Your Next Office Could Be in Virtual Reality

Virtual meetings would still be meetings, though

Key Takeaways

  • The pandemic is driving interest in using virtual reality for business. 
  • Facebook’s Oculus 2 VR headset will support an application called Infinite Office that allows people to work in a virtual office. 
  • Advances are needed before VR can replace real-life interactions, experts say.
Woman wearing VR Glasses
tolgart / Getty Images 

With millions of people working from home due to the pandemic, businesses are turning to virtual reality to collaborate and communicate.

After years of languishing as primarily a gaming accessory, VR is having its moment in the spotlight for work. Sales of virtual reality software and hardware are expected to soar. Facebook’s newly announced Oculus Quest 2 and other headsets are making the technology more accessible than ever.

"Companies are trying to find another way to engage with their clients because they can't get to them in person," said Steven King, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies virtual reality, in a phone interview. "Now, because of COVID, VR [is] the right way to do that for some of them. So, for some businesses, it's shipping a headset to a client to give them the experience, from a collaboration perspective. For others, it gives you more of the ability to creatively collaborate together as a small team than a flat, two dimensional experience does."

Type on Your Headset

If VR is going to be a true office tool it needs to do more than just play games. Facebook recently announced the Oculus 2 VR headset will support an application called Infinite Office that allows people to work in a virtual office. Other features include virtual meetings and the ability to toggle between a full VR mode and a hybrid mode that merges the virtual world with actual surroundings. Logitech is teaming up to offer a real, full-sized keyboard that will work in the virtual space.

"Companies are trying to find another way to engage with their clients because they can't get to them in person."

Companies are already using VR for everything from collaborating to training to sales. Verizon uses VR to teach its retail workers how to handle armed robberies.

Retail workers can play out in VR a scenario of what to do if they’re being held at gunpoint. Walmart trained more than 1 million employees using virtual reality, and is testing out using VR for job interviews.

"With all the data you get from VR, you can see where they look. You can see how they move and how they react," Walmart’s head of learning Andy Trainor told NPR. "You could do an interview in VR and based on the way they answer the questions, you can preselect whether or not they'd be a good fit for that role."

A virtual, collaborative meeting
Spatial 

The coronavirus pandemic is pushing more companies to explore VR for work. In a phone interview, Alex Howland, President and co-founder of VR software company VirBELA, explains there’s been "an explosion of interest from business." His company creates virtual reality spaces for collaboration that can host as many as 10,000 people at once.

Virtual vs. Video vs. Reality

As the pandemic saps office culture, pure text interactions like email can feel sterile. Even video conferencing often just shows people’s faces, which can make it difficult to read people.

"Although video conferencing apps are the default platforms for communicating, the absence of the physical aspect makes it hard to study a coworker’s body language, making the experience incomplete compared to discussing with them physically," said Yaniv Masjedi, CMO at video conferencing company Nextiva, in an email interview.

Many people are also finding out that being on camera all the time is exhausting. "What’s nice about being kind of behind an avatar is it provides some level of psychological safety and privacy while still being social," Howland said. "So we hear people who are introverts, or more diverse folks, feel comfortable speaking up in the virtual environment, in a way that they might not feel comfortable speaking up in a face to face venue."

"It's also a little off putting to be in a room with other people, but nobody else can see each other, but they know they're there."

VirBELA’s software allows users to turn on a camera and show their real faces, but many people choose not to use it, Howland said. Even using an avatar can be socially awkward, it turns out. "If you get your avatar too close to someone else's avatar, it is just as uncomfortable as, you know, me getting too close," Howland said. 

Traditional behaviors sometimes get replicated in the virtual world, said Howland, adding, "we see gentlemen sometimes letting women go out through doors before they do."

Judging People By Their Avatars

One positive outcome from widespread use of VR is that it may allow people to be judged more by their ideas, rather than what they look like, proposed Justin Berry, a critic at Yale University’s School of Art and faculty member at Yale’s Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, in a phone interview.

"It was interesting to me to see when you look at virtual reality and you say, who finds comfort or safety in this space," he said. "In some ways it protects people who might be marginalized."

"For others, it gives you more of the ability to creatively collaborate together as a small team than a flat, two dimensional experience does."

Using VR may become the new normal, but despite its benefits, it’s not going to fully replace physical interactions anytime soon. King, for one, doesn’t "see a large society never going out and doing things because VR is so good. I just think we're 20 years away from that ever happening."

The hardware for VR still has a long way to go, too, with experts saying the current crop of headsets are clunky and have relatively low resolution screens.

People also have to learn to adjust to interacting in VR. "It's also a little off putting to be in a room with other people, but nobody else can see each other, but they know they're there," said King. "There's just a psychological piece to that that makes it a little bit weird."

Even its proponents admit VR is still in its infancy. So what might the future hold for work? The rollout of ultrafast 5G networks would allow for better VR connections everywhere, said Howland. Faster processors will also allow for better graphics.

"I think you'll see greater integration of tools that Facebook just came out with," Howland said. "All the different tools that you use in your office will be able to be connected to them in the virtual world. So it will be kind of a one stop shop for all the things that you need to be to be effective."

Update 9/25/20 12:53pm ET: We've updated the article to match Alex Howland's correct title. It previously said he was the CEO of VirBELA.