Social Presence in the Metaverse

Social presence is different in the future. The more you have 2D meetings the more you see the lack of real presence in larger meetings. Many people have cameras off and it doesn’t help when you try to create connection. Avatars will be bringing part of the presence back, but at this point most of them don’t really express the real face you have. In the future avatars probably have the ability to use web cam to track your facial expressions. Some VR/AR headsets have already this ability built in – like Meta Quest Pro – but the hard reality is that most of people won’t be using bulky or costly headsets or buying extra hardware just to be able to show their facial expressions when using the avatar -that is why building this ability to the webcam and analyzing the image by AI is key here . And even when it is that easy: I know that some people won’t be using that feature since they don’t want to turn their camera on or share their expressions. Eventually it will be seen more used as people realize it is a good way to increase your presence with others. The change and adoption always takes time.

One of reasons I bought Meta Quest Pro headset was eye and facial tracking. Already today I can join a virtual space (or we can call these Metaverse meetings) where the avatar can reflect my facial expressions in the real time to others. Also the hand tracking & better controllers can also help me to use more body language (at least my hands) to express myself better in those meetings. I don’t have to even say anything – I can just smile and nod and my avatar would the same. Without having to use reactions by clicking around the screen with the mouse or using shortcut keys. With automatic avatar expressions is the moment where we are talking more digital twins of yourself – at least on presence level.

This is also the path that is going to help us to bring that presence to the Metaverse or Hybrid meetings and events. Our avatars will be more like us – they can smile, be serious or even sad without a need to click around the UI. They can wave their arms, raise a thumb or make a hug gesture – or even dance if you want to.. But this is the thing: our real presence will be transferred to the digital world better than before, and it is the thing that makes us closer to each other. It enables the sense of togetherness and the feeling of being in the group. And it doesn’t have to be always the real you – why would people be excluded from the Metaverse dance party if they are hindered in the wheelchair or are too clumsy to dance (like myself)? This is where the combination of realistic facial expressions and commanding avatars start to really play together: you can have the best of both worlds to be included and transfer your presence to others.

In the Metaverse (think Metaverse including 3D environments in both VR and AR) we will be able to smile, cry, laugh and be sad or happy together. We can use the eye contact when we are talking to someone. In a 2D meeting we can laugh for sure, but if there are 5, 10, 50 or 300 people in the meeting you are not really making the contact to a single person there. You are addressing everyone at the same time and everyone is watching you as well.

In virtual (metaverse) spaces you can form ad hoc groups , or even 1:1, and talk with them while the rest of the people are following the presentation or doing something else. It might be even a team building event where you can have some fun together – perhaps games or just talking. High-Five is easy to do but you could do a kind of virtual hug there as well. The feelings on your face can be seen by others – are you having fun, or are you in your thoughts of even sad. This can lead to better leadership and team as well – people can approach and ask “How are you, Vesku. Is everything all right?”.  This is not happening in 2D meetings very easily, especially when cameras are off or someone stays quiet because they don’t want to open their mic due to insecurity or introvert feeling: they don’t want to address large amounts of people, but instead speak in smaller groups.

Today if you have a 2D meeting with 2-5 participants you can have a very good experience and presence together, but as the number of people grow in the meeting the more difficult it becomes. The Metaverse will change that for better.

When you have a camera on is can be more tough to show your true feelings. You want to excel and be the best at the meeting – it is business and personal feelings don’t belong to the scope. You don’t do that body language there where people could sense that something is not alright very easily. This is the curse of the hybrid or remote work – people are more distant more easily. Is the Metaverse going to change this as well? Yes, it is.

Avatar (mask): ✅

When you are using your avatar you have a kind of mask on. It is just like when you are doing a role in a play or playing a game. That figure is controlled by you but it is “not you”, despite it represents you and you control it fully. I recall that during 1990s it was much easier to approach people using IRC chat, than to approach and talk to them in the real life (yes, I was very introvert during those days) . There was a mask between you and the other person in the chat. This is one of those reasons why I think Avatars and the Metaverse will be helping out introvert, shy and lots of other people to be more present and engaged. Some people might have a grumpy or worried face when they are listening to the solution architecture – and they might not want to raise their opinion in audio about that. With facial expressions on some people could also notice that and ask their opinion.

This new social presence doesn’t happen overnight. But it is happening and helping us become more together, grouped and a team in the future compared to today. Of course you can (and some people will) turn off eye and facial tracking features but the more people see the benefits these bring for our presence and the sense of togetherness the more people will be wanting to use those features. Teams can teamify by teambuilding events, engage in social and fun activities and groups of people can innovate better using the whiteboard in creative environments than 2D calls can provide today. We can care of each other and relay feelings in the Metaverse better.

But it is also important to remember that while the immersive Metaverse can bring us closer to face to face feelings, it will not replace the real human interaction when we see each  other in person. And the other way around: we can be one team better than today, even when we don’t live in the same area. 

I see Microsoft Teams for Mesh immersive meetings a big influencer here, since that targets a large audience of people working in teams globally. 270+ Million Monthly Users is a big audience for the Future of Work. At this moment Microsoft Teams Avatars require manual reactions, but I am very hopeful that in the future Avatars will be supporting web cam based reactions. This was in fact hinted by a Microsoft person in during one public event. Fingers cross – we all know roadmap priorities can change, but seeing how much Microsoft is investing at the Metaverse (and taking their time to do it properly) we can see a better Presence land to Microsoft Teams and 365 users in the future. Microsoft Mesh Avatars are but the first step, immersive meeting spaces in Teams are the second – and those are just beginning of the journey.

Social Presence in the Metaverse creates the Sense of Togetherness

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