Working From Orbit
VR Productivity In (or Above) a WFA World
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I float in space, surrounded on all sides by a grand view of the Milky Way Galaxy. A movie-theater-sized screen hangs before me, gently curved, everything at the perfect viewing distance. Eight different panes glitter with code, facets of a technological jewel granting views into the brain of a system responsible for moving tens of millions of dollars a day. A communications console canted like a drafting table at my fingertips holds a workshop of quick-fire exchanges with my colleagues, my meeting calendar, various API references, and camera feeds of the “real” world. To my left, abutting the mammoth array of code, a two-story tall portrait display shows the specifications for the task at hand atop an ever-present Spotify playlist. I crank the tunes and get into my flow.
But this isn’t an excerpt from some Ernest Cline novel—this is my every-day experience. This week, I’ll spend 40–50 hours in Virtual Reality, like I did last week and every (work) week for the last 2½ years. It’s not just fun and games — there are plenty of those, along with exercise, meditation, creativity, socializing, etc. — but for this article, I’m only focusing on (and counting) the work.
Yes, really: 8–10 hours a day strapped in. I’ve encountered a fair amount of skepticism about both the technology and the general premise, many nit-picks about the software, or how it fails to match some preconception about how things “should” work. Reddit in particular is full of naysayers, to whom I will rebut:
People saying: “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it. — Puck
The technological timeline is replete with supposedly doomed-to-fail notions and novelties that went on to wild success. Most were not born “fully formed”, and required several generations to grow and adapt as we grew and adapted to them. And no, this isn’t for everybody, not yet — but not only is it possible now, it’s the only way I use my work computer anymore.
My work is not VR related, either; it’s regular old programming, information systems development, and office stuff I just happen to do in VR. The strategy and tools apply to any computer and communications work right now and will apply to nearly everything in the future. “Working remotely” takes on entirely new dimensions when the distance from the beach to low-Earth-orbit is a single click.
Why am I telling you this, and why should you care?
To answer the second question, look at the Personal Computer boom of the 1980s: diehard computer geeks of the day saw incredible potential in the tools, and while they (we) spent a lot of time goofing off with the technology itself, still helped shape that state of the art into something useful to the general population. Not everyone was on board with the clunky beige boxes and the soothing squeal of a modem handshake at the time, yet in 2021 fully half the world carries a sleek pocket computer connected to the Information Superhighway.
Right now, Virtual Reality is at its “1980’s beige noise machine” stage: a geek cynosure and a consumer novelty. What’s coming will look very different from what’s here; nevertheless, the DNA is already taking shape and it’s not going to take another 40 years to change the world.
On that first question: I’ve been a full-time VR worker since April 2019, spending in the neighborhood of 4,500 hours banging away at real work on virtual screens. It’s not a stretch to say I’m in the top few percent of VR users on the planet; I’ve spent much time watching developments in the field and extrapolating future possibilities. I don’t insist on my version of the future, but I hope what I’ve seen is worth sharing.
I’m not going to cover everything — simply give a taste of how I make it work for me, and get people thinking, talking about, and pursuing the possibilities.
Define “Virtual”… 🤔
In common use “Virtual Reality” refers to a headset worn by the user, presenting them with a three-dimensional computer-generated environment. It’s the same kind of interactivity and visual feedback available in modern video games or simulators, only more engaging due to the sense of scale, presence, and all-encompassing field of view.
The cool kids have added several new companion phrases for how simulated content might blend with the physical environment, such as “Mixed Reality” (MR) or “Augmented Reality” (AR), with the umbrella term “Extended Reality” (XR) covering everything. For the sake of this article, we’ll stick with “VR”.
This is only the latest iteration in a long line of “virtual” environs and abstractions, a logical evolutionary step. Books are fantastic examples of conceptual environments: models of real or fictional actors, events, settings, and ideas—but static, frozen in time. Theater is a better illustration, a manufactured (virtual) scenario presented to an audience as a dynamic shared experience.
Technology has refined and distributed these shared experiences throughout history. Live theater evolved to movies, then television, then dynamic/responsive video (i.e., games): from stage to silver screen to LCD. It’s the same with music or audio performances: live presentation gave rise to the phonograph and its successors — home stereos, boom boxes, and the walkman moving it ever closer to the “user”.
We’ve had virtual audio strapped to our heads for over 100 years, and have finally reached a point where consumer-grade virtual visual can join it. Those visuals bring with them the illusion of space and scale and make it easy to translate physical actions into contextually rich commands. The dynamic, responsive, and immersive experience coopts our senses into perceiving the simulated environment as our inhabited space: our Virtual Reality.
Interacting with computer-generated worlds can be an engaging, magical experience — but is by definition immaterial unless there’s something to connect those actions to non-virtual outcomes. Sometimes that’s advantageous, like heavy equipment training, or rehearsing medical procedures. Inherently immaterial activities, those whose only product is communication, or a digital artifact, make no such trade-off — which brings us to computer work in an information economy, AKA “my office.”
It’s using a computer, but… in VR. There are several reasons for doing so which I’ll cover later, however, I want a disclaimer to set expectations: in the current “beige-box” stage, work is still work, meetings are still meetings, and what makes this valuable has everything to do with comfort, productivity, and cost (plus my utterly nerdy fascination). Most everything takes place via traditional software common to any office environment: Google products, Zoom, Slack, spreadsheets, word processors, IDEs, etc.
I use a regular laptop, reasonably powerful but not a gaming PC, and well below “VR Ready” specs. The computer doesn’t generate the virtual environment, it only runs the regular office software with one important addition: a small agent program, Immersed, which encodes screen contents as video streams and beams them to the headset via WiFi.
My current headset is an Oculus Quest version 2 (starting at $300 at the time of writing), which receives those video streams and renders them as displays inside an environment of its own making. Wireless and standalone, it runs its software without the aid of a PC (most of the time), trading higher-end performance and graphics for freedom of movement and the convenience of setting up anywhere. The trip from video encoding on the PC, over the WiFi, and display in the headset averages about 3ms for me, using a 5ghz access point that’s several years old. 0.003 seconds is well below human perception, making it effectively instantaneous.
These days I use a three-screen setup (I have other saved layouts on standby for different kinds of work/focus): my Main work display, a Reference screen in a portrait orientation where I keep details and materials on the active task (and a Spotify window for cranking tunes), and a smaller landscape display with Communications, calendar, code documentation, and so forth.
One of those displays corresponds to the laptop’s physical screen, and the other two are purely virtual — 75% of my pixels are conjured into being via behind-the-scenes wizardry. The laptop thinks they’re real, applications work fine, but the only way to see them is in the headset where they’re brought to life. I could add more — Immersed supports up to five such virtual displays — but I use a screen-content manager as well (also confusingly called “virtual desktops”) which allows these three displays to act like fifteen. My visual field and attention are maxed out as it is.
The resolution of these very large displays is surprisingly average—1080p (Reference, Communication) and 4k (Main). This makes the dot pitch unimpressive by the numbers, though still more than twenty-five times that of a roadside billboard display. Higher resolutions are available, but this is my calculated trade-off between pixel parity (more on that below), computer performance, and latency. Applications are tuned for readability and crispness, emphasizing information density over anti-aliasing or smoothness. The result is a character count of 511x129 on my Main screen when writing code: 66,000 characters is a LOT of code, easily the equivalent of four to six typical IDE windows in width (and enough to show the entire text of this article 1½ times, all at once).
Input is via standard keyboard and mouse (or trackball, in my case)—floating per-application interfaces, or waving my hands around a la Minority Report, aren’t a thing yet (for which I’m frankly grateful, doing that all day would be exhausting). Other tools work well, such as voice recognition or graphics tablets, but aren’t suited to programming. I touch type so it doesn’t matter that I can’t see my keyboard, but there are options for bringing it into the environment by using a virtual overlay, or (soon) opening a “portal” by way of the headset’s tracking cameras to see a video of your surroundings (FaceBook’s own Horizon Workrooms uses this feature right now).
Since all I need is a keyboard, mouse, and a place to park myself, I’ve completely ditched the traditional desk. I can use a floor setup for part of the day and mix it up with a standing arrangement for the rest. I adjust as needed for comfort, efficiency for the current task (reading email or research vs writing code, for example), or can reclaim the entire space if I need an exercise or meditation break, want to visualize some problem solving, or a round of golf breaks out.
A few quick pointers before I talk about the experience, roughly in order of importance/utility:
- Find the sweet spot for your eyes. Adjust the IPD and lens alignment: left, right, up, down, distance, and tilt. Work at it one eye at a time, and walk it in. Pixels are not evenly distributed — the highest density is right in the middle of the sweet spot, mimicking the acuity of the fovea.
- If you need corrective lenses, get lens inserts: it’s superior to wearing glasses, and I find it better than wearing contacts. For horrible astigmatic myopia like mine (-7.5), it was cheaper than most pairs of glasses I’ve had, and a totally reasonable expense since I use them all day for work.
- CLEAN your lenses. No matter what you’re looking through, make sure you can SEE through it! This applies to the lenses both in and out of the headset — the tracking cameras need a consistent view of the world, and that means no smears or smudges.
- While you’re at it, clean the headset too: a regular antimicrobial wipe-down will keep things healthy and pleasant. An impermeable contact surface also helps (polyurethane or silicone interfaces, for example).
- Aim for pixel parity: a virtual screen is a picture of a picture, meaning the headset’s resolution and pixel density are the limiting factors. The closer a virtually rendered screen’s pixel density is to the headset’s, the sharper the picture will be. The Quest 2 is 1832x1920/eye (Vive Focus 3 is 2448²/eye) — displays can be larger than that, but will look best if the maximum visible portion is closest to 1:1.
- Don’t bother emulating physical screen configurations! Virtual displays can be any size and any place, not just imitations of their physical counterparts. Walls, theaters, backdrops, tabletops, wrap-arounds—all kinds of possibilities.
- “Large & far” is more comfortable than “small & close” for an equivalent field of view — it takes the same amount of visual space, but is far more relaxed for the eyes owing to the difference in convergence point.
- Ergonomics still apply: avoid prolonged neck turning, head tilting, or other static positions. Place things to encourage occasional movement without holding any one posture overlong.
- Good WiFi matters: maximize bandwidth and minimize hops. A clear 5ghz channel will give you 866mbps, and if possible should be directly between the headset and the computer—or at a minimum have the computer hard-wired to the router.
- Read (or watch) the manual. Know how everything works, and work with it — the patience to get your environment perfectly tuned pays exceptional dividends.
Screenshots don’t do it justice. Videos fail to capture the scale and grandeur of the experience. These pictures are a poor illustration of what I see in the headset—low resolution, compressed field-of-view, lacking depth and scale. The low display down front? That’s the size of an executive desk. The code is like an IMAX® theater—I can’t even see all of it at once.
What’s it like to actually use? In a word: comfortable. Given a few more words, I’d choose productive and effective. I can resize, reposition, add, or remove as much screen space as I need. I never have to squint or lean forward, crane my neck, hunt for an application window I just had open, or struggle to find a place for something. Many trade-offs and compromises from the past no longer apply — I put my apps in convenient locations I can see at a glance, and without getting in my way. I move myself and my gaze enough throughout the day that I’m not stiff at the end of it and experience less eye strain than I ever did with a bunch of desk-bound LCDs.
Complete control over my visual environment is like using noise-canceling headphones for my eyes. I can choose the levels of color energy and busyness best suited to whatever I’m focusing on, usually minimizing contrast the same way you would with a bias light for TVs. I’ll float in a nebula while looking at code in a dark IDE, chill out on Olympus in a sunset cloudscape while composing slides for a presentation, or overlook a tropical lagoon while grinding through email. Anything I’m doing, I’m doing with complete focus in a perfectly matched atmosphere.
I tend to prefer simple 360-degree photos over more elaborate environments out of practical consideration: my displays are larger than will fit in any reasonable facsimile of an indoor setting — it doesn’t really work to cram a movie theater into a café. There are plenty of those environments from which to choose, and I expect the collection will keep growing as the system continues to mature (eventually incorporating real-world Augmented Reality elements). An alpine chalet with a crackling fireplace as snow gently falls outside? Check. A hipster coffee salon? Covered — a popular place for hanging out with other users. Or an open-walled wooden lodge with a variety of times and weather available, a grand corporate plaza with a waterfall, etc., etc. Outside of managing performance, there are no limits on what kind of environments are possible.
I’ve found it useful to play around with those environments, too: in the coffee shop setting I overlaid a piece of artwork on the wall with one of my screens, turning it into a TV for a more realistic ambience. In the plaza, I re-created a lecture hall by using one display as a stand-in for the projector showing my slides, another as my lectern-mounted laptop with speaker notes, and a “talk timer” display in the front row. By practicing my presentation for a semi-annual company retreat (pre-COVID) and ironing out the flow I earned one of the highest speaker review scores of the entire week—it went exactly as rehearsed in a near-identical real-world setup.
This kind of comfort and productivity isn’t automatic or accidental, it’s something I consciously refine to maximize the human side of my work equation. It’s also not limitless; I’ve traded one set of compromises for another, optimizing for a different set of concerns more in line with my needs. I worked up to my full-time schedule, became accustomed to the weight and fit of the headset, manage the temperature and airflow of my office as needed, and regularly clean the contact surfaces. I take periodic breaks to hydrate, stretch my legs, and recharge myself.
I’ve lightly accessorized the headset too: replaced the stock facial foam with more thickly padded polyurethane-leather ($30), changed the head strap for a halo mount ($50), and added prescription lenses to eliminate the need for glasses or contact lenses ($70), altogether increasing the cost 50% over the base price of the Quest 2 (not that I paid the base price — I ordered a model with higher storage capacity, and this is only my latest headset). I treat the entire rig as a business expense/investment and am not disappointed.
There have been some delightful surprises on the application side, too. Using regular software in that virtual environment is still like using that regular software, albeit with a lot more elbow room. There are a few notable exceptions though — the ones that really benefit from the increased real estate are those involving visual communications: when “seeing the big picture” is no longer metaphorical, and you can make out the fine details at the same time (forest + trees). A stand-out example is the very aptly named MURAL, which when given an entire wall (or movie screen) can be a sublime experience in creativity and shared comprehension.
Some old-school tools are similarly supercharged: an eight-way (or more)
vim split with multiple files, terminals, unit tests, and logs, creates a massive kind of working memory — maintaining end-to-end context in otherwise sprawling complexity.
Apart Together: the Shared Experience
Meetings are best in person, in VR, in MURAL, and in Zoom — in that order. As a remote worker of several years, “in person” is a rarity for me — so I use VR to preserve the feeling of shared presence, of inhabiting a place with other people, especially when good spatial audio is used. Hand tracking enables meaningful gestures and animated expression, despite the avatars cartoonish appearance — somehow it all “just works”, your brain accepts that these people you know are embodied through these virtual puppets, and you get on with communicating instead of quibbling about missing realism (which will be a welcome improvement as it becomes available but doesn’t stop this from working right now).
I’m calling out MURAL again because of an important finding from VR collaboration: sometimes being in the same place and looking at the same stuff is a good way to meet, and remains the standard in conference rooms across the globe — but the term “Death by PowerPoint” was not coined ex nihilo. Countering PowerPoint prison by giving each person their own view of shared content, under their own control, is a big step depending on the content. If it’s still slides, all you’ve done is invent “meeting TiVo” — Google Docs is an improvement, though still confined by its linearity. MURAL’s working canvas, on the other hand, invites people to browse ideas and their connections seemingly effortlessly, jumping forward, back, and around as needed: context turns seeing into understanding. The best measures of this are the kinds of questions asked, the conversations sparked, and the palpable engagement “in the room”.
The important finding is how that works: people in the Immersed software can join the same space and choose whether to share their screens with each other. I can sit right next to someone and we each have our own giant screens completely invisible to the other — no obstructions to the conversation. Shared space for communication, local independent space for productivity. It’s kind of like hanging out with everyone and their imaginary friends (screens) and removes any distraction from the collaboration process. It’s a real trip to experience, and incredibly freeing.
For meeting with those not in VR, or if I have a video call that needs input rather than passive attendance, I’ll frequently use a virtual webcam to attend by avatar. It’s sufficiently demonstrative for most team meetings, and the crew has gotten used to me showing up as a digital facsimile. I’ll surface from VR and use a physical webcam for anything sensitive or personal, however.
A special note about Horizon Workrooms, since that’s new and big on the scene: they’ve done an excellent job of creating a high-end virtual meeting room that feels and acts “like the real thing.”
It has a ton of promise, but… I don’t really care for the promise it’s making. 100% of what you can do in Workrooms is feasible in a physical setting, although it would be really expensive (lots of smart hardware all over the place). But that’s the thing: it’s imitating life within a tool that doesn’t share the same limitations, so as a VR veteran I find it bland and claustrophobic. That’s going to be really good for newcomers or casual users because the skeuomorphism is familiar, making it easy to immediately orient oneself and begin working together — and that illustrates a challenge in design vocabulary. While the familiar can provide a safe and comfortable starting point, the real power of VR requires training users for potentially unfamiliar use cases. Also, if you can be anywhere, why would you want to be in a meeting room, virtual-Lake Tahoe notwithstanding?
Exploring VR collaboration in any depth will require a separate article (probably a series of them). The field is shifting rapidly, and there are many options and considerations — check out the “See Also” section in the Appendix for good references to people currently exploring this. What I would say, in addition to the above, is that while VR isn’t perfect, combined with the accessibility and quality-of-life benefits of Working From Anywhere it remains my number-one choice (and if I were in-the-office or otherwise colocated? I would still use the headset at my desk to turn my cubicle into a cavernous expanse).
OK, but, like… why?
Why go through all that effort? Other than the nerdy novelty and megafan hyperbole, what’s the point?
Technology is all about force multiplication: do more with the same or less effort (or cost), or do new activities or forms of work not otherwise possible. For new strategies to be useful and adopted they need to tip the balance of some scale. For some users, megafan street cred is enough — but there are several other measurable advantages (these are a few things I’ve identified; your mileage may vary).
Cost: even with my higher-capacity headset and accessories, my entire outlay is easily competitive with a conventional multi-monitor configuration.
Focus: my increase in productivity in a distraction-free environment, measured as total output, work quality, or duration of time on task, ranges from 20%-100% above baseline. Compartmentalization is another major part of that focus — remote workers know it’s important to have a physically separate space in which to work, a boundary to prevent professional obligations from bleeding too much into personal life. Confining the space to an otherwise invisible slice of the metaverse keeps it well partitioned — removing the headset or quitting the app is all it takes to fully disengage.
Flexibility: the range of adaptability provides options not otherwise practical or possible. Screens can be ergonomically (re)positioned for a variety of postures and spaces, making a cramped dorm room as comfortable as a corner office. Access to my entire workplace from a hotel means I don’t sacrifice performance when on the road (less applicable these days, but sure to show up again in the future).
Accessibility: the visual nature of this configuration favors sighted persons, but despite that exclusivity, it provides computer usability improvements for those with visual deficits by making things as large as one needs, or managing contrast and lighting. Non-traditional seating or desk (or bed) configurations are welcome, accommodating people with a variety of mobility or physical challenges. In my personal experience, a few months after going full-time-VR I broke multiple bones in my foot, with no weight-bearing for four months and major elevation requirements for the first two. I didn’t fit at my desk, and for weeks I had to elevate my foot high enough that the recliner in the living room was my only option. Out I went with the laptop, headset, and full command of my multi-display setup in all its versatile glory (incidentally, for anyone with weight-bearing restrictions from lower leg injuries, I highly recommend a hands-free crutch — it was an enormous help during my convalescence).
Accessibility in VR is still developing, and will eventually come to include a much wider set of features: color and other vision adaptations, motion attenuation or magnification for motor and neuromuscular challenges, navigation and memory aids (for both virtual and physical environments, by way of AR), neurodiverse management tools, etc. The opportunity to so completely mediate sensory experiences and modulate physical controls will open a range of inclusivity surpassing the most advanced technologies currently available. This inclusivity is about more than biological and neurological adaptation, too: many socio-economic barriers lessen or disappear once in VR (though electricity, bandwidth, and headset are major investments in many or most parts of the world; there’s more work to do on that front).
There are some caveats to all of this, and that may make it less suitable for some people or circumstances.
You lose situational awareness with your visual field occluded (obviously), and if you’re using headphones at the same time that cognitive cocoon of isolation could be problematic or even risky — it only makes sense in an otherwise safe and secure setting. Then there are physical demands of wearing the hardware for long periods: getting into the optical “sweet spot”, establishing proper balance and weight distribution (and building musculature), maintaining temperature, cleaning and caring for equipment, and so on.
To call the current breed of productivity tools quirky or idiosyncratic would understate how clunky and fiddly they can be. I’m willing to put up with a lot to make this work: tolerating instability, jumping through frustrating hoops to get everything configured just so, scouring for obscure tools or adjustments, and pampering my carefully assembled house of cards so nothing can knock it over. This field is rapidly changing, full of alpha and beta products, each requiring frequent adaptation as they introduce new conventions — it’s not enough to be familiar with VR, each product in the chain requires learning how they approach the concept.
Even as standard conventions and stable, best-in-class products emerge, not everyone needs this much screen space, has appropriate material to make good use of it, or can afford to be oblivious to the outside world. Conversely, for some it’s not good enough — lacking in resolution, bandwidth, features, hardware quality, physical form factor, etc. Or there may be objections on principle or political grounds, such as FaceBook’s ties to Oculus hardware (FB offers a business-class version of the headset without their account requirements, but at a much higher price for the same hardware — though still not so expensive as the Vive Focus 3, which also runs this software).
I see enough promise in the current technology to be worthwhile. The patience to wring every ounce of capability from my tools bears fruit in my daily work, and I’m happy to keep using everything I have right now. But this is all about what is — the future, what may be, is far more exciting. Most of the above, both good and bad, won’t matter as future developments will be solving different problems in far different ways.
Successful consumer technologies generally tend toward smaller, lighter, faster, and more ubiquitous — VR has been no exception, and there’s every reason to believe the trend will continue. New breakthroughs, features, and form factors will emerge and integrate as seamlessly with daily life as other technologies on which we’ve come to rely. We will inhabit a world of commingled illusion, the simulated and substantial blending together by varying degrees.
Realism will increase (perhaps to hyperrealism) and our ability to perceive and interact with simulated objects and settings will be indistinguishable to our senses. Acting in simulated contexts will have physical consequences as systems interpret and project actions into the world — telepresence will take a quantum leap, removing limitations of time and distance. Transcending today’s drone piloting, remote surgery, etc., we will see through remote eyes and work through remote hands anywhere.
That’s obviously some distance into the future, and that “successful” prerequisite is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this presumption. I’ve talked a lot about the specifics of my current setup and experience, but looking that far out will require shifting to the abstract. The tools will be shaped by their use along the way — what are we going to do with them? A good way to answer this is to look at what we have been doing with them, and see if we can figure out why; if we understand the intent we might be able to project the destination.
Going back to the definition of “virtual”, the driving force in its evolution has been a kind of communal neuroprosthesis — which is just a fancy made-up way of saying “a shared mind.” Humans have been augmenting memory by distributing it to one another, combining ideas (processing power) for problem-solving, and in essence crowdsourcing civilization itself. Along the way, we added entertainment value through those same channels, but the core tenet remains: externalize aspects of cognition and exchange them with our neighbors. I’m not going to try to explore the value, politics, and economics of what we share, but the sharing itself is key.
Inventing better ways of getting working knowledge from one person or group to another can increase the resilience and capacity of those groups — likewise for motivation, directed attention, etc. Enriching that transmission with better-suited techniques and technologies is naturally rewarded with faster and more potent exchange: increased fidelity and reduced barriers to entry make it easier to get things in/out of our collective heads.
“Increased fidelity” doesn’t just mean verisimilitude: making things seem more “real” has its place, but isn’t everything when it comes to literally sharing ideas. For that, we need alignment with natural thought processes: communicating the same way we think, losing less in translation. And it turns out, one of the best ways humans think is with space.
Memory Palaces, or the method of loci, is perhaps the most effective mnemonic device ever created. Dr. Lynne Kelly has proposed that pre-literate cultures maintained their encyclopedic knowledge by combining a similar approach with physical, ceremonial settings: using and shaping their surroundings to aid the memorization process. But this extends well beyond strong memories and tribal lore — we readily do versions of this today in our personal spaces, often as a means improving or delegating executive functions: we put things in places as a prompt to take action, we accumulate related tasks and materials together to prepare over time, plan future activities, and so on. We use the very environment around us to think:
Reliance on and off-loading of mental storage and work to such external devices massively boosts the storage capacity and complexity of information while effectively guiding individuals’ behavior toward their goals. Those goals can exist at much further distances across space and time than was the case using just the internal mental means of representing information.
Barkley, Russell A. Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved. Guilford, 2020, p. 112
VR and its eventual successors give us access to vastly more complex means of “off-loading mental storage and work” by providing infinite malleable space, and assigning more meaning and capability to the actions we take within it. That meaning will be rich and potent: practitioners of sign languages, such as ASL, already imbue their personal space with all kinds of nuance, demonstrating relationships, temporality, distance, magnitude, and other aspects through the physical placement and expression of word forms incidental to the actual words. Space itself takes on meaning through indexing, a kind of spatial pronoun.
Our very psyches will become entwined with the worlds we shape, using lessons from psychodrama et al to bind subconscious meaning to externalized objects and elements. We will walk through our own minds and consciously sculpt ourselves.
Interleaving all of this with our physical environments and enabling truly shared experiences will lead to a kind of collaborative cognition: thinking together.
If that’s where we’re headed, then the green field, blue ocean opportunity right now is human-centric information theory development — using neuroscience to combine spatial navigation and cognition as a starting point, and building from there to shape the terrain and guide the creation of language, tools, and systems to bring that vision to life.
As I said before, I don’t insist on my version of the future — but I do love the idea of using technology to cultivate mutual understanding, unify people, and propel their creativity.
I receive no compensation or sponsorship related to the products, services, or entities mentioned herein, nor use affiliate links.
Frequent Questions and Skepticisms
Are you an Immersed employee (or a shill)? No. I’m just a geek who uses their stuff to do my stuff — they’re nice folks though, and have built a decent community. I recommend stopping by their Discord sometime. I wrote this article independently, without compensation, and agreed to let Immersed host it on their blog.
This will never be mainstream. Is that a question? That doesn’t seem like a question. It’s perhaps somewhat short-sighted and overlooks the growing number of contributors to the field as well as Immersed’s own success in their most recent fundraising. I do agree that “this” will probably not be mainstream in its current incarnation, but it’s the foundation of what it will become, and that will be mainstream.
Nobody needs that much space. Yeah, and 640K ought to be enough for anyone. Me? I do highly contextual work, with multiple work orders and their histories open, supporting reference documentation, API specifications, several areas of code (and calls in the stack), tests, logs, databases, and GUIs — plus Slack, Spotify, clock, calendar, and camera feeds. I tend to only look at 25% of that at once, but everything is within a comfortable glance without tabbing between windows. Protecting that context and augmenting my working memory maintains my flow.
Motion sickness: Yes, VR-induced nausea is a real thing. And no, of the many people who have demoed my rig none have become nauseated. Well-tracked VR in a stationary setting (or at least one where visual and vestibular systems remain in agreement) eliminates most potential of simulator-sickness. High frame rates and low lag take care of most everything else.
Is it disorienting? In the context of changing environments, or taking the headset off after long work sessions, no — there’s no disorientation. Adapting to the new environment is immediate, like moving between rooms, and since the focal length in the headset matches regular human vision there’s no acclimating or adjustment. Though I will say, taking it off to find that night has fallen can be a touch startling, but hyperfocal nerds at their computers have always had to deal with that.
Why use Oculus hardware vs others? Specifically, with more capable headsets out there, why settle for what’s largely considered an expensive toy?
- Foremost, capability — it runs the productivity software I like, and there are very few that do that.
- Convenience — it’s readily available, easy to work with, and versatile (portability, configuration, interoperability, etc.).
- Cost — it’s by far the most affordable headset in its class, and while I have a tendency to be lavish with my gadgetry I’m still a cheapskate: I love a good deal and a favorably skewed cost/benefit ratio even more.
- Critical mass — Oculus’s large market share means ease of replacement, available accessories, software library, and longevity for the product’s service life. They’re going to hang around to make more, and I won’t be stuck with something useless.
A short list of other VR programs I use by category.
Productivity: I’ve looked at almost everything out there, and always come back to Immersed as the most capable for my needs. Not that there isn’t value in the competition, and it’s encouraging that so many people are working in this space, but so far it’s been the best for me. The fine folks over at Five by Five did an amazing write-up on their experience in product selection that mirrors many of my own findings.
- Walkabout Mini Golf (or TopGolf)
- MultiBrush (OSS successor to TiltBrush)
- Calm Place
- Gravity Sketch
- Too many to list, but: Onward is my number-1 jam, followed by BigScreen
- XR for work
- Five by Five: