COVID-19 has profoundly changed the way professionals work—and many of these changes are not going away. Zoom meetings have become the new normal, and collaborative spaces like Dropbox and Slack have become essential as remote work has taken hold. Yet some are now pushing technology in a new direction: virtual online workplaces.
"While the extended reality (XR) market was already projected to grow before the pandemic, today's situation is driving advances in the space at an unprecedented rate. We've seen an incredible acceleration in the development and adoption of virtual collaboration tools," observes Raffaella Camera, global head, Innovation & Marketing Strategy at Accenture Extended Reality.
These virtual environments are accessible through two-dimensional (2D) screens and thorugh virtual reality (VR) headsets that display three-dimensional (3D) representations of offices and meeting spaces. Once inside, participants can view realistic looking avatars, manipulate 3D objects, and attend meetings, group conversations, workshops, training classes, and expositions that combine elements of physical reality and virtual reality.
"Some of these spaces are extremely robust with full 3D graphics visualizations. They are very similar to actual physical environments," says Nicholas Jushchyshyn, program director for virtual reality and immersive media at Drexel University.
Going the Distance
The appeal of virtual workspaces isn't difficult to understand. They take participants beyond the limitations of phone calls, videoconferencing, even the confines of a physical office building or convention center.
"Virtual meeting spaces greatly expand the possibilities for online communication—and, at their best, create an environment that parallels or exceeds real world interaction," says Rohan Freeman, CEO of Sine Wave Entertainment, producer of a virtual world meeting technology called Breakroom.
Sine Wave and other firms, such as Spatial Systems Inc., create environments that allow participants to wander through virtual rooms and interact with different people and objects. As the avatar moves in Sine Wave's Breakroom, the voices and sounds ebb and flow based on distance. At any point, a facilitator can request attendees to head into an auditorium, board room, or breakout rooms, where they can view presentations or training videos, and have discussions. While in those rooms, It's possible to share content, clap, display emotions, and initiate discreet text or voice conversations.
The idea has caught on at Accenture. The consulting firm has created its own interactive workspace, Nth Floor, which is built atop Microsoft AltSpace virtual reality technology. Participants use a 2D screen, VR headset, or a Microsoft HoloLens to wander around the virtual space, engage in discussions, and view objects or videos within the 3D environment.
"Collaborating in virtual environments tends to increase employee engagement and knowledge retention. The technology helps our employees and clients feel connected to each other when we can't physically be in the same place," Camera says.
She points to research from Stanford University and Technical University Denmark that cite a 76% increase in learning effectiveness through virtual learning. "Additionally, data collected during VR training sessions can help companies determine which employee is best suited for a given task," Camera says.
Virtual meeting spaces have improved dramatically in recent years, due advances in graphics and software along with greater bandwidth, Jushchyshyn says. Nevertheless, a few challenges remain. "One of the biggest problems with these environments is that you cannot actually see the person's face, unless you revert to videoconferencing inside the VR environment. Without actual expressions and body language, many nuances are lost," he points out.
There's also the task of adapting interactions for an online world, without trying to force all the elements of the physical world into a VR space. "It can be potentially misguided to try to duplicate actual buildings and environments," Jushchyshyn says. Likewise, simply porting over computer-centric functions, such as drop-down boxes and menus to access databases, tends to feel cumbersome and unnatural. "A virtual meeting space requires an entirely different user interface and representations," Freeman says.
To be sure, virtual spaces require more than a pretty interface; there's also a need for robust social programming. An environment must address basic rules and customs for interaction, while conforming to an organization's specific needs and culture. This includes things like how and when rooms open and close, how to nudge people into and out of various activities, and even establishing rules for how, when, and with whom people may interact.
Nevertheless, virtual workplaces appear poised for prime time. Concludes Camera: "These solutions make collaboration possible when travel and in-person meetings are not possible. This is very important in light of the current pandemic, but it is also a huge advantage when applied more broadly. A virtual environment can be designed to accommodate a great number of people, whereas physical office rooms can't typically be adjusted."
Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR, USA.