A beginner’s guide to meeting in virtual reality
I’m so nervous before my first virtual reality meeting that I end up putting my loaner headset on 10 minutes early, popping up in the meeting space to - surprise! - no one, taking the headset off, pacing back and forth for a few minutes, and then returning on schedule as if for the first time.
All this despite the fact that the team at Arthur Technologies gave me a tutorial yesterday, during which they politely answered several of my most pressing questions. Like, “How do I stand up?” and, “How do I get rid of this giant floating notepad I’ve accidentally created?”
During my training, they also teach me several other essential VR interview skills, such as how to drink virtual champagne, how to teleport (which feels to me more like leapfrogging), and how to hold my arms so that my avatar doesn’t look like a velociraptor.
Stepping into Arthur's meeting space is to enter another world: Trying to remember my physical form as I acclimate to the headset, the controller in each of my hands, not to mention the recording crew hovering in the background.
The Arthur team has given me a sleek blazer and jeans combo. I’d love to have them dress me for all my meetings.
Why am I submitting myself to all this? Because I'm here to speak to Arthur's founder and CEO Christoph Fleischmann. At least there's nothing awkward about our introduction - Chris's avatar is easy to recognize in VR because it's rendered from a photograph. So is mine - it's actually a business headshot pulled from LinkedIn. And yes, there's a choice of outfits. The Arthur team has given me a sleek blazer and jeans combo made slightly more casual by a pair of white sneakers. I’d love to have them dress me for all my meetings.
What makes virtual reality meetings different?
Growing up in Vienna, outside of a major industry hub, Chris felt isolated from the global tech community. When he first encountered augmented reality technology 10 years ago, most people considered it a marketing gimmick - remember when we were all being told to scan a QR code to make a virtual logo appear? But for Chris, the seed of a much bigger idea was planted. This could, he thought, be the solution that leveled the playing field, allowing him to connect differently, more meaningfully, with a community evolving at lightning speed.
The beauty of Arthur - a company whose software helps enterprises meet, collaborate and manage work in virtual reality - can best be described by the story of a jailbreak. One of their first clients, the IT group at a large automotive company, had been working with them for a few months. Back then, most corporate planning took place in person, everyone meeting to put Post-its on a wall. Instead, the Arthur team joined them in VR.
“They had some whiteboards with some PDFs loaded,” Chris recalls. “It was a long meeting, an hour and a half, and we’re taking copious notes. At that point, we all decided to take a break. We were about to take off our headsets, and they were like, ‘Wait, wait, wait. We want to show you our terrace’.”
Christoph Fleischmann, CEO, Arthur Technologies
We realized this is more than just a meeting place. It’s a place where people work and socialize.
As it turned out, Arthur’s IT client had hacked the software, extending their meeting space to include a more social area, not unlike the one I joined Chris on for our conversation (he proudly admits Arthur adopted the idea). Everyone went ‘outside’, and they had their break there, chatting about their lives without exiting VR.
“That was a pretty magical moment,” recalls Chris. “We realized this is more than just a meeting place for them, it’s a place where they work and socialize.”
Why are VR headsets so effective for work?
There is a certain kind of freedom, I notice, an invitation for a more casual kind of connection that comes with the soft sunset hues of our virtual view. Chris reminds me that this is because my brain is getting tricked, my spatial awareness shifted subtly without my notice. If I went to the edge of this VR railing, for example, I would probably experience tingling in my feet.
Presence is the foundation Arthur is built on. All the aspects are designed to make people feel comfortable. To make them feel like they can express themselves. But to get enterprise organizations to adopt the solution at scale, emotional connection wasn’t enough.
Chris likes to talk about the Venn diagram that exists between presence and productivity. How many companies struggle with how to weave them together, rather than choosing one at the cost of the other. In Arthur, “Productivity built the right way makes you feel more present and more engaged.” He describes a 10-person meeting. In a video call of that size, it’s difficult for all participants to consistently, actively participate. Here, “Everyone’s engaged, taking notes, moving things around on the whiteboard, striking up side conversations.”
Audio encapsulates a lot of the power of the medium. If Chris moves to my left during our conversation, the direction of the sound of his voice shifts. If he walks away, it gets harder to hear him. By design, some Arthur meeting rooms are ‘soundproof’ so that someone standing outside the door can’t hear or speak to those inside. I found that out the hard way during onboarding when a rogue ‘leapfrog’ took me out of range.
My biggest fear during those jumps, which are an important and necessary function when it comes to navigating within Arthur, is accidentally landing on top of someone on the other side. So, of course, it happens. Thanks to our weightless avatars, no one is harmed during the collision, and we laugh it off. Chris must be used to it. I hope.
“There’s a whole personality test you could build around VR,” he tells me. As we enter into new technology and new ways of connecting, certain truths around human experience remain: People have different preferences, different needs. Some prefer small spaces, intricately designed. Others thrive in wide-open rooms built for gathering.
Businesses will appreciate solutions like Arthur that enable them to support their team with a variety of environments, from meeting rooms built for brainstorming to amphitheaters that can accommodate all hands to rooftops perfect for toasting. “We’ve added mixed reality,” Chris says, “so you could invite your coworkers into your living room.” I immediately start worrying about my choice of throw pillows.
What is the impact of working in VR?
What’s the ultimate goal of all this innovation? “If we’re successful, it doesn’t matter anymore where you were born, where you want to live or raise your children,” Chris says. I’m reminded of his personal connection to this medium. “It doesn’t matter if you have a passport. As long as you have internet and access to a device, you can work with anyone in the world as productively as anyone else.”
Christoph Fleischmann, CEO, Arthur Technologies
If we’re successful, it doesn’t matter where you want to live or raise your children. You can work as productively as anyone else.
As Chris takes me into a virtual workroom, showing me how the software can import data and mirror other workplace solutions like whiteboards, sticky notes and kanban flows, I can imagine conducting a brainstorm or a quarterly planning meeting with my team in the space. That said, I’m glad he’s not asking me to actually write a note. I remain self-conscious about my ability to interface smoothly within Arthur. All the functionality is accessible and user-friendly. I just know, at least today, on camera, I won’t look cool attempting it.
When I admit as much, Chris reassures me, “This shouldn’t feel normal, because it’s not. If it weren’t weird, it wouldn’t be a big enough change. It’s a huge change.”
Perhaps that’s a note about first adopters of solutions like Arthur and of platforms like VR in general - this tech is for anyone willing to embrace a little bit of weirdness in pursuit of the next frontier.
“People should expect a degree of learning and time and attention spent to really familiarize themselves with this experience,” Chris finishes.
As if to prove his point, my nose starts itching horribly in the middle of his sentence. It’s not avoidable. I’m going to have to figure out how to lower my controller and push up my headset to address it. I have no idea how that will affect my avatar, what everyone else will see. I feel compelled to warn them and we laugh about it. It’s another moment, a small but powerful one, that reinforces the force and reality of our shared presence.
Still, I’m glad I didn’t have to sneeze.