How ready is Virtual Reality for B2B Workspaces?
“The COVID years” have been quite an experience for most of us. Beyond the obvious impacts on people’s physical health, the mental health impact has been enormous and probably not as yet fully manifested amongst the general population. Within my own direct family I have noticed a number of changes: anxieties; instabilities; confidence issues which are all making us question some of our core social values.
The bigger impact in my view however, especially in the developed world, has been the societal impacts – specifically the working from home cultural shift and people’s attitudes to it. Within a few short months we have transformed from “this is weird” as we all learn how to use Zoom, to “this is great” as we all bank the savings from our daily commute, to “this is difficult” as we all try and balance home life with work lives and to now – end of 2021 – where we are mostly saying “this is exhausting” now we are realising that working from home is actually more tiring than the previously slower paced lives we had in offices, when we enjoyed the luxury of a quiet commute, a coffee and a sandwich at Pret, and the “water cooler” chats which never actually happened at the water cooler, but broke up the monotony of looking at a screen all day.
In some of my tech updates I have talked about the strategic outlook of Meta, Facebook As-Was, who are clearly positioning themselves as the virtual world of the future. And in the context of their strategy, I am trying to work out if this Metaverse will ever genuinely replace, or even partially substitute, the office environment. And so, for research purposes only obviously, I bought an Oculus Quest 2 and tried to work out what that future could look like.
For anyone who has been fortune enough to read, or see at the cinema, Ready Player One you will be familiar with the premise. Virtual Reality headsets replace normal social interaction, as the virtual reality is that much more pleasant than actual Reality. It’s a dystopian future, where we all plug in to a simulation to experience leisure time, meet people, and be who we want to be. It’s a fascinating film, and the conclusion is twofold:
a) There is a fight for control of the virtual reality environment, as it presents such a profitable landscape for advertising and data-driven social manipulation
b) When “the people” win (sorry, spoiler), they conclude it should be switched off frequently to allow people to engage in the real world, no matter how bleak it actually is.
And with COVID it feels like we are on this path. Most of us have experienced the “virtual” workplace, its benefits and its downsides, and certainly speaking personally I am pining for some social interaction outside of the flicker of my monitor, and the unnatural sounding speaker voices. It’s an inherent and instinctive trait, that we should be with people, based on millennia of evolution which allows us to form relationships, learn from each other, share knowledge and ideas, and generally better ourselves.
So, in this context, how realistic / robust is the Metaverse strategy? It looks great in films, but the downsides are immense. If you believe Meta’s marketing materials, it’s clear they are looking to “enhance” normal social interaction by providing choice. You can abstract yourself from the physical world to make it academic as to whether you are physically in the same room as your friends, or whether you are an avatar. You can play games, do sports, or work in this virtual space and it becomes irrelevant as to whether you are there physically, providing you are there mentally.
More specific to this discussion is really whether the Meta devices will ever become B2B mainstream, replacing (or providing an alternative) to the traditional office, and negating the need for commuting / networking / office politics. Simply don your headset and arrive at a workplace, ready to fulfil your role.
After 2 years of full-on mental bombardment, I am enormously cynical about this premise. I loved the novelty of working from home all the time, loved the time and cash savings of no commute, but now am realising that few hours each way on the train gave me time to think / plan / contemplate / get bored. The journey is as important as the destination, metaphorically as well as in reality. Armed with what we’ve learned in the last two years, my lens is very much skewed back towards partial physical engagement.
VR is not new technology, but the Quest 2 is the first attempt to make it consumer mainstream. The quality is incredible, with a robust feel to it and screen definition/resolution that rivals most mainstream televisions – per eye. The cost is acceptable (£300) as an alternative to traditional consumer devices (Xbox, PS5, Switch, Mobile Phone, TV). When you put the Quest 2 on, it feels heavy enough to last, but as it is untethered (wireless) you have a sense of freedom to roam which makes it significantly more natural than the previous / older wired devices.
The user interface is just incredible, accurately reflecting your head movements, seamlessly integrating the hand paddles to allow you to replicate fist / pointing gestures and making the process of navigating menus really straightforward (point / click, or use your virtual index finger!). The graphics quality is amazing, and with a reasonable amount of games / content that leverages the full VR experience, you can see how this device will drive mainstream adoption through the novelty and quality combination. You can’t help but put the headset on and go “wow”.
This stage of development is clearly critical for two reasons. Associating VR with “fun” and “exciting” is key to its broader adoption. But the fact it is primarily targeted at teenage children / gamers shows the strategic nature of the plan. I am old, I am cynical, and the chances of me putting on a headset to go to work is pretty slim right now. My 10 and 12 year old boys couldn’t rip open the box quick enough to try it out, and now have to be prized out of the device to eat their boring physical dinner. In the same way your Generation Z’s struggle to escape Instagram FOMO, I think our Generation Alpha current children are likely to see VR as an appropriate escape to the depressing reality of climate change, COVID, hyperinflation, lying politicians, boring education etc.
I’m fortunate enough to have two Generation Z girls (24, 22), and two Generation Alpha boys (12, 10), and there was a marked difference in their reaction to the device. The Boys are all about immersing themselves in this exciting new world, interacting with the whole thing and not contemplating any potential downside. The Girls were videoing the Boys and posting it on Instagram as to how ridiculous it was watching a boy walk round my lounge with the headset on, believing he was being attacked by virtual dinosaurs.
Accepting the Girls are in their early twenties and don’t play on console games, this is no surprise, however I discussed with them a world in which VR was more prominent. The advantages of being able to change your avatar to suit whatever persona you wanted to project was soon replaced with a nervousness learned from the unhealthy side of social media and online dating – what happens if your new VR friend is actually a psychopath. And when (or if) you finally meet them in the real world they aren’t quite as they projected in the Metaverse. Real Reality wins eventually….
There were some interesting points raised about retail experience. How cool would it be if you don your VR headset, went instantly to a photoreal online store where you could select clothing, try it on (virtually) and check yourself out in the virtual store mirror, then click and have it turn up next day in the real world. But then, why bother with the real item at all – just buy the digital version for your virtual world and be done with it – you’ll never see anyone to show off the physical item anyway.
I also harp back to Second Life, a fascinating site launched in the early 2000’s, where you could create an avatar and fly round a virtual world meeting friends. I signed up, created an avatar that correctly represented my reality (6’2”, ripped and muscly, beautifully tanned) and created my virtual home in my virtual plot. Over the coming months people were lauding it as the future, people were trading virtual real estate and major corporates bought plots to provide online store fronts in this new reality. Fast forward a few years, it now has less than a million regular inhabitants globally, and is largely the preserve of people looking to fulfil specific fantasies that are not necessarily that socially acceptable in the real world…. To be clear, I haven’t logged on recently.
To bring me back to the B2B adoption point – when will this become a genuine and accepted alternative to the working office? I think there are many factors:
The device, albeit incredible, is too heavy for long term use.
It has a battery life of a few hours, and you have a very “warm” face if you keep it on the whole time.
When wearing it, you are completely immersed in the experience – which means those of a more nervous disposition might find it too difficult to switch off from reality for long periods of time for fear of something in their physical reality going wrong (Quest 2 has some impressive failsafe's to avoid you walking into things, but if you leave the dinner on you aren’t going to see the smoke, hear the smoke alarms, if you are on the virtual moon).
The application set is going to need to be a lot more business focused applications to support B2B adoption. In the same way Teams and Zoom have exploded in the last two years, the first genuinely usable Virtual Reality Collaboration app will drive adoption. Technical integration of voice, video, haptic response, olfactory trigger, movement, etc is going to need a lot of power and bandwidth to work properly.
Designing office spaces to support mixed physical and virtual realities is a whole new discipline. Mega-bandwidth, combined with ubiquitous devices that can project the VR whilst ingesting the physical meeting room seamlessly is going to be an excellent challenge for someone.
So the only real barriers to adoption are device size, battery life, people’s attitude to change, limited B2B software and supporting infrastructure….. sound familiar at all? The mobile phone has clearly done ok here.
And I think this is my point, the Metaverse is a great strategy for Meta the Corporation. If they steal the march on the devices, the default VR world, and get Generation Alpha on board with their tech and UI, then mass adoption will follow. Once our current teenagers move into the workplace (10 years), they’ll not be phased by virtual working through VR and will indeed expect it.
My actual nervousness is more on the societal side. How do we define the boundaries and limitations of the many potential mixed realities we will have? How do we protect those who are unable to cope with these mixed realities, for mental health, sociodemographic, available infrastructure or other reason? Whats great for Meta’s shareholders, might not be that great for society as a whole, and I think we should consider that before we wade straight in. Looking back on it, Facebook may not have been such a great idea if we knew then what we know now.
One thing is for sure. The next few decades are going to be fascinating and scary in equal measure. And if the Oculus Quest 2 is a guide to how good VR could get, we’re going to need to think through the impacts of our actions thoroughly, but quickly, to avoid some major societal impacts.