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Meet with anyone from anywhere

Simon Clayton wonders if Facebook will change the format of future meetings

Discussions about virtual meetings seem to be on the increase again. Unfortunately some people seem to think it’s all new: in fact, virtual meetings have been around for years, although the technology used to be called teleconferencing. In that guise, it involved groups of people gathering in specially equipped rooms. They would be able to see and hear each other and it was fine as far as it went, but it never really took off.

These days, it’s a bit more accessible and, to some extent, it can be done by a group of people with laptops and webcams. It has its limitations, especially if there are several people involved, but it has its uses.

Recent developments, however, could be changing the possibilities and making virtual meetings a serious possibility.

We’re now close to the point where we’ll be able to sit at our desks, or anywhere else for that matter, wearing a virtual reality headset and look around to see a graphic representation of a meeting room with photo-realistic avatars representing the other people in the meeting. Motion sensing technology will be able to pick up hand movements which will be replicated by the avatars. The technology isn’t there yet, but it seems likely that virtual meetings will be possible before long.

Facebook seems to agree. In 2014 the company bought Oculus Rift, which manufactures virtual reality headsets. The concentration will be on the games market for a while, but Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s Chief Executive, was quoted as saying that Facebook is going to be expanding into other markets. Meetings could well be one of them.

It’s an interesting possibility but there is a downside. Surprisingly, price may not be one of them: the headsets are likely to cost around $200.00 (£125.00). That makes them look like a bargain compared to Google Glass. The price of the software to run a virtual meeting is a different issue, but if the developers want to make this into a major market, they can’t push the price too high.

Wearability is a different matter. The headset is a mask with a strap that goes around the back of the wearer’s head. Anybody who is keen on maintaining a good hairstyle is likely to find the strap a disincentive. Then there’s the mask itself. Attend an hour-long meeting with the mask and you’ll probably have marks on your face where the mask presses against the skin. But these issues may be seen as a small price to pay to avoid several hours of travel getting to a real meeting.

But virtual meetings still have a downside, especially in the informal networking that is an important part of the process. Very often the time wandering from reception to the meeting room or standing around having coffee is the time when the real work gets done. It’s difficult to see how the software can enable this to happen. It’s not impossible, but it’s a question of whether or not it’s seen as important.

In reality, though, it seems likely that this type of technology is going to be of more use in the USA and in multi-national companies. After all, if a company in America wants to get its sales team together, some of them are going to have to fly a long way, pushing the cost of the meeting up. The same is true of multi-nationals.

In those areas, this type of technology will probably hold great attractions. The practicalities will be solved and, with the headsets probably costing less than a tablet PC, it could be one of those developments that will quietly become a significant presence.

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