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Blog: Event management

If Meta doesn’t use the metaverse for meetings, will anyone else?

30 November 2022 minute read

Ian Dickie
Managing Director

Spare a thought for Meta (the artist formerly known as Facebook) which recently announced it was laying off 11,000 employees. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has pretty much bet the farm on his long-term vision for the metaverse, in particular: his belief that virtual reality (VR) will make the leap from gaming to serious enterprise applications, including meetings and events.

So imagine Mark’s chagrin when the New York Times published an article claiming that Meta employees themselves were reluctant to use the company’s own Horizon Workrooms app, which allows users, represented by avatars, to gather around a conference table and meet within Meta’s simulated reality space.

According to the Times article, many Meta staffers didn’t have VR headsets, or if they did, they hadn’t bothered to set them up yet.

If Mark’s own people don’t want to use it for meetings, just how likely is it that this brave new virtual world is on the cusp of transforming the way we do meetings, conferences, tradeshows and everything else?

We hear a lot about how the metaverse is set to revolutionise the events industry with its potential to enliven boring meetings, boost collaboration – especially among distributed and remote teams, strengthen bonds between brands and consumers and eliminate untold travel costs.

Four avatars sitting around a table

What actually is the metaverse?

Defining ‘the metaverse’ at this stage is a bit like trying to nail jelly to the wall. Everyone goes on about it, but there would appear to be a spectrum – with game-changing new business models at one end and silly sci-fi bullsh*t at the other.

But for now, let’s assume we’re talking about technologies centred around virtual reality and characterised by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you’re not in them; as well as some form of augmented reality that combines aspects of the digital and physical worlds.

It’s worth noting that these spaces often don’t require access exclusively via VR or AR. Virtual worlds – such as aspects of Fortnite (the video game) that can be accessed through PCs, regular game consoles and even phones – have already started referring to themselves as ‘the metaverse.’

I’m willing to bet that those virtual event platforms that sprung up during the pandemic – the ones with 3D renders of a conference centre, cartoonish figures standing behind virtual booths and badly-drawn palm trees – will soon follow suit.

VR and augmented reality are already here and they surely have the potential to change events, along with a whole host of other industries and businesses processes. But some people are predicting that the metaverse will do away with in-person events. Personally, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Man wearing VR headset with image fragmenting into a mosaic

Barriers to adoption

There are, I think, a few flies in the meta ointment when it comes to events.

Firstly, the technology itself is simply not accessible for everyone, all the time. Meta’s own Quest 2 headset costs $400. If you want a device that can handle mixed reality, facial mapping and other cool stuff, think north of $1000. If Meta employees don’t all have headsets (or haven’t set them up) we still have a way to go before this tech can be considered accessible to everyone.

Hardware cost isn’t the only barrier. Users need training too. It’s not as easy to jump into a VR meeting as it is to join a video call. It takes time to start up the headset, open the app, and become comfortable with the VR meeting space. And there’s still a learning curve for the user before they can operate the headsets in anything like a natural way to consume information and interact virtually.

Platform / hardware compatibility is likely to be a challenge too. Think of the number of different headset manufacturers out there. Now think of the number of platforms. How long will it be before an organiser will be able to get 100 percent of their audience into an event, whether internal or external?

Based on today’s putative immersive virtual event platforms, it can be as much of a headache to set the thing up as a real, in-person event. When organisers are looking for deep customisation of virtual event spaces, setup can take months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially for conferences with lots of moving parts.

Then there’s the literal physical headache associated with the virtual reality experience.

Lots of people find the sheer intensity of VR sessions overwhelming. It’s simply at odds with the way our brains have evolved to process sensory information. Some people get dizzy or nauseous after a few minutes. All of this makes the idea of a day-long conference in VR simply untenable.

Woman wearing VR headset feeling sick being offered a small brown paper bag

VR is coming to events, but …

It’s not going to be quite the revolution some people are predicting, and it’s not going to happen fast.

Like self-driving cars, it’s going to take a long time and it’s going to happen incrementally, starting with particular niche use-cases where the technology makes more sense.

Think of medical conferences where it would be incredibly useful to show the specifics of a procedure in AR, rather than just a video or slides on a big screen.

Or exhibitor demonstrations where you need to show an innovative new component to a crowd of engineers.

Shorter, bite-sized VR sessions mixed in as part of the wider conference agenda really will be game-changing.

And that other mega-trend, working from home will likely accelerate the uptake and advancement of VR in the meeting space. Remote workers, especially younger digital natives, will adopt the technology as part of their day-to-day collaboration with colleagues.

Video conferencing company Owl Labs recently polled over 2,000 UK office workers and found that 34% think the metaverse could improve flexible and hybrid working in the future.

So there’s cool stuff on the horizon. But does it spell the end of physical events as we know them. I doubt it. Not any time soon.

Whether all this will be enough for Mark Zuckerberg to keep the Meta show on the road? Well that’s the $325 billion question.