Sometimes in remote work meetings, a supervisor will begin with a group icebreaker to get things rolling, like your favorite movie or the last trip you went on. That’s essentially what virtual workplaces in the metaverse are: an elaborate attempt to get ideas flowing by pretending that you’re not actually working. And just like those icebreakers, it’s not entirely convincing.
Shared 3D environments in virtual reality have been an obvious staple in gaming for years, like World of Warcraft or whichever game your friend is spending too much time in. But those virtual worlds have monsters and dragons and spaceships shaped like dragon monsters. They’re meant to create a reality impossible to duplicate in life.
Is the office really an environment that needs a virtual upgrade? It depends.
Your Boss’ Avatar Would Like to Have a Word with You
You may have seen ads for new virtual workspaces while at your actual office with walls and tables. Facebook launched a workplace app called Horizon Workrooms for Quest 2 users that are also work-from-home employees. It’s a pretty specific demographic, to say the least.
The app lets coworkers chat with each other as more professionally dressed Pixar-like avatars, and share photos and files on a cartoon whiteboard that you can’t avoid looking at like in your regular office.
Like all the others, Microsoft Mesh is very much a work in progress. It provides a mixed reality overlay on Teams that lets workers collaborate in virtual workspaces on 3D models, and other areas where visualization is necessary. Workers can appear as either avatars in VR or even real places as somewhat realistic holograms, just like they did in Star Wars work meetings.
Virtual Workspace Advantages
It’s clear why such projects are necessary, as there have been numerous studies making the obvious point that workplace collaboration and brainstorming tend to suffer when people are working from home. That little thumbs up or “Sounds good” under your coworker’s idea in Teams or Slack isn’t exactly getting the creative juices flowing.
And there are other obvious advantages to dropping in a virtual office: Your avatar is always wearing pants, no one can tell that you haven’t shaved in a while and are letting yourself go, and there’s no chance of running into that smelly guy in the office.
But going all in on it as if people are ever to strap on a VR headset and spend multiple hours in a virtual office, let alone 40, is a bit of a misfire. We don’t need to build entire worlds that recreate the utter thrill of being in a meeting room, or walking into your boss’ office so you have that ominous chat.
A virtual workplace, if you’re employed at a somewhat typical company, is only likely to be something that employees briefly drop in on, and may never end up justifying the cost and potential distraction inherent in VR tech. Now, if you’re a worker who regularly uses 3D models, like an engineer or surgeon or pilot or graphic designer, the applications are obvious.
More Fantasy, Less Offices
That’s part of the reason Mark Zuckerberg took an online beating for recent presentations on virtual workplaces, as it ultimately showed a lack of imagination. Criticizing the look of the tech is easy to do because good VR takes time–the real disappointment is that they’re using their time to recreate the most mundane and common parts of reality.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the remote desktop feature from Meta’s Horizon Workrooms, which lets users strap on a nearly $1,500 VR headset so they can type on a virtual floating computer if their actual computer is totally not cutting by being real and limited by the constraints of gravity. There may not be enough lubricating eye drops in the world to deal with that situation.
We don’t need a virtual reality version of a cubicle or messy desk at home, we need exciting experiences like butterflies carrying swords and flying pancake saucers shooting blueberries at dinosaurs with guns. I’ll spend $1,500 on that.
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