ARPost has covered events in the Virbela virtual world before. But, on March 24, the platform hosted its own event. The “Hands In 2022” Enterprise Metaverse Summit talked about the use of XR in enterprise generally, but it also celebrated 10 years of Virbela – and showed us glimpses of the near and distant future of the platform.
“We’ve been thinking about having a conference for years and actually making it a reality has been a huge team effort,” Virbela co-founder and President, Alex Howland said in opening remarks.
Virbela’s New Campus
As visitors to the event logged in (peak concurrent users reached over 480), the virtual curtain was drawn on perhaps Virbela’s single largest announcement of the day: its new campus. The campus includes some familiar elements, such as the Virbela Lighthouse, but is largely a ground-up redesign.
“This is all about having this real-world feeling and bringing our customers and our partners together to have a conversation,” Virbela Chief Customer Officer, Craig Kaplan, said during opening remarks. “Among other announcements, we’re excited to launch our new corporate campus.”
Virbela users have the option of teleporting from location to location within the world through a menu, but they can also walk through the entire campus. This is largely to encourage chance meetings between visitors as they walk from one location to another. This was already a feature in the original Virbela campus, but the new campus improves on the idea.
The campus is also laid out in a “modular” design so that clients who use Virbela to build their own proprietary campuses can have an easier time customizing their unique worlds. The new campus also includes new locations and features including:
- A campground area;
- The “Diversity Promenade”, featuring cultural exhibits and installations;
- A docked sailing ship;
- An outdoor amphitheater and other areas based on real-world locations;
- An updated map and subway system for in-world transportation.
The campus itself wasn’t the only thing to be updated. Virbela’s rendering engine was also retooled. Water and glass surfaces are now reflective, and users have realistic shadows. The platform will offer improved controls for users with limited color vision and other usability considerations.
The Upcoming Avatar System
“I’m really excited to share with you some of our new avatar system … We set out to create the most diverse, inclusive, and flexible avatar system,” Virbela Art Team Manager, Nicole Galinato, said in a keynote. “Avatars are important to the virtual experience because they add fidelity to the world.”
Virbela has had a relatively simple but versatile avatar creation system. The new system aims to maintain ease of use for users that are less interested in their avatars, while expanding capabilities for users that want to spend some more time on their in-world appearance.
“Our users love the playfulness of the current avatars but they want more features that they can identify with,” said Galinato. “You will have as much control over your experience as you’d like, whether that’s a lot or a little.”
Users will be able to join a Virbela experience by selecting a pre-made avatar, using a pre-made avatar as a template to jump-start their own avatar, or creating an avatar from scratch. The new system will include over 30 attribute sliders for different avatar characteristics and will incorporate different gender and mobility options.
Integrations and Partnerships
Flashy display features are fun, but announcements also included more practical integrations. For one, Virbela is going to become even more accessible through a native Zoom integration, which was demonstrated live at the conference.
“Our clients are not necessarily excited about an open-world metaverse. They’re excited about platforms that can link all of the tools that they already use to communicate and engage efficiently,” said Kaplan. “This is the first of many integrated tools that Virbela will offer.”
And, don’t forget that Virbela doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Virbela also offers FRAME, an in-beta remote collaboration solution that runs entirely in-browser.
“We believe that the web browser is the key to the metaverse,” FRAME Vice President of Product, Gabe Baker, said in a keynote. “The one that has been here all along and that will definitely be here in the future.”
FRAME also announced some amazing updates including an app for Microsoft Teams, a progressive mobile web app to make the experience more accessible on different devices, a developer API and artist community, and a partnership with Ready Player Me.
The whole event wasn’t just product announcements. The full day included guided tours of the new campus, and workshops led by industry leaders who use Virbela and other metaverse solutions to bring their teams together across physical space.
It also included two panel discussions, one on diversity and equity in the metaverse, and one on the future of work in the metaverse.
Diversity and Equity in the Metaverse
The “Diversity and Equity in the Metaverse” discussion consisted of eXp Realty CMO Courtney Chakarun, PwC Technology Impact Leader Mitra Best, and AT&T’s Ecosystem and Innovation AVP Lilac Ilan, and was moderated by futurist and Octosmos founder Sarah Segrest. The panel discussed avatars, representation, and work-life flexibility in virtual spaces.
“I look at the pandemic as the greatest work-from-home experiment,” said Ilan. “It provided women the flexibility to have and benefit from a more gender-equal work-life balance.”
Work-from home gives workers more flexibility and opportunity. It also means that workers never really “clock out” which can lead to the work-life balance tipping the other way.
“People can come to the forefront and be wildly successful when they have the opportunity to work whenever and wherever they want,” said Chakarun. “There’s a side of that that means you can burn out … where are the boundaries?”
The benefit of working in the metaverse isn’t only temporal – it is, first and foremost, spatial. In addition to the benefits of giving workers control over their work schedule, it also gives employers the freedom to hire anyone anywhere.
“I’m hoping that the metaverse can bring people together around similar goals … less bound to our expected communities,” said Best. “We can find people of like mind but that may be from different places around the world.”
A theme in the panel was that we get the most diversity from virtual worlds when those virtual worlds are created by diverse teams.
“It’s really important to make sure that we have diversity in the creator community, in the builder community of these virtual worlds,” said Best. “To be architects of the new world … we each have a responsibility and we each can do something, even if it’s deciding not to be a bystander.”
The Future of Work in the Metaverse
“The Future of Work in the Metaverse” panel discussion featured Howland, DXC Technology SVP and CIO Kristie Grinnell, Second Life and High Fidelity founder Philip Rosedale, and was moderated by futurist and author Charlie Fink. The panel discussed the history and evolution as well as the potential future of working in virtual worlds.
“What we’ve all learned is that remote work works … There’s still a great challenge ahead in getting everyone comfortable being in a meeting like we’re in now. It’s still the early days,” said Rosedale. “For governance, socialization, and work purposes, moving our identity from one virtual world to another is going to be the first order of business.”
As interoperability factored into the conversation, Howland mentioned an ongoing issue with enterprise metaverse experiences in particular, namely security and privacy concerns of clients.
“How do we provide those high walled gardens for clients that want them but still provide ways to jump between the global networks that are Virbela campuses?” asked Howland.
Grinnell in particular pointed out that not all metaverse solutions need to be all things to all people. She recommends companies explore and utilize multiple immersive technology operations concurrently, as different platforms have different strengths.
“This is all about driving cultural change in your company,” said Grinnell. “The metaverse is really about building a community experience and bringing people together in a way that you otherwise couldn’t.”
“A Huge Moment in Time”
Hands In celebrated Virbela as well as the expansion of immersive worlds and the ways that these worlds are changing how we work. Howland said that Virbela has grown from 20 to 150 employees in the last two years and envisioned millions of users in Virbela within the next five to ten years, though he mused that the future is “still blurry, and to me that’s half the fun.”
Kaplan closed the event with a thought about the day that was, in it’s own way, no less exciting: “I think this is a huge moment in time as we’re literally defining the enterprise metaverse.”