Video conferencing proved its business value during the pandemic, when companies depended on the technology to provide collaboration among employees forced to work from home. Virtual reality could one day replace video as an even better means for internet-based teamwork -- but experts agree that possibility would take a decade or more to become a reality.
At this week's Enterprise Connect, a panel of industry analysts and consultants were skeptical VR would overtake video meetings in the next 10 years. So far, immersive tech has shown clear benefits in training, car manufacturing, and scientific and medical research.
Global spending on VR and augmented reality technologies will increase from $12 billion in 2020 to $73 billion in 2024, IDC predicts. The research firm expects enterprise spending to drive the growth.
VR proponents argue that immersive technology will improve online collaboration significantly by making workers feel like they're in the same place. That sense of proximity, even in a virtual world, can be powerful in building stronger relationships, OnConvergence analyst Tom Brannen said.
"[Video] can only get so immersive. It can only go so far," he said.
Microsoft and Meta, formerly Facebook, have developed products like Mesh and Horizon Workrooms, respectively, to encourage people to collaborate using VR. Nevertheless, it will take time for businesses to quantify VR's value before paying for products, said Kevin Kieller, co-founder of consulting group enableUC. His experience with VR hasn't convinced him.
"I appreciated the difference [between video and VR], but I don't know if it would have advanced a business meeting," he said. "I don't know whether I'd be able to say it helped me make more sales."
Many companies don't provide employees with smartphones, so the idea of many businesses buying VR goggles to let workers join an all-hands call is ludicrous, said TalkingPointz analyst Dave Michels.
"It's coming. It's going to be significant. It's going to be huge. It's going to be decades [from now]," Michels said, referring to VR and the metaverse, the next internet iteration dominated by 3D.
VR, and even video, will always have a limited role in collaboration, which will remain primarily a face-to-face activity, said Communications Advantage consultant Robert Lee Harris. He predicted many people would return to the office post-pandemic for the camaraderie, much like workout fans abandoned their Peloton bikes to return to gyms.
"As soon as people were able to go back to spin classes, they wanted to be back in real life," he said.
Vendors expect to reap significant profits from VR eventually. However, the panelists do not see products becoming more interconnected than today's video conferencing services.
Mike Gleason is a reporter covering unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily News, Walpole Times, Sharon Advocate and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as a local editor for Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.