Let’s set the record straight on remote work right now. Zoom and Skype won’t quite work for the long haul. While they are ideal for video chats, when a bunch of talking heads all join together in a virtual environment the interaction is limited.
We can’t see or touch anything, can’t go anywhere together as a group, and can’t interact in a way that seems remotely genuine. When your boss pops onto a Zoom call and chats away, it isn’t all that different from a phone call or a teleconference from decades ago. Video conferencing offers about 10% the value of an actual in-person meeting -- an issue that becomes obvious the more you do them.
Virtual reality could change that -- and quickly. By creating a virtual location to explore, handing each other documents, working on a project that involves virtual tools or holding up a prototype, walking around a new building and inspecting the design, or interacting in other ways, VR could be the one thing that makes remote work and stay-at-home office interactions more bearable.
How it will all work
Right now, we know that VR is mostly an experience you have as a gamer. The Oculus Rift or HTC Vive Pro are game-changing devices for exploring strange alien worlds, but they’re not common as a way to hold a business meeting or look at building floor-plans.
That could change this year.
Imagine this scenario. Your company consists of about 20 employees. You’re now all working in home offices, some in another country or town. Due to nationwide stay-at-home orders related to the coronavirus pandemic, none of you can meet together in an office.
With VR, you decide to meet together anyway -- virtually. In what looks like an exact replica of the conference room you normally use, everyone appears to be sitting at a table. You see Sue in Accounting over to your left. Bob in Sales is fiddling with his phone, just as you remember. This type of VR is not available quite yet, but it is more than possible -- a translation of what we are doing in real life presented in a virtual world that looks ultra-realistic.
The boss walks in and stands at a virtual podium. Now, in a Zoom or Skype call it would not be that different from every other talking head. In VR, you know this is the person who is leading the meeting based on the appearance, positioning at the table, and a commanding voice. The VR might even switch to a viewing mode where your field of view changes so you can’t look around the room. (That’s a whole different topic in terms of virtual environments controlling what we see and do.) As an immersive environment, however, you are all there.
It means you can’t hear the kids playing in the other room because you are wearing a headset but also because you can only see the conference room. You can’t see the FedEx driver pull up in front of your house. You can’t see the family cat. Immersive environments were originally meant to transport us to Mars or a pirate ship, but there’s a distinct possibility they will transport us to the office instead where we can work collaboratively as a team and converse in private.
Expanding the scope of VR
That’s one example of VR in an office setting, and it is remarkably possible. VR headsets for business are already available for this, and there have been demonstrations of how this would work. It has not become common because of the cost for headsets, but mostly because office workers have not needed to meet in VR -- they can do that in person. In the near future, VR could help us all connect in a way that is utterly convincing and helpful in more than an office setting.
Let’s say you are a manufacturing company. This is not possible today with modern technology, but if a plant was outfitted with bots that could operate independently, workers could use VR to inspect the machinery, meet to discuss the product specs, and even shoot the breeze over coffee while the machines run in the background. There’s something incredibly important about this. As humans, we need to see and touch an environment -- we respond to it differently.
In a game world, we jump back in shock when a bad guy appears out of nowhere or when a spaceship descends onto a landing pad. In business, we won’t jump or flinch, but we might see where there are problems with a new product design or building plan. We might meet to go over financial data in a boardroom someday, all wearing VR goggles, but we’ll be able to focus on a few “paper” handouts that look ultra-realistic. Pouring over the data, we might see where there are inconsistencies in the budget for one department. Somehow, this is more likely when we can recreate a real-world setting, sit in a chair, look someone in the eye, and interact.
The question is how to make it happen as a way to help remote workers if the pandemic does last longer than any of us expect. There are quite a few hurdles, and most of them are software related. This includes creating the environment, the representations of real humans, and the real interactions we will need. It is all going to be worth it if the pandemic lasts a year or more.
Expanding the scope of VR will require new ways of thinking. A virtual meeting place, a manufacturing plant, or even an outdoor location will be hard to create, but the benefit is that it will open our eyes to new possibilities and new interactions, and potentially lead to improved productivity. Humans need to be able to see, touch, feel -- interact. We were not made to sit at a desk and use Zoom. As valuable as video chats are right now, they do not replicate what meeting in person is actually like. Not by a longshot. With VR, we have a chance to make remote work more like real work.
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John Brandon has covered gadgets and cars for the past 12 years having published over 12,000 articles and tested nearly 8,000 products. He's nothing if not prolific. Before starting his writing career, he led an Information Design practice at a large consumer electronics retailer in the US. His hobbies include deep sea exploration, complaining about the weather, and engineering a vast multiverse conspiracy.