Editorial: The Wall Street Journal Looks at Breakroom and Other Virtual Office Spaces as an Emerging Business Trend

Yesterday, in an article titled Miss Your Office? Some Companies Are Building Virtual Replicas, the American financial newspaper The Wall Street Journal took a look at a current trend: businesses setting up virtual office spaces for their employees who are working remotely because of the pandemic:

Stay-home orders and the shuttering of workplaces have given corporate employees some respite from getting dragged into time-wasting water-cooler conversations.

But some companies and their employees don’t want to leave everything about the office behind, it turns out, and are replicating their offices in “SimCity”-like simulations online.

And, among the companies that WSJ reporter Katie Deighton spoke to was Sine Wave Entertainment, the makers of Sinespace and Breakroom:

Sine Wave Entertainment Ltd. last month introduced Breakroom, a virtual-world product for remote workforces. It can accommodate all-hands meetings, secure one-on-ones and document sharing. Clients of the product include Virgin Group Ltd. and Torque Esports Corp.

Many customers initially assume they will recreate their offices, then realize they can make tweaks that would be impossible in the real world, said Sine Wave CEO Rohan Freeman.

“We spend our lives wishing we were working in open, sunny campuses with butterflies outside,” Mr. Freeman said. “Here you can realize that dream.”

Although clients can use Breakroom to create their office utopia, the platform also enables real-world elements such additional privileges for senior staff. In Sine Wave’s own virtual world, senior members can lock the boardroom, which is located on top of a hill overlooking the rest of the office.

A meeting in Breakroom (source: WSJ)

The Wall Street Journal article is a signal that corporate America—and indeed, businesses in countries around the world—are increasingly interested in virtual worlds. As the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats“. I predict that Breakroom and a host of competing YARTVRA* firms are going to see a continuing boom in interest and inquires as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.

*YARTVRA is an acronym I coined that stands for Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App, which I am still hoping will catch on!

This blogpost is sponsored by Sinespace, and was written in my role as an embedded reporter for this virtual world (more details here). 


Comparing the New High Fidelity with Online Town and Gather: “Choices!”

You know, if somebody had asked me to make predictions about the future state of virtual meeting spaces, I would not have predicted a return to two-dimensional spaces. And yet, here we are! (Everything old is new again, it would appear.)

Somebody on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server pointed out that the new High Fidelity is not the only game in town when it comes to 2D meeting spaces with audio. A team of three engineers from San Bruno, California have built a couple of such platforms, called Online Town (for smaller gatherings) and Gather (for larger ones).

You can tell from the websites that they are optimized for mobile devices, and it seems pretty clear that the same design decisions were made for Online Town and Gather as they had been for the new High Fidelity: to sacrifice the visual experience for the sake of including people using as many different devices as possible.

What sets Online Town and Gather apart from the new High Fidelity, however, is the integration of video, which (like the audio) fades in and out as you approach and leave conversations in the two-dimensional space, as shown in this video (there’s no audio):

According to the Online Town website:

Online Town is a new video-calling experience designed to help people gather online. It does this by combining a standard video-calling interface with a low-fidelity 2D game.

As you move around the map with your keyboard, the webcam video and microphone audio of the other people in the room fades based on your distance to them.

Different maps make it easy to use Online Town for parties, reunions, happy hours, conferences, remote work and many other kinds of gatherings.

As far as I can tell, however, Online Town and Gather do not use the patented, spatial audio that the new High Fidelity uses. However, the new High Fidelity does not provide video. If you are in the market for something like this, you might want to test drive both and then make a decision as to which feature is more important to you (both are free, and both allow you easily create and share a virtual space, inviting your friends, family, and coworkers with a URL).

As I said up top, as a visually-oriented person, I find this sudden return to 2D environments perplexing. I particularly find High Fidelity’s complete pendulum swing from offering a social VR platform that supports tethered VR headsets to a 2D space with 3D audio to be…a choice.

As Tatianna the drag queen said numerous times while on my favourite reality TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race: “Choices!” (drag queens have the best catchphrases!):

And yes, I will be adding both Online Town and Gather to my comprehensive list of social VR platforms and virtual worlds (obviously, they fall into the latter category). If you are following this blog, you already know that I am working on reorganizing this rather unwieldy, exhaustive list of over 150 platforms! Please bear with me.

Also, I might just shorten “the new High Fidelity” to the acronym TNHF and leave it at that. Keeping the exact same name, and reusing it for a completely different platform, is going to prove difficult (and very confusing) for people searching Google for information about this new product, for example. I would have picked a variation of the name myself (High Fidelity 2: Electric Boogaloo, perhaps?).

Remotely: Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App (YARTVRA), This Time with a Outer Space Twist!

Someone on the Ryanschultz.com Discord server alerted me to yet another platform which is intended for the corporate market, to support remote work teams, with the rather clever name of Remotely:

What sets Remotely apart from all the other YARTVRA platforms out there is that all interactions take place with astronaut avatars, on alien planets!

Another thing that Remotely seems to have nailed down are the high number of integrations it has with other office software, which seems to be courtesy of a partnership with another company called Tandem.

Their website boasts an impressive 61 integrations with tools such as Microsoft 365, G Suite, and Slack, with a promise to soon include video chat in the mix:

This is not a platform which supports virtual reality; it’s a virtual world that you access and navigate via your flatscreen computer desktop (here’s an example image from their fairly extensive user documentation):

I should note that the idea of having business meetings in exotic locations is hardly new to Remotely (for example, Dream lets you hold meetings in a cave!). Frankly, this is sort of like holding team meetings in Second Life, only you have far, far fewer options for avatars to use and worlds to meet in. Aside from the high number of software integrations that Remotely currently offers, and the admittedly cute and appropriate name, there’s not much to set it apart from all the other YARTVRA platforms out there, in what is rapidly becoming an oversaturated market (for reference, here is my most recently-updated list of YARTVRA platforms).

In summary, I don’t think there’s enough to the outer space gimmick to reel in business users, many of whom may not see the need for such a product, even during a coronavirus pandemic when everybody is working from home. In my opinion, there are now way, waaay too many products chasing after potential corporate users, which means that those platforms whose companies can more effectively advertise themselves (and promote the features that set them apart from the competition) will prevail.

Another addition to my comprehensive list of social VR platforms and virtual worlds. If you want more information on Remotely, you can visit their website, or follow them on social media: Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Thank you to fyodorovvv for the heads up!

The Value of Community in Social VR and Virtual Worlds: Why Fostering Community Is Such a Critical Task for the Newer Virtual Worlds and Social VR Platforms

Chatting around the campfire at the weekly Morning Buzzz event in Sinespace

Today, I did something that I have never done before: I attended the regular Wednesday Morning Buzzz event, which is hosted by Mimi Marie and held in the Greenela world in Sinespace. I was told that I should attend at least one of these meetings (which normally I don’t go to, because they usually fall during my workday in my local time zone up here in Winnipeg), because it was one of the best ways to get the pulse of what was going on in Sinespace, and glean ideas for future blogposts.

(Working in self-isolation from home during the coronavirus pandemic gives me a bit more flexibility to be able to attend those events which I normally would have to miss, which is a rather unexpected perk of the pandemic! But it also means that I find myself responding to work emails and editing collections spreadsheets on Sunday mornings, so obviously, this cuts both ways.)

Anyways, back to the topic of this editorial. As my friend had suggested, it was well worth my time to attend this morning’s events (in addition to Morning Buzzz, the Technical Office Hours was held this morning, another in-world event that I had never attended in person before today).

Technical Office Hours in Sinespace

I had quite wonderful, wide-ranging, and very informative conversations with a number of different people, whom I had not gotten to know nearly as well as I should have by now (especially since I am the embedded reporter for Sinespace!). In fact, my whole experience today in Sinespace was highly instructive, and it got me to thinking.

And I was reminded, yet again, of a universal truth: that the success and longevity of any social VR platform or virtual world lies in its ability to foster, build, sustain and enhance community. The connections made between avatars, and the communities that form around those bonds, are what bring people back, time and again, to particular virtual worlds. In fact, I would suggest that community-building is absolutely critical to the long-term success of social VR and virtual worlds.

One of the reasons that Second Life’s user community has been so resistant to even contemplate a move to another virtual world, is that in all the years that they have spent in SL, many people have made a sizable investment, not so much in the number of items in their inventory (although that is certainly a consideration), but in the number and quality of their in-world relationships.

Think of all the vibrant Second Life role-play communities that have proved to be perennially popular, for example. Think of popular in-world gathering places in SL like Frank’s Jazz Club, Muddy’s Music Café, and FogBound Blues, for example. These are places where people meet each other, friendships are formed, and community is forged. And people tend to tell each other about these places and these communities, always bringing more people into the fold.

Sometimes, I think that the various companies that are busily building various incarnations of the metaverse focus too much on the technical features, at the expense of something more important to any platform’s success: the ability for people to form common communities of interest, and create virtual spaces that meet their community needs, goals, and dreams. This is why such community-building features as text and voice chat, user profiles, and user groups and notices, are so vitally important. (Remember the unholy fuss that erupted when Linden Lab wanted to cut the number of groups that Basic account members could subscribe to? They quickly backtracked from that particular corporate decision.)

What I do find interesting is that, even on platforms that have sometimes struggled to get higher concurrent user figures (e.g. Sansar, High Fidelity), there are still small but stubbornly committed groups of people who continue to plan events and promote them. Witness the tireless work of the volunteer COMETS team in Sansar, who are behind many of the events in the Sansar Events calendar.

Community is critically important. Never forget that!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com