VR, AR and the future of virtual meetings

How will virtual and augmented reality technologies change the way that meetings are conducted in a socially distanced world?

Businessman in virtual reality goggles having video call with coworker

Social distancing and remote work have led to an explosion in the use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams et al to conduct meetings virtually. With enhanced functionality, these solutions have kept us going in the months since Covid-19 shut down large swathes of the global economy. However, for all the benefits they offer, they are still a far cry from the personal nature of meeting team members in person in an actual office environment, or out for lunch. With remote work seemingly here to stay, what does the future look like for the virtual meeting solution?
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are two technologies with seemingly unbridled potential. Despite this, neither technology has been a true game-changer, and both still lack mainstream appeal. Google Glass crashed and burnt a while back, and whilst VR has enjoyed sector growth in niche markets, is has not been popular on the sort of scale that experts originally predicted. Yet, with large numbers of the population now working from different locations, could the technologies find new use cases that improve their viability in enterprise and pave the way for greater success? 
VR and AR have viable use cases in the virtual meeting market
In the short term, the best use case for VR is likely to be helping alleviate 'Zoom fatigue'. Back-to-back virtual meetings are exhausting, and can quickly lead to employee disengagement, particularly if they start to drag on. Joe Morley of SoftwareONE states that "video calls can be particularly draining because participants feel they have to invest even more emotion in staying engaged and reading non-verbal cues through a camera". 
In recent months, Microsoft has seemingly become aware of this issue and has rolled out new features for Teams that incorporate AR/VR functionality. Together Mode places a call's participants into one virtual meeting space, making it seem like everyone is in the same place together and giving the impression that everyone is looking at the entire group, rather than just a screen. Morley argues that this feature "encourages natural human interaction – giving you the opportunity to see those non-verbal cues, like nods of approval, or raised eyebrows". In these virtual environments, interactions have a more natural feel, which should help to keep users engaged, and reduce the concentration required to understand and act on the context of conversations. 
Similarly, Curtis Bailey of TechNET Immersive is optimistic about the use of AR in virtual meeting scenarios and as an answer to Zoom fatigue. He highlights areas where "AR avoids disadvantages inherent in video conferencing platforms - i.e. poor or unstable connections, poor sound quality and the problem of overlapping voices". These quality of life issues can cause considerable distress to remote workers and are the types of problems that employees will expect to disappear as organisations get to grips with remote working. With AR able to achieve this, it stands a good chance of becoming a vital part of the enterprise virtual meeting, especially if sound quality and overlapping voices remains a problem for the more popular virtual meeting solutions. With AR estimated to reach a $75 billion market worth by 2023, the market will also soon be flooded with more apps and applications that should ease these concerns even further and ensure that the tech becomes a daily part of users' working lives. 
In tandem, VR and AR should be able to bring "users away from their desks and [create] unique experiences that can effectively heighten participation, engagement and interaction," says Mark Mitchell, CEO of Lively. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in project management or design meetings. Being able to interact with a 3D feature in a virtual space brings much more to a virtual meeting than simply screen-sharing a PowerPoint presentation or sketches and diagrams; changes to models can be made and unmade in near-real time and the collaborative capabilities of large groups are improved. In these types of meetings, VR and AR clearly have the upper hand on the standard video conference and present real potential for the technologies in a socially distanced work environment.
A sideshow, not the main event
Ultimately, Mitchell does not believe that these use cases and increased usage will lead to the technologies replacing virtual meeting solutions. Instead, he sees them as a very useful "way to augment those [virtual meeting] options, add some value, and shake up your day when you most need it".  Justin Parry, COO and Co-founder of Immerse, agrees, believing that over the past eight months video conferencing has proved "a suitable replacement for quick catch-ups and meetings with colleagues". Speed and ease of use are increasingly important to users and are areas where both technologies may struggle to compete with the quick functionality of apps like Zoom. Although VR and AR may offer improved functionality and features to a virtual meeting, it also gives each call a more structured feel and loses the fluidity and spontaneity provided by a simple call, particularly in VRs case where users have to prepare for each meeting by putting on a headset. 
It's these factors that will ultimately become a dealbreaker for VR and ARs use. Businesses wish to make their employees' remote experiences as seamless and natural as possible. Jumping on a quick zoom call has turned into the out of office equivalent of walking across the office floor and having to prepare yourself for that quick walk multiple times a day would make you less likely to communicate with team members. Perhaps Martin Bitzringer, Vice President Product Management at Mitel sums it up best when he states that VR and AR will work well in specific cases as an added benefit to virtual meetings, rather than replacing them entirely. After all, he says "replacing real facial expressions with a virtual version doesn't make sense when you can get to speak to someone over a video call".