This post originally appeared on MIT Technology Review
Three weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg was chatting with host Gayle King on the television show CBS This Morning. Instead of sitting in a studio or using a videoconferencing app, however, the two of them were talking to each other in virtual reality.
Zuckerberg was on prime time to introduce Horizons Workroom, a Facebook app that connects users to a virtual-reality space via the company’s headset, Oculus. For the occasion, Zuckerberg and King had created cartoonish avatars of themselves, thanks to motion sensors that replicated their head and hand movements.
The whole effect was, at best, awkward. King marveled at Zuckerberg’s freckles, while the latter droned on about “the metaverse.” At one point, King asked the million-dollar question: “Were you getting all Zoomed out? Because I was getting Zoomed out.”
As Zoom’s name became a verb, the company raked in nearly a billion dollars. But its ubiquity has come at a cost. Eighteen months after the pandemic first pushed office workers into virtual meetings, getting “Zoomed out” or dealing with “Zoom fatigue” is a common complaint among people who have been using the videoconferencing app daily.
No wonder that other tech companies wonder how they could reinvent meetings too, especially since it doesn’t seem as if remote work is going anywhere soon. But to take Zoom’s crown they’ll need to get creative, and come up with ways to keep employees from feeling burned out by endless video calls.
Among those companies is, of course, Facebook. Horizons Workroom is the firm’s first step toward its rather vague ambition to create a digital “metaverse,” a virtual space where people work, play, and presumably see loads of lucrative ads. But Horizons Workroom was widely ridiculed after it was demoed. One writer said it captured “the worst of in-person office life,” for example, while another called it “not compelling.” The consensus was that neither the tech nor employees were ready for a fully immersive virtual workplace.
Nevertheless, companies are desperate to find ways to nurture collaboration and collegiality in a remote environment. While a fully immersive VR setup may be a step too far for now, many are looking to make meetings more fun either by creating virtual worlds that resemble video-game environments or by using video games themselves as the meeting setting.
The hope is that this could be a way to make employees more productive and happier. If anyone can get it right, that is.
One crucial goal is to inject some fun into the experience, suggests Jaime Teevan, chief scientist at Microsoft for experiences and devices, who has studied productivity. Teevan says that remote meetings have challenged how we use space to communicate, restricting our worlds to claustrophobic digital squares. She thinks better communication requires opening up space through play. “We’re experts in using space, and we lose that in online meetings,” she says. “Figuring out the game and social connection is fundamental there.”
That’s why one morning early last month I joined Kumospace, a startup that counts Google among its customers and promises on its home page to “make meaningful connections in unforgettable virtual spaces.” A video of myself was condensed down to a tiny square that wandered a virtual lobby space with couches, a piano, snake plants, and a jukebox blaring out a Spotify mix called “Quiet Hours.” Once founder Brett Martin joined, he took me on a tour of the room. His voice became faint if I ever lagged too far behind, an acoustic feature meant to imitate real life.
“Wait, let me show you something. Are you ready?” Martin asked suddenly. Before I could respond, I found myself walking along a beach.
The entire experience was bewildering. I was disoriented by all the things I felt I had to do simultaneously: talk to Martin, be sure to stay within earshot or risk losing him as he moved around, and traverse the various obstacles that popped up—waves from the beach, a radio that drowned out our conversation if we got too close to it, my “wine” glass emptying on its own. I found it hard to concentrate on the meeting. In fact, I felt overstimulated and anxious.
Martin, however, says that Kumospace has found a niche audience of companies hosting casual gatherings where employees want to get to know each other: happy hours, networking events, “off-site” excursions. Since it launched in June, Martin says, “over a million people” have used the product.
The purpose of those meetings—getting to know others, not brainstorming solutions—might point to the context in which more immersive meetings might have an edge. “Zoom is really good at passing along information with people you already know, but it’s not great at building relationships with people you don’t,” says Martin.
Indeed, many of the innovations in meeting technology over the past year have focused on re-creating the “water cooler” moments that help employees bond. These low-stakes conversations (about weather or sports or TV, perhaps) are crucial to creating a sense of trust and perspective for future problem-solving. But those interactions require a sense of connection—one that Zoom boxes aren’t conducive to creating.
Some firms are repurposing existing digital platforms for work. A couple of months into the pandemic, freelance book and game designer Viviane Schwartz wrote a viral Twitter thread, describing how her work group was holding meetings in the Wild West survival game Red Dead Redemption 2.
“It’s possible to sit around or walk together and even to make coffee in RDR2, and there’s a robust in-built voice chat, so it seemed a sensible idea,” says Schwartz.
It’s not the first time a video game has been used for meetings. Just a month before Schwartz’s tweet, a Japanese company reportedly used Animal Crossing: New Horizons to conduct meetings. And executives have dangled invites to games like Grand Theft Auto to court clients in a personal yet pandemic-friendly environment.
When Schwartz’s thread went viral, Red Dead Redemption 2 was heralded as “a perfect platform for work meetings.” Despite Schwartz’s positive experience, however, she’s not really a fan of using video games for meetings First, she says, there are simpler ways to connect with people that will get the job done. Now that lockdowns have lifted around the world, meeting in person is possible and effective, and phone calls are still much more accessible and faster than a video game.
That’s the line groups are walking: on one hand, fun elements can make meetings more interesting and inspire ideas, but on the other, such meetings are more difficult to set up and can seem gimmicky. “We’re seeing particular challenges on social connections,” says Teevan. Microsoft, like Facebook, is aggressively seeking to invent meeting tools. One is the Together Mode it created for its Teams software, using artificial intelligence to cut out users’ profiles and place them in a virtual setting.
Teevan says workers feel increasingly isolated in remote work and are desperate for connections. Her internal Microsoft research shows that workers are becoming more cliquey in the videoconferencing environment, which can lead to bad decisions. “We’re codifying our existing social networks,” she says. Games could expand those networks, improve trust, and even lead to better decisions.
Sílvia Fornós, a PhD fellow in the Center for Computer Games Research at IT University of Copenhagen, recently helped organize a week-long summit on Gather, a virtual space where users can hold meetings in a pixelated, 8-bit environment, after she found Slack and Zoom unsatisfying for connecting with fellow conference-goers. Rather than being distracting, Fornós says, the ’80s style added a sense of informality and coziness to the meetings.
Despite that, actual connection was lacking, she found. “Team bonding is a fundamental part of multidisciplinary research and has a direct impact in our work,” she says. “We need to find a middle ground, like hybrid spaces that offer the flexibility of virtual spaces with the possibility of socializing and attending in person if that is needed.”
That middle ground in meeting technology is where profit and need intersect, and Facebook is hoping its Horizons Workroom fulfills that need—however ridiculous it might feel to talk to your boss’s animated avatar in virtual reality. Even King admitted that Horizons Workroom “was a little clunky for me.”
The solution may lie somewhere between conventional and game-like videoconferencing technologies, suggests Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University and the founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab. This summer he conducted an experiment on which worked best, with 102 students clocking over 60,000 minutes on both Zoom and the VR platform Engage.
“Should we stay on Zoom or should we use VR? My answer is yes, we should do both,” Bailenson says. His work, which comes out this week, showed that the type of meeting is crucial. “If you’ve got a talking head and everyone else just listening, Zoom is great for that,” he says. “But if you have to do an action or have small group conversations, immersive VR is better for that.” He found that VR was a better way for people to read nonverbal cues like leaning in or making eye contact, which are crucial to establishing trust and understanding.
But Bailenson admits that VR is not at the point where we can use it for more than a few minutes at a time before our perception gets wonky.
And what if you don’t have access to virtual reality? One way to improve current meetings is to introduce an element of playfulness in lower-tech ways. Teevan has shared internal research from Microsoft suggesting that rather than distracting employees, games during a meeting “focus attention within the meeting context and spark conversations.” Another internal Microsoft study found that instead of pitting employees against each other, games offered support and connection “to build social capital.”
The benefits of fun can extend to a future where we may even physically meet. Pre-pandemic, Teevan led research on using games like trivia contests to support social interaction in meetings. “We found that games like that encouraged more social interaction, more conversation—that people actively engaged in the meeting,” she says. In July Zoom added in-app games that people on a conference call could play during meetings, but Noah Weiss, the vice president of product at Slack, told me the company isn’t interested in gamification.
But Schwartz agrees that lightening meetings up could make them better for pandemic-weary workers, so long as it isn’t forced upon employees by overzealous managers. “Playfulness can include many other things, like being attacked by a bear while checking over a Google sheet because you all decided to go into Red Dead Redemption 2,” says Schwartz. “But that can only ever be an honest decision of a group of equals feeling that that’s where they want to be, and never something a boss can make you do on the regular.”