Video vs. VR: What’s missing for successful collaboration?

So many software tools these days are talked up as "collaboration tools." But videoconferencing is too often a one-way street, and mixed-reality options are still immature.

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Just about every new software solution that allows you to communicate remotely these days is called a “collaboration product.” But most of the options that are videoconferencing-based focus on communication, while the mixed-reality platforms now beginning to explore the metaverse might actually be better for collaboration.

The difference between the two? How they’re used. Mixed reality can help people collaborate on a common product or service that can be manipulated virtually. Videoconferencing basically virtualizes meetings where a limited number of people present to a larger audience. It isn’t ideal for collaboration due to the lack of actual conversations between participants and the tendency to focus on one-too-many communications.

Let’s look at what’s missing in both options — and what’s being worked on by a number of providers.

Videoconferencing, from one to many

Videoconferencing is what most of us have used during the pandemic. As noted, it works well when a limited number of people need to present to each other or to an audience. It can often scale to hundreds of people, but generally doesn’t work well for small team collaboration because it doesn’t allow multiple people to work on the same thing at the same time. To use an old computing term, it tends to be more “batch” than interactive, and collaboration needs a high level of interaction to truly succeed.    

What’s missing are three things: automatic summaries, integrated follow-up, and effective audience-engagement metrics. Automatic summaries aren’t just the speech-to-text capture of what speakers say; they’re summary documents that crisply list major points and point out elements of interest (customized for each participant). Having an auto-generated list of commitments and action items would dramatically improve the ability of attendees to plan future events and improve on execution. 

Integrated follow-up is critical for people who may feel out of the loop. Knowing when an audience member is lost — and automatically following up to keep them engaged — would help that person actually understand what’s been shared. (The use of emojis to connect in video chats is more a distraction than a benefit. But if it were tied to artificial intelligence that could flag audience disengagement, a speaker could pivot to address questions or change the content to hold the audience. The system could even make suggestions based on past experience to address any lack of engagement or confusion. 

Audience engagement remains a big problem in this area, because people can just go off and work on other things while they wait to talk. In addition, questions submitted are sometimes never answered, causing the participants to lose interest in similar events over time. Being able to tell whether you are losing your audience, preloading the system so it can respond to questions, and providing a report at the end of a meeting to show engagement (and assure attendees leave satisfied) should be a higher priority than it is. Thankfully, options to do all of these are coming. 

The metaverse and real collaboration

There are several tools coming soon from a variety of companies, including Facebook, that use virtual reality (VR) and metaverse tools for collaboration. These tools are newer (videoconferencing dates back to the 1980s) and are currently hampered by the inability to create environments in real-time that look and feel real. What they areparticularly good at is allowing a team to work on the same project at the same time as if they were in the same place.  These, too, are currently missing three things: better, more natural interaction tools, consistent hardware, and immersion. 

Most VR-based offerings rely on controllers to interact with the virtual worlds they create.  While gamers have controller skills, in the real world not everyone is a gamer — you don’t interact with controllers; you use your hands and standard tools. To be most effective, we need to be able to interact with these virtual tools the same way we do in the real world.  Using a game controller adds a level of unique difficulty and detracts from collaboration.

Consistent hardware is important so users can move between environments seamlessly. At the moment, there isn’t a lot of commonality between tools, making it very difficult for two companies on different VR platforms to collaborate or for employees to move between them. That needs to be fixed. 

Immersion is the holy grail when it comes to mixed-reality collaboration. Being able to feel like you are literally in the environment (rather than stuck in a low-quality game) is critical to successful remote collaboration. Ideally, there should be no difference in experience between collaborating in person and collaborating virtually. These tools will never meet their potential until we can truly immerse ourselves in the virtual environment.

Sorting out collaboration vs. communication

While videoconferencing and mixed-reality tools are generally seen as different types of collaboration tools, in general, video is a one-to-many communications tool, while mixed reality is more a true collaboration option. It’s important not to confuse the two, and what each does best.,

As always, pick the best tool for the task at hand, and realize that while videoconferencing is relatively mature, it is a poor tool for collaboration. And while mixed reality is potentially better, it remains in its infancy with bigger issues to resolve.  

The one problem both tools still face is the lack of interoperability. Communication and collaboration products must work together to reach their potential. Until that’s fixed, neither will have the positive impact on productivity that’s possible. 

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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