Virtual reality has become big business, and its mainstream availability is one of those rare, genuinely exciting developments that can’t help but spark the imagination. The entertainment aspects of VR, as well as its cousins augmented reality and mixed reality, are the most obvious. Traveling far and wide to places real or imagined, flying through space, and interacting with fantastical creatures are the kinds of VR that come to mind most readily.
Entertainment isn’t the only area where virtual reality is making an impact, though. Thought leaders in the business world saw the potential early on for workplace productivity applications, and developers are working hard to bring them to market.
Although the field is still new, it is clear that virtual reality will change the way we do business. The only question is when, and who will be at the forefront of the revolution. Here are just a few of the ways that virtual reality and related technologies might impact the office in days to come.
With the rise of the Internet and remote work, today’s organizations are more geographically dispersed than ever before. Employees working on the same team might not report to the same office. They might not live in the same city, or even the same country.
Although this trend has led to wonderful gains in productivity and employee satisfaction, it does have its downside. According to the Association for Talent Development (ATD), businesses spend an average of $1,208 per employee training them in the skills required to do their job. Almost 2/3 of the cost is attributed to tangential expenses like instructor travel, the development of training courses, and other costs not related directly to instructor pay.
Utilizing VR in the training infrastructure could reduce these costs while increasing the effectiveness of training. In the virtual world, a single instructor could teach a single classroom consisting of new employees spread all over the world. The technology is unaffected by physical distance, and the natural interactions it affords have been shown to be more engaging than a phone call or video conference. Training courses and simulations benefit from VR, as well. For employees learning complex tasks using machinery, or learning how to deal with unexpected situations, a virtual environment provides valuable practical experience.
Life often imitates art. More specifically, technology often imitates science fiction. The modern Internet was predicted by William Gibson and other cyberpunk writers soon after the advent of the first computer networks. The first cell phones were inspired by the handheld communicators used in Star Trek, with later flip phones even modeled on them aesthetically.
One innovation that is often seen in popular media, but not yet delivered in the real world, is the floating user interface. Think about Minority Report, or Tony Stark tinkering away on his Iron Man suit designs. The manipulation of data using natural, instinctive hand motions has obvious efficiency benefits.
In fact, the science consultant behind Minority Report recently built Mezzanine. This is a dedicated mixed reality room that makes good on those concepts. His firm is pitching it to large corporations as a collaboration solution. For those of us who don’t have access to that kind of space and budget, virtual reality and augmented reality headsets will offer the next best thing. VR could provide an easy way to transport the user entirely into their work, a space filled with data and charts and images to manipulate. AR might be even more practical, integrating hand-written notes, printed documents, and physical objects into the interface.
The best aspect of virtual reality, at least from the standpoint of workplace productivity, is its geographical agnosticism. Everything that makes it effective for employee training purposes works just as well for collaboration. Team members located around the world could meet in a virtual conference room, pointing and gesturing and using natural body language to communicate.
Of course, there’s no reason the conference room has to be a conference room. The team could just as easily meet on top of Mount Everest, in the Oval Office, or in outer space. The virtual environment can serve to focus employees, set the mood, or just provide a welcome change of scenery.
It’s true for individual workers, as well. Collaboration is a way of life in today’s workforce, but everyone sometimes feels the need to concentrate on their work without the noise and distractions of their co-workers. Virtual reality can provide this, letting workers slip away into their own world and their own to-do list. In the future, it might not be uncommon to see a physically open office where some of the more solitary employees have entered their own virtual cubicles.
Although the productivity VR and AR space is largely wide-open, a few solutions have already come to market. As with most things related to virtual reality, they are exciting glimpses of what will be possible as the technology advances and adoption spreads.
With the 2015 acquisition of Word Lens and the integration of its existing and very powerful translation engine, Google created one of the most stunning augmented reality applications available today. Google Translate, free for iOS and Android, seems like magic the first time one sees it work. Using the camera on a mobile device, the app provides a real-time translation of text in the real world. The uses for this are innumerable. Point the phone at a restaurant menu in Spanish, and it will appear in English on the screen. It works just as well for letters, or packing slips, or instruction manuals. The app currently supports 29 languages with the real-time functionality, and 37 using still photos.
One of the simplest but most effective uses of VR to date, the Virtual Desktop app for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive works exactly as it sounds. Slip on a supported head-mounted display, and the Windows desktop appears before you, floating in space. The VR wrapper supports web browsers, video streaming, and even software like Microsoft Office. The most useful feature of Virtual Desktop is its ability to stretch the desktop almost infinitely far. App windows can be resized to incredible proportions, or moved far beyond the bounds of any monitor that exists in the real world. For the worker looking for a little more desktop space, this is without a doubt the best solution currently available.
Also available for Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR is LiveViewRift. Conceived as a media player, the software allows locally stored video files, images, and video streaming sites like YouTube to be viewed directly on the head-mounted display. LiveViewRift offers distortion and field-of-view correction algorithms to fit traditional 2D media into the 3D space. For workplace productivity, and especially for training, LiveViewRift has another function that makes it incredibly valuable. The app is able to stream from any standard network camera supporting MJPG or a number of other common streaming protocols. Virtual attendance to seminars, training sessions, or workshops can be had for the price of a consumer-level head-mounted display. Virtual reality is booming, and more applications are released daily. Although the productivity field is not as crowded as other types of VR apps, the potential for them to make a real impact on the way we work and live is truly enormous.
Among the often popularized virtual reality companies and startups, many of the world's largest multinational corporations are already integrating virtual reality technologies into their businesses. The infographic below comes from Fortune Magazine's peice titled "The Race to Make Virtual Reality an Actual (Business) Reality", which provides a deep dive into how companies are applying reality technologies to their businesses.