Emerging tech

Virtual offices may be a revolution bigger than 2020’s work-from-home shift

Virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are recreating the feel of working side-by-side with colleagues, without the health risks or long commute.

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Julia Hanke

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You’ve just got the hang of managing Zoom fatigue, but it’s time to get ready for a new ride that’s going to shake up our work-from-home lives. Imagine putting on a virtual reality (VR) headset and a virtual office appears all around you.

It might sound like something out of science fiction, but VR can now recreate the office, your colleagues and your office culture in an immersive way. The benefits may include more effective collaboration and improved accessibility.

Are we ready for VR offices?

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant we’re all spending more time at home. Unsurprisingly we’ve also seen an uptick in sales of VR and augmented relating (AR) technology. Research by Verizon Media predicts we’ll buy 11 million VR and AR headsets worldwide in 2021. We’re also using AR to virtually ‘try on’ cosmetics and fashion before buying online.

This shift to using more advanced tech in everyday life alongside more widespread working from home suggests we’re more than ready to try the virtual office. And business will want the benefits being in the same room can bring to a global team.

Founder of holographic 3D workspace business Spatial, Anand Agarawala, says, “It used to be that if you wanted to jam on an idea or get creative, you’d get in a room with someone, even to the extent you’d take a flight to do that. With VR and AR we can put on a headset and feel like we’re in the same room as someone.” He calls it “a 3D version of Zoom meets Slack.”

Affordable headsets at the right time

In late 2020, Facebook announced a new VR headset, the Oculus Quest 2. It received rave reviews, dubbed a “game-changer” by Tech Advisor for affordability, high-quality imagery and all-in-one capability without the need for a tethered PC connection. And it comes loaded with Infinite Office, Facebook’s virtual reality workspace.

Facebook’s Infinite Office combines VR and AR, or ‘mixed reality.’

Infinite Office brings up browser ‘windows’ to visually represent what you might see when looking at monitors while sitting at your desk. It uses a “gesture interface” similar to that seen in 2002 science fiction movie Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise uses his hands to swipe floating windows through the air.

But you can still go to the kitchen and grab a snack in headset. Passthrough technology lets you move from VR to MR, called ‘mixed reality.’ You can see both virtual reality your real-life environment, thanks to an integrated camera.

Infinite Office also pairs with a real-life keyboard so you can write easily in headset – something that’s been a problem before in virtual reality. Unfortunately, your snack crumbs can still be a more-than-virtual keyboard hazard.

More effective skills training with VR

Facebook admits Infinite Office has limitations when it comes to the full immersive capabilities of a virtual office. Maria Fernandez Guajardo, Director of Facebook Future of Work, says it’s just their first step into the virtual office space. “Infinite Office is … the foundational layer [with] initial capabilities to help unlock productivity and utility from Quest.”

So Facebook is teaming up with Spatial and Talespin, who already have immersive software, hoping to improve user experience.

Spatial can create realistic, holographic avatars of your colleagues from a selfie and render them as you would see them in a real-life meeting room.

You can then collaborate and brainstorm ‘virtually’ face-to-face. Talespin offers soft skills (such as leadership and communication) training by placing you in a realistic roleplay, with impressive results. They also offer physical skills training too, recreating real-world objects, tools and places in 3D.

Virtually creating a fairer world

These innovations already have more benefits than letting colleagues play virtual table football. They can also improve diversity and inclusion.

The VR office lets those with disabilities or impaired mobility telecommute into work without losing visibility, even if some prefer to return to their daily commute. It could also enhance face-to-face interactions for workers who are sight-impaired or hard of hearing. Facebook Reality Labs is developing AR glasses that help those with hearing loss hear better in noisy environments. These glasses identify the user’s focus and coordinate this to audio inputs to ‘understand’ what sounds they do and don’t want to hear, dialing these up or down.

Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Facebook Reality Labs, told Digital Trends, “AR and VR have enormous potential to benefit everyone, but especially high potential for people with varying physical abilities.”

Securing virtual office data

Multinational professional services network PwC recently looked into using VR for workplace training. They say, “When considering data security on a headset, it is important to understand there are normally two types of data security that need to be addressed: Security of the underlying operating system that is running on the hardware and security of the data collected by an application running on top of that operating system (data collected from inside the application.)”

PwC also suggests it’s crucial to consider how you’ll maintain and manage a large fleet of VR headsets. “The installation of security certificates on some of the head-mounted displayed (HMDs) is not yet possible. If you are using a certificate-based security approach for your enterprise and mobile phones, you may have to address mobile device management (MDM) capabilities outside your standard platform.”

As the role of the office changes, the role technology plays changes too. Working from home can be isolating, and effective collaboration sometimes proves difficult. The VR office could open a global talent pool, enable more diversity and, with any luck, make the pain of booking a meeting room a thing of the past.

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About authors

Angharad Salazar Llewellyn is the founder of The Flex Network. She writes about flexible working and sustainability for national newspapers and global clients, and is also interested in innovation and ethical business trends.