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Mar 10, 2020

In a world of remote work, virtual reality is still pretty much MIA

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If working from home is not a perk but a requirement, will VR become a useful job tool? And will the "goofiness factor" get in the way?

As more people are working from home to help contain the spread of the new coronavirus, we’re starting to face the limits of remote work technology. On the one hand, we’ve got Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts. But some workers need more than just conference calls and shared documents to get work done.

A few years ago, the idea of virtual reality for the office was all the rage, and it made us wonder, what was the promise of VR for work, and why, so far, has it utterly failed to materialize? I spoke with Adi Robertson, a senior reporter with The Verge who follows virtual reality, and I asked her why VR for the office hasn’t taken off. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Adi Robertson. (Courtesy of Robertson)

Adi Robertson: The hardware still has high enough costs in a lot of different ways that it’s not really worth the trade-offs from the things that we already have. You get this sense of spatial presence with other workers, and if you have hand controls, you can interact with people in ways that feel more natural. The problem is that VR headsets still just have a lot of downsides. For one thing, you have to get one for every worker. The headsets are pretty heavy — you don’t usually want to wear them for more than maybe an hour. If you’re trying to do work on them, what do you do? Do you type on your keyboard that you can’t see?

Molly Wood: Do you think that all of that promise back then — that it would just be the future of collaboration, it made so much sense and you’d have avatars and the sense of presence would mean you really didn’t even need to go to a meeting — do you think that some of it was just overhyped, or did the technology not progress and get cheap fast enough?

Robertson: Kind of both. The technology didn’t get, I think, lighter and maybe cheaper as fast as people expected. Also, VR turned out to be good for some very specialized things that often it was already being used for, like if you want to do really serious design work and you want to pull a bunch of people in to look at a car model or something, then actually VR makes a lot of sense there. But just as a general purpose office thing, I think there were a lot of people who are always skeptical for very good reasons.

Wood: We’re at this moment now where we’re talking about the tech tools that people might need to work from home. That’s what prompted this conversation, that there was this idea that virtual reality could give us better virtual office spaces. Do you think that was just a bad idea, or that it might ever happen?

Robertson: I don’t think it’s a bad idea, and augmented reality makes a lot more sense in a lot of ways. If you imagine the idealized version of smart glasses, where you can see something projected on a table and you can have a colleague sit in a chair across from you, but they’re actually somewhere else and being projected, that gets around a lot of the problems. You’re still in your normal environment, but you can also get the collaborative aspect of being able to gather around a whiteboard and a sense of physicality that you don’t get if you’re just seeing somebody in a video feed.

Wood: That, you said, is still in development. How close are we to that do you think?

Robertson: To something that actually is the thing people want to just wear around the office, I think still several years away. There are systems like Microsoft HoloLens that, again, are very good for simulation and training. But they’re still pretty inconvenient to just wear around the office, and you wouldn’t want to just hang out with them on. I think we’re also talking around the goofiness factor of how silly a lot of people feel wearing these. I don’t, because I cover VR and I’ve done a lot of this, but I am fully aware that a lot of people think that this just looks completely ridiculous and they would feel so silly wearing it.

Some employees may need more than video conference calls to get work done. (Courtesy of Zoom)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

I also wrote about this topic for Wired, which was published Tuesday. In some ways the failure of VR and AR to materialize is kind of a metaphor for all the ways in which we’re not ready to transition our workplaces or our lives to telecommuting or even self-isolation. This is kind of weird because these technologies have long promised to decentralize us, increase our ability to take our jobs anywhere, maybe reduce the burden on a few expensive coastal cities and even fundamentally change the way we think about how and where we work. Inertia is a powerful thing, and we haven’t had to make big changes so far, but that’s not to say we won’t.

The Los Angeles Times and I were on a wavelength. The paper also has a piece about the many ways we’re not ready for mass telecommuting, and it notes that the closest we’ve come in recent history was “Second Life.” 

Also watching

The trading app Robinhood went down again Monday in the midst of yet another huge sell-off. I feel like it has to be hard to blame a huge amount of usage for this crash, because who in their right mind is still using it?

The Wall Street Journal reports that some of the big gig worker companies — Lyft, Uber, Postmates, DoorDash and others — are teaming up on talks to figure out how to pay their workers if they’re quarantined or affected by coronavirus. Thousands of people do work for these companies but aren’t technically employees. Now the companies are discussing creating a shared fund to pay people for sick time or missed work. Sort of like they’d get if they were employees. 

Misinformation and sketchy snake oil promises continue to spread all over Facebook, Twitter and Google related to coronavirus. We’ll have a story tomorrow on how platforms like Amazon and eBay are trying to fight fake and overpriced goods. In other tales of misinformation, Twitter and Facebook have responded to a doctored video that the White House shared, which was edited to make it look like former Vice President Joe Biden accidentally endorsed President Trump. Twitter labeled it as “manipulated content,” a label that users should see when they see the tweet. It’s the first time Twitter has applied that label. On Monday, Facebook tagged the same video as “partly false.” 

Speaking of Twitter, CEO Jack Dorsey may have avoided the boot. The company on Monday reached a deal with two investment firms, including the one that was trying to oust him. There will be some board changes and a big stock buyback. Otherwise, apparently, no changes. Welcome back, Jack.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer