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Could Covid-19 make virtual reality mainstream?

While experiencing work during lockdown, Jonathan Berry, European practice director at Expressworks, turned his thoughts to the opportunities offered by connecting with colleagues by virtual reality

In recent weeks we have all become used to holding meetings and connecting with colleagues via videoconferencing tools such as Zoom and Teams, but we have not always found the experience to be very satisfactory.

As humans we are social animals and require the stimulus of other humans. We rely on more than words to communicate, and many of the cues we are used to picking up on are lost through videoconferencing, as useful as it has been during this time. Could there be a better way?

More commonly thought of as a science fiction plot device or gaming accessory, virtual reality (VR) has been gaining ground in real life applications. In a trial conducted by Oxford academics in 2018, they discovered that nearly three out of four patients with a serious phobia of heights could overcome it using VR. The study led them to believe that VR could be the way forward for treating a number of mental health issues.

Expressworks recently decided to hold a few key company meetings in VR to see if there could be potential benefits to the workplace too. It was agreed that the experiment would be a success if the VR enhanced rather than distracted us from the meeting, if it allowed us to easily share the materials we needed to discuss, if we had better focus during the meeting and if we had better recall after the meeting.

We had meetings in space stations, beach resorts, mountaintop retreats and futuristic offices. Initially, the novelty of each setting was exciting; however, by the end of an hour-long meeting, the tiny lag between movement and result had us feeling physically sick.

Having your colleagues or employees feel sick is never a good idea when trying to hold a meeting, so the technology has some way to go before mainstream adoption is possible. One of the reasons why its full potential has still to be realised may be that VR for meetings has not been properly commercialised yet.

There are a number of different platforms available, but none are specifically focused on meetings. AltspaceVR offers an amazing social experience, but it does not have the professional feel necessary for the corporate world. Rumii is great for training and education, but it is not versatile enough for large meetings with input required from multiple sources. MeetinVR looks the most promising solution at the moment, but it is not on general release yet.

In our experiment there was a point in between the initial location excitement and the onset of movement lag-induced nausea at which the enormous potential for this technology was clear. You are immersed in a virtual world that allows for almost complete concentration and focus. The illusion is, in fact, so complete that you hear the sound from a speaker who appears to be on your left, from that direction. And because it feels like a game, it is both fun as well as serious.

This lockdown came too early for VR meetings, but with social distancing likely to continue for some time and future lockdowns a distinct possibility, VR meetings look certain to have their day.

The technology is not there yet, but it feels close. Maybe our ‘new normal’ will provide the catalyst needed to encourage the investment required to make this possibility mainstream.




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