Anyone who has played modern video games understands how easy it is to enter a virtual world and feel as though you’re really there. As in the physical world, you come to find your way around, get to know the other people there, and learn what tools to use to accomplish various tasks. Just as this approach can be used to create fictional worlds, it can also be used to replicate actual ones, including workplaces.
Virtual reality (VR) — being immersed in a complete virtual world — and augmented reality (AR) — using a combination of virtual and physical elements — make it possible to alleviate some of the negative aspects of remote work and create opportunities to perform workplace functions in entirely new ways. The technology is still very new, but some businesses are already using VR and AR to provide fresh solutions to workplace challenges.
Here we explore how VR and AR technology can realistically serve to reduce isolation, increase worker flexibility, and cut down on costs associated with physical workplaces.
The VR Landscape
Imagine entering a virtual world and seeing something very much like the office you used to go to in pre-pandemic days. There are workstations, meeting rooms, break areas — and people! Your coworkers might look a little different, but you can tell who they are because their names appear in text above their heads. When you approach them, you see an option to speak with them. When you do, they speak back.
Unlike video games, the responses from others aren’t pre-scripted. They’re actual comments from the actual person represented in the environment. As in real life, you can discuss current work projects or chat about the weather, kids, vacations, and other matters of mutual interest. At designated times, you can gather with multiple people for meetings. And some companies are using VR just for meetings, which enables more connection and fun than standard videoconferences.
Such a virtual work environment offers many benefits to businesses:
- Improved employee experience. At some companies, remote workers may feel like second-class citizens compared to those who work in a centralized physical location. A virtual environment gives everyone access to the same resources and experience.
- Centralized location. Companies with multiple locations are creating spaces where everyone can come together.
- Better training. A virtual platform provides tools needed for effective employee training and development.
- Reduction in video conferences. A virtual environment cuts down on the need for videoconferencing and reduces Zoom fatigue.
- Lower costs. As with standard remote work, virtual reality helps companies reduce costs for office space and supplies as well as travel.
- Enhanced teamwork. Employees can recreate some of the aspects of work that they lose when working from home, including collaboration, teamwork, and spontaneous discussion and brainstorming sessions.
Additionally, companies are using VR solutions to improve employees’ soft skills in situations like customer service and presentations. According to Harvard Business Review, “VR tools offer learners a truly immersive experience. These interactive programs can run on VR headsets…and they allow employees to interact and role play with avatars designed to mimic customers or other key stakeholders.”
Specific industries can use VR technologies to help professionals become more effective at their jobs.
- Medicine. Medical professionals can use VR for medical training, reducing the need to practice on cadavers. AR features can be used to view images of a patient’s internal organs. And VR can even be used to treat some mental health conditions.
- Military. VR simulations can assist troops in training for a variety of situations, including flight, combat, medic training, and more.
- Large machine maintenance. Virtual versions of actual machines can be used to train professionals in machine maintenance and repair.
- Real estate. Prospective home buyers from anywhere in the world can do a walkthrough of a home and decide to purchase it without having to travel there.
- Education. Just about any subject can be enhanced through VR. For example, imagine the capacity for instructors to walk learners of any age through lifelike scenes from historical periods or through today’s buildings or sites of importance. The following video features educators talking about how they are using VR technology:
Who’s Making the Tech?
Several big tech companies already make VR devices, including Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook. Companies like Spatial offer the software that employees can use to join the virtual workspaces mentioned above. Features include whiteboards, video screens, modeling platforms, sticky note and drawing backgrounds, and hang-out spaces. Each user can create an avatar based on a selfie.
Experts agree, though, that the current hardware and software aren’t enough to drive widespread use. According to a Vox article, “To get there, the tech needs better connectivity – namely 5G, which…could vastly expand what we can do with AR, VR, and countless other technologies.”
Watch This (Virtual) Space
As mentioned above, VR for work isn’t yet ready for widespread deployment. An Inverse article states, “Don’t count on working in a virtual office anytime soon due to limitations of technology. While VR has made great strides in the past few years, headsets are still bulky…. Motion sickness also remains an issue for many people.”
While the interaction is different from a Zoom meeting, it’s not necessarily better. Some of the functionality of Zoom, such as screen sharing, may be missing. Or participants wearing VR gloves might not be able to type when needed. Plus, users are still working out things like meeting etiquette.
But the technology has so much potential, and it doesn’t have to be an either-or choice. VR can be used in conjunction with both in-person and online approaches. As the technology evolves, companies should think about how they can use it now and into the future.