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08 feb

Is a Virtual Reality Headset the Next Major Tool for Remote Workers?

Here at Distant Job, we’re huge geeks. Our founder Sharon often worries - a totally unwarranted worry, of course! - that when Virtual Reality headsets get good enough, we’ll stop showing up for work and spend the rest of our lives inside Star Wars light-saber duel simulators.

 
(there is absolutely 0% chance of this happening, of course; absolutely none)

But the point is, both as a geek and lover of video-games, and as someone that regularly invests in technology-oriented companies, I’ve been following developments in Virtual Reality quite closely. And one of my first thoughts was that virtual reality could be a real boon for interacting with and managing remote workers.

A lot of companies - some achieving tremendous success, as we’ve seen in our case studies - go out of their way to rig chat and video services in a way that helps them build a “virtual office” where their employees simultaneously work from another state or country while maintaining the dynamic of sharing a space with their teammates.

Can this be improved via the use of appropriate software and a virtual reality headset? Is it possible - with today’s technology - to strap on a funny-looking helmet and go from being in an Italian veranda in a quiet Mediterranean town, to the designer-crafted office of a big North-American company?

A couple of questions arise: Is the Matrix really possible? Can it be useful as a workplace tool? And how so?

2016 was arguably the strongest year for Virtual Reality, with three very high-profile hardware launches from three separate companies: the HTC-manufactured ViVe, supported by video-game industry giant Valve Software; the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift; and the more mainstream PlayStation VR by Sony.

I’ve researched and tested all of these, and talked to people at several software companies to get their take on Virtual Reality. Here’s what I found out:

Yes, The Matrix is Coming

Previous iterations of Virtual Reality have been hit-and-miss (the recent and highly-publicized Samsung VR being one), but the higher-end headsets described above offer a truly eye-opening experience. 

While the worlds and environments rendered in Virtual Reality are still far from photorealism, and indeed not even up to the level of what a Nintendo console can achieve on a regular TV screen, the combination of true 3D projection with head-tracking tricks our senses into looking past the low fidelity presentation in but a few minutes. 

You will feel a bit chilly if you are placed atop an icy cliff, and you will flinch if you see a character throwing a tennis ball at you. Current Virtual Reality technology is not perfect, but it already delivers an impressive showing.

So How Can It Help Managing Remote Workers?

Picture this: you put on your headset, and suddenly you’re in in a breezy office in front of a white board. Surrounding you are half a dozen people, virtual representations of your remote team. You start your stand-up Agile meeting. At each team-member’s turn, he or she can go up to the board and draw. They can look directly at other participants as questions pop-up. 

Over video, you’re interacting with a picture on a screen. In virtual reality, you’re in an environment, interacting with a fully-bodied person. The fidelity may be low, but the effect in bonding and team-building is palpable. “A sense of presence” is the most often used buzzword in Virtual Reality, but it does really live up to the hype. 

Any meeting is enhanced by a Virtual Reality environment. Making a group video-call is good. Actually meeting in a virtual environment where you can see and acknowledge full human bodies attached to the voice you’re hearing, and interact with drawing and modeling tools, is much superior.

But meetings aren't the only area to benefit from Virtual Reality. What about workshops and training? It is much easier to properly convey information and run team-building exercises in a virtual world. It could increase the proven effectiveness of gamification techniques by a thousand fold.

Is the Remote Work Industry Ready for Virtual Reality?

The remote work industry and remote workers are 100% ready for Virtual Reality. Sadly, Virtual Reality is not yet completely ready for them. 

The one cost-effective platform in the market is the Samsung VR. This would still amount to a cost of about $500 per remote worker. Some companies would be ok with this, but the trouble is that this Virtual Reality platform is technically very limited. A Samsung smart phone doesn’t have the horsepower to properly manage the kind of applications that we’ve described above.

The Oculus Rift is very gaming-oriented, and requires an enthusiast, $1000+ computer on top of its $600+ price-tag; the same can be said about the HTC Vive. 

But of greater concern than pricing is the fact that the software and application market remains incredibly under-explored. The kind of business applications we described above are confirmed as feasible by developers working in Virtual Reality - and indeed exist in some underdeveloped forms -  but current investment is squarely aimed at game and entertainment software, with some small interest in medical applications just recently rising to the top. 


It might be a while before developers start getting serious about Virtual Reality’s business applications. And it will certainly be a bit longer before the entry cost is low enough to be comfortably absorbed by most companies’ budget.

But in the meantime, we at Distant Job will keep experimenting with our own Virtual Reality headsets. For purely scientific, work-related, totally light-saber free purposes, of course.