Working In Collaborative Virtual Reality Spaces

Category: 
Working In Collaborative Virtual Reality Spaces
October 30, 2016

Last Friday was like every other Friday. Meeting at 3pm in our office in downtown Buenos Aires, an hour away from the suburbs where I live. By noon, I got news that my mother was coming to visit (she lives 400km away from here so it’s not a common occurrence) and help us some sort things out before the baby is born.
 
My chances of making it to the meeting started to approach zero. My pal Lucas, the other attendee to the meeting, was just about to finish getting his HTC Vive set up at home.
 
So, we had the idea to test out something we had been talking about recently: is it possible to get actual work done while in VR; and most importantly, without succumbing to the temptation of ending up playing VR Golf to end an already casual Friday or getting distracted by the virtualness of VR. Full disclaimer: this was going to be Lucas’ second time using a Vive so I bet the difficulty level of the exercise was upped a couple of notches.
 
We chose Bigscreen as our testing tool and created a private room. Once everything was set up (a very simple process) we both jumped into the scene.
 
The first 15 minutes was getting Lucas accquainted with Bigscreen’s interface and agree on a work environment. Once we got that out of the way, we moved to our first order of business. I am going to break up my conclusions in 3 categories: social presence, collaborative work environment, and corporate appeal.
 
SOCIAL PRESENCE
 
Social presence is measured as a continuum where the degree of this variable is equated to the degree of awareness of the other person in a communication interaction. In other words, how much the guy you are talking to acknowledges you, as a sentient being there talking to him.

At one end of this continuum is face-to-face conversation, text-based communication is on the other. To get some measure of the experience, I asked Lucas to take the Schroeder et al Social Presence Questionnaire (Schroeder et al, 2001) and so did I.
 
The questionnaire evaluates collaboration, contribution to the task, presence and copresence (social presence) and range on a Likert scale of 1 to 5.
 
Collaboration
Lucas: 4.5
Me: 5
 
Contribution to the task

Lucas: 3.6
Me: 3.6
 
Presence
Lucas: 4
Me: 3.3
Copresence
Lucas: 4.5
Me: 5
 
Overall Score Lucas: 4.15
Overall Score me: 4.22
 
The following is my subjective analysis of the results.
 
Collaboration
 
We did not experience any glitches in terms of tracking within the environment, latency nor audio issues. This facilitated collaborating on the task. In terms of our agenda’s goals, the task was simple. Discuss emails and our dashboard on Trello.
 
Bigscreen provides sufficient tools and features to make this task intuitive, so we were able to both work on our personal virtual screens as well as share information on the big virtual shared screen. Screen resolution was not a problem (resizing virtual windows via hand gestures proved to be adequate to improve legibility at some points).
 
Verbal + gestural communication surpases the ability to collaborate when compared to a conference call and is in a similar realm to talking to someone via video-conference. It is above both in terms of the feeling of being in a common shared space. This correlates well with our scores in the co-presence section.
 
Contribution to the task
 
We both scored exactly the same on this category (3.6). Even though this experience comes only second to being in the same room in real reality with current available tech, we could have benefited from some form of extra interaction/communication tools in the virtual space like the ability to annotate and draw in the air or on our virtual screens so we could take quick notes on the side or make simple graphs on the fly. This is something where VR interfaces still need more experimentation to get closer to face-to-face levels of collaboration.
 
A big drawback is not being able to see the keyboard, so typing is still at the very least, difficult. On-screen virtual keyboards still suffer from the lack of a good control method to be used. Selecting characters with a virtual laser pointer is tiresome and frustrating. So we either improve input methods; a solution akin to Leap Motion may work; and in tandem with a real “lighthouse compatible” keyboard which position’s can be referenced in VR (this used to be called Mixed Reality… not anymore, apparently). I think the latter solution could be too complicated and cumbersome for mass adoption.
 
Plan B: Ditch VR and focus on augmented reality ( or Mixed Reality, or whatever the market ends up deciding how it’s going to call the tech) where the surrounding world does not get obscured by a headset and using a keyboard stops being an issue.
 
Plan C: Augmented Virtuality. I don’t see it happening.
 
Plan D: something someone other than me thought about, created it and made millions with the idea.
 
Presence
 
Overall, Lucas felt more present than I did. Considering this was one of Lucas’ first experiences in room scale VR, I was probably was more desensitized due to having experience in Bigscreen and having spent more time with the HTC Vive and VR in general.
 
There could be a correlation here.
more exposure over time→ increased desensitization → decreased presence
Nevertheless, we both rated very high (5) in terms of feeling that the VR space was somewhere we visited rather than something we were looking at.
 
Full body kinematic avatars would improve this variable by a lot, although implementations of this are still imperfect and IK avatars tend to develop some kind of virtual muscular atrophy leading them, at times, to contort making very accurate impersonations of Dr. Stephen Hawking.
 
Copresence
 
We both rated high on copresence. As I mentioned before, although Bigscreenavatars are just a head and 2 hands, in the absence of eye-tracking hardware, the software does a great job simulating eye contact. The ability to control up to 2 fingers -per hand- independently provides a limited array of very useful gestures for pointing, expressing… and doing lots of fist bumps (there’s a chance the particle effects while fist bumping reinforce this behavior).
 
If we placed our experience in the social presence continuum, according to the Schroeder Questionnaire, this is where we’d fall:

Remember that we are measuring social presence, not directly correlating a real vs. a virtual experience… yet.
 

COLLABORATIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT
 
In a CWE, professionals work together regardless of their geographical location. In this context, e-professionals use a collaborative working environment to provide and share information and exchange views to reach a common understanding.
 
This definition does not contemplate immersive technologies and instead lists things such as email, messaging, video conferencing and app sharing. I think the term still stands, it just needs to be updated to incorporate current tech.
 
Now, if we are to place things in a continuum, a CWE one would have sharing a cubicle at the office on one end, and a conference call on the other one (or an email, take your pick).
 
Immersive technologies like VR have (or will have, eventually) a big advantage on their side: you can work “wherever” you want.
 
Outer space? Check.
A cabin in the woods? Sure.
An office with a top view? You got it, bud.

So being in relaxing work environments and the ability to tailor them to match a company’s culture and philosophy is something you get from the get go.
 
Of course, working for hours with a shoebox strapped to one’s head is less than ideal. We just have to give time to progress to solve this.
 
I worked remotely for some time years ago after a foot surgery, and something I missed was the elbow to elbow chemistry that you develop with your co-workers (at least the ones you like) and the ability to ask a quick question without having to wait until your pal at the office decides to reply to your instant message, email or pick up the phone. More importantly, leaning over to the side to peek at your neighbour’s screen to help out or point something, is something missing in current offices around the world. Let’s be real, screen sharing is a PITA and a poor metaphor of the real deal.
 
With setups such as Bigscreen’s, we can recclaim some of that closeness that we lose when we are not within arms length of a colleague.
 
Privacy is a non issue, since any party is able to lower the resolution of their desktop feed to save both on bandwidth or pixelate the screen’s content to make it unreadable to others. Being able to point with your own hands (or virtual laser pointer) at the screen of the guy sitting next to you makes things easier while enhancing the sense of copresence.
 

CORPORATE APPEAL
 
This category I just made up. It answers the question: would companies adopt VR for remote work en masse?
 
IMHO, not yet, for several reasons. First of all, there’s no killer app. Bigscreen is an excelent conceptual step towards a productivity tool, but it is still in its early stages.
 
Secondly, e-workers will need VR setups at home, and these are still costly and the mainstream barely knows what VR is, and the vast majority of this population has not even tried VR yet. They have no idea what it is or how to use it. Also the tech is still not affordable enough for employers to provide the hardware.
 
Third reason, let’s be real: wearing VR headsets is not particularly comfortable.
 
Final tought. I think Microsoft is playing the long game very nicely by initially targeting the corporate sector with Hololens running Windows Holographic. Even if it’s very early days for the technology, it currently present very compelling reasons to start getting adopted for some industrial roles.
 
The same thing we saw on October 26th (MSFT licensing the tech and letting others develop on WinHolo) will create an ecosystem for other players to grow the market and iterate faster.
 
Porting the Holographic interface to VR was also a great step for devs to get acquainted with the platform using available gear (VR HMDs) until Mixed Reality becomes more affordable.
 

CONCLUSION
 
We are on a good track. The foundations to migrate our workplaces to immersive environments are laid out. The technologies required to achieve this future are rapidly maturing, big money is being poured onto them and allof the tech giants agree that VR/MR (and AI) is a top priority.
 
Consumer adoption will be a consequence of the above.
 
I think we are still at least a good 5 years away until we start seeing companies migrating their employees’ screens and laptops to immersive technologies. The only wildcard here is Magic Leap. If indeed they start shipping “soonish” and what they advertise is the real deal, the timeline could get pushed forward by 1 or 2 years.
 
Meanwhile and until the September of MR comes, we get to experiment with these toys that most people still think belong to the realm of science fiction and have a shot at shaping the ultimate computing platform.

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