Metaverse in your pocket? How you host the world’s largest hybrid virtual/physical event

Can I only experience a Facebook metaverse in Oculus Quest? Can I only enter your virtual event with an HTC Vive Pro? Or can we build connections, doors, windows, and pathways through all digital realities that anyone can access with smartphone, laptop, or — yes — a VR headset?

In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, I chat with Hans Elstner, the CEO of Rooom. Rooom offers the “first all-in-one platform for content in 2D, 3D, AR and VR.” In other words: digital realities that anyone can access.

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This is super-important in a era of silos and platforms and barriers. And if you want literally hundreds of thousands of people to attend your virtual event … as Rooom did with IFA 2020.

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Do you need a VR headset to enjoy the metaverse?

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: We keep hearing about the metaverse … metaverse, metaverse, metaverse. Facebook is all in. Mark Zuckerberg is all in. What is it? Why does it matter? And is it something that is out in the future or is it something that’s already here and maybe been here for decades? Is it something that doesn’t exist yet or is already all around us that we access today?

Today, we are talking to Hans Elsner, who’s the CEO of Rooom. Welcome, Hans!

Hans Elstner: Hello, John. Thank you for being here. 

John Koetsier: Hey, it is my pleasure. Hope it will be your pleasure as well. Hey, we’re going to dive into the metaverse ’cause your company does a lot of stuff in VR, AR, a lot of different things like that … but what is the key reason we’re chatting today? What have you done that is kind of cool and interesting and newsworthy?

Hans Elstner: Yeah. What we did is just creating a whole [platform] for, yeah, controlling, setting up, creating and managing digital experiences. And from our perspective, it should be quite easy to do so. So, that’s why we made it easy. 

John Koetsier: It is currently very challenging to do so, so if you’ve succeeded in that, that’s amazing. Now there’s 50 million — that’s an exaggeration — but there’s a lot of companies out there that are trying to do 3D events, VR events, maybe even with some AR involved, that sort of stuff.

Most of them honestly kind of suck. And most of them, frankly, you have to put on the headset and absent yourself from the environment that you’re currently in, and immerse yourself in that environment for the two hours that your battery lasts.

What’s different about yours? 

Hans Elstner: Yeah. In fact, when it comes to the metaverse or to successful virtual events in that way, so we believe that you should focus on engagement, interaction — it should be quite fun to use that system and should be very engaging because, yeah, in virtual events you’re not that focused sometimes. So there’s a smart phone ringing and the email incoming and whatever. So it needs some engagement.

And what we see out there are different ways and approaches for that.

So some of that are just 2D platforms for sharing video. It’s not that engaging. Some others try it like using, we call it — sorry to the competitors — we call it fake 3D. It’s just the render, it’s just a photo where it can click. That is something we did 20 years ago on the web, so it doesn’t feel right for us.

And some others just do it in a very VR-headset focused way. The problem is the fake 2D is not that engaging, and the VR headset makes it necessary to have special, sometimes expensive devices. You should feel comfortable with using that, and that everyone would like to wear a headset, a VR headset, and not everyone owns that.

And that’s why we just call it democratizing 3D. So it should be very easy to use that, very easy to attend.

And what we’re focusing on is a platform that is running on almost every device — yeah for sure you could use your VR headset. You could also use your smartphone. You could use your tablet. You could use your desktop. It should be quite easy, accessible.

And that’s the reason why we are doing that approach, and yeah, making it accessible to almost everyone out there. 

John Koetsier: So that’s what attracted me to the pitch that I got from your company, is that, hey, you know what, we’re doing immersive events. We want them to be fully interactive. We want them to be real 3D.

We want them to be VR accessible, but guess what? You don’t have a headset? No worries. You can be on your smartphone. You can be on your laptop, other things like that. That is really, really good because if you only have your meetings available with an Oculus or something like that, you’re really limiting your market.

And guess what? We don’t put those on just every day like we check our smartphones for two minutes, right? It’s not as simple, it’s not as easy, it’s not as obvious. So, let’s talk about the metaverse because, in some perspective, when you enter the world of 3D, you know, when you put on the Ready Player One goggles, you’re entering the metaverse … and it’s a different reality, and there you go. How do you define the metaverse? 

Hans Elstner: Yeah. The metaverse, from our perspective, is just leaving the internet as we know the internet — this 2D version of the internet, just a flat website, a form, or service — to leaving these things behind us and to think in a way of it is all around you.

It is not watching into your monitor and the web is there. The metaverse is all around and to connect as many different areas of life, of business, to connect all these things together. It should be connected as with the people, to connect people with VR headsets to people with smartphones.

It is necessary to connect all the different areas of our life … and to have that inside a metaverse where it is — it was something described, it’s nothing where you watch into it, it’s just something where you have around you. And, yeah, that’s the right approach, I think.

John Koetsier: How do you situate augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality in your conception of the metaverse?

Hans Elstner: Yeah. On one hand, you can use a VR headset and so you have virtual reality right on your headset. And it just works on almost every VR headset because we are using a technology — it’s called WebGL and OpenXR by Khronos Group. So it works right in the browser, no matter what kind of device. On the other hand, you can utilize and use 3D right in the browser also, quite easy, no installation necessary with a little bandwidth.

That’s also necessary because not everyone has 5G, right, and [unclear]. So that is quite necessary.

And using augmented reality, for example, it’s embedded in almost everything, because events should not be only virtual, they should be hybrid … hopefully. So what you can do is just scanning a QR code, for example. And if you scan a QR code right on the website, on the event, then it’s possible to place via augmented reality, the object right beside you, learn a bit more about that and get a feeling for the product, walk around that, see the object right in your place.

And you can do it also in a hybrid event. So if they use a QR code right at our platform then you could place a different type of product in a different color, in a different size, and so augmented reality plays a very big role in our approach.

John Koetsier: So I want to get into that and look at that definition of metaverse and maybe come with a different one — maybe not, maybe get educated, maybe get schooled, who knows? Let’s go there. But I have to comment on where you are. This is an amazing space. What is this space? It doesn’t look virtual, you wave your hands and it stays behind you. Is this your home? Is this your office? 

Hans Elstner: Well, in fact, I’m just staying in front of the green screen, but it is also my office. I’m just in the office but in my room. And we have a space where our coworkers meet, having a drink together, talking with each other and it’s exactly the space, and what we did is just filming it and put it right behind me — just to give you an impression how it is.

John Koetsier: That’s perhaps the best green screen virtual background I have ever seen.

Hans Elstner: Thank you.

John Koetsier: So huge props. I’m guessing you’re using some of your tech there, so that’s kind of a bonus there.

So, if I look at the metaverse, and honestly … I don’t pretend to have the answer here, but I might challenge you a little bit and think that, you know what, I think of the metaverse as all the digital reality and the augmented reality and the VR that is around us, and I can access that — and that was what I was excited about in your pitch — I can access that in a limited way with a 2D screen. I can access that in a limited way with my laptop or my smartphone. I can’t access the full richness of it. And just like with augmented reality I can hold my phone up and I can see the augments that are in my space perhaps, mixed reality maybe if I want to use that terminology. And, you know, it’s like a small window into an expanse of reality, right? It’s not the full thing.

And yet, if I want to be fully in there, I can be, I can have the goggles. And yet we were, honestly, we don’t have the headsets yet that are natural enough where I can have a seamless, great, amazing transition between what is “real” and what is “virtual,” right? Does that make sense or am I just totally out of left field? 

Hans Elstner: No, you exactly hit the point. So it’s just a window into that metaverse if you use it right on your monitor, it is somehow also like an interactive video on a game that you can play, so you can move around, learn more.

And what we’re doing inside our virtual experiences is just combining the 3D world with also typical elements of a website. So it’s quite easy to use.

And in some situations it is, if you would like to have a closer look to the agenda, for sure the agenda should be somehow flat and easy to use, and there we combine the things that users learn from a user interface perspective with the 3D environment to make it very easy to use. So if you already — and you did — if you already used VR headsets somehow the interface doesn’t feel natural. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Hans Elstner: Because they had to do sometimes weird things to let you control the world around you. And by combining these worlds together, from our perspective, you’ve got a perfect mixture of easy access, impressive engagement, interaction.

John Koetsier: I love what you just said there, because, yes, I do have the Oculus Quest 2 — had the Oculus Quest 1 from like literally day one — but I am not a console gamer.

And so I’m always forgetting which button is what, right? Where my hand is, I can handle. Trigger to close my fists, I can handle. But which button is what and where is back? And so, obviously I don’t spend enough time in it or something like that. But you mentioned that your platform is built on WebGL, so it works just in a browser.

I think that’s quite interesting because core to the concept of metaverse is connectivity, is connectedness to other experience. I have a thousand doors. I have a million doors. I have a trillion doors to enter and different experiences for work, for fun, for meeting, for social, for whatever it might be — exploration, learning, all that stuff — and it’s pretty hard to do if they’re siloed in an app on one platform, correct? 

Hans Elstner: Separated. That’s the main point. So, yeah, just take virtual events. It is … events at all, it is about get to know each other, connecting with other people. And if you just say, okay, it’s only for VR headsets, then you only connect to other people that have this exact version of a VR headset. That is not the world how we see the world or the future. It is exactly to connecting all these things to almost everyone. And, yeah, the main point is that we have to connect people and solutions with each other so that it is not moving inside a silo.

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Hans Elstner: Having a much wider approach.

John Koetsier: Excellent. Wonderful. Let’s take a really broad approach now and look at it from way up, maybe even the orbit of the moon, who knows, more than 30,000 meters. What will the metaverse change as we evolve into it? So we’ve talked about, look, we’re accessing parts of it, sometimes we’re going deeper in a VR headset, but we don’t really have the reality in front of us right now. When we have something more like what we imagined in our science fiction that the metaverse is, what will that change? 

Hans Elstner: Oh, a lot. [laughter] Especially the necessarity to, yeah, to visit someone who lives on the other side of the world. Just quite nice to get to know each other, for sure.

But in case of the way we’d like to work, to discuss, to develop things together, it will feel so much better than doing it in a Zoom session or so. Just jumping right in to exchange ideas, talking somehow in a natural way, see the other acting, and especially when it comes to interaction with some other objects … just seeing each other, discussing, it feels natural. It’s okay. But if you interact with a product, draw a product, create something, would like to present something, then it comes to a point where it’s very nice to have this metaverse.

I don’t think that it is so much necessary to have the whole metaverse if you only sit on a table and discuss with each other. It’s a quite nice engaging thing from a perspective of engagement. It is nice and helps.

But where it is necessary is if it comes to — I would like to shop something. I would like to see some products. I would like to create something. I would like to develop things. I would like to interact, to build, to plan something, a house, a building, something for industry purposes — then it comes so much more to necessarity and to something that helps and will help us to create so amazing things. And also somehow it will help  to discover things just switch to some, let’s say, bigger waterfalls at the end of the world, move there, get to know we just discussed these things … honey, let me look there, jump right there, watch this, experience things. And that will change a lot, yeah. 

John Koetsier: Will a fully-fledged metaverse obliterate distance even more than we’ve seen with remote working scenarios, remote social scenarios in Covid times?

Hans Elstner: Yeah, it’s — in fact, the pandemic crisis caused that it feels more necessary to do things digitally. And it was just, yeah, just a gain or boosted the development of digital solutions, but it is somehow a door opener to do a bit more.

So, some companies already doing this stuff, the VR headset — Facebook already believes in these things, you know that — but it will help to develop and create a lot more in that way. And the main point is that people are more open to try these things. They could now imagine much better that it could help, that it could be quite nice way. So it will help to create things that we can hardly believe now. 

John Koetsier: I love the quote that the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. And I like to think about the future and what will the economy look like in a metaverse? That’s interesting, because we know that people have already made a living, you know, a decade ago, building virtual objects and virtual worlds — Second Life, right? We know that people do that today. We know that there are people who will grind away in games to build stuff and then sell it, you know. And maybe they live in a low-cost country and they sell to a high-priced country, right? It’s amazing to think what a fully fledged metaverse will do to our economy. I don’t think we’ll recognize it when we arrive there.

Hans Elstner: Yeah. The thing is, in the times of Second Life, it was a hype, and a lot of companies and other people just used that, utilized these things — the graphic wasn’t the best, at all, but they did.

And it was something, oh, it was trending and it was cool, but when it comes to the real metaverse where it develops to, it will be quite normal that almost every company is doing things there, that it was … it will be normal to use that to explore, to have experiences, to search the metaverse — not the web — for content.

So that will change a lot. It is not about, oh, did you already play that game? So it is more it is quite normal, like using the internet. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. Well, Hans, thank you for taking this time, really do appreciate it. And look forward to seeing how you continue to develop. 

Hans Elstner: Thank you so much, John. It was a pleasure to be here.

Thanks for stopping by!

Made it all the way down here? Wow!

The TechFirst with John Koetsier podcast is about tech that is changing the world, including wearable tech, and innovators who are shaping the future. Guests include former Apple CEO John Scully. The head of Facebook gaming. Amazon’s head of robotics. GitHub’s CTO. Twitter’s chief information security officer, and much more. Scientists inventing smart contact lenses. Startup entrepreneurs. Google executives. Former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold. And much, much more.

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