The sun never sets in virtual reality. This occurred to me after an hour-long briefing in an Oculus Quest 2 headset. Joined by more than a dozen other floating avatars, we teleported our way around an “outdoor” meeting space that could only be described as aircraft-carrier-meets-Croatian-vacation.
Beyond the vast expanse of virtual breakout spaces was a stunning sunset, but the day never grew dark. When I pressed a button on the Touch Controller a tad too long, I ended up standing unnervingly close to another avatar, a fellow journalist. Then I remembered that you can’t catch the coronavirus from a digital simulacrum.
The press briefing was one of a few ever to occur in VR, a spokesperson for this new app claimed. It’s called Arthur, and part of the pitch is that it’s going to catapult VR for work into the mainstream, that meetings and collaboration sessions and deskside briefings will become … headset briefings.
The app launches today, but it’s been in development for four years. The company behind it, also named Arthur, is headquartered in San Mateo, California, with employees scattered around the globe. It has secured seed funding from VC firm Draper Associates, and it lists the United Nations, Societe General, and a large automaker as its beta testers.
Taking a meeting in Arthur requires a literal suspension of reality. You exist only from the waist up (hey, just like Zoom!), and your shirtsleeves taper off to reveal blue computer arms, which move according to how you move the Oculus Quest controllers in your hands. Your digital eyes are obscured by Matrix-style glasses, and a headset microphone covers your virtual mouth. This is because the technology can’t yet mimic facial expressions in VR, and “it’s better than looking at dead eyes,” says Arthur founder Christoph Fleischmann. My avatar looked nothing like me, except that it had dark brown hair.
Still, meeting in VR felt like somewhere else, if not somewhere in the physical world. I was sitting in the same living room I’ve occupied for most of the year, but I was present with other people. I was aware that my headset’s physical microphone was on, that anything I said would be part of the conversation. It felt rude to step away and start making coffee in my kitchen.
When Fleischmann urged the group to take a seat ahead of a presentation in a virtual amphitheater (which appeared on demand, the fastest and cheapest construction project ever), we scattered awkwardly among the seats the way we might in real life. And after the presentation, during which Fleischmann touted the collaborative benefits of working in VR, we teleported to a roof-deck bar and used our hand controllers to pick up virtual cocktails. Everyone loosened up, despite these being unreal drinks. All the while, the sun remained stuck in its permanent position of almost set. It was surreal, but it beat our current reality.
Meet Me Here
Arthur wouldn’t be the first to try to carve out a space for itself in enterprise VR. Until recently, VR headsets—as well as mixed-reality headsets, like Microsoft’s HoloLens—were prohibitively expensive, costing over $1,000 per unit. Any company looking to make inroads in the industry had to at least consider selling to big businesses, the ones who could afford the nascent technology. That was the approach Spatial took, a buzzy New York-based startup that WIRED’s Julian Chokkattu covered earlier this year.
“We always say we’re like Zoom and Slack had an AR/VR baby,” Jacob Loewenstein, Spatial’s head of business, tells me over Zoom from his New York City apartment (the Zoom meeting was my request; I was on deadline and didn’t want to dither in VR). “And we really mean it. Because if we succeed it’s because we’ve made this thing just stupidly easy to use.”