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Can virtual meeting spaces save us all from Zoom fatigue?

Can virtual meeting spaces save us all from Zoom fatigue?

5/8/2021 5:33:00 PM

Can virtual meeting spaces save us all from Zoom fatigue?

Few of us will be back in the office full time – but does that have to mean endless video calls? Meet the weird and wonderful newcomers hoping to take a piece of the action

in seed funding late last year, and counts Deloitte and Harvard as users.Ninety-seven per cent of training now takes place online and, although 70% of it is done via Microsoft Teams, according toresearch by HR analysts Fosway, companies including insurers Hiscox and the restaurant chain Leon are using gamified training apps. These can allow staff to be put into situations that would be hard to replicate in real life (or on a video call), while also handing out dopamine-inducing micro-rewards, as stars or points.

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But is more screen time what any of us need? It has increased by a third, toan average of 40%of our waking hours, during the pandemic. Rahaf Harfoush, a digital anthropologist, is director of Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture and an adjunct professor at Sciences Po in Paris. “The digitalisation of in-real-life [IRL] experiences is what a lot of companies rushed to do when the pandemic struck,” she says. “Their thinking was: ‘If we did it in person, let’s do it on Zoom.’ Many of these applications don’t make sense and can add to technological fatigue.”

Nottopia, set up on Mozilla Hubs by Professor Gary Burnett (in avatar form at front) for his students at Nottingham University.Photograph: courtesy of NottopiaProfessor Gary Burnett, from Nottingham University, was keenly aware of this risk when he moved one of his engineering degree modules online last autumn. Rather than defaulting to the better-known platforms, he spent much of last summer trialling different fully virtual worlds to host his classes, before settling on Mozilla Hubs, a 3D-rendered meeting space used by Nasa. As I click a link into “Nottopia”, Burnett – or rather his cartoon-like avatar, a floating, hoodie-wearing, grey-haired head and torso – meets me in the “lobby”, a semi-open air vaulted space, next to a large digitised lake.

He leads me, still floating, into the virtual pavilion where he’s about to hold a product design lesson in creating a driverless taxi. My avatar is a small, red cartoon fox, but I could have chosen from thousands of options, or built my own. I’m also floating; I move by using the arrow keys on my keyboard, changing my gaze with the cursor so that I can look around the large room, which has a mixture of bare brick and white walls, and a pale grey floor. Sunlight seems to pour in through the glass roof, casting natural-looking shadows, and most spaces have a view towards blue sky and realistic clouds. Steps and doorways lead into other spaces – a smaller area with armchairs for more private meetings, and other larger rooms for exhibitions; one huge wall is taken up by a virtual fish tank. There’s no video here – we speak via our avatars, who wobble or move in a human-like way to show who is talking.

Joining in as an avatar gives you a veil of anonymity that has made everyone less awkward about speaking upThis is a virtual world where practically anything is possible, so Burnett can conjure up a 3D taxi that hovers in the centre of the group as they discuss its features. At one point, several students enable flying mode and hover high above the car. To examine another bit of tech, they all pile inside the taxi, laughing. (It’s all the funnier as one student’s avatar is an astronaut, another’s is a parrot, and a third’s seems to be a rainbow-coloured ghost. Burnett says the students often choose avatars that reflect their personalities – the person with the parrot avatar likes ornithology.)

There’s no live video involved, and no PowerPoint or slides, just genuine and playful interaction. When a chart appears on the wall, the students whip out virtual pens and start annotating it, and Burnett has placed 3D objects around the room for them to use as they experiment and discuss. Three-quarters of his students report that Mozilla Hubs has helped them with social isolation, Burnett says. “You can see that in the way I teach – it’s not a one-way flow of information.”

His students like Nottopia so much that they come here, via a link, outside lessons and show their friends around (occasionally leaving behind vast joke 3D models, or virtual replicas of Nottingham’s famous Canada geese). “Joining in as an avatar gives you a veil of anonymity that has made everyone less awkward about speaking up in class,” says Rebekah Kay, who is doing a master’s in mechanical engineering. “In some ways, I feel more present than if I was physically there.”

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Hubs and Gather are genuinely fun to use (and currently free). But there is a more corporate side to virtual life, too. The UK’s in-person events and conferencing industry was worth(£800bn, globally)and, one way or another, the industry wants to get back some of that revenue. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there were probably six platforms for virtual events, and now there are more than 100,” says Vanessa Lovatt, chief evangelist (her real job title) for Glisser, one such platform, which runs events for Facebook, Uber and the NHS. When we speak she is about to rehearse an online event for 47,000 people; they’ve tested the site with an audience of 170,000.

A virtual event hosted by the Virtulab.Photograph: courtesy of VirtulabThe question is, do virtual conferences work? And do we really need to replicate awkward IRL networking experiences while adding to our digital cognitive load? As with much of the so-called future of work, it’s still early days, both for the tech and, perhaps, for its users. This was painfully evident at the Tory party’s virtual conference last October, which was plagued by

technical glitches, and criticised by everyone from attendees who couldn’t log on and speakers who had no audiences to thinktanks and exhibitors who paid for virtual pitches, at least one of whom reportedly requested a refund. At the time, MP Tim Loughton

told PoliticsHome: “My first fringe meeting, we had to wait over 10 minutes for the panel to be let in; then we were all cut off and had to be sent a new link, meaning we started again almost half an hour later… [Then] it turned out in the first part we had just been talking to ourselves and there was no audience.”

A slicker attempt at recreating in-person networking has been made bythe Virtulab, a British digital technology company that has developed an immersive virtual venue rather like a digitised version of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. It can be hired in exactly the same way, and already has been by TEDx events and the Institute

of People Management. But as an avatar version of me strolls through the cavernous digital hall on my laptop screen, my non-gamer head is spinning. There are realistic-looking bot people on hand to help me if I get stuck, booths to walk into – just as at a real trade show – staffed by other avatar people who I can speak to in real time (with or without video). There are speed-networking zones and branded video screens on the walls. I can chat with the avatar people I pass and walk around the venue, or teleport between different areas. There are auditoriums where speakers can present to an avatar audience either as their avatar selves or via live video links.

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The virtual reality office looks like a grey office building, as if their designers recreated a business park in ReadingThe experience is pretty smooth, if disconcerting – it’s strange not knowing who any of the avatars around me might be (or if they have people attached to them at all – the auditorium auto-populates to fill all the seats, so no one has to give a talk to an empty room). But isn’t one of the great things about being forced to work from home that we no longer have to go to corporate spaces like this? Perhaps I’m a misanthrope, but I like no longer having to visit exhibition centres several times a year. (I write a lot about hospitality and, pre-Covid, often travelled to the ExCeL centre in London’s Docklands to attend expos about things like packaging, food technology or free-from foods.) I can see how this would be great for brands and event organisers, but I’m not totally sold that it’s good for the rest of us.

Dave Cummins, executive director atthe Virtulab, disagrees. For him, this isn’t a temporary fix while we wait for the pandemic to blow over. “We see this from an eco perspective, via the reduction in travel – there is a cost in server burn, but it’s nowhere near what you get from an event.”

If a virtual reality conference sounds a bit out there, imagine logging into a virtual reality office every day, from home – another Virtulab offering. If you’re yearning to get back to the office – with its random conversations and predictable routines – this could be your answer. Although subscribers can build any office they want, the immersive version I visited, via my laptop screen, created for two clients, an events company and a petrochemical company, looked exactly like a normal, grey office building. It’s as if they got their best designers to perfectly recreate a business park in Reading.

Unlike conventional remote-work platforms, this one also uses lifelike avatars: mine arrives at the building and walks along a corridor, before opening a door, entering an office and choosing a desk. If I was working here for real, I’d be able to access things like my company’s storage drives, too. “The idea is that you come into the platform, open up your browser and start using it just like this is your office,” Cummins says. “If you’re not in a meeting, you can open the door so avatars can just walk in. We’re trying to empower that water-cooler moment. If you would come and see me at 10 o’clock in the morning in real life, then you would come and see me here.”

Women working in virtual and augmented reality network on Mozilla Hubs, a 3D-rendered space also used by Nasa.Photograph: courtesy of Mozilla HubsBusinesses such as Green Building Council SA, an association for green companies, and AI Laith Dubai, an events company, are early adopters of the Virtulab. (Other organisations are working on VR offices:

Facebookis developing a remote office requiring a VR headset, slated to launch later this year.) For me, the best part is that it recreates access to colleagues: as long as they’re logged on and available, you can talk – as the avatar, and with your voice rather than video – whenever you fancy, with no need to create a link or calendar invite. There could be downsides, though. A virtual office can create the expectation that you will be digitally present for a traditional eight-hour day, robbing homeworkers of the flexibility they have enjoyed in recent months. Remote-work tools and platforms could easily shade into digitally surveilling employees, even if only in terms of tracking how long you are at your computer. (As well as raising multiple privacy issues, this can be detrimental to engagement and retention: a 2017 study showed that monitoring makes employees feel their organisation is unethical.) “One of the best ways for a business to create an insider threat – people who will attack your company from within, whether maliciously or through negligence – is failing to trust your staff,” Bore tells me. “When people feel constrained, they will find ways around it. When they feel trusted and accountable for what they’re doing, you prevent insider threats – not by saying you must be at your online desk from nine to five.”

Read more: The Guardian »

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