I just spent an entire week working in virtual reality using the new Meta Quest 3. While the experience still mostly sucked, I came away with some renewed optimism for VR in the workplace.
As I took Ron’s outstretched, virtual hand for a handshake, my actual hand — in the real world — clumsily whacked into the side of my desk.
Ron started laughing, his avatar’s animated facial expressions mimicking his real face thanks to his device’s eye and facial tracking technology.
A project manager at Microsoft, Ron tells me it’s something I’ll get used to. He’s been working in the metaverse for over a year.
Days later, I meet Heather, a mother who’s been working in virtual reality for a couple of months. She likes to jump into the metaverse to work when her kids are at school and the house is quiet.
Then there was Miguel, a recruiter at Netflix, an “OG” user of the virtual reality app Immersed, who’s been using it to work for the last two years.
The big question is: Why would you want to?
Only two hours in, my eyes are burning
As impressive as it all sounds, after working in the metaverse for a week myself, I’m not sure how anyone could do it for longer.
I spent most of the seven days clocking in and out through the virtual coworking app Immersed, which can be found on the Meta Quest store but can be downloaded from other platforms, too.
Most days, I would be joined by as many as a dozen other VR users, depending on the time of day and which public workspace I chose. (The “Cafe” setting seemed to be the most popular.)
Initially, I was going to spend the week using Meta’s home-grown Horizon Workrooms, but I quickly switched to Immersed after realizing Horizon Workrooms didn’t support public workspaces and also lacked important quality-of-life features, such as the ability to move and adjust screen size and distance.
The setup wasn’t too difficult in either case. When you first strap on the Meta Quest 3 headset, the device will scan your surroundings to understand where you are within your room (in my case, the office) and where certain obstacles are, such as bookshelves, desks and chairs. This is so it can warn you if you’re getting too close to a wall or obstacle when you’re immersed in VR.
To be able to interact with your computer in virtual reality, there’s a companion app that needs to be installed on your PC, which will then allow the app to retrieve the necessary information from your computer and beam it into your headset via cable or WiFi in the same way most remote desktop apps work.
In Immersed, your virtual screens can be rotated, resized and moved anywhere you want. You can even choose to work in mixed reality, allowing you to superimpose virtual screens among your real-life surroundings.
But it wasn’t much help. At the end of each day, I was left nursing a splitting headache and trying to rub the immense strain from my eyes. My neck always felt stiff, a side effect of being weighed down by the bulky headset.
And for what? Most days, I struggled to achieve the same level of output compared to a regular day in front of the PC.
My experience is far from unique. In 2022, researcher Dr. Jens Grubert at the Coburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany gathered 18 people to participate in a study of the effects of working in VR for a week.
Two dropped out within the first few hours due to nausea, anxiety and migraines, while the others who managed to finish the week reported increased levels of frustration and anxiety.
They also reported a significant decrease in their own perceived productivity compared to working in the real world. All suffered eye strain, though this seemed to diminish as time went on.
In April, research firm Forrester found that, while there’s a lot of hype around the possibilities of working in VR, there’s not a lot of it happening in reality… virtual or otherwise.
Forrester’s research found that only 2% of respondents said they preferred to use a mixed-reality device for work. The hardware is still too cumbersome to use for a long stretch of time, according to J.P. Gownder, principal analyst of Forrester’s Future of Work team.
OK, some bits are impressive
But despite all the annoyances, eye strain and headaches, there were also a few times I was genuinely impressed with the experience.
Working in a virtual environment next to other like-minded people turned my regular remote, isolated working existence into something that was far less lonely.
In the week I spent in VR, I sat and worked alongside a digital marketer from Canada, a software developer from the United States and a salesman for a firm offering e-commerce solutions. We chatted about sports, what we each did for work. It felt like real networking.
“The biggest benefit is the ability to interact with people all over the world very effortlessly. I work from home with no one around,” explains Pat, the digital marketer.
“With VR, you can choose whether you want to be chatting with others, or you can either mark yourself as ‘Do Not Disturb’ or grab a private room.”
Ron from Microsoft also tells me he often prefers working out of VR and takes his headset everywhere, including his home office, a client’s office, or on occasions he needs to report to the tech firm’s headquarters in Seattle, Washington.
And he points out that virtual reality is not constrained by carry-on weight or size limits, and the headset essentially allows him to take five monitors with him anywhere he goes.
Conducting meetings can also be a game-changer in virtual reality.
There’s something very oddly natural about being able to shake hands with someone more than 10,000 miles away, even if they lack a physical form. It’s something that a Zoom meeting could never replicate.
Other times, I simply admired how focused my virtual reality co-workers were, prompting me to do the same.
There was also the freedom of being able to switch my “office” environment — from a space station orbiting Earth to a cozy chalet on a snow-capped mountain, a fireplace quietly crackling in the corner.
Maybe Zuckerberg was right?
Metaverse skeptics raised their eyebrows when Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted his lofty vision for the metaverse at the 2021 Connect event.
“We’ll be able to feel present like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are,” said Zuckerberg.
Many then laughed as the tech magnate sunk tens of billions into research and development for his loss-making Reality Labs division — seemingly only to produce legless, blank-eyed monstrosities via Meta’s Horizon Worlds.
But that laughter is quietening. In September, Zuckerberg showed that the technology is far further forward than we thought.
During a face-to-face conversation with computer scientist and podcaster Lex Fridman, Zuckerberg showed off the latest version of Codec Avatars, one of Meta’s longest-running research projects aimed at generating photorealistic metaverse avatars.
The tech was met with awe from onlookers, including Fridman himself.
“I’m already forgetting that you’re not real.”
However, the tech requires specialized equipment and is at least three years away from being available to everyday consumers. Zuckerberg said he hopes the scanning process could eventually be done with smartphones.
Meta’s latest version of VR uses a self-contained, standalone headset that displays a stereoscopic image via LCD screens through “pancake” lenses, offering a wider field of view than its predecessors while being lighter and thinner. Motion and hand tracking are achieved through a mix of accelerometers, gyroscopes and four outward-facing cameras, while another two cameras are used to display colored “passthrough” – useful when engaging in mixed reality experiences.
Meanwhile, there’s considerable anticipation over Apple’s Vision Pro, which is set to launch in the first quarter of 2024. While it comes with eye-tracking, 4K resolution and Apple EyeSight, which may also impact the future of work, it also comes with an eye-watering $3,499 price tag.
Apple says the “spatial computing” device will allow users to “set up the perfect workspace.”
So, is VR work ready for primetime?
As I reflect on my week in virtual reality, I’m enjoying a coffee in a very real, definitely not virtual coffee shop in Sydney’s Western suburbs.
Occasionally, I miss my VR work friends and the serenity of my cozy virtual chalet.
But until the tech gets smaller, lighter and less clunky, I’ll probably stick to Slack huddles and my trusty PC on its wooden desk.
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Felix Ng first began writing about the blockchain industry through the lens of a gambling industry journalist and editor in 2015. He has since moved into covering the blockchain space full-time. He is most interested in innovative blockchain technology aimed at solving real-world challenges.