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OPINION

Catch a falling avatar and…

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaSay hello to the metaverse and virtual offices at a fraction of the cost of co-working space, webinars, online exhibitions (and indiscrete exhibitionism), business meetings spanning the globe, and community building.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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The virtual office - conferences, webinars, and socialising

What's on offer for those seeking to work from home but wishing to inhabit virtual online offices where staff interaction continues as normal?

WITH work from home taking off and bawling babies becoming part of the fashionable ice-breaking discourse online – “Oh Brad had a baby boy, how cute!” – the question is, ‘Do you really need to go to the office?’ Well, maybe, if you desperately need to check out whether Brad, your angel investor, actually has serious jingle in the bank or whether he’s just some philandering galloot with a great screen persona and a penchant for borrowing babies.

So WFM it is – safe, secret, and so hideously accessible. Just roll out of bed, get Fido the dog or Cleo the cat to curl up on the table within monitor camera view and you’re set to dazzle any young intern with your dreamy non-threatening Renaissance appeal. No one can smell your breath.

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Okay there are those proliferating co-working spaces priced at a sweet spot with a lot of coffee and granola bars thrown in, but then there’s Omicron with its 53 mutations and who knows what other tricks up its deviously spiky sleeve.

I’ve done time in these places and no matter how cool they look, it all still boils down to three things: you + a great idea + an audience. There were puppies at the last place too and their owners, usually young ladies, walked around with a helpless wide-eyed look waiting for Sir Galahad. There was flagging, if glassy-eyed, interest in the arcane details of online advertising, the curse of ROI, and B2B. Eventually, between protests and Covid, work from home became inevitable.

{For those with the moxie (and not much money to throw around) virtual conferences in make-believe worlds, is becoming a preferred option...

So where do we, the dispossessed, the Covid Diaspora, the Walking Dead of our age go when the clock strikes nine?

Fortunately, virtual reality has stepped in where the co-working office left off. Online meetings are much the rage, but do they work and do they deliver results? And how does one go about tackling this brave new world? For those with the moxie (and not much money) this is becoming a preferred route. Make-believe worlds and flights of fancy, well… Of course, a co-working space is a manufactured immersive world too. The only difference is that you actually inhabit it

Second Life was one of the first off the blocks in 2003. In this community-directed experiment that set its own social norms and quixotic rules, engagement of any sort is always quite remarkable. Here, you are as likely to stumble upon a priapic nudist beach, as chance upon a seditious art show featuring Banksy or a jazz concert with trumpets trilling. Building styles range from fin de siecle French Palace to Faceless Mega Mall and Grown-Up-Kids-On-LSD. You get the drift. Yet this insane escape had racked up a million inhabitants by 2013 though it dipped subsequently.

Second Life Marketplace, sell products, buy hairstyles, conference...

Second Life Marketplace offers confetrences, platforms for sserious product display and sales (as in this wheelchair) and 3D avatars that can be customised (at a price). The platform tends to be more entertainment focused.

Interactions here happen in a fully immersive 3D world with your obscenely muscled avatar interacting with others. You could choose to be a 90-pound weakling too (just buy a different body). Things happen by tapping on your keyboard leading me to suspect hardcore aficionados of Second Life must have all been to secretarial school. Here you can teleport yourself to any world (or address) of your choosing, fall from the sky on your friends – SPLAT – buy and don new clothes, change your face, operate your business, display your products, sell stuff and earn in Linden dollars that can be converted into real cash.

Second Life Marketplace offers several business productivity features, PowerPoint presentations, white boarding, brainstorming, and dynamic audience polling in 3D space. The company believes it is superior to old-fashioned teleconferencing, as your Second Life experience does not terminate with the end of the call. Your immersive world continues and is described as the next best thing to a face-to-face meet. Too much of the activity in this space, however, seems to focus on entertainment and unhinged social encounters. Hint: people buy private parts too. But there is much that is sober and innovative too. You'll need computing power for 3D and ample bandwidth. The format favours large screens rather than mobile phones.

Gather.Town is the new kid on the block for WFH wizards. This is for serious work boffins who know the difference between a flat white and an Americano, and would like to meet colleagues at ‘the office’ without worrying about underwear and dress codes below the table line. Gather is about customisable spaces and building solid communities. Create your space (workspace, social, or event), and set up your own avatar. Gather’s mission is to build a metaverse, “a virtual layer over the physical world where people can work, socialise and learn.”

It is free for small groups of up to 25 with password-protected access. Run a whole day event or conference at US$3 per user for up to 500 attendees, simultaneously. Gather founder and startup CEO Phillip Wang likes to take visitors on tours of his company to show off his state-of-the-art offices and meeting spaces. His co-workers might wave as you pass and smile. Welcome to the metaverse. You’re not really there. You’re in your home. Don’t fret, neither your tie nor your underwear will feature in any big reveal as you’ll be an avatar, strolling about a customised world.

Unlike immersive 3D virtual reality, Gather keeps its images low-res – like old pixelated game characters (remember Super Mario?) – as you plod on cheerily and chunkily from one task to the next. This makes things supremely accessible without holding you hostage to lagging WiFi speeds and computer processing power. And, unlike in Second Life, there is no sense of threat or aggression.

Gather Town virtual meeting

Gather Town mixes live video chats with pixellated avatars in the Super Mario mould that are easy to make and manipulate and move, thus making the app very accessible and even mobile friendly.

Within this space you can have Zoom-like video chats with people, and yes you can whip out your best-pressed white shirt or stay insouciantly tousled and alluring in your night suit. Gather has been used by Covid-grounded families for reunions, for worship and growing congregations, and even for birthday parties. It works admirably for meetings and conferences with breakout chats. Forget those huge Star Wars setups that hotels installed a decade ago with tall leather-backed chairs and banks of LCD screens. That is so passé.

Teamflow is geared for virtual meets and collaboration. Share screens, use post-it notes and enjoy spatial audio and customised space with your choice of furniture and even potted plants. Video conferencing is a doddle, and app integration (Google Docs, Trello, Figma) makes things fairly seamless. Teamflow is free for up to five team members with 45-minute sessions (and up to 10 guests and five apps open per person). Does this beat a virtual office or co-working space? Sure. Says one user: “It's a way to come together that mimics key aspects of real life right down to fine detail like how you can hear people in the same room as you, but not when you leave.”

Here are some more from a blizzard of options.

BlueJeans by Verizon, is a platform for virtual meetings, webinars and tele-health. The New York-based Verizon acquisition however means the product can only be billed in certain countries (if your company is registered there). This list excludes major players like India, China, and Hong Kong, though it does include Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, South Africa, USA, UK and most of Europe. A video webinar will start at US$41.67 per month for 100 attendees (US$57.50 per month for 500 attendees).

Livestorm offers virtual meetings, virtual events and webinars. The starter version is free for up to four for 20 minutes. The premium package runs from US$99 per month (billed annually), with unlimited events, unlimited registrants, up to 16 simultaneous live speakers, and four hours per event.

Hubilo does virtual and hybrid events with Zoom integration. It is largely user-friendly but test runs indicate it can be complicated in parts.

Airmeet is a virtual and hybrid platform and can support from 100 to 100,000 people, interactive chats, polls, ‘social lounges’ (breakout meeting rooms), real-time analytics and a customisable reception area. It comes with a ‘freemium’ plan for 100 registrants and one organiser. It seems to work well for community engagement. Customisable social webinars run at US$99 per month for 100 registrants.

Hopin starts at US$99 for its starter version. There is a ‘freemium’ version for 100. Freemiums offer a free base rate with paid-for add-ons. Hopin can handle 50 to 50,000 attendees and integrates well with Mailchimp, Adobe Marketo Engage, and Eventbrite.

EventX does virtual webinars (it is free for unlimited events till end March 2022 for up to 1,000 attendees per event). Network accessibility includes China without irksome VPN hurdles. This makes for greater China attendance. EventX does hybrid events too and specialises in online exhibitions with virtual booths.

You won’t need cute drooling babies or adorable puppies to set things rolling. Just your avatar. Ready, get set, type.

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