“As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.”
So begins Antigonish, a century-old poem by William Hughes Mearns, which presciently depicts the anguish of having to make small talk every morning with that annoying guy in your virtual office.
It doesn’t matter that Mearns had a ghost in mind when he penned the poem because disembodied avatars patrolling our office corridors are about to become everyday features of our working lives.
About to become everyday features if telecommuting continues to rise in popularity, that is. And if we still harbor a need to share a common space with our colleagues. And if we stop thinking about in-house and remote employees as separate workforces. And if we embrace the technological version of the man who isn’t there via virtual reality.
There’s a future available to us in which we’ll work side-by-side in a virtual reality office building using VR apps to combine the benefits of a communal environment with the convenience of telecommuting.
Types of VR Experiences
The technology already exists to recreate even the largest multi-story office buildings in digital space. The purpose of such apps is to find common ground for remotely located individuals to use as platforms for internal collaboration, external meetings, and just old-fashioned water-cooler time.
For now, the leading apps are tightly pinned to users donning virtual reality goggles and cartoonish digital avatars, but every advancing year brings refined image-capturing scanners and more accurate facial recognition software. And, to be fair, there are several offerings currently available that are already excitingly usable:
MyVR – Create your own “room” filled with your own files, photos, videos, and social media links, and then throw open the door for friends and colleagues to join you.
Breakroom – Immerse yourself in your desktop, opening multiple windows at once to float between work and the social world.
Sansar – Created by the team behind the seminal avatar experience Second Life, the app is still in Beta testing but promises to be compatible with PC as well as VR goggles.
High Fidelity – A cross between gaming and working, the app lets you create a shared world where you can break the laws of physics, or jot down ideas on a digital whiteboard.
You can add to that list rumii, a virtual reality video conferencing app by a company co-founded by Chance Glasco of CoD fame, and the more established Altspace VR. Eye-catching as they are, each has a practical side that makes them potential future office spaces.
Telecommuting in Virtual Reality
The advent of cloud-computing makes these virtual spaces as accessible to in-office staff as they are to telecommuters. As all the storage and heavy operating systems are housed with a third-party there’s no need for any employee to carry the burden on their personal desktop.
Each morning, either type of employee can simply strap on their VR goggles (future smart wear, perhaps something like Google’s relaunched and enterprise-focused Glass will make the interface less cumbersome), and fire up their computer to gather online. Each employee works within their own personal, virtual room or office, with the digital door kept open throughout the working day so their colleagues, and the boss, can come and go as needed.
You could group these rooms together like conjoined cells in a beehive, allowing smooth interaction and access to common areas set aside for formal group video meetings or socializing with multimedia video, audio, and social media. It’s like having a multimedia social app, such as Airtime, on hand anytime you need to unwind and refresh a little.
Each person would encounter both their working screen and their social surroundings from their own point of view, like a gamer engaged in a first-person role-playing game. This game, though, has Google Docs, face-to-face video conferences, and shared projects.
It wouldn’t matter where the employee sat, whether at home, in a coffee shop, or in a shared office environment–everyone would be having the same digital experience and rubbing shoulders with the same digital colleagues.
The Virtual Reality Office Building
This potential experience is not just a replication of a real-world office, but an improvement. It lets employers and employees share the benefits of telecommuting–improved morale and productivity, fewer sick days, reduced real estate expense, and less turnover–while retaining the advantages of working in close proximity.
Companies like Yahoo! and IBM have recalled their telecommuters because they wanted to increase the occurrences of random conversation believed to spark innovation. Well, with a virtual office, and a chain of interconnected and permeable private and common rooms, you can create space for those idle conversation to thrive without anyone having to literally rub shoulders.
It’s a way of salvaging the best parts of the real-world office–the instant and easy connections–and streamlining them into a virtual world where you switch between work and play with a turn of your motion-controlled VR goggles. It can provide you and your colleagues with an authentic office environment set within your field of vision.
Sadly, it could also mean you’ll still have to deal with that socially awkward colleague every morning when you see him in the virtual hallway.