Innovation

IdeaFestival 2016: How soon will virtual reality change the way we work?

Ben Kuchera of Polygon discussed the ethical concerns of virtual reality, and how it could impact telecommuting, travel, entertainment, and the way we work in the future.

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Ben Kuchera of Polygon.com talks at IdeaFestival 2016.

Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

Virtual reality has come a long way from the bulky machines of years past, but it will still be a while before it comes part of your workday, said Ben Kuchera, senior opinions editor at Polygon, at an IdeaFestival 2016 session about VR on Thursday.

"Never in my career have I seen a time when the quality of experience of technology has jumped up so rapidly while the price dropped so precipitously," Kuchera said. "But there need to be multiple breakthroughs before this becomes a truly mainstream product."

A strong VR experience requires a high-quality display, sensors that move in real-time without lag, and optics that make it comfortable for users to view for longer periods of time, Kuchera said.

In the past 15 years alone, the technology has evolved from needing a full room full of VR technologies to work, to requiring just a small device like the ones based on Google Cardboard (like the IdeaFestival-branded version that attendees got). Today, business professionals have a number of products and platforms to choose from, headlined by Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

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

Several industries, including healthcare, entertainment, automotive, and education, are now using VR with some regularity. For business, this tech is perhaps most often used for client or customer-facing cases, such as product demos and 360 tours.

After the session, Kuchera told TechRepublic he expects VR to have a great impact on working remotely. "I hope that we have programs that allow people to work more productively," he said. On the market currently are desktop replacement VR programs that allow the user to open different windows, configure them around your workspace, and express data in new ways.

"There are all sorts of great collaboration tools," Kuchera said. "The danger is if we have more people telecommuting, we have to make sure they don't work a 10 hour day instead of an 8 hour day."

Kuchera said he predicts it will still be at least a few years before we see VR as a commonly used tool for telecommuting, as the hardware is still a bit cumbersome. Former TechRepublic multimedia editor Erin Carson also explained four ways VR and AR could change the workplace, including more productive conference calls and virtual sensitivity training.

In the nearer future, we can expect to see VR used in libraries for students to travel to a place they read about, or at home for consumers who want to play immersive games or travel to faraway locales.

"The phrase 'you should have been there' will soon come with a download code," Kuchera said.

That being the case, VR poses several ethical concerns that cannot be ignored, Kuchera said. People have to consider, he said, what is the risk to real-world experiences? At what point is VR close enough that we stop doing the real thing?

VR can help us explore the world and have experiences that might otherwise be impossible, such as launching into space on a replica of the Apollo 11 or climbing Mount Everest. But the fear is that people might be content with virtually travelling to a place rather than actually doing so, Kuchera said.

"We can't do it all, but we're soon going to be able to do more of it," said Kuchera.

Yet, "VR is all destination and no journey, and there's a danger in that," Kuchera also warned.

On the positive side, VR can be an "empathy engine," allowing people to walk in someone else's shoes and experience a multitude of realities, Kuchera said. For example, one VR app allows users to understand what a person with dementia experiences each day. "I'm not sure that society has really caught up with what this could possibly do in the next 20 years when the technology gets better and the price gets lower," Kuchera said. "The important thing about VR is the fact that we can use this very advanced tech in a very human way."

SEE: Immersive journalism: What virtual reality means for the future of storytelling and empathy-casting

The VR/AR market will total $120 billion by 2020, according to Digi-Capital, with AR outpacing VR at $90 billion to $30 billion.

Though many professionals may be eager to jump on the VR bandwagon, TechRepublic writer Patrick Gray reminded IT leaders that VR in the workplace is still in its earliest stages and far from mainstream. Gray recommends IT leaders "consider how your IT infrastructure will adapt and evolve to a state where IT is more about capturing, analyzing, and presenting data than building monolithic applications... The true asset of IT will be in the conclusions it can draw from massive amounts of data, and the presentation layer will ultimately become a personal decision of the data consumer."

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. While virtual reality technology has made incredible leaps in the past decade, it will likely still be years before we see its true impact in the average workplace, said Ben Kuchera at IdeaFestival 2016 on Thursday.
  2. Mainstream use of VR poses several ethical questions, including whether or not it could someday replace actual experiences with simulated ones.
  3. VR is currently used in several industries for specific tasks, and could someday make an impact on remote work practices.

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About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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