The sun never sets in virtual reality. This occurred to me after a one hour briefing on an Oculus Quest 2 headset. Together with more than a dozen other floating avatars, we teleported through an "outdoor" meeting point that could only be described as an aircraft carrier-meets-Croatian vacation.
Beyond the vastness of the virtual breakout rooms was a breathtaking sunset, but the day never got dark. When I pressed a button on the touch controller for a little too long, I was annoyingly close to another avatar, a fellow journalist. Then it occurred to me that you can't catch the coronavirus from a digital simulacrum.
The press conference was one of the few to ever take place in VR, a spokesperson for this new app claimed. It's called Arthur and part of the pitch is that it will catapult VR into the mainstream for work, that meetings and collaboration sessions and desk briefings are becoming … headset briefings.
The app launched on December 8th but has been in development for four years. The company behind it, also known as Arthur, is headquartered in San Mateo, California and has employees all over the world. It has secured start-up funding from VC firm Draper Associates and lists the United Nations, the Societe General and a major automaker as beta testers.
A meeting in Arthur requires a literal dissolution of reality. They only exist from the waist down (hey, just like Zoom!), And your shirt sleeves taper to reveal blue computer arms that move based on the movement of the Oculus Quest controllers in your hands. Your digital eyes are hidden by Matrix-style glasses and a headset microphone covers your virtual mouth. This is because the technology cannot yet mimic facial expressions in VR and "it is better to look at it than dead eyes," says Arthur founder Christoph Fleischmann. My avatar didn't look like me except that it had dark brown hair.
Even so, meeting in VR felt like it was somewhere else, if not somewhere in the physical world. I was sitting in the same living room that I lived in for most of the year, but I was there with other people. I was aware that my headset's physical microphone was on and that anything I said would be part of the conversation. It felt rude to step back and make coffee in my kitchen.
When Fleischmann asked the group to sit down in a virtual amphitheater (which, upon request, was the fastest and cheapest construction project of all time) before a presentation, we awkwardly spread ourselves out into the seats as we could in real life. And after the presentation where Fleischmann announced the collaborative benefits of working in VR, we teleported to a rooftop bar and used our hand controls to record virtual cocktails. Everyone loosened up, even though the drinks were unreal. All the while the sun remained stuck in its almost setting permanent position. It was surreal, but it exceeded our current reality.
Meet me here
Arthur wouldn't be the first to try and make a place in Enterprise VR. Until recently, VR headsets, as well as mixed reality headsets like Microsoft's HoloLens, were prohibitively expensive, costing over $ 1,000 per unit. Any company trying to get a foothold in the industry had to at least consider selling to large companies that could afford the emerging technology. This was the approach taken by Spatial, a vibrant New York startup that WIRED's Julian Chokkattu reported earlier this year.
"We always say we're like Zoom and Slack had an AR / VR baby," Jacob Loewenstein, Spatial's manager, tells me about Zoom from his apartment in New York City (the Zoom meeting was my request; I was on the deadline and didn't want to tremble in VR). “And we really mean it. Because if we're successful, it's because we just used this thing stupidly. "
Enlarge /. If you look closely you can spot an ars alum in this VR shot.
Part of that ease of use comes from the fact that Spatial is cross-platform, running the web, as well as AR and VR headsets like Oculus Quest. Your colleague could experience the app in VR with pop-out versions of Google Drive or Microsoft 365. However, if you don't have a headset around, you can log into a web link on your laptop and still get some of the three-dimensional benefits. (Arthur is also testing a web client and plans to support AR in the future.)
Both Lowenstein and Anand Agarawala, managing director and co-founder of Spatial, say the pandemic has been good for business. The company made its Pro app free for $ 20 a month this spring, increasing daily users by 130 percent. There were more than half a million “meeting joins” in the Spatial app. Recently, the number of people attending spatial meetings through VR headsets exceeded the number of web users.
Agarwala said Facebook's $ 299 release of the Oculus Quest 2 this fall also helped kick-start business. “We saw demand all summer and people were like, 'Where can I get a headset from? We just want to get in (the app). "Now that they are putting all of the travel budget they saved this year into the Quest," he says.
But whether the pandemic has been a real boon to VR depends on who you ask. In September, research firm IDC released a report that predicted the VR headset market would decline nearly 7 percent in 2020. Jitesh Ubrani, one of the authors of the report, noted that the market would potentially rebound in 2021 and that VR for the company could grow to over half the total VR market by 2024. However, this year VR was impacted by hardware production issues in the first half of the year, which largely affected the tech industry. Even if you wanted to spend the batter on the original Oculus Quest, or the HTC Vive Pro, or the Valve Index, they were hard to come by.
Face to face
I didn't have to ask an analyst about the many unique features of VR. It wasn't difficult to settle into Arthur, but it took some time. I went through an onboarding session with Arthur's incredibly patient operations manager, Simon Berger. This involved downloading the app and authenticating with a hand controller and virtual keyboard.
Then there was the VR press conference one day later. When I logged in, I found that I didn't have a really good jotting mechanism, which is paramount to being a journalist. The Arthur app does have a notepad, but using the hand controller to take notes seemed tedious and I was completely cut off from the physical keyboard and voice recorder I use in the real world. You can record video and audio from the headset, but everything is saved locally until you export it.
That doesn't mean that VR has no potential for work, or that the companies working on these apps are blind to the barriers. The technology just didn't arrive in time for the pandemic. "I think if VR headsets were massively available in April, you could probably have convinced every Fortune 1000 company in the world to buy VR headsets," says Loewenstein of Spatial.
If I had heard this statement back in April, I might not have believed it. But now, nine months after the pandemic and alone from home, I can at least see the appeal. During my Arthur VR onboarding, the company's founder Christoph Fleischmann came to our meeting in VR by chance. It was no doubt planned, but the remarkably good spatial audio and the sudden appearance of this new person in my virtual world had all the hallmarks of real-world spontaneity. I heard myself say "nice to see you" to another person's avatar and mean business.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.