In a world of remote work, how can VR/AR become a useful tool?

[The story below from the radio program Marketplace Tech examines current limitations in the use of virtual and augmented reality as tools for remote work; the original version includes the 7:46 minute audio segment and for two other useful considerations of the topic follow the links near the end to coverage in Wired and the Los Angeles Times. –Matthew]

[Image: A Zoom webinar being accessed via laptop computer. Credit: Zoom.]

In a world of remote work, virtual reality is still pretty much MIA

If working from home is not a perk but a requirement, will VR become a useful job tool? And will the “goofiness factor” get in the way?

By Adi Robertson
March 10, 2020

As more people are working from home to help contain the spread of the new coronavirus, we’re starting to face the limits of remote work technology. On the one hand, we’ve got Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts. But some workers need more than just conference calls and shared documents to get work done.

A few years ago, the idea of virtual reality for the office was all the rage, and it made us wonder, what was the promise of VR for work, and why, so far, has it utterly failed to materialize? I spoke with Adi Robertson, a senior reporter with The Verge who follows virtual reality, and I asked her why VR for the office hasn’t taken off. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Adi Robertson: The hardware still has high enough costs in a lot of different ways that it’s not really worth the trade-offs from the things that we already have. You get this sense of spatial presence with other workers, and if you have hand controls, you can interact with people in ways that feel more natural. The problem is that VR headsets still just have a lot of downsides. For one thing, you have to get one for every worker. The headsets are pretty heavy — you don’t usually want to wear them for more than maybe an hour. If you’re trying to do work on them, what do you do? Do you type on your keyboard that you can’t see?

Molly Wood: Do you think that all of that promise back then — that it would just be the future of collaboration, it made so much sense and you’d have avatars and the sense of presence would mean you really didn’t even need to go to a meeting — do you think that some of it was just overhyped, or did the technology not progress and get cheap fast enough?

Robertson: Kind of both. The technology didn’t get, I think, lighter and maybe cheaper as fast as people expected. Also, VR turned out to be good for some very specialized things that often it was already being used for, like if you want to do really serious design work and you want to pull a bunch of people in to look at a car model or something, then actually VR makes a lot of sense there. But just as a general purpose office thing, I think there were a lot of people who are always skeptical for very good reasons.

Wood: We’re at this moment now where we’re talking about the tech tools that people might need to work from home. That’s what prompted this conversation, that there was this idea that virtual reality could give us better virtual office spaces. Do you think that was just a bad idea, or that it might ever happen?

Robertson: I don’t think it’s a bad idea, and augmented reality makes a lot more sense in a lot of ways. If you imagine the idealized version of smart glasses, where you can see something projected on a table and you can have a colleague sit in a chair across from you, but they’re actually somewhere else and being projected, that gets around a lot of the problems. You’re still in your normal environment, but you can also get the collaborative aspect of being able to gather around a whiteboard and a sense of physicality that you don’t get if you’re just seeing somebody in a video feed.

Wood: That, you said, is still in development. How close are we to that do you think?

Robertson: To something that actually is the thing people want to just wear around the office, I think still several years away. There are systems like Microsoft HoloLens that, again, are very good for simulation and training. But they’re still pretty inconvenient to just wear around the office, and you wouldn’t want to just hang out with them on. I think we’re also talking around the goofiness factor of how silly a lot of people feel wearing these. I don’t, because I cover VR and I’ve done a lot of this, but I am fully aware that a lot of people think that this just looks completely ridiculous and they would feel so silly wearing it.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

I also wrote about this topic for Wired, which was published Tuesday. In some ways the failure of VR and AR to materialize is kind of a metaphor for all the ways in which we’re not ready to transition our workplaces or our lives to telecommuting or even self-isolation. This is kind of weird because these technologies have long promised to decentralize us, increase our ability to take our jobs anywhere, maybe reduce the burden on a few expensive coastal cities and even fundamentally change the way we think about how and where we work. Inertia is a powerful thing, and we haven’t had to make big changes so far, but that’s not to say we won’t.

The Los Angeles Times and I were on a wavelength. The paper also has a piece about the many ways we’re not ready for mass telecommuting, and it notes that the closest we’ve come in recent history was “Second Life.”


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