The metaverse promises to transform not only the way we navigate the internet, but the way we interact with one another in online spaces. As the world wide web adds more and more 3D virtual reality experiences, the idea of “surfing” the internet will become almost literal with avatars zooming from one corner of cyberspace to another. By the same token, users will actually be able to see each other’s avatars congregating in high-traffic virtual destinations. How will this simple fact change the game for anyone managing attendee networking in the metaverse?
As Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview with Verge last summer, “[Y]ou can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it.” In this environment, virtual event audiences are no longer faceless; they are “embodied,” each represented in a 3D form that allows them to become part of the virtual crowd.
Admittedly, 2D virtual event participants are already aware that their actions can be “watched” through engagement analytics, but the metaverse will make this visibility much more literal. The end result will be much more immersive opportunities for online networking between avatars — and a whole new set of challenges for managing this heightened level of interactivity. How will attendees take breaks? Will their avatars just disappear, or go stiff? What about room capacity in VR spaces? Will attendees be able to choose which of their fellow participants can see them inside the virtual venue? While these may seem like straightforward questions, the answers are far from cut and dry.
Will Meetings in the Metaverse Match the Real World?
Event organizers are used to managing attendee interactions in the 3D spaces of real-world venues, so what’s so different about virtual reality?
One important point to remember about the metaverse is that even though it’s intended to feel like the real world, it doesn’t have to follow the standard rules of physics. VR programmers can allow avatars to walk through each other just as easily as they can prevent them from doing everyday activities like shaking hands. The rules that apply will depend on decisions made by the platform developers.
Setting Personal Boundaries
As it turns out, social distancing isn’t just for in-person events during a pandemic: Meta has implemented a four-foot personal boundary in its Horizon Worlds and Venues products as an effort to combat instances of sexual harrassment in the metaverse. “Meta addressed issues with women feeling violated by male avatars getting into their space and using their virtual hands to ‘grope’ them by setting boundary zones large enough to still shake hands and high-five, but not close enough to allow touching another avatar without permission,” explained Brandt Krueger, technical event producer and VR enthusiast.
This kind of feature may not be necessary, however, for B2B events and business meetings in the metaverse. Chris Rayner, chief product officer for VR conference platform Mesmerise, said that his clients have not found a need to limit attendee movements in this way:
“Since our user base is enterprise and business focused we have not had to build features to address some of the behaviors seen in consumer applications. Our users register under their real names and have relationships to maintain with the event hosts.[…] Our business spaces are meant to reflect real workplaces, and the same behavioral expectations apply.”
– Chris Rayner, chief product officer at Mesmerise
Platform developers are still figuring out what laws of VR physics make the most sense for their client base, and it’s likely that a variety of options will crop up over time. It’s conceivable that some event organizers might want to give attendees the option to set their own personal boundaries in the metaverse, just as pandemic event planners provided color-coded bracelets for attendees to signal their social-distancing comfort levels.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are currently VR platforms that allow avatars to walk through each other. Krueger noted that VR conference platform AllSeated EXVO works in this way. Because the platform uses “little robots” instead of lifelike avatars, however, this departure from real-world norms isn’t off-putting. “It doesn’t feel weird to have a robot go through you,” said Krueger.
With this in mind, event organizers should think carefully about the relationship between VR networking norms and the types of avatars that attendees will be using. The more that VR avatars mimic real-world appearances and facial expressions, the more suited they will be for traditional networking activities — and social norms.
Taking Breaks From the Metaverse
Another major factor to consider is how individual VR platforms will approach the need for VR headset wearers to take breaks. Whether it’s a question of needing to use the washroom or simply wanting to take a sip of coffee, users will periodically need to remove their headsets.
Setting Visual Cues
Will their avatars become stiff and motionless, or will it be better for users to exit the platform entirely, with their avatar disappearing? “It can detect that you took your headset off, so maybe avatars could turn semi-transparent when you do,” suggested Krueger. In the end, he believes it will be as much a question of establishing social norms as of setting technical parameters: “What is the social norm? Maybe you should say you’re taking a break and disappear rather than having a bunch of ghosts standing there.”
For now, most major VR platforms do not appear to be developing special “break” settings that modify an avatar’s appearance.
In a metaverse interview with journalist Henry Mance, Meta’s president of global affairs Nick Clegg complained about the hassle of sipping coffee while wearing his VR headset — both in terms of how clumsy it felt and how awkward it looked. Referring to the way his avatar’s head tilted backwards when he lifted his headset, Clegg said, ““[T]his wretched headset is too bulky for me to drink without moving the headset, so don’t think I’m craning my neck weirdly.”
At least until the social norms and visual cues of the metaverse become more standardized, these types of self-conscious explanations may be necessary in VR networking experiences.
Beyond the question of how to handle the visual effects that come with removing headsets, there is the matter of managing audio settings. While participants of standard virtual networking sessions may sometimes forget that they’re on mute, no one would deny the utility of being able to turn off their audio input at will.
Unsurprisingly, this kind of functionality is already commonplace among VR platforms. Mesmerise, for example, allows attendees to mute themselves using a button on their controllers. “They can check their left wrist where a microphone sign will flash red when they are muted,” said Rayner.
Taking advantage of virtual reality’s 3D nature, the platform also uses spatial audio, with conversations between avatars sounding louder the closer they are.
Similarly, Krueger attended a Microsoft VR event where spatial sound was combined with the option for attendees to unmute themselves (microphones were turned off by default). As he explained, however, this kind of system does not always work as planned: “Clearly someone just took their headset off and walked away. The kid was yelling at his mom, and the [avatar’s] head just wasn’t moving and you could hear, ‘What Mom!’ — and there was no way to tell him he was unmuted.”
Much like with interactive breakout rooms with two-way video and audio, metaverse networking activities may be well served to have a moderator with the ability to override the audio settings of individual participants.
Accounting for VR Room Capacity
Although the metaverse can theoretically encompass an unlimited amount of space, the question of room capacity is still relevant. It does, however, involve an entirely different set of logistical considerations from in-person events.
For example, Mesmerise’s virtual platform can be scaled to accommodate thousands of attendees, but individual rooms are limited to a capacity of 30 to 250 people. “Individual spaces have capacity limits to ensure the VR experience maintains high performance within the limits of the headset’s rendering capabilities,” said Rayner. Unlike real-world venues, however, VR spaces can simply replicate themselves when their capacity is reached. Rayner described this process as a matter of “automatically spawning new instances of the space that are populated by new users as they enter.”
Krueger noted that a similar system was used for the VR Microsoft event he attended, with new spaces being created whenever an individual room reached its maximum capacity of 50 avatars.
Curated Networking and VIP Spaces
The unique mechanisms that govern VR room capacity may lead to more demand for curated networking experiences. If attendees are broken up into smaller groups navigating multiple versions of the same space, they may not want to leave their groupings to chance. “What if the person that I want to talk to isn’t in my version of the room? How do I find them? Can I transfer from room to room?” asked Krueger.
Rayner confirmed that is a common concern among attendees: “We are planning to add more inter-user management and our most common requests are for features that allow users to find and follow friends and colleagues.”
While this kind of intentional matchmaking may limit the chance of a serendipitous meeting happening between attendees from different walks of life, the flipside is that it also presents opportunities for highly exclusive VIP experiences.
Alon Alroy, co-founder and CMO at Bizzabo, believes that the metaverse is ripe for this kind of application. “[E]vent organizers can create spaces specifically for VIPs. For example, they could create virtual VIP lounges that include entertainment, NFT swag, and fun activities,” he said. “These environments can encourage exclusivity like networking sessions with executives, custom performances or even a digital red carpet and a photo booth that allows attendees to dress up, use props and post pics to social media.”
Many metaverse platforms will likely provide the option to design bespoke VR spaces. For example, Mesmerise provides a number of different template spaces designed to match standard conference and business meeting venues, with the option to add specialized branding and other custom effects.
Managing Personal Identity at Metaverse Events
In addition to offering opportunities for customizing VR spaces, metaverse platforms also present the possibility of setting rules around personal identity.
In theory, attendees could move through a VR space while remaining invisible to others. False identities are equally possible. In most business event settings, however, attendees will be expected to appear in the form of 3D avatars that match their real-world appearance. “We believe that a realistic avatar is important for a credible immersive experience and that professionals expect an accurate representation of themselves when they are in a business setting,” said Rayner. For this reason, Mesmerise requires VR event participants to supply photos of themselves when they register. These images are then used to create “photorealistic” avatars for the platform. Unlike Meta’s avatars, however, those on the Mesmerise platform do not mimic facial expressions.
Although AI-powered “deep fake” technologies have advanced remarkably fast in a short period, event organizers will likely have to wait years before they’ll have access to photorealistic 3D avatars that can replicate attendee facial expressions in real time. For now, they will have to choose between expressivity and recognizable likenesses.
At the same time, other norms are likely to develop around how much control attendees will have over the visibility of their personal identity in shared spaces. For example, will attendees be able to block other users as they can on current social media platforms? If so, would these two users simply never be put in the same VR room as one another, or might the physical appearance of their avatars somehow be masked? For the time being, these questions are purely speculative, and they may perhaps be more relevant for social situations than for professional ones.
Unanswered Questions and Uncharted Territory
The metaverse is still in its infancy, and some even argue that it’s misleading to use the term “metaverse” for the diverse mix of VR experiences currently on offer.
According to Krueger, all of these unanswered questions are “further proof that it’s not going to be anytime soon that there is a metaverse. It’s going to vary app by app, platform by platform, device by device.” Looked at from another perspective, all of this uncertainty means that event organizers have a chance to shape the future of metaverse norms. VR platforms are refining their product offerings in response to client feedback. Now is the time to shape the direction of networking activities in the metaverse.