Consider the paradox of the modern business office: It's a place of productivity where busy people meet deadlines, yet it's teeming with distractions.
Companies are loading up on game rooms and snack bars, while 70 percent of American offices have adopted an open-office floor plan. The hope for open offices was to encourage random hallway banter, which can lead to innovation, but it's not working out so great. Turns out privacy is a necessary condition for supporting productive people.
To end the oppression of open offices, several startups are building workstations of the future: software that pulls everything we normally do on a computer inside of virtual reality (VR). After all, what's more private than a VR display around your head?
Recently, I had the opportunity to try one of these systems, a product made by the Bellevue Washington based startup Envelop VR. Their platform runs any Windows application—Microsoft Office, Spotify, Chrome browsers, whatever—all inside VR.
As I put on the headset, I was taken to a space-world (though I could have opted for a cityscape) where web browsers and spreadsheets were suspended in air around me. The only thing keeping me somewhat tethered to the physical room was a camera pointed at the keyboard, which projected a video feed of my hands typing into my display.
To the left of the keyboard feed I saw an Excel window with columns of numbers; clearly the least fun part of the demo. Luckily there was a plugin that brought the numbers to life in a 3D visualization, allowing me to move through an X-Y-Z scatter plot. Virtually moving through numbers in this way might help make better sense of data, and it's definitely way more fun.
As I turned to my right, there was a VR developer engine with lines of code running a simple animation of floating 3D blocks. This program, as well as the Excel plugin, was itself coded in VR.
"Having to switch between VR and 2D slows you down and forces you to switch mental and physical contexts," says Brian Peiris, a VR developer living in Toronto who is unrelated to Envelop. Peiris says coding VR in VR would eliminate the clunkiness of taking on and off a headset to test the code; something which ruins coders' flow.
For a non-coder like me, the best part of the experience was having application windows located spatially around me. Instead of alt-tabbing through open windows on a 2D monitor, I could feel where everything was. Writing projects usually results in dozens of open links cluttering my browser, but instead, I now had an infinite display of everything I needed around me.
I wondered about the visual endurance required to stay in VR for such long periods of time, but Bob Perry, CEO of Envelop VR, said that some people in his company code in VR for hours a day without reporting any issues. It may be also worth noting that no one is really sure of the long term effects of extended VR immersion, or if it's actually any less distracting than current office life.
"My concern about this VR world would be that it's really no different than my world," says Larry Rosen, Professor Emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills and co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. "If you can put yourself in a situation where distractions are minimized, then that's good, but the problem is all the distractions are built in."
His insight makes sense: the most impressive part of the VR office was watching a fullscreen YouTube video, which felt reasonably like I was watching on a giant TV. Not exactly conducive to productivity.
VR offices may not be ready to transform the business world any time soon, but it's certainly a cool tool I would like to use from time to time. If given the opportunity, I'd definitely write this article from a snowy VR cabin in VR—and I'll get to it right after I finish scrolling through my IMAX-sized Twitter feed.