Insider Perspective: Virtual Reality - what can this mean for business?

A personal review by Paradise Computing's MD, Jonathon Berg

I was an early adopter of Virtual Reality (VR) – hefting on an original Oculus headset to play primitive games in 3D, so I have followed the ascending arc of 3D technology with interest. Is this likely to be a short-lived-and-then-redundant fad like 3D television or DVDs? In this article I intend to put forward the case that VR will eventually become as natural as mobile phones.

Let us begin by defining what VR actually is. It is a pair of spectacles, typically encased in an opaque plastic case, which when worn presents the viewer with a three-dimensional environment that can be completely different to what is physically around them. This is achieved by some intensive computer processing driving two tiny screens that are directly in front of each eye. The approach is a little harsh as it means wearing a heavy piece of technology on the head and having intense light sources very close to the eyes, but the level of realism achieved has moved forward in leaps and bounds. If you have not tried on VR yet, I strongly suggest you try it out as a learning experience – I guarantee you will be impressed. The hardware processes constantly and each generation sees higher resolution screens, less weight, smoother movement and less cables.

That covers off the hardware side of things. But the real subject of this article is what is being seen by these people wearing VR headsets. I am not going to cover games – if you have an interest in seeing dragons or flying spaceships then you probably have a good source of information on that elsewhere – instead I am going to address the potential for office working. There are two obvious benefits that can be delivered by VR to the office worker. The first is the opportunity for more immersive meetings. During the pandemic period most office workers were introduced to the joys and drawbacks of video meetings. Those that have done a lot will have become accustomed to the drawbacks, such as poorer opportunity to read body language and a very unnatural “gallery” format that makes it more difficult to determine who is centre of attention and if the other people in the meeting are paying that attention. VR goes a long way to rectify this issue by putting remote human beings back in a room. There are many software products appearing that address this, with varying degrees of success, and typically involve cartoon-like avatars being used to represent each participant who may be sitting around a table or other meeting space. The difference when compared to a video meeting are subtle, but important. When an attendee turns their head to look at another, so their avatar does the same. This can be extended to include standing, walking about and, potentially, hand gestures (a feature than currently involves holding remotes or wearing gloves to transmit local hand movements into the software to be mimicked by the avatar).

If one looks beyond the current levels of what is possible, it is not a giant leap to guess at what is likely to come next. Replacing the avatars with our own likenesses would be a start – probably a somewhat smarter looking version of oneself, dressed immaculately. Likewise, to introduce emotion, possibly electively using some form of emoticons. And the development doesn’t have to stop there – it is already possible to display a whiteboard or similar and ‘write’ on it with a virtual marker pen – in a virtual world there really is no limit to what can be summoned up following an idea that is then well executed by a team of software developers. I hope this goes some way to persuade you that meetings, at least, could be revolutionised by VR.

Let us turn to lone working then – what does VR have to offer there? And at the top of the list is environment. Again, during the pandemic many office workers experienced the joy of working from home and this was often accompanied by a series of challenges that affected most to some degree. Being present in one’s own home meant the nagging distraction of things needing to be done, bins emptied, washing machines filled and dishwashers attended to. By entering a VR world, these distractions go away as the experience really is of being somewhere else. Many people working from home complained of feeling trapped and, depending on their circumstances, perhaps somewhat claustrophobic working in the same small room hour after hour. VR offers the opportunity to be anywhere you choose. On a beach, in a penthouse apartment in New York, in a forest glade or on the moon. Literally anywhere and our brains, once fed the basics of sight and sound, can quite easily be led to believe we are indeed in these exotic places. Those who currently use VR in this way say the experience can actively support free thinking and brainstorming, and make mundane and repetitive administrative tasks more enjoyable.

Then there is the reverse situation, when someone wishes to work but is perhaps in a difficult environment, such as in an airport lounge or on a bus. With VR it is possible to don the headset and be in the office – virtually – regardless of the real environment. Do you want two monitors on your computer? Three? Then simply cause them to be visible in VR. Admittedly, the person looks strange sitting in a chair with a thing on their face and waving their arms about but is this really any stranger than a person speaking animatedly into a mobile phone would have looked in 1950?

So what are the barriers that prevent more people from using VR? The cost has historically been high although that is now decreasing, and the next generation of VR headsets are probably going to be in most office workers budgets. Another limitation is comfort. Earlier on I mentioned the intense light directly in front of the eyes and using a VR headset for more than an hour or so tends to result in a headache for most people – especially when added to the weight of the headsets, which usually sit on the front of the face and drag the head down so can place strain on the neck. This is further aggravated by heat – the headsets can become warm and lead to sweating which gathers where the headset sits on the face making long sessions quite uncomfortable. So the headsets need to get lighter, more comfortable and easier on the eyes. I believe they will.

The biggest barrier of all is acceptance, and this is being tackled by the likes of Meta (Facebook), who are betting on the technology in a big way and lining up to replace their hugely successful Quest line with an upgrade that is undoubtedly going to be lighter, cheaper and supported by more software. This new generation will still be mainly targeted at gamers, but the signs of office adoption will be there and I make an estimate that by 2026 we will see flavours of VR headset released specifically for office work.

Another facet of this technology is augmented reality (AR), where the headset is more like conventional glasses and the wearer still sees normally but has a transparent screen in front of their eyes that can project images, superimposed on top of what they see. This technology is currently seeing application in some manual jobs, where images can be used to enhance safety or provide training by informing them (or warning them) about objects they can see. An example would be warehouse picking, where simply looking at barcodes on boxes can present the wearer with images of the products inside, or call up despatch documentation detailing how many of each item to pack. Perhaps to warn when an item requires care to move due to its weight or warn of fragility. Ideally, the technologies of VR and AR will merge, so a single headset can at some times be fully opaque and act as a VR headset, transporting the wearer to somewhere else, and at other times transparent, allowing the wearer to interact with their environment.

Truly, the opportunities opened up by VR/AR are boggling. Their use can be applied to almost any human behaviour. Consider internet dating made safer by being able to meet prospective companions without actually being together physically. Enabling attending important occasions of friends or relatives although they may be in another part of the world. Imagine watching films in which one can move around and examine the action from another perspective. How about recording a special event like a wedding and then being able to revisit it whenever you wish in the first person, but walk about and see things that were not seen at the time. The only limit to such experiences is human imagination, and the skills and time of software developers who will craft the foundations of what is needed to make virtual reality live.

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