After my interviews with the VR educational companies Langzou and Judao, I’ve visited in Shanghai VR Waibao, that is working on a multipresence VR collaboration tool. There I’ve been received by Sam, a very smart man that has worked in the VR field for 20 years and that has spent various years of his life in the Silicon Valley, so he has been in the two most technologically advanced places in the world: China and US. Speaking with him has been really great, I could really feel its expertise… even if he said that the Chinese people have invented pasta, and as an Italian I will never be able to forgive him for this
The idea of VR Waibao is offering a virtual place where people from various parts of the world can meet and collaborate. This is for sure not the most original idea: in the Virtual reality ecosystem already exist a bazillion companies doing the same, both for consumers (think about Facebook Spaces, for instance) and for enterprises. Sam himself highlighted that problem while presenting his company, showing a slide with really a long list of direct and indirect competitors. He also said that probably one of the best solutions out there is NVIDIA Holodeck, but the cost of the license is so high that only big corporates can afford it.
But why is this field so overcrowded? Why are so many companies investing in this? Well, in the consumers’ space the reason is that, as Charlie Fink says, “people can be the killer app of VR”, that is VR will take off when it will allow all people of the world to connect in a better way (as it has happened with smartphones, for instance). In the enterprise space, Sam explained to me that the reasons are instead “time and money”, that are two simple words, but of paramount importance.
Here all the experience of Sam came to light and he explained to me that the money that companies can spare thanks to such applications is really a lot. First of all there is the money and the time needed to attend the meetings: travelling can be expensive and the more the time passes by, the more the cost of life in China raises, so even travelling becomes more expensive. Furthermore, China is overcrowded and there are traffic jams everywhere (I can confirm that), so travelling becomes stressful and a waste of time. That’s why now 80% of companies use some form of virtual meeting, like for instance Skype or Zoom.
But using such video conferencing systems is not enough yet, because some of these meetings regard discussing the features of some objects. So, for instance, in a company that produces TV, the various team members have to decide together the design of the remote. Doing it via Skype is completely inadequate, since a remote has to be tried in the hand, just seeing it on a screen while one person is holding it is not enough, you can’t get the ergonomics, the shape, how it is easy to reach the various buttons and so on. The device has to be tried by the various workers, by the designers, so the present solution is printing various possible prototypes and sending all of them to the various offices of the companies. Steven told me that this process is:
- Very expensive, because creating all these samples ain’t cheap;
- A waste of time, because all these prototypes have to be printed, then shipped… and then after the meeting maybe there is the need to print new prototypes and send them again… and so on. This process is very long and makes the design process of a new product slower;
So, companies really crave for a solution that makes them spare time and money in the creation process of their products. And VR can really help them in that. People from all over the world could have a meeting as in real life by meeting in the same place to discuss together about a product by seeing it altogether in VR, being able to hold it virtually in the hands, evaluating the design, the dimensions, the ergonomics, etc… That’s why a lot of companies have jumped into the VR collaborative environments bandwagon: because there is demand, because there is a market.
And that’s why VR Waibao created XCOL (eXtended reality COLlaboration), a framework to create collaborative environments in virtual reality. This system has the following main features:
- Ability to connect people from all over the world;
- Optimization for the Asian customers, since currently the main servers are located in China and Japan (but there is a plan to install servers even in other strategical parts of the world);
- Avatar customization: there is the possibility to choose a pre-set avatar or create a new one that is similar to the user;
- Possibility to change on the fly the environment where the uses are located in;
- A big screen where all people can watch and discuss together Powerpoint presentations, movies, etc…;
- A whiteboard onto which write stuff that can to be discussed between the various members of the meeting;
- Objects sharing: the various members of the meeting can interact with 3D objects present in the scene;
- Photo shooting: for instance it is possible to take a photo of the whiteboard or make a selfie of all the members of the meeting;
- Cross platform seamless experience: the system works on all devices.
I’ve asked Sam what is the feature that it values the most about their system, the one that makes them shine wrt the competition and he answered “cross platformness”. XCOL really works everywhere: PC, smartphone, Oculus, Vive, even OSVR! On every device the interface is optimal: for instance on standard PC you can move with WASD controls, on mobile you can use virtual on-screen joysticks and in virtual reality there is teleporting. He said that no other collaborative system has such a compatibility with all devices and this is something he is very proud of. I wonder if this is really the killer feature that customers want from a virtual meeting solution, but for sure it is a cool one.
I so asked him what are the features the customers ask him and he said to me that there are two types of customers:
- The techie ones, that don’t care about visual appearance and such, but just care about the technical details and new features;
- The non techie ones, that care more about visuals (so for instance want better avatars) and also require stuff inspired by movies (I want the AI of Iron Man!).
Satisfying both is really hard, since they require completely different features. That’s why VR Waibao is trying to satisfy them all by adding some features requested by the first group of people and some others requested by the other ones. They have a roadmap for this and the next year with lots of features that are going to be implemented. Some of them are really intriguing, like for instance:
- An AI assistant of the meeting (so Iron Man fans will be happy);
- Automatic speech translation, so that people from different parts of the world can speak together even using different languages. At the beginning this will be implemented with subtitles, then with actual speech translation;
- 3D recording of the meeting and save/restore of a meeting;
- Reconstruction of the facial expressions of the users by using their voice tones and their gestures. This is something that VR Waibao is working on and that IMHO is damn interesting. Steven claims that using AI it is possible to understand if the user is happy, sad, doubtful, etc… without making him/her wear any facial sensor. This way it is possible to adapt the face of the virtual avatar to the just detected emotion. This is really useful to make a VR meeting to appear more realistic.
I have tried VR Waibao software and I think that it is in line with its promises: of course meeting in VR is still not as meeting in real life, but this software lets multiple people connect from different parts of the world using whatever device they want. The only requirement is that the moderator of the meeting wears a VR headset… the other ones can even use PCs and smartphones. In my test, I was using a Vive Pro headset, Sam was using a smartphone, and two VR Waibao employees where using a VR Focus and a tablet. Everything worked like a charm: I was able to teleport everywhere, talk with the other people, open a Powerpoint presentation, write on the whiteboard and then change the surrounding environment. As the admin of the meeting, I was able to teleport everyone to an ancient Egyptian tomb to continue the meeting there. After that, I returned to the initial virtual meeting room and I started playing with the 3D objects there, taking them in my hand and also faking a discussion with Sam about them. I made this to simulate the case study that Sam was talking about: using VR Waibao to make people in a company discuss a 3D prototype without having to print it. It made sense to me… of course there is no haptic feedback, so it is not the same as holding the objects in hand, but I think that for the first iterations of prototyping, this is really ok. Sam told me that some companies have already tried it and for instance a Swiss company has already used with success this solution to spare a lot of money on prototyping. At the end of the demo, I also made a cool selfie and saved it into my pictures folder.
Trying it, I noticed how it is clearly a B2B solution: there are no “fancy” features that can appeal to consumers, only useful ones that can appeal to enterprises. XCOL is clearly tailored at an enterprise market, that market that can spare money and time thanks to it. I asked Sam how the solution can be customized for every company and he told me that at the moment, a custom solution for each company, including the 3D models and the 3D environments desired by that company, has to be built. This ensures an optimal environment for the requirements of the customer. XCOL is so currently a framework, through which every Unity developer can create a custom solution for enterprise virtual collaboration.
He envisions that in the future XCOL can be used to shoot Youtube videos, to organize virtual events (he said that maybe HTC will organize some official events using this software), to create virtual academies (the mod of the meeting can be a teacher and the other people the students that can be teleported to various environments to learn interesting things) and also to offer entertainment (games, concerts, etc…). The fact that it works with every platform can make an event organized through VR Waibao appealing even to people that don’t have a VR headset yet.
As with every company that I’m meeting, I asked Sam about Vive-X and about China. Regarding the Vive-X, he is super-enthusiast: he has a long story in entrepreneurship in the US and in China and he said that the Vive-X is one of the best incubators he’s been in. The reason is that it offers a lot of networking opportunities with customers, partners and investors. He said that the AI technology that detects the facial expressions thanks to the tone of the voice will be possible thanks to a partnership fostered by the Vive-X. He also praised the people that are inside there, saying that the mentors are great and there is a lot of interaction with them. He advises startups to join that accelerator.
Regarding China, I asked him the difference between the Chinese VR ecosystem and the Western one. He answered with a stab to my heart… something that alone made the whole interview worth of my time. He looked into my eyes and said calmly and firmly “You Europeans, Western people, are going to lose the technology war. You don’t welcome new technology, you resist it… you are wasting your time with articles saying that VR isn’t useful or won’t succeed. Instead, we in China welcome every new technology, the government supports them, we are adopting them fastly in every sector. That’s why in the end you will lose.“. At the end of this sentence, I was a statue of salt. I really didn’t know how to reply. Because, actually, he was right: in China I’m seeing innovative technologies everywhere, I’m seeing VR becoming widespread, I’ve learnt that lots of schools and companies are already adopting VR thanks to the high push of the government. In the meanwhile, we are all commenting a recent article about the sales of VR headsets going down. It’s not that we are not smart and it’s not that there aren’t people that believe in VR even in the West (there are lots and I’m one of them)… it’s that they are faster, organized and fearless. They’re hungry. They’re taking VR and trying to use it everywhere… they’re not asking themselves if VR is a fad, they’re working so that it won’t be a fad. That’s why in China, VR is growing faster… also in a confusing way, but surely at a fast pace. And if we don’t want to fall behind, we have to be brave as well.
(AR experience at the Terracotta Army site in Xi’An… Chinese people are also implementing AR fast)
I closed the interview by asking him what he’s looking for. Sam answered that they want to connect with:
- Companies that want to use XCOL for events, virtual academies, virtual meetings, etc…;
- Developers interested in using XCOL framework to develop collaborative VR experiences;
- Companies interested in developing whatever VR experience: VR Waibao also offers high quality consultancies in AR and VR, especially in China.
If you may be interested in this, you can visit VR Waibao website, directly contact Sam’s partner Steven via e-mail, or ask me for an introduction. You can also try XCOL on Viveport, but it is a very basic version that will be updated in October of this year.
I thank Steven for the time that has spent with me and for having taught me to be braver with technology… let’s all collaborate together to make VR succeed!
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