Ever since Facebook announced it was becoming a “metaverse company” and changing its name to “Meta”, the concept of a virtual reality universe has become part of everyday conversation. While many remain skeptical, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies continue to advance. Investors also appear to be bullish, with Meta’s shares rising by 9 percent since it announced the name change less than a month ago. Does this mean we’ll all be meeting in virtual reality sometime in the near future?
To help answer this question, EventMB worked in partnership with IMEX Group to produce a report titled Meet Me at the Metaverse: Exploring the Future of Immersive Online Event Experiences. As a follow-up to that research, deputy editor Angela Tupper sat down for an interview with Brandt Krueger — a technical producer and connoisseur of VR and AR technology.
Angela Tupper: In our recent report on the metaverse, we included a quote in which you explained that the term “metaverse” originally described a self-contained, fictional virtual reality world. Lately, however, there’s been a lot of talk about entering virtual reality with avatars that represent our real-word, professional identities. How do you see these two competing visions of the metaverse playing out in the future?
Brandt Krueger: I suspect we’re going to see different spaces carved out for work versus play. Much like in person, there are different types of meetings: There are more professional meetings where we dress up and we put on a suit, but then there are times where we let our hair down and we sing karaoke and wear silly clothes.
We’re going to see a similar division in the metaverse. At least for the short term, it’s going to be much like video chat software. There is the business side of it: WebEx and Microsoft Teams. They let us have a little bit of fun with backgrounds. Then there are other platforms more oriented towards silly virtual clown noses and reindeer antlers. In the metaverse, we’ll be able to do both and I think we’ll figure out the social norms — just like we’re figuring out the social norms now with online events, where maybe it’s not best practice to have a playful virtual background unless it’s part of your presentation.
AT: How interoperable do you think the metaverse will be — both in terms of being able to use different software with different headsets, and being able to move between different virtual reality spaces?
BK: For it to really work, it’s going to have to be like [the science fiction movie] Ready Player One, where there’s just one universe with all these different spaces within that universe. And I think Facebook wants to be that universe. But if the past is any indication of the future, it won’t start out that way. We’re already seeing VR platforms that only work with some headsets, but some apps work across devices just like apps on our phones. We might coalesce around one or two VR devices that rise to the top, but initially there are going to be 50. In terms of moving between virtual reality spaces, it will be: “I’m in Apple virtual reality and you’re in Facebook virtual reality.” There’ll be things that we can do together, but they will still be separate parts of the metaverse.
AT: Do you think we’ll be able to bring 3D objects, like a business suit or a briefcase, across different virtual spaces?
BK: The answer will probably depend on the object and the platform. It’s going to be like APIs, where you can transmit data from app to app if they have the right coding in place. Apple is trying to slowly quietly be the one that’s developing 3D objects that you can open in Apple preview. You can open it up and rotate it and spin it around. And they’re slowly adding more and more tools. With the iPhone 13, you can scan an object and relatively easily turn it into a 3D model. Then you can send it almost like a PDF, and later bring it up on your phone to look at the object in AR, as if it’s there in reality at scale in front of you.
AT: What do you think about the idea of conducting work and business meetings in virtual reality? Is the technology at a stage where that makes sense?
BK: We’re still at the point where you can see where it’s going. My family has a VR headset. It’s fun and the kids play with it, but then they get tired of it and it sits on the shelf for a month. Every now and then they remember we’ve got it — it’s cool, but it’s not like we think, “I want to live here.” The work side of it is the strange part to me. Hanging out through our avatars could be a fun thing to do for a team building event, but I don’t want to go to a business meeting as little avatars. It doesn’t feel like a place where I want to sit around and get work done. It’s also tiring, just having this device on your head. It gets hot and starts to feel heavy. With where the technology is now, it works better for shorter periods.
AT: Have you seen it used successfully at a business event?
BK: I went to Microsoft’s Ignite conference last year. They used VR to show 3D avatars of floating people. When the speaker talked about using drones to examine bridges, a 3D model of a bridge appeared around him. When they talked about whales, a giant whale came in over our heads. That kind of thing could really enhance presentations if people do it well. Even PowerPoint can be pretty great or pretty awful depending on how you use it. Microsoft’s AR presentation was well done, but I still found myself deciding to take the headset off part way through and just watch the screen where they were simulcasting the presentation in 2D.
AT: In our Meet Me at the Metaverse report, we speculated that exhibitions might one day introduce a truly hybrid model — with in-person attendees able to see holograms of remote attendees via their AR glasses. Remote attendees would then be able to see in-person attendees projected into a virtual reality replica of the exhibition, experienced through VR headsets. Do you think that’s a realistic possibility for the future?
BK: I think it’s conceivable. I think we just have to be realistic about the state of the technology right now. And while a lot of planners might be happy to relegate VR and AR to the corner of a room as a special experience, I do think it can be more integrated into our events than that. I’ve seen some really cool examples, mainly in Europe. They’re doing in-person experiences where everybody sits down and puts on a headset. It’s a shared experience, so it can work with events. To your point about AR, that’s really where I think it’s going to come in first.
AT: How do you think AR will be used for events in particular?
BK: There are companies experimenting with being able to bring up Q&A submissions right onto your glasses. Presenters could see the Q&A on their glasses. We’ll also probably see Google maps for your trade show floor. “I’m going to booth 3411. Where do I have to go?” And you see the arrow and the route. Agenda reminders could also pop up. It would also be fantastic for captioning and auto transcription. Even for native speakers, you might think, “What did they just say?” And you scroll back. “Okay, got it.” That kind of heads up display [a 2D projection on smart glasses] is where it will start.
AT: In our Meet Me at the Metaverse report, Steve Enselein, SVP of events for Hyatt, mentioned that virtual site tours are becoming more popular. Do you think that these kinds of special-case uses for VR will also start to become standard?
BK: I just came back from FICP [Financial and Insurance Conference Professionals] where I spoke to a lot of venue people. They mentioned that more and more planners are booking without setting foot on the property. They’re clearly much more confident in going through the first round of site visits virtually. And that is really positive for sustainability. If event organizers can cut even one site visit out of their process, it will have an enormous impact. Multiply that by thousands of companies over the course of a year. VR has the potential to do a lot in that realm as well.
From the planner and AV production side as well, it will be amazing to be able to visually inspect the place and say, “Okay, I’d like a layout of where all of the outlets are.” Anyone on the team can see where the gridlines, power drops, and rigging points are. It’s important to realize that there are limitations to the technology, but there are also many things we’re already capable of right now.
To read more on this topic, download the jointly-produced EventMB and IMEX report on the metaverse here.