Pandemic Diary, April 20th, 2020: Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

I wake up this morning, day 34 of my self-imposed isolation in my apartment during the coronavirus pandemic, feeling more than a little tired. I have been sleeping very badly these past two weeks, and struggling with insomnia and the resulting fatigue.

Today is a research day (we librarians get ten of them per academic year, to pursue “research, scholarly works, and creative activities” as our collective agreement states, because as members of the faculty union we have an opportunity and an obligation to pursue research). I plan to use the time to prepare for my Virtual Germany presentation on social VR, and edit the first draft of a journal article I hope to publish on the lessons learned from my earlier, suspended research project, a poorly-scoped, wildly overambitious plan to build a three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website, using Sansar as a platform.

Since Sansar’s near-death experience, which would have put that research project into jeopardy, I realize that I have to focus a critical eye on the financial stability, profitability, and long-term survival prospects of any future social VR platform I choose for any future research project. This is something that libraries have to do every day when choosing software such as integrated library systems (the software that handles things such as the acquisition, cataloguing, and circulation of books, etc.).

In Sunday afternoon, FROG*, my arts and entertainment group, which in the pre-pandemic days used to meet once a month in each other’s homes to plan outings to participate in Winnipeg’s vibrant arts, cultural, and entertainment scene, set up a Zoom meeting, just to have everybody get in touch with each other and see how everybody is doing:

We used the free version of Zoom, which automatically disconnects a group of three or more people after 40 minutes. We were having such a good conversation that our host generated and emailed out a second invitation, to meet for another 40 minutes! We also made sure to model our cloth masks to each other…

These women (I am the token gay male in the group) have been friends for over twenty years, and this Zoom meeting was salve to my wounded soul. I am an extrovert, someone who tends to get energy from other people, and opportunities for that have been sorely lacking over the past month. This was the first time I had ever used Zoom outside of virtual work meetings at my university, and we agreed that we would do this biweekly for the duration of the pandemic.

Sunday evening, I participated in a second Zoom meeting hosted by the Out There Winnipeg LGBT2SQ+** Sports and Recreation Group. One of the members had purchased sets of interactive online games from Jackbox Games, which uses Zoom on desktop, and requires a mobile device such as an iPhone as a game controller. We played a couple of lively rounds of Patently Stupid, which can best be described as a cross between Pictionary and Shark Tank:

We followed Patently Stupid with a round of Trivia Murder Party, which was very cleverly designed and programmed by Jackbox, with many “deadly” challenges for those who failed to answer the trivia questions correctly. This was my first time joining the Out There group in Zoom for their Games Night, and it was great fun, and it cheered me up immensely.

So, Aretha Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? feels like a very appropriate theme song for yesterday.


*Yes, FROG is an acronym. No, I am not going to tell you what it stands for. The name’s origin is shrouded in the mists of time, and the members of my group prefer to keep it that way 😉

**LGBT2SQ+, of course, is an inclusive, umbrella acronym which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Two-Spirited (i.e. indigenous and gay), and Queer or Questioning. The plus sign at the end is for anybody that doesn’t feel they fall into any of the previous categories 🙂

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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.