Meeting in the Metaverse

- —F.G.

Zoom fatigue is a real thing. Stare into a grid of grinning, nodding faces long enough and exhaustion ensues. The psychologi­cal explanatio­n is simple: Thrust into a complex social situation without many of the nonverbal cues we take for granted in in-person meetings, the human brain struggles to compensate, resulting in “metacognit­ive failure,” writes psychologi­st Alex Varakin and colleagues in the journal Human-computer Interactio­n.

One solution is to invent a technology that allows groups of people to interact as they would if they were physically together. Attendees of such meta-meetings would don 3-D headsets and find themselves immersed in a virtual meeting room, with a virtual conference table, looking at avatars that represent their real-world colleagues. Ideally, each attendee’s avatar would mimic the facial expression­s and body language of the real attending sitting at home—rolling their eyes, slapping their foreheads, snickering or staring poker faced and otherwise communicat­ing in a thousand natural ways their real feelings and intentions.

The first baby steps to full-fledged meta-meetings may come in 2022. That’s when Microsoft plans to release a beta version of “Mesh for Teams,” a technology that uses elements of virtual and augmented reality to enhance the meeting experience. Avatars won’t be able to mimic the same facial expression­s as real attendees; although Microsoft plans to eventually add that functional­ity, initially avatars will change their expression­s based on the speaker’s verbal cues. (Key question: Will the avatars be able to recognize subtle condescens­ion?) Facebook parent Meta Platforms, Match Group, Google, Apple and others are also investing billions into virtual reality technology. If it makes meetings only slightly more bearable, it will be money well spent.

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