The pace that technology changes is staggering. It’s moving so rapidly that it can be hard to keep up. The Metaverse is one of the latest things that a lot of people are talking about and some companies are spending millions to get a piece of the action – but will it be worth it? Well, possibly for some, but not yet and it won’t impact live events in the foreseeable future.

Some elements of virtual meetings are ok: Holding video meetings is normal now and people have got used to it and acclimatised – so much so that I’m seeing requests for a video call, when a simple phone call would have sufficed. But just because people have got used to using something, doesn’t mean that they like it.

Virtual events were a necessary evil through lockdown, but now that lockdown has lifted, we are seeing a huge resurgence of real-life events, because people want to meet again IRL – who knew? I’ve still not seen a virtual tradeshow that can compete with a real tradeshow, and the socialising parts of any virtual event were either non-existent or clunky at best.

YouTube has taught us that people like to watch good content, but that they don’t need to see it live. The live element of any virtual conference seemed only to serve in creating a Q&A which doesn’t actually need to be live at all. On YouTube content creators are constantly trying to encourage interaction and engagement with their audience by asking people to “comment below” and it really works.

So, let’s bring the Metaverse into this. Just as we are starting to come out of our houses to experience life again, along comes the Metaverse with the promise that you can experience everything the world has to offer from the comfort of your own home. Hang on, we’ve just spent the two years being trapped in our own homes – and this has had a massive impact on our mental and physical health – so I for one do not want to feel like that again.

At the moment, the perceived problem with virtual events is that they simply aren’t the same as gathering everyone round a meeting table – so the events industry has looked for some more tech to fix this problem and jumped onto the Metaverse as the solution.

Our industry bangs on about the power of immersion, and whilst wearing my VR headset I am totally immersed, but at the moment that means that I can’t even pick up my coffee. My keyboard is pretty state of the art, but it’s not one of the three supported by Oculus which allows the keyboard to appear in the virtual world in the right position so I could type on it on my desk whilst I’m ‘submerged’. Will we see more integration between the Metaverse and real-life objects? Yes, we might even have an Oculus approved coffee cup one day, but can we be bothered?

As with most new technology, there are problems; like most people I use my hands quite a lot when I speak but in Horizon Workrooms, the software from Meta to give me a virtual meeting room, I can’t even put my hands together in front of me without it glitching and looking stupid. I’m sure that’ll improve with time and more development on the hardware and software.

New technology isn’t always better than the existing solutions. Take 3D TV, this was something we didn’t need, or it turns out, want. If a film came out in 3D, people would go to see it, but directors had to create storylines that emphasised the 3D-ness of the film which in a lot of cases detracted from the story. People didn’t like wearing the glasses either – even though they did actually allow you to see and eat your popcorn. Did you ever see a film sequel in 3D – me neither. It was fun for a while, but where is it now? It turns out that TV wasn’t actually broken.

Culturally we are a small island and it’s not too hard to see people in real life. From where I live near Tamworth I can get to a large part of the country in 2 hours, so virtual meetings aren’t really that crucial to me. The rise in fuel prices (and the growing concern for the environment) may have an impact too – but I think that will simply drive more video calls. The US is a different matter though but again, video calls have been standard for some while because of the distances involved.

The cost of joining the Metaverse (or one of the competitors) is a factor too; entry level headsets are around £300 but go up to around £1,000, so will companies be rushing out to equip their teams with expensive kit that will effectively just imprison them at their desk? One major stumbling block will be interoperability. Jumping between Zoom, Microsoft Teams or any of the other video call platforms on a laptop is easy enough but what if the big client you want to meet with is using one of the VR platforms you don’t have a headset for?

At the moment, the Metaverse is too primitive, too buggy and too flawed in plenty of ways. In its current state I don’t think it’s fit for purpose as an events solution but we will of course see some organisers try to shoehorn it into their events.

As with all technology, there has to be serious benefits to drive both change and acceptance.

Simon Clayton, chief ideas officer, RefTech

This article was originally published in Conference News 2022. Find out more about RefTech here.

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