Get ready for your next conference call—in virtual reality.
With equipment for virtual-reality viewing now on the consumer market, public tech companies and venture capitalists are exploring possible applications in everything from videogames to medicine. And some are betting that virtual-reality headsets could be the next big thing in business-meeting software, upending the dreaded videoconference call.
Some of virtual reality’s potential as a meeting and collaboration tool is suggested in a video recently recorded at the NYU Media Research Lab. In the video, lab researchers strap on Samsung Gear VR headsets with antler-like sensors attached to the goggles. The headsets usher the researchers into a virtual-reality environment in which they see digital avatars of themselves moving around a simulated environment. Soon, using hand-held electronic wands, the researchers are drawing 3-D models together.
Ken Perlin, a computer-science professor at New York University and director of the research lab, has been studying collaboration in the virtual world for the past two years, attempting to understand how virtual reality might change society—including the workplace.
“Of course we’re going to embrace any technology that makes us feel more connected,” Prof. Perlin says.
A global survey of attitudes toward technology in the workplace suggests he may be right. The survey, in a report from Dell Inc., Intel Corp. and consultants Penn Schoen Berland, found that 57% of employees around the world prefer face-to-face conversations with colleagues. But more than half said that better communications technology could make such interactions obsolete in the future. Millennials particularly were open to using virtual- and augmented-reality products at work, with 77% saying they would try it.
Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says business calls using virtual-reality technology can offer many benefits over videoconferencing.
“VR meetings will allow for nuanced nonverbal communication—proper eye contact, subtle cues such as interpersonal distance, and eventually virtual touch and smell (when desired),” Prof. Bailenson writes in a recent email.
For most companies investing in the medium, virtual-reality meetings are still experimental. Employees from the Bank of Ireland and National Grid PLC, the British utility, have tweeted about their early sampling of virtual-reality meeting software. Mike Harlick, head of the Bank of Ireland Worklab, said to him it felt like “the future of collaboration.”
Mr. Harlick told The Wall Street Journal that his firm has been experimenting with several virtual conferencing centers. He said he doesn’t see virtual reality replacing video calls, but that it provides functions that other office collaboration tools do not offer. He said he thinks it will help his team be more effective in how they communicate.
“In the context of office meetings you now have a whole virtual environment where you can co-create and interact,” he wrote in an email. “So you may have white boards on one wall, a shared document on another.”
The National Grid employee who tweeted, David Goldsby, said a team he presented to was “seriously impressed” by the technology. However, he said the Wi-Fi in their hotel presented challenges. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.