VR remote collaboration has long been one of the most promising use cases for the technology. Selecting a few highlights is naturally challenging, particularly since just about any VR application is arguably collaborative. However, these are the platforms and providers that have caught our attention in the last few months.
A Note on Some Platforms We Left Off the List
VR remote collaboration solutions are those that place a user and/or their avatar into an immersive virtual environment. Some of these solutions have a 2D interface but still incorporate a sense of spatial presence and the ability to interact with 3D assets. All of the platforms discussed here are compatible with VR headsets, but not all of the platforms require headsets.
This article is going to focus on VR remote collaboration in terms of professional and particularly enterprise opportunity. There are some platforms that this article isn’t going to discuss because they lack tools to make them truly valuable for industry.
People can and do hold VR remote meetings on platforms like Altspace and VRChat. However, the limited ability to do things like import assets make these inopportune solutions for non-creator uses. If your needs are less technical, do explore those (and other) social VR platforms for their ease of use and accessibility.
Similarly, platforms like Hyperfair are ideal for enterprise-oriented VR remote events like virtual forums and expos, but the scale is such that they aren’t great for things like regular or impromptu meetings of working groups. But again, do look into those solutions if they sound like they can fit your needs.
Hubs by Mozilla
Hubs by Mozilla is largely presented as social VR these days. However, its surprisingly useful affordances, universal hardware compatibility, and sheer ease-of-use make it impossible to pass up on our list of VR remote collaboration platforms and solutions.
The browser-based VR remote collaboration experience can be entered with a headset, but it also works with WASD controls on a laptop or desktop, or with touch controls on a smart device. Once someone makes a room, they receive a link that they can send out via email, similar to more familiar meeting platforms like Zoom.
Unlike Zoom, 2D and 3D assets can be essentially just drag-and-dropped into the scene. Users have access to a large catalog of existing assets from sources like Sketchfab and Google Polly, but users can also upload their own assets.
Hubs is free to use and, while some perks come with creating an account, not even an account is necessary to use the service.
ENGAGE was, and still largely is, a dedicated VR remote education platform. While that feeling is still very much a part of many ENGAGE settings and features, the platform realized that it had larger potential and marketability and is now more open to general VR remote collaboration.
Like Hubs, this VR remote collaboration tool is best experienced on a headset but is hardware agnostic and runs on just about anything with a screen and space for the app download. Basic features are free but there are benefits to a premium account.
Uploading your own 3D assets to ENGAGE is more tasking than in Hubs, but there is a huge library of high-quality assets that come even with the free version. It’s also just as easy to bring in web pages, video, and 2D documents.
Further, ENGAGE has what might be my personal favorite avatar customization system of any VR platform out there.
FundamentalVR is a full 6-degree-of-freedom and haptics-enabled VR solution specifically targeted at the medical industry. Their set intention is VR remote education but as their platform becomes more expansive and versatile, new use cases open up.
Once more like a series of training modules, FundamentalVR rolled out Teaching Space in 2020. The experience is a more open and collaborative tool where users can hold VR remote meetings with shared access to 2D and 3D assets.
“The work that we’re doing and that end-use of haptics is significant not just for this application, but for people to be able to touch objects in VR,” FundamentalVR CEO Richard Vincent told me in a VR remote interview within the Teaching Space platform in March. “In medical education, it’s the piece that sets us apart.”
Users appear within the platform as gloved and scrubbed avatars that are neither intimate nor out of place. Each user’s avatar gets its own color, but voice, tags, and the posture and gestures of individual users do the most to show who is who.
When you need a menu, a personal user interface spawns from your wristwatch. Other users can see that you’re looking at your UI, but they can’t see what is on the UI, even if they’re literally looking over your shoulder.
When Vincent wants me to see what he is looking at, he invites me to virtually step into his shoes to see exactly what he is seeing when he looks at a medical model or holds a 3D replica of a tool.
Virbela is a VR remote coworking platform that runs from a desktop download. It is compatible with PCVR, though most users prefer to use it on desktop because many users work in Virbela the way that they would work in a conventional office, according to President and co-founder Alex Howland, who met with me for a VR remote interview within Virbela.
“Instead of just coming here for learning and development, this can be a place where people go to work,” said Howland. “People feel connected. They feel like they work together. You ask them how they feel about working remotely and they say they don’t feel remote; they feel like they work in an office.”
The Virbela open campus consists of offices, an auditorium, a conference hall, and other specialized locations. That includes the new Speakeasy location that was added in December of 2020 specifically for after-hour work parties.
Users can teleport around the campus using a user-friendly on-screen cascading menu, or they can move from location to location manually like they navigate within the locations – using the arrow keys and WASD controls just like a computer game. Avatars can be highly personalized, but maintain a “cartoony nature” to avoid the “uncanny valley.”
“People think they want that photorealistic experience until they get it,” said Howland.
The whole platform has spatialized audio so people farther away seem quieter. However, venues also have special areas where users can go for private conversations.
Anyone with the free app can access the open campus, but companies that pay for the service can get access to private areas, branded office space, and other features starting at $100/month.
FRAME is a lightweight VR remote collaboration solution made by Virbela that runs in a browser without an app download. It’s also easier to use for impromptu meetings than Virbela. FRAME can also fit fewer active users, but events can scale with a “spectator mode” that allows overfill attendees to listen and view without navigating an avatar through the space.
“Our main goal with FRAME is to make it as easy as possible for people to get online together and for even non-developers to be able to create their own spaces,” Gabe Baker told me in VR remote interview within FRAME in April. Baker is a product manager, VR developer, and a WebXR lead at Virbela, as well as “FRAME’s Mastermind.”
FRAME works a lot like Mozilla Hubs in that each session takes place in a “frame” and each frame has a unique link which can be used to bring colleagues and coworkers together quickly, easily, and privately. However, FRAME, built on Babylon.js, is more customizable than Hubs and provides more utilities. As a result, it is a more powerful tool that is a little more intensive to use.
“We see a really big trend right now about low and no-code tools that are allowing non-creatives to do some really cool things,” FRAME’s Maya Komadina said in our meeting. “We believe in this low and no-code wave that is empowering people to do so many cool things.”
Currently in beta, FRAME is still exploring pricing models for premium tools and features but is currently entirely free to use and will continue to offer a free price tier when their full pricing model rolls out. The platform recently rolled out a huge update including real-time talk-to-text transcription and translation and other usability and feature enhancements.
Also in on the “virtual office” wave is Arthur. Founded in 2016, Arthur Technologies spent two-and-a-half years building its VR remote collaboration platform, focusing on large-scale and high-impact events like workshops.
“We see ourselves as a virtual real estate company. We just provide the office,” Arthur Technologies Demand Manager Simon Berger told ARPost in a remote interview. “This is a virtual office.”
Used by major organizations including PwC and the International Training Centre, Arthur focuses on bringing together companies facing challenges because of their physical scope and scale. While these companies often have the resources to overcome these challenges in conventional ways, Arthur is more environmentally friendly as well as a more affordable option.
“The types of clients that have the most trouble collaborating remotely are larger companies because they tend to be geographically distributed,” said Berger. “We thought that there was a need for [remote collaboration] from an environmental perspective as well as to create global talent pools.”
The platform allows presentations, whiteboards, and 3D objects as well as file management within persistent virtual spaces. These spaces are navigated through approachable and professional avatars, with a big update coming soon.
Arthur has a free and feature-limited version available to everyone on Oculus, as well as a more powerful enterprise version available through the website. The platform is accessible via Oculus headsets, as well as through 2D interfaces on computers and mobile devices.
How Can VR Remote Collaboration Power You?
For small-scale use cases with low input demand, even VR remote collaboration experts say that video conferencing is probably the most effective and efficient bet. However, for events that require a large number of people to engage in depth, these platforms and solutions are increasingly taking over. In some cases, they’re even set to take over for in-person events.