Zoom Goes VR: Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App (Avatars? Who Needs Avatars?)

You might remember that I coined an acronym which I hope starts to catch on in the industry: YARTVRA, which stands for Yet Another Remote Teams Virtual Reality App. This is an emerging use for VR, and I have compiled a list of YARTVRA apps in this recent blogpost.

Well, it would appear that LearnBrite (which I have blogged about before), the company behind Zoom (the well-known, popular remote conferencing service) wants to embrace virtual reality, and hop into the nascent YARTVRA marketplace.

It looks like they are offering a couple of different ways to represent each remote participant. Take a gander at the following one-minute video, showing three men communicating via flat-screen video “avatars” in a 3D photograph of an office:

Watching this, I ask myself: why would anybody want to do this? What benefits does this bring? Sorry, but this is just weird. No avatars at all? Horse confetti?!??

Here’s another one-minute video showing you not only the flat-screen video “avatars”, but also a tantalizing glimpse of an actual, 3D avatar:

In the first part of this video, Zoom again eschews user avatars completely, choosing instead to have each participant displayed in a video screen in a 3D virtual conference room. However, notice at the 0:38 mark in this video, someone puts on an Oculus Quest VR headset, and you can then see his three-dimensional avatar standing in one corner of the conference room.

Here’s another one-minute video (no audio) that shows you a bit more of the setup for the Oculus Quest:

Now, it’s not clear to me if this is a real avatar that you can embody, able to move around the room, or if it is just a stationary object, a placeholder that merely represents the user. Unfortunately, there’s not enough in these videos to be able to tell!

In a page from the LearnBrite website showing you how you set up a virtual room in Zoom, the company states:

Why?

LearnBrite already includes tightly integrated WebRTC conferencing capabilities such as audio, video, VR presence and dial-in by phone.

In some enterprise environments it may be preferable to leverage the tools already in place, this helps with costs and also managing change in an organization. If everyone is already familiar with using Zoom, then adding VR to it can get better user “buy-in” than asking them to use a new or different solution.

But whether or not this is actually something that is going to be truly useful, something that adds a real benefit to remote work team collaboration, remains to be seen. So I’m a little skeptical, and frankly, I want to see more of this in action before I pronounce final judgement (especially how they implement 3D avatars).

As far as I can tell right now, this half-baked solution just gives LearnBrite the bragging rights that they now support Zoom in VR, without a lot of the features seen in competing YARTVRA products. Sorry, but I’m not impressed. This looks like a cheap gimmick to me.

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UPDATED: High Fidelity’s Virtual Coworking Island Cam: Really? REALLY?!??

Screen capture from the video linked to below

Look, I am just going to come right out and say this: whoever is doing the marketing for High Fidelity needs to be fired.

Check out this four hour livestream posted to the official High Fidelity YouTube channel, of what they call the Virtual Coworking Island Cam (no, don’t adjust your sound, there is no sound):

A commenter on the RyanSchultz.com Discord, who alerted me to this disaster, said:

No audio and the entire thing’s frame rate is god awful. I showed this to friends and they seriously thought this was Second Life, and to be fair, I can’t blame them.

A commenter on the actual YouTube video said:

What is this? This looks like an Older Version of Second Life? Or maybe a Crappy Sims game. AND WHERE IS THE AUDIO!

I’m watching the video now with my jaw ON. THE. FLOOR. in disbelief that they actually released this video. It’s already had 185 views, too.

About halfway through the video, I noticed that High Fidelity seems to have added AltspaceVR-type emoticons over avatars’ heads, which I don’t remember seeing before. A new feature, perhaps?

Sooo… your product supports VR and you’ve got 3D spatial audio, but you’re relying on 2D emoticons over your head to communicate? You chose to emulate one of the corniest features on AltspaceVR, to appeal to your new target market of business users?!??

I commented on my Discord:

Somebody should save a copy of this for posterity. They can’t have put this up without checking it, surely?!

And they seem to have added AltspaceVR type emoticons over the avatars’ heads, too.

WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY

If this is the best way that High Fidelity thinks they can attract business users for their repurposed social VR platform, then I think it’s time to start a HiFi Death Watch.

I give up.

UPDATE Sept. 17th: I’ve had a good night’s sleep and I’ve re-read this, and I’ve checked the video again. It’s still up, and now it has 259 views. Isabelle Cheren made the following comment on the automatic cross-posting of this blogpost to my Twitter:

If it’s virtual co-working does that indicate the conversation may have been confidential with the no sound? Just a thought but yeah why put it up on YouTube LOL. Good Lord.

And, even given this extremely charitable, possible explanation as to why there is no audio, I still find it almost impossible to believe that High Fidelity actually posted this four-hour, silent video to their official YouTube channel.

People have been talking about this at length on the #highfidelity channel on the RyanSchultz.com Discord all evening and into the wee hours of the morning as I write this update. Here’s an anonymized sample of what they are saying:

A: I mean, I threw them a bone in saying that they can focus their efforts on making this all work but like… really? I give them a single ounce of a break and then this happens.

B: No spawned media during the entire stream.

A: Wait… I didn’t even look for that. Yeah, they didn’t spawn any media/web entities? Oh boy…

B: I don’t think they realize that remote work apps coming out have [the] ability to share files and screens easily. Or how important that is.

Yes, I was extremely harsh in my assessment. But I am not alone. Many other people are looking at this gaffe and are saying the same things about High Fidelity that I am. Way, way harsher than I, was one comment posted to my tweet by Will Burns, whom I have blogged about before, who said:

SECOND UPDATE Sept 17th: Well, High Fidelity is livestreaming again today, and once again, there is no audio. It’s just up there on their YouTube channel, without any explanation or context whatsoever:

There is one difference from yesterday’s livestream, however. High Fidelity has turned off the ability to leave comments on this video. In other words, they don’t even want feedback on this.

To have this happen once could be seen as a mistake. To have it happen two days in a row is a deliberate marketing decision. I also noticed that High Fidelity took down yesterday’s four-hour livestream video, for whatever reason (perhaps because of the negative comments).

Finally fed up with this nonsense, I had to resort to contacting Jazmin Cano, High Fidelity’s User Engagement Manager, via Twitter (the only way I have at present to reach out to anybody on the HiFi team):

Hello Jazmin! Sorry to bother you again, but is High Fidelity aware that the daily Virtual Coworking Island Cam livestreams they are posting to their official YouTube channel have no audio at all? Yesterday’s didn’t and neither does today’s.

I’ll keep you posted if/when I get any sort of reply from the company.

THIRD UPDATE, Sept. 17th: Well, Jazmin didn’t bother to respond to me, but at least High Fidelity has now taken down today’s embarrassing video.

Sweet minty Jesus, what a fucking circus.

FOURTH UPDATE, Sept. 18th: Well, I finally got a reply back from Jazmin:

Hey Ryan, I’ve got time to message you back now that I’m off work. Please know that this is a personal account and not an official High Fidelity channel, sorry!

So, I still have no idea whether or not the livestreams were intentional or an accident, or if my message to Jazmin was what finally alerted High Fidelity that their co-working island cam livestreams had no audio. At this point, the only possible way I can actually communicate with High Fidelity staff is to post a message to their official user forums, and hope that somebody from the company (eventually) responds. The last time I did that, I waited over three days for a response. This is no way to run a company!

A quick-thinking viewer did save a copy of the original Sept. 16th livestream for posterity, though, and you can watch it here (remember, there was no audio in the original or in this copy):

Using Bigscreen As a Remote Workteams Virtual Reality App

A user named PixelRouter posted the following picture to the Oculus subReddit today:

With a post titled Bought 4 Quests and a Rift S and so the sales guy wanted a pic. Will be using them for remote collaboration with my team using Bigscreen. We’ve come along way since DK1, he sparked a lively discussion about the merits of Bigscreen as an example of Yet Another Remote Teams Virtual Reality App (YARTVRA). You can see a short list of other YARTVRA here.

When asked why he had decided to go this route, he replied:

I used Bigscreen when it first came out for the Rift a couple of years ago and found it was amazing for collaborating on digital work of all sorts. I once spent four hours teaching people to build a basic Unity VR game, inside Bigscreen. The trouble was all the wires. Now with the Quest I am hoping it will be nearly as simple as setting up a zoom video call to have team members step in to our Bigscreen room to talk about what we are working on while able to present their screens…

I use Zoom all the time for video calls with potential business partners and it’s OK, but the thing that is great about Bigscreen is the sense of presence you feel with the others in the same room. It feels much more like a real-world, in-person meeting.

When one person said that VR wasn’t yet at a stage where this would be logical, PixelRouter replied:

I disagree. At least this is my tentative stance as I set out to try this out at my company. I’ve been an Oculus developer since 2013 with the DK1. I discovered Bigscreen when it first came out about two years ago. At the time I was Technical Director at a VR company in New York. Some days I worked remotely from NJ and would use Bigscreen to review code and designs, with people at the office in New York. It was awesome, except for all the wires and setup. Now, with the Quest, I think we have crossed that threshold where it really is practical to use VR to collaborate…

This is core to my experiment here. I want to see what we can make of this. I’m not a noob. I went through the “VR is the best thing ever” phase, on to the, “but it’s not there yet phase”. Things change, though. I think that, with the Quest, it may have just crossed that convenience threshold which will make this stick. We shall see.

And I have to admit, this is a perfectly valid use for Bigscreen, which I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to before. I always used to see Bigscreen as more of an entertainment app, but it could be used as a remote workteams app, too!

The Wild: A Brief Introduction

Yep, YARTVRA. YARTVRA! (Yet another remote teams virtual reality app.) This one is rather imaginatively named The Wild, by a Portland-based company:

Here the focus seems to be on architecture and design:

Bring your work to life before it’s built​. Experience your 3D models at scale, and gain critical insights that come from working together in a shared virtual space.

According to a recent press release on the AECCafé website:

Today, The Wild launched support for Oculus Quest, adding Facebook’s newest standalone virtual reality headset to its growing list of supported devices.

The Wild is a VR/AR collaboration platform that allows architects and design teams to experience their work together at human scale, in real time, from anywhere in the world. Oculus Quest is the first all-in-one VR headset to hit the enterprise market. With this latest offering from The Wild, immersive collaboration is easier and more accessible than ever. The Wild’s mission is to help teams do their best work. For spatial design teams, that means being able to inhabit your designs long before they’re built—catching errors, gaining critical context, and making more informed decisions together.

Reviewing architectural and environmental designs at human scale is vital. With The Wild, teams can meet in real time with up to eight people, fully synchronized, from anywhere in the world. The Wild offers native sketching and annotation tools, is compatible with most 3D file types, and integrates with Revit and SketchUp. The software is cross-platform as well—users can access The Wild from VR, iOS, or desktop (macOS and PC).

The Wild supports the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets as well as the recently-announced Oculus Quest.

I’ll leave you with a cute, cheerful promotional video for the product: