Meeting in the Metaverse: Visiting the Digital Salesforce Tower

VR, short for virtual reality, is not a gimmick. With an extensive digital event, Salesforce shows where the added value of a meeting in the virtual world lies. After two hours of laughing, learning and babbling, we returned to the real world with regret. Teams, Zoom and Google Meet can help with that.

It predates corona that the undersigned has seen the skyline of San Francisco, but through the large windows of an unspecified floor of the Salesforce Tower we immediately recognize the Bay Bridge. Fisherman’s Warf comes into focus when we push our heads through the glass without resistance. The space we are in is virtual, the fear of heights that colleague Cédric experiences is not.

From home to San Francisco in 2 minutes

At the invitation of Salesforce, we come together in VR with a few colleagues and a Belgian-Dutch delegation from the company itself. Nine avatars enthusiastically explore the 3D replica of the CRM giant’s headquarters. In reality, everyone is at home or at the office with an Oculus Quest 2 on their head.

The space we are in is virtual, the fear of heights is not.

Salesforce sent the headset to all participants in advance in a specially designed flight case with a built-in instruction tablet. The virtual event has not been fleshed out for the press. On the contrary: Salesforce has built up a lot of experience with internal meetings and customer meetings in VR in recent months. The company now wants to show the media how it works.

Framework and guidance

The whole experience has been thought through from the start. The company rightly realizes that VR is still in its infancy and few have their own hardware in-house. “We have invested in headsets and flight cases that we send to participants ourselves,” says the avatar of Nick Botter, Chief Innovation Officer for Salesforce Northern Europe. Salesforce currently owns about 150 pairs of glasses. The project originated in the Netherlands, initially focused on the Benelux and Nordics, but is currently being rolled out across Europe. “We currently host about two meetings a week in VR, but we have enough headsets to increase that to four.”

We suspect that those meetings are not the most time-efficient initially. In the meantime, in the virtual Salesforce Tower, people are playing with post-its that they can leave anywhere, frustrations are eliminated with punches that the opponent doesn’t feel anything about, and someone is fascinated to build a tower of digital coffee bags. We are working on an ITdaily related artwork in the sky.

Meeting in the Metaverse: Visiting the Digital Salesforce Tower

The excursion to San Francisco does start behind the laptop in Google Meet. We are guided there so that we can all log in smoothly and end up in the lobby of the Salesforce Tower environment. The VR application on offer is called Glue and comes preinstalled on the headset we received. Dictating a four-digit code to our hosts in Google Meet automatically logs us in.

In theory you can go directly to the meeting in VR with an account, but Salesforce rightly believes that some guidance is desirable at this stage. For us, the event was preceded by a short onboarding session the day before and that’s how it works for customers. “Everyone eventually becomes comfortable with it,” says Botter. “We recently had Nelie Kroes as our guest. Non-digital natives can handle the technology perfectly after some explanation and are also more impressed by everything. That makes the experience the most enjoyable for them.”

teleport

During the onboarding session we learn the basic actions in VR. You move your avatar around the room by clicking the joystick on your controller and teleporting to a new place. Anyone who has ever put on VR glasses knows that teleporting is the right choice. Virtually walking around with a joystick while sitting on the spot in the real world makes most people nauseous very quickly.

We can also edit our digital appearance, tune settings and open a photo camera ourselves via a virtual tablet that we activate by pressing our wrist. That works reasonably well, but is slightly less intuitive than the controls at an earlier VR event via Glue competitor Altspace .

“We compared many platforms , but in the end chose Glue because it is adaptable but above all secure,” says Botter. “Glue is being further developed on a daily basis and is already a lot more intuitive today than it was a few weeks ago.” In our eyes, the whole looks neat in any case.

Floating Torsos

We recognize half of the nine participants by their voice and cartoonish avatar. Everyone is represented by a torso with floating hands. The avatars are quite customizable, although there is no option to select a hairstyle that illustrates how we had to cancel our most recent hairdressing appointment following a Covid infection. We look unrealistically posh, but that’s a good thing. The VR meeting is in fact our first meeting with Lien Ceulemans, who recently took over from Max Swerlow as Country Leader of Salesforce Belux.

Meeting in the Metaverse: Visiting the Digital Salesforce Tower

Initially, some participants, including Ceulemans, experienced technical problems. “I’ve never experienced this in 80 meetings,” says Botter. “Normally everything runs smoothly.” Journalists call this the demo effect: as soon as someone from the media is watching, technology stops working. Apparently the demo effect plays in VR too. The problems are solved fairly quickly thanks to the Google Meet meeting that is still open in the background for that very reason.

It takes a while before everyone has had enough of the San Francisco skyline. It looks lifelike. Botter: “We sent a drone into the air four times to image the skyline. Of course there was fog every time we wanted to take the pictures.”

From playing to presenting

After playing with drawing pens, whiteboards and post-its, Botter and Ceulemans escort us to a new room. There is a huge screen on which Ceulemans shows the slides for her presentation. After some searching and accidental sexual harassment with other avatars, we take a seat on a virtual chair. Just like in the real world, most people take a seat at the back of the room and just like in real life the organizers ask to move forward a bit. Unfortunately, we can’t open our laptop on our lap for notes, which is one of the biggest drawbacks of VR from a journalistic point of view.

Meeting in the Metaverse: Visiting the Digital Salesforce Tower

“Salesforce’s mission is to make companies successful,” says Ceulemans. “From all over.” Salesforce has been committed to connecting people and customers since well before the pandemic. In that regard, we are not surprised that the multinational is taking a pioneering role in VR. Ceulemans’ presentation stops earlier than planned due to a connection problem with the headset, but that is neatly taken care of by the rest of the Salesforce team.

Virtual moving

We open a virtual tablet on our virtual wrist and choose a new virtual location from there with our virtual fingers to continue the event. This time it is not a replica of an existing environment, but a futuristic conference place between the mountains.

“This area is a lot bigger,” Botter says as he shows us around. “We have the space to hold plenary sessions, but people can also isolate themselves in small groups for breakout sessions.” He points to several small and cozy virtual rooms. When you step into it, the sound from ‘outside’ disappears, just as if you were stepping into a new room in the real world. We want to start an impromptu ITdaily editorial meeting, but are soon interrupted by someone from Salesforce walking into the room.

Integrations with real world software

There is again a large screen in the common room. We can project files onto it via the virtual tablet on our wrist. Our access rights are limited as Salesforce guests, but Botter, Ceulemans and the other administrators have access to a whole suite of files. The Glue platform that Salesforce works with offers space for numerous integrations.

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