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Apple Set to Revolutionize Virtual Meetings with its Foray into VR?


Surprise hit the tech world last Friday, 19 January, when Apple's latest creation, the Vision Pro mixed reality headset, defied expectations with its preorder sales. The shocker? Its price tag: a hefty US$3,499. That's over three times more expensive than its main rival, Meta’s Quest Pro, priced at US$999. Despite the steep cost – a common premium in the realm of Apple products – the numbers were impressive.


Why the skepticism initially? Back in July, Apple slashed its production forecast for the Vision Pro, dropping from 1 million to just 400,000 units. The reason? Alleged production challenges due to the device's complex design. Adding to the doubt, Apple expert Ming Chi Kuo predicted a meager availability of 60,000 to 80,000 units at launch, expecting a quick sell-out.


Turns out, Tim can cook. Over the launch weekend, Apple notched up between 160,000 to 180,000 preorders for the Vision Pro, raking in an estimated US$560 million to US$630 million. All this happened despite Apple’s vague stance on the Vision Pro’s intended market and use cases. Currently, it's marketed somewhat like a high-end on-head monitor or personal theater. Yet, its success suggests a broader potential – perhaps, as the new frontier for business meetings in a mixed-reality format.


The Gap Between Virtual Meetings and In-person Meetings


In the post-pandemic world, the way we meet has changed. The shift towards hybrid and fully remote work setups has made virtual meetings a norm, turning those pricey business trips into relics of the past. But this shift isn't without its hitches.


Picture a typical virtual meeting: faces reduced to 2D images on screens. It's no surprise that attention wanders. Teamstage reports a staggering 92% of employees confess to multitasking during these meetings, their focus elsewhere. HR Digest echoes this, noting that 95% of participants in virtual meetings lose focus and miss key parts of the discussions. The root of the issue? A lack of engagement, the absence of physical presence, non-verbal cues, and the shared environment that in-person meetings naturally offer.


This leads us to a pivotal question in our digitally-dominated era: How do we revamp virtual meetings to be more engaging, more interactive? How do we close the gap that currently exists between the virtual and the real, making online meetings not just a necessity, but a productive and engaging experience?


Virtual Reality and a Photorealistic Avatar


The leap from the flat, 2D world of current virtual meetings to a more engaging, 3D realm is essential. Enter mixed reality headsets, promising to revolutionize our online interactions. This isn't a new idea; it's the core concept of the metaverse – crafting a digital world mirroring our physical reality.


Meta's Horizon Workrooms, designed for the Quest Pro headset, took a stab at this evolution. It's a space for virtual meetings where participants, represented by digital avatars, can interact more naturally – drawing on whiteboards, gesturing, and sharing notes. But why hasn't Horizon Workrooms overshadowed platforms like Zoom and Teams? Two reasons: the US$249 price tag for the required Meta Quest 2 headset, and the avatars' cartoonish appearance, which, while facilitating a virtual meeting space, detracts from the professionalism and nuance of facial expressions and gestures.



But why hasn't Horizon Workrooms eclipsed platforms like Zoom and Teams? Two reasons: the cost of entry with the US$249 Meta Quest 2 headset, and the avatars' cartoonish appearance. While these avatars create a more interactive environment, they lack professionalism and the subtlety of real human expressions and gestures – a step forward in interaction, but two steps back in authenticity.


However, Apple understood the importance of having a photorealistic avatar as a key component in making truly engaging virtual meetings in VR. Enter Apple's Vision Pro. It promises to revolutionize virtual meetings with photorealistic avatars created from a facial scan of the user with the Vison Pro’s onboard cameras, leveraging advanced neural networks trained on thousands of faces. These avatars, however, are currently limited to FaceTime calls and lack a fully developed virtual environment. The true photorealism of these avatars remains to be seen until the Vision Pro's release on February 2nd.


Face scanning using the Apple Vision Pro's front-facing cameras. Source: Apple

Meanwhile, a collaborative effort from Cornell and Stanford scientists has made strides in creating real-time, photorealistic avatars using headset-mounted cameras. This method bridges the gap between virtual and real, enhancing the accuracy of facial expressions and movements in VR. Although not yet commercially utilized, these developments hint at a near future where virtual meetings rival the real thing.


Yet, the success of this next-gen virtual meeting technology hinges on widespread VR headset adoption. Rumors suggest Apple might introduce a more accessible version of the Vision Pro, potentially catalyzing this shift. If this happens, we might soon find ourselves in a world where virtual meetings in a "tiny metaverse office" are not just a possibility, but a norm.

3 Comments


I believe that these tools are crucial to a future where virtual meetings take place and are conducted with the same level productivity as in real life. Although wide-spread adoption of this technology could be hindered by the hefty price tag. The small features discussed in the article, like the cartoonish appearance of the characters are among those that are currently further deterring wide-spread adoption. Just like with some other technologies that were discussed by the author in previous articles, all of these technologies have a lot of potential to increase global productivity, but more work, research and adjustments will have to be done for full-scale implementation.

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In terms of professionalism and user preferences, engaging in formal meetings with a virtual representation closely resembling one's actual self may potentially enhance efficiency. However, it is undeniable that Meta's cartoonish virtual avatars also have their practical applications. I believe that depending on different application scenarios, each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages. The upcoming challenges will depend on how companies effectively handle professional marketing, pricing strategies, and simulate usage scenarios. I look forward to witnessing the future developments in this virtual technology competition.

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The technological advancements in communication are truly remarkable. Non-verbal cues contribute significantly to our overall understanding, constituting over half of our communication. Unfortunately, the ongoing pandemic has resulted in the loss of this crucial component, creating a substantial risk of miscommunication. Anticipating the emergence of more affordable options, I look forward to efficient and engaging virtual meetings from my office or home. Beyond business interactions, this technology has the potential to revolutionize education, eliminating the need for students to bear the cost of expensive accommodations in high-priced cities to attend prestigious schools. This innovation is poised to be a transformative game-changer in the near future.

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Apple Set to Revolutionize Virtual Meetings with its Foray into VR?

Surprise hit the tech world last Friday, 19 January, when Apple's latest creation, the Vision Pro mixed reality headset, defied expectations with its preorder sales. The shocker? Its price tag: a hefty US$3,499. That's over three times more expensive than its main rival, Meta’s Quest Pro, priced at US$999. Despite the steep cost – a common premium in the realm of Apple products – the numbers were ....

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