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Virtual Retreat

Image of CrIS team member avatars taken during a VR department meeting

By Greg Hatch

Five years after we formed the Creativity & Innovation Services department, the COVID-19 pandemic presented my team and me with an ideal opportunity to reflect on our collective mission, set new individual goals, and reimagine how we will make them all a reality given the challenging hurdles of physical distancing, Zoom fatigue, and the occasional set-backs due to anxiety, depression, and home-schooling. So, we planned a series of hour-long retreat meetings earlier this fall.

To further embrace the chaos of these pandemic times, the CrIS team decided to adopt the still-developing technology of virtual reality headsets as a tool for meeting “face-to-face” for these mini-retreats. Each of my full-time employees was given an Oculus Quest headset. It’s untethered, which allowed me to use it from anywhere within range of a wi-fi signal and did not require a separate computer in order to function. So, I attended the virtual meetings while sitting in my real home office, living room, and even my kitchen, which has the widest space in my house—an environment that was particularly beneficial when I decided move around with the headset on.

Image of CrIS team member avatars taken during a VR department meeting

Since most VR applications are still designed for entertainment, finding a good option for team building, interpersonal communication, and productivity was a challenge. We settled on AltSpaceVR, which was recently acquired by Microsoft and is being updated regularly. We chose a variety of virtual “spaces” to meet in, ranging from a boardroom to a performance venue with a proscenium stage to a roof-top basketball court. We broke up into pairs and “teleported” to the far corners of each space for private conversations. This particular VR world mimics the real world by reducing the volume of avatars that are farther away, but also allowed me, as the host, to turn on a microphone and call everyone back to the central meeting point for a debriefing session.

The greatest challenge I faced was documenting our discussions. Even Image of a virtual meeting environment within AltSpace used by the CrIS departmentthough AltSpaceVR has meeting room-like spaces, they are designed for presentations and discussions, but not for note-taking. I could have recorded our hour-long meetings and reviewed the video afterward to write down our discussion highlights, but who wants to attend a work retreat twice?! I could have lifted up my headset in order to see my laptop clearly, or stepped out of my self-defined VR boundary, which dims the VR projection within the headset and allows one to see real-world surroundings. But doing either renders your in-app avatar motionless, at best, or lifelessly dangling in midair with head and hands akimbo, at worst, from the perspective of the other VR participants. So, as an awkward but effective compromise, I refocused my eyes to look through the small aperture under the VR goggles along the bridge of my nose, which provided me with enough vision to see and type notes on my laptop.

One surprising, and admittedly ironic, benefit of hosting a retreat in VR was Image of CrIS team members having a discussion in AltSpace VRhow personal the interactions felt. AltSpaceVR’s avatars offer realistic facial details and movements, and the hand-held controls channel subtle body language. In addition, the customizable avatar outfits and hairstyles meant I could look sharp online while lounging in sweatpants on my sofa. Most importantly, the 3D virtual environment allowed our avatars to “stand” in a circle and “look” directly at one another as we talked. Unlike Zoom meetings, where users look down at the images on their computer screens rather than directly into the camera, the VR avatars made eye contact and enabled a deeper connection while in conversation.

If I’ve piqued your interest, Marriott Library has a few dozen VR headsets and systems available for checkout, and we’ll be adding more throughout 2021. And the cost to buy a personal headset is dropping rapidly as the technology becomes more popular. I whole-heartedly recommend you give it a try.

Greg Hatch | Head of Creativity & Innovation Services
Creativity & Innovation Services

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