Beam me up, client

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on the interesting yet odd possibilities of using virtual reality to hold client meetings

Remember the “transporter beams” in Star Trek that instantly take you thousands of kilometres away?

Your humble narrator tried one out the other day. It worked! One moment I was in a laboratory at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and after someone clamped a piece of headgear over my eyes and ears, suddenly I was on the top floor of a skyscraper in San Francisco, looking down at the Golden Gate Bridge. (Or rather, a version of that place that looked like it was made by a cut-price game designer in Shenzhen.)

It was a fascinating experience – for about 15 minutes, after which I felt nauseous and fell over. “Don’t worry, that’s normal,” said the technician, picking me up and guiding me to a sofa. All part of the fun.

Many top businesses, including the big accounting firms around the world, are looking into the use of virtual reality (VR) equipment to enable staff to meet clients without leaving their offices.

The initial impetus, of course, was to avoid our staff numbers being decimated by an end-of-the-world plague.

But these days, we all need to downsize, and having staff numbers being decimated by an end-of-the-world plague seems like an attractive idea just now.

Yet today, chief financial officers are now tempted to make everyone do client meetings using technology to save cash on hotels and airfares permanently.

VR equipment sellers say their equipment is better than Zoom, Skype, etc. because interactions feel more authentic and participants can perceive body language. But is this true?

Your correspondent made five discoveries.

1) The gadgets let you choose how you look. This has possibilities. Say you’re pitching your accounting business to a 55-year-old businessman. Why not change your avatar to Scarlett Johansson in her Black Widow outfit? You’ll definitely get more attention.

2) They let you choose how you sound. If you are negotiating and don’t want to take no for an answer, the obvious thing is to choose a deep bass Batman voice. “You. Will. Sign. The. Contract. NOW.” (But maybe not with the Scarlett Johansson look.)

3) They let the host choose the environment. Here’s a warning. Sitting at a table and talking to people is easy. It’s when you have to get up to tour the client’s factory that it becomes challenging.

To stop you bumping into the walls of your office, the programmers give you a superpower. You point your finger at where you want to go, say the other side of the factory – and the world itself moves so you are suddenly there.

I found myself zooming all over the place (you feel like the Flash, a superhero). Unfortunately, five minutes of this causes you to throw up. Your Scarlett Johansson persona stops moving for five minutes as you whip off the headset and run to the bathroom.

4) An unexpected bonus is that playful people soon start looking for ways to exploit the situation. To take an extreme example, your avatar could threaten to jump out of the skyscraper window unless the client gives you the deal you want. (Do NOT do this if you are near an actual skyscraper window.)

5) But the biggest problem was that the whole intensity of the VR experience means that neither side remembers a single word that was actually spoken.

This may be a good thing.

You: “Remember in our VR meeting you gave us exclusive rights to provide tax services for all your subsidiaries?”

Client: “I did?”

You: “Yes. It was when your Brad Pitt avatar stopped moving for five minutes.”

6) The thing about the body language is false, I discovered. Your avatar has its own body language built in, so instead of your real posture of, say, cringing in a servile manner, you can simply select a more attractive set of movements from a menu.

So if the meeting is becoming boring, for example, you can click: “Stand up” and “Do a K-pop dance.”

Summary: If you want to actually get anything done, go back to Zoom. Me, I’m going to stay home and watch Star Trek.

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices
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