From privacy to productivity: A look at how virtual reality could change the way we work

Businesses someday getting on board with virtual reality will need to do some self-examination. Various VR tools are aimed at reclaiming productivity and improving interactions.

Image: Breakroom

The fabled "promise" of virtual reality is expansive. At its loftiest, we've been promised not only changes to how we live and how we consume entertainment, but also to how we work.

After all, tech loves a good workplace trend.

In a general sense, incorporating virtual reality into business could mean things like escape from the physical confines of a desk, or the limit of how many monitors you could stick on that desk, or the general lack of aesthetics associated with cubicles, let's say.

At the moment, there seems to be two ends of the spectrum developing — VR to help you get work done with other people, and VR to help you get away from, perhaps, those same people later on in the day.

One instance of the latter example is Icelandic company Breakroom. They're still in early days, but the idea behind Breakroom stems from the proliferation of open-concept offices — the kind popularized by tech companies as markers of innovation and avant-garde thinking, and the same that the Harvard Business Review, among others, have said are now negatively impacting privacy, productivity, and workplace satisfaction.

One of Breakroom's founders, Diðrik Steinsson, drew inspiration from having to work in an open office space himself. The idea behind Breakroom is that a worker in such an office might have a headmounted display like the Oculus Rift at his or her desk, and when it's time to really focus on something for a few hours, they can put it on and go into a virtual environment with multiple, manipulatable browser windows, and integration with Google Apps, and Office 365, and get some work done — all while sitting somewhere scenic like a grassy field, or the moon. (Some co-workers will push you there.)

"I see it as a fortress of solitude for people," Steinsson said. And he's betting workers will be wearing some type of HMD eventually, even if it's not within the next 10 years.

The flip side of this, to a degree, is a virtual reality application like AltspaceVR. The social VR app lets users enter its virtual world as robot avatar to socialize. It's not necessarily aimed at businesses or the enterprise, but CEO Eric Romo said they've been using it for functions like business meetings and even job candidate interviews.

Romo emphasizes the value of nonverbal communication. A conference call, for example, can be awkward. People talk over each other, and it's difficult to get a read on the other people present when all nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language are absent. Romo said the experience of meeting and interacting with others is more effective when things like head movements are getting translated into VR.

Altspace has features like private and multi user web browsers — so, multiple people could, for example, look at code together. The use cases from consumer to enterprise slide back and forth a little like this: Romo said that if you want to show off vacation pictures, there's no reason why they couldn't be slide decks.

Somewhere in between those two examples, there's something like the demo UC Davis' Institute for Data Analysis and Visualisation Oliver Kreylos put together in 2014. It's 3D-captured data of an office that includes 2D desktop apps.

But to eventually get these or other virtual reality tools into the business world, there are still some hurdles to jump, like nailing down inputs, or even just supplying every worker with not only an HMD, but also a Kinect sensor and Leap Motion sensor in order to translate more movement into VR. It also raises bigger questions as to what does all this really solve?

"When you want to introduce a technology like VR into some sort of business process, it's really got to have some sort of overall benefit," said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. "Some of these behavior replacement cycles — one of the things that you'll find is that often times they're more incremental than they are revolutionary."

Introducing something like VR into a business environment would be revolutionary in the sense that it would be a change of device, software, and user interface, all at once.

What he asks is what are the steps? What are the actions being changed? Being able to answer those questions could be a determining factor in whether virtual reality ever takes hold in the enterprise.

He said more general uses are harder to make an argument for. Take a meeting, for the example — over the years, tech surrounding the ways in which people meet has ranged from phone calls, to conference calls, to video calls, to video calls on mobile devices — so what's the big value add of virtual reality?

Romo submits the nonverbal cues, and the basic malleability of a virtual reality environment, the ability to turn a space into whatever it is a user might need.

Still, Blau sees more potential in purpose-built VR tools. Think data visualisation, training, prototyping and design.

Another consideration is what what happens after introducing something like an HMD into an office worker's everyday use.

Computer Vision Syndrome is already rampant. Though, Dr. Dominick Maino, a professor at Illinois College of Optometry/Illinois Eye Institute, who specializes in pediatrics and binocular Vision, and has done research on vision and 3D graphics, said that if anything, introducing VR into workplaces would probably end up sacrificing a lot of vision problems relating to faulty binocular vision. Those will be the kinds of problems that need to get fixed before actually being able to use a VR tool.

Still, this is all probably a ways off. Breakroom is about to start testing its product. Altspace is focusing mostly on consumer use, but crafting a product that could be used otherwise in business.

Now, if only VR could offer a fix for the big business problems — like the "reply all" email thread.

Also see:


Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox