Book Review of Charlie Fink’s Remote Collaboration and Virtual Conferences: The Future of Work

I will be blunt: this is a rather perplexing (and downright irritating) book.

First, let’s deal with the irritating parts. In an afterword, a preface to the advertising sponsors (yes, this book has advertising, like a magazine), it reads:

There isn’t much of a business in books, especially if they are rushed to market in ten weeks by an academic team without the resources to pay for design, printing, the Kindle version, websites, and social media, which adds up to tens of thousands of dollars.

That rush to market is all too readily apparent in the final product. Here is an actual screenshot of one of the pages of the book, which I took using SnagIt from the Windows Kindle app at 100% zoom, because I had to share the horror of it with you all (the red notes are mine):

As you can see, it is riddled with typography and font problems, with parts of headings cut off or overlaid with diagrams. The text in the Windows Kindle app (even at 125% or 150% zoom) is frankly unreadable. Page 101 is mistakenly left blank, which means that somebody’s essay (Charlie’s?) starts off in mid-sentence.

This is a mess. Did nobody proof-read this before it was set to sale on Amazon? Test it out on a few Kindle devices to see how it actually looked? After paying CA$20.00 for this book, I feel like asking for my money back, just for the poor quality of the publication alone. You should know that, up front, before you pay for this book.

Thankfully, the text was somewhat more legible on the Kindle app on my iPad, so I settled in for a good read. And this is where we get to the rather perplexing part of the book: the content.

My understanding is that this book is the result of a undergraduate-level course Charlie Fink was teaching on virtual and augmented reality at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, which was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. The eight students in his class were sent home to practice good social distancing with Oculus Quest VR headsets, and collaborated to write the one-page profiles of each of the companies which appear in this book. And this book still feels somewhat like a class project; some profiles are better written than others, and the coverage is a tad uneven.

And, as I said when I first reported on the publication of this book last weekend:

Now, the problem with a book (even an electronic book) is that it only provides a snapshot of a rapidly-moving and evolving industry, and as such, it will very quickly become out of date.

And, as a book, it will indeed age very rapidly. Given the rapid rate of change in this industry, six to twelve months from now, it will likely already be out of date (is this why it was rushed out in such an hurry?). Frankly, I’m not sure I understand why this was published as a static book in the first place. (Why not a website, which could at least be updated in real-time or near real-time?)

As somebody who has spent the last three years writing a blog about social VR and virtual world platforms, I feel I am in a somewhat favourable position to judge how well a book covers the territory, to wit, “remote collaboration and virtual conferences”. (You can disagree with me. I’m not perfect. I probably would write a lousy book myself. But I’m not trying to write and sell a book. I’m a blogger who wants to disseminate accurate, timely news and my own personal editorial viewpoints, informed by my own perspective and experiences in the metaverse.)

Here’s another screenshot (this time from my iPad, since the Windows version has the same horrible, blurry font) to show you the list of companies selected for inclusion in this survey (and yes, the headings are all smashed together and cut off on this page as well):

Now, as you might expect, five of the six corporate sponsors of this book (Arthur, Flow, Nreal, Streem, The Wild, and VirBELA) have entries describing their products. Obviously, Nreal doesn’t have an actual collaboration platform to talk about (at least, not yet), but they did provide an advertisement that looks like it came straight from a fashion and lifestyle magazine:

Which leads me to another concern of this book: separating fact from hype. Too much of this book reads like it was cut and pasted directly from the company’s promotional copy or website, without any real independent critical assessment, or sometimes even without proper characterization and categorization, of the products discussed and where they fit in this rapidly-evolving marketplace. It’s a broad-brush approach, and sometimes unlikely things get lumped together under a category heading.

For example, under the heading Social VR in the book are listed seven platforms, all of which I have written about on my blog in the past:

  • Bigscreen
  • Fortnite (?!??)
  • Hoppin’
  • NeosVR
  • Rec Room
  • VRChat
  • Wave

Now this is a rather haphazard selection of social VR platforms, meant for different purposes, and at wildly different stages of development and deployment. It’s almost as if they were picked out a hat at random, and I know (I know, trust me) that there are many platforms missing. This is far from a complete survey of social VR; it’s more of a random sampling. Oh, and Fortnite is categorized as social VR? While yes, technically, it appears you can play Fortnite in a VR headset, I would hardly call it social VR. Again, a sign of a rushed process.

Perhaps Fortnite would have fit better under the Virtual Worlds category? Here are the five platforms listed under Virtual Worlds:

  • Decentraland
  • Second Life
  • Teeoh
  • VirBELA
  • Somnium Space (which probably should be listed under social VR)

Again, it’s like these five platforms were picked at random from a hat. Again, a lot of virtual worlds are missing from this book. This is, at best, a very random sampling of the current marketplace.

The whole book is like this. For example, Coursera and EdX are listed under Remote Education, but they are vastly different beasts from all the other entries in this section: Victory XR (used for a variety of VR education purposes); Acadicus, Fundamental VR, Holo Anatomy, and Precision OS (all medical VR/AR teaching platforms); and Nanome (a VR platform for molecular chemistry).

As a librarian, all this miscategorization of platforms bothers me. A lot. This whole book reads like a rush job from start to finish.

And, tucked into the Telepresence category, is probably to me the most ludicrous inclusion of all: a page discussing the $2,000-to-$15,000 line of Beam robotic systems (basically, a video screen with wheels):

Beam is a robotic telepresence system that allows users to inhabit a distant location embodied—not as an avatar—but as themselves, piloting a 2D tablet computer through a 3D world and interacting with other people as if physically present.The robots have four wheels…a wide-angle navigation camera, a monitor to show the user’s face and a speaker to communicate with others.

Beam is lumped in with Avatour (which should have been categorized together with Hoppin’, since it’s another 360-degree video platform); and Spatiate (an augmented reality workplace collaboration app that should have been placed in that section). What the hell?

If this book were free, I would understand and forgive, but I paid good money for this and I’m feeling like I wasted that money. You will get an unpolished, uneven, uncritical, disorganized, and seemingly picked-at-random sample of what’s currently out there in the VR/AR/XR collaboration marketplace, written by undergraduate students for a course credit as a class project, in a format which will make it practically useless in six to twelve months. I feel like asking for a refund.

It might have made a great class project, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it makes a great book.

P. S. I hope that Charlie Fink shares whatever proceeds he earns from this ebook with the students who wrote all the company profiles!

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