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VirBELA employee avatars are shown working together in a team suite on the company’s virtual workplace platform. (VirBELA Image)

Inside the board room at the corporate headquarters for VirBELA, chief strategy officer Glenn Sanford invited me to lean forward and put my hand in for a cheer, in the style of breaking a huddle, to show how people at his company sometimes end meetings.

It felt like a particularly unusual practice in this age of six-feet-or-more social distancing, but then again, Sanford hadn’t blinked his eyes in the entire hour we’d been visiting.

Coronavirus Live Updates:?The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

What sounded like Sanford and looked sort of like him was actually his online avatar, and we were far from a world where people need to repeatedly wash their hands.

With so many of us thrust into strange new versions of our lives thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the much of the talk is about how we will socialize or work when things “return to normal.” It feels impossible to imagine an office setting or classroom or group activity right now.

But what if some part of normal means bringing our avatars together? GeekWire checked out two virtual worlds to better understand how we could play and work together again, virtually, in the future.

A virtual work pioneer

(VirBELA Image)

Sanford is the founder of eXp Realty, a brokerage with 28,000 agents, operating in all 50 states and four countries. When he had 24 agents working out of five offices, including in Seattle, the 2008 recession and subsequent housing crash sent him looking for a way to save his business.

Deciding that the best way to run his company was without brick-and-mortar offices, Sanford sent everyone home to do their jobs and never looked back.

Glenn Sanford of eXp Realty and VirBELA. (eXp Photo)

In 2018, eXp Holdings, the brokerage’s parent company, acquired VirBELA, a virtual reality company that helps other companies connect their workforces online, hiring talent anywhere and scaling without worrying about physical walls or desk space.

I met Sanford this week (who was at home in Blaine, Wash.) and marketing and communications VP Cynthia Nowak (who was at home in Seattle) in VirBELA’s Open Campus, a free island in the cloud set up to host immersive events, meetings, classes, and other gatherings.

I dressed and personalized my avatar quickly, chose hair and skin tone and met Sanford and Nowak’s avatars. They were seated at an outdoor table, inside a blue circle designed to mute our conversation to other avatars wandering the campus.

“Obviously since COVID, there’s been a whole bunch of people who’ve been trying to figure out in real time how to solve the same things that we were solving back in 2009,” Sanford said. “If you’re like most people, you probably got stuck into a ton more Zoom meetings than you ever thought was humanly possible. What we’re finding already is that people are getting Zoom-fatigued. This solves it quite well.”

(VirBELA Image)

To hear Sanford sell it, VirBELA can build the community and collaboration online that companies are spending billions to erect in office towers and sprawling campuses in downtown Seattle and elsewhere.

In January and February, VirBELA might have had 10 or 15 people wandering around the Open Campus. Now they’re getting more than 400 a day, logged in to use the platform as a place to work. Sanford said a number of companies are opting to set up private campuses where they can fully run a remote organization.

As we moved our meeting to Sanford’s virtual office, we passed avatars chatting and holding meetings in other locations. You could hold a meeting on a speed boat if you wanted to, or take your team to a soccer field for a match. Sanford closed the door so no one could interrupt, rearranged the furniture and changed displays on the walls. The web page with my GeekWire profile, shared from his computer to the virtual setting, was displayed on a large screen.

“I believe fundamentally that corporate offices that have any sort of geographically dispersed organization would be well served by putting this kind of infrastructure in the center of the organization,” Sanford said. “All of a sudden you’re now way more connected to your distributed teams.”

He estimates that being a fully virtual company saves eXp Realty $30 million a year.

Built on the same gaming engine that powers the juggernaut “Fortnite,” VirBELA can host thousands of avatars on campuses and in mega-conferences.

Like countless companies and organizers around the world, Laval Virtual had to cancel its 20,000-person event in France this spring because of the pandemic. This week it was held on a virtual VirBELA campus where thousands of people used a number of auditoriums and breakout spaces for programs around VR and AR technologies.

As we moved again, this time from Sanford’s office to a board room, we?stopped and chatted with Kaitlyn Olsson, a marketing employee.

“One of the things I love about it most is the ability just to run into people and have some of that casual interaction that you don’t always get when you’re working remotely,” Olsson said. “I am in Open Campus for the majority of the day.”

She starts each morning with a sales and marketing meeting in the board room. Then she bounces around between meetings at different locations across campus. When not in meetings, she’ll find a couch or a quiet space to sit down or rest her avatar head and get some projects done.

It’s all a remarkable leap for those of us who have settled into commutes, open floor plans, meeting room schedules and anything else related to working in the “real world.”

And it’s a leap many are making in just the short span of the coronavirus crisis so far, or that they’re envisioning being thrust into in the months ahead.

More than just games

Getting together with friends didn’t have to end with the coronavirus pandemic — at least in Rec Room. (Rec Room Image)

Co-founder and CEO Nick Fajt and his team at game developer Rec Room were still comfortably working side-by-side in the real world at offices in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood before the lockdown. Now the 45 or so full-time employees are on week seven or eight of being fully dispersed.

“We didn’t really do any work from home before this and then we were all forced into it, and so we’ve been using Rec Room as the space where we get together for our team scrums and our meetings and even our socializing after work,” Fajt said. “It’s been a good tool.”

Nick Fajt
Nick Fajt, CEO and co-founder of Rec Room in the company’s Seattle offices in 2017. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

I’ve been inside Rec Room previously — its virtual world and its offices — when it was still known as Against Gravity and the focus was solely on VR. Now the company’s content is multi-platform — on mobile phones and on PlayStation without a headset — and people are using Rec Room and its floating, legless avatars for much more than just playing virtual ping-pong or paintball.

Recognizing that social distancing wasn’t going away quickly, Rec Room started adding features to its world that have proven useful to its own team and users. Meetups allow a meeting URL to be generated similar to Zoom, so people can be invited to a specific room. Screen-sharing is now available for presentations.

People have moved therapy sessions into Rec Room, companies are using it for meetings, and others are building out their offices and more to create a sense of familiarity.

“We see a lot of socializing happening in there, outside of gaming,” Fajt said. “People are putting together happy hours, birthday parties … looking for a way to hang out the way they used to. Rec Room does a really interesting job of creating this physical space that’s not subject to quarantine.”

And for kids whose eyes are glazing over at the prospect of home-schooling, check out how one teacher uses Rec Room to lead a math lesson:

The company hasn’t had any layoffs and is actually hiring for a number of positions. Growth is occurring on top of growth — year-over-year usage was up over 500 percent, and is 60 percent higher just since February.

“I think we’re probably in one of the rare positions where [the lockdown] has probably been helpful to our overall business,” Fajt said.

Fajt hopes to launch a new feature soon called Clubhouses, which he thinks of as a physical subReddit where people can create a Clubhouse around interests, and set their own moderation standards in that space — something they’re already doing in real life.

Rec Room is also experimenting with augmented reality, where a phone scan of a location by one person could allow another person in VR to come hang out.

Fajt calls it the ultimate promise of AR/VR technologies, where “you can be together with anyone, no matter where they are, and it can really feel like you’re there with them.”

Lockdowns and remote work and play are changing how people think about socializing online. Rec Room has always considered gaming more than just games, looking at it more as a place you can go.

And the company is leaning into the prospect of giving people more tools they need now and into the future.

“Those digital spaces are really important right now as we’re all trapped inside,” Fajt said. “We still need to socialize and still need to entertain ourselves. We still need to be expressive and creative. I think Rec Room is a place where you can do all of that.”

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