispersed over thousands of miles? That’s a first. (AltspaceVR’s desktop application has been up and running for about a year now, and is often used by people to watch Netflix together, but a mobile gathering like this presents a much larger challenge.)
AltspaceVR’s technology isn’t ready for a wide rollout, but the company is moving as fast as it can: it just opened signups for a limited alpha test of its mobile app, and for the rest of the week it’ll be announcing new functions for its mobile and desktop apps. Early among those, Romo promises, will be avatar customization. Not that it’s so bad being a robot—as long as it gets me out of taking an Uber across to town to watch a PowerPoint.