MURAL XR
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MURAL XR

Mural, Metaverse, and Your Future of Boundaryless Collaboration in 2023

A new year is upon us, and the nature of the “Future of Work” keeps evolving. Hybrid, remote, on-site, sync and async: the debate continues on what will be best for the work of the future, where distance and location become less important compared to how, when, and who we work with.

Mural has long been a champion of creating collaborative tools and methods that support the ethos of “work isn’t a place, it’s what we accomplish together” as coined by Mural’s Chief Evangelist and longtime proponent of boundaryless collaboration, Jim Kalbach.

With that in mind, the Mural XR team is asking the question of: If work isn’t a place, but what we accomplish together, how can we accomplish things together, well… better?

Trains, planes, and automobiles… and headsets

Think about the world before trains. That’s right; choo-choo trains. Before the advent of consumer train travel, the most you could be “together” with someone was constrained by how far you could walk, run, or ride a horse in a single day (unless you were fortunate enough to have access to a sailing vessel and live within walking distance of a waterway).

For example (thanks to Rates of Travel from New York City, 1830 — Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States), in 1800 if you were in New York and needed to collaborate with someone in Chicago, you are looking at a 6 week voyage. You simply could not get there any quicker, and any benefit or value of being able to be co-present with someone who wasn’t within the little curved lines were lost to you.

The world was huge, but your world was very small.

Rates of Travel from New York City, 1830 — Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States

Then, one day, the world got smaller and your world got bigger, once when you could board a train, and a few hours later, be in a place that would have taken you days to reach previously. Now, all the people, ideas, and resources of this new location were available to you. Access to the world became expanded, you could do things in a day previously impossible, and people you may never have had the chance to collaborate with were now just a train ride away.

Look at the map again: this new technology could get you from New York to Chicago in a day and a half.

Rates of Travel from New York City, 1830 — Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States

And within 10 years of this map, you’d be able to cross the entire continental United States in four days. In the space of one lifetime, someone who grew up without having access to people further than a horse-ride away could now cross the entire continent.

This pattern was repeated with the telegraph, then the telephone, automobiles, airplanes — and then the big one: the Internet. In each case, the world became smaller and your world became bigger, with the means to collaborate and communicate over distance becoming more accessible to everyone.

Right now, if you were in New York and needed to collaborate with someone in Chicago, and you wanted to be able to walk around in 3D space, refer to the same objects as if you were in the same room, see their facial expressions, hear their voice spatially and know exactly how far away, and at what angle from you, they are standing… it’s all possible. You don’t need 6 weeks and a horse or 36 hours and a train, you need 6 seconds and a headset. This is available off-the-shelf, right now, today.

Today, access to the world-shrinking, life-expanding technologies of remote presence permeates our homes, our schools, and our workplaces. We do video calls with our doctors, our friends, we attend conferences and lectures and participate live from our living rooms. More and more people work in remote or hybrid situations, seeing quality of life improvements and increased flexibility like the world has never known.

That brings us to a new entrant into the roster of world shrinking technologies that hopes to be enshrined in the annals of history alongside the train and the telegraph: immersive, co-present devices.

The Internet of Immersive Co-Presence

Okay… I’ll say it: the Metaverse. The technology behind what we call VR, AR, XR, MR is a new, fungible general computing platform that allows us to make the world smaller, and our presence in it larger, by doing something that has, so far, only been possible when traveling by train, plane, or automobile: letting you feel “there” and present with someone who isn’t in your direct geographic location. By combining the sensory cues from vision, hearing, and proprioception, XR technology creates an illusory shortcut that your subconscious readily perceives as “true” if not “real.”

This isn’t to say that it is a perfect, or even convincing, illusion from the technical point of view. Legless, cartoonish avatars float about, their arms sometimes contorting into spaghettified appendages that would earn them a spot on the Fantastic Four, with facial expressions simulated by an algorithm if you’re not wearing one of the Quest Pro units with eye and expression tracking, which few of our participants were.

And yet, these are temporary technological hurdles that are already showing rapid improvement at a rate that will someday be just a footnote in the history of immersive co-presence, soon to be relevant only as a whimsical memory of the “olden days” of VR. Ask yourself: can you accurately describe iOS 1 on the first iPhone? Do you remember what it could, or could not do? At the time, Apple was heavily criticized for releasing such a device and software package that seemed so lacking, compared to the more mature ecosystem of the Blackberry-like smartphones.

We know where that led, and we want to be part of the movement that stays the course and realizes that the future is in front of us, not behind us. Today, given this new near-superhuman ability to instantly be remotely co-present with someone else, Mural asks the question, again: If work isn’t a place, but what we accomplish together, how can we accomplish things together — and better — by leveraging this immersive technology?

Mural and the Future of Collaborating Intelligently

Mural has spent the last decade bringing people together and fostering collaboration through its virtual whiteboard product, and the impact of this work is evidenced by the thousands of customers and millions of users who relied on the product throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Overnight, knowledge workers across the globe were sent home, and the difference between the companies who had the right tools in place, and who didn’t, became clear. Mural became an indispensable tool for remote teams, creating the place where work happens regardless of one’s physical location on the planet.

Mural’s growing library of case studies reinforcing the viability to remote collaboration

Over the following three years, companies shifted back and forth between full remote and hybrid, never sure where things were going to land, and at the same time the mindset toward where people can work shifted towards location autonomy and “work from anywhere”. It was clear that remote and hybrid work wasn’t just feasible at scale, for many it was preferable; desirable, even.

In parallel, the XR experienced an unprecedented investment in the technology and application when Facebook Technologies changed its name to Meta, and went all-in on developing the tools and hardware so other companies could create these new spaces for people to play, work, and gather. One such company was Mighty Coconut, makers of smash-hit (pun intended) Walkabout Minigolf.

Walkabout MiniGolf as a go-to destination for remote conversation and collaboration

And it was this game, Walkabout Minigolf, that helped bring a handful of Mural employees together to start to answer that question “how can we accomplish things together — and better — by leveraging this immersive technology?” We had discovered that, even as a remote-first company already, meeting and talking in these virtual spaces offered something no video conferencing tool or virtual whiteboard has been able to: the illusion of co-presence. So much so, in fact, that the Wall Street Journal joined us for a round of minigolf to talk about the future of work in Virtual Reality. Read a copy of that article here.

Read the article here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-future-of-socializing-at-work-virtual-golf-11649476854?mod=e2tw

It is this inspiration that Mural’s XR team took on the quest to become not a VR app team, but the “bringing people together regardless of distance” team, just like those trains and planes of the 19th and 20th century did. As such, we aren’t in the business of making VR apps, we’re in the business of heralding a new era of connection, collaboration, creativity, and convenience. We just happen to be using XR to do it.

Mural XR’s eX(R)plorations so far

This brings us to the latest in Mural’s adventures in defining the future of work, with VR as a tool to bring people together for intelligent collaboration. This was our third public event where we took an aspect of this future of work, and conducted a VR-based series of activities with real people, customers and non-customers alike. Using Meta’s new “Horizon Worlds” worldbuilding app available on the Quest 2 (and now, Quest Pro), we were able to quickly spin up virtual words and create playable, testable “games for work” without having to invest in a fully-featured native application. It was rapid experimentation and deep customer empathy at its finest.

In February of 2022, we partnered with Voltage Control to help professional facilitators see how VR could be a tool used in their facilitation practices. It was somewhat of a “first time” for everyone and we weren’t quite sure what would translate and resonate when taking real-world facilitation and collaboration methods and porting them over to VR, but since this was a largely undocumented space where there were few preexisting examples, we just did it and learned as we went!

🔗 Watch the roundup video of this first event on Linkedin! 📹

The site of our June 2022 VR event — Read about it here https://medium.com/mural-xr/murals-adventure-in-the-collaborative-frontiers-of-xr-5a7d2c891f82

Then, in June of 2022, we took it a step further and opened the event up to the public, giving it a hackathon-style format we called a “game jam” where participants learned to build and explored the facets of co-present collaboration in VR. One of our consultants and special guests was Mighty Coconut’s art director, Don Carson, a former Disney Imagineer and theme park designer. Don helped us understand the value of placemaking and immersion, and how the environment can have as much an influence on the experience as the activities themselves. Hear Don talk about this for 50 minutes during our VR fireside chat that took place on an asteroid ranch we built just for the event by reading the roundup article here.

The response to this June event was both thrilling and beyond our expectations, and it led to an ongoing relationship with Meta, the owners and makers of the Horizon Worlds platform we were using to create these events. Meta has the technology and resources to develop the VR and MR headsets (presently, the Quest 2 and Quest Pro), and Mural has the expertise, drive, and ingenuity to take what we’re the best at — collaborative intelligence, facilitation, and bringing people together to be creative regardless of distance — and apply it to the possibilities VR offers.

Which brings us to the 2022 Mural Fall Carnival.

Welcome to the Mural Fall Carnival!

Mural’s approach to XR and immersive co-presence is rooted in the values of the company at large: collaborative intelligence and making places where people accomplish things together. This means that our measure of successful facilitation is based on the success of the participants. The technological feats for this have already been accomplished by Meta through the Horizon Worlds app and the Quest devices; our goal was to prove that people can use them to have rich, meaningful, collaborative experiences with and without facilitators, not just equal to video conferencing tools, but better.

The entrance to the carnival set against the rolling hillsides.

And what does “better” mean to us? Better means the human connection and sensory experience offers something that neither a real-world conference room, nor a video call, can offer: a blend of the interaction between people in a meaningful activity, and the magic that VR allows by making location and the laws of physics (and cost of materials, travel, etc.) less relevant.

It is a case where the third option that blends both the pros and cons of the two alternatives can end up being a independent and uniquely viable option all on its own, and in fact in some use cases surpass the alternatives. Mural absolutely believes we are entering an era of work where in the coming years, XR-based communication and collaboration will be the go-to choice, not the fringe exception.

Our research plan coalesced around testing how people would react to certain aspects of collaboration, connection, and facilitation in environments that were the VR embodiment of Mural’s long-standing commitment to “games for work,” where the collaboration isn’t left to chance. We designed our experiences to test the human psyche; how would people engage with the worlds, with the activities, and with each other? What would and wouldn’t work, for whom, and why?

This ladders up to one of the concepts that Jim Kalbach (our Chief Evangelist) has been promoting for many years, which is “Jobs to be Done.” Jobs to be Done, or JTBD, is a huge topic, but we can sum up our usage for this event by asking a single question: what would someone be hiring these VR experiences to do for them? Our hypothesis was to test different “reasons” you might hire a workplace VR app, and then see how people reacted. It was “say vs. do” hypothesis testing, and no matter how much we speculated, we needed to see it happen and watch the dance of human engagement live.

The new way must overcome the intertia and anxieties of the old way.

That’s what informed our building of the Mural Fall Carnival and the eight concepts which would tease out the impact of those different facets (and spoiler alert: there were an additional six concepts submitted by our guests!)

If we couldn’t create “new” feelings and ways of doing things in VR, it would never beat the board room or the video call. It can’t just be equal, it has to offer its own benefits and be superior in some way.

The Fall Carnival — How

Internally at Mural, we collaboratively brainstormed facets of what we wanted people to experience, and what activities could fulfill that. Taking from our deep knowledge of collaboration and facilitation, including resources from our Luma System, we chose ten different aspects of collaboration, communication, and facilitation to enable through VR “collaboration game” concepts to build and code in Horizon Worlds.

We knew we wanted to test the limits of how embodiment, requiring movement in space, and engagement with the environment with fellow participants, enhanced the goal for each concept. We also wanted to help people build cognitive maps of “where” they are and “where” things happen, which is a concept well developed in the Method of Loci theory (a concept codified by Cicero some 2000 years ago, but undoubtedly only as a description of what humans have been doing for the entirely of human existance).

We also wanted to include a healthy amount of narrative and role-play to move things away from being a unidirectional “lecture”, and change it into a bidirectional series of interactive events where the object of interaction was other people, not the enabling props or environment. This is consistent with Mural’s ethos that work isn’t a place, or a tool, or a process, but what people accomplish together.

Sticking with our ongoing habit of theming our VR events around an environmental metaphor, and since it was going to occur around Halloween, we decided that these concepts would be presented as a Fall Carnival of exhibits. These would be visited sequentially and then voted on by the participants, and would be an active learning, participatory research experience for both us and them.

Setting the tone for an immersive experience

The Mural Fall Carnival started in an autumn-themed farmland, with candy-striped tents, corn stalks, and witches hats lined up to greet our guests. Part of what we were testing in our hypothesis was the effect of environment and theme on the “believability” of being somewhere that wasn’t sitting in your home office wearing a headset on your face. The quickest way to shortcut that suspension of disbelief is a solved problem: ever wondered why some movies, regardless of budget, draw you in, and others don’t?

It’s suspension of disbelief that makes that choice, and the way to do that is to create a narrative the human mind craves — and as the Epic of Gilgamesh carved into tablets 4000 years ago proves, it’s not a technical feat that transports someone’s mind to a “new place”, but a feat of storytelling. Each of our VR carnival concepts were not just to demonstrate a concept, but to make you forget you weren’t “there” in the first place.

First gathering in the carnival grounds on a cool, breezy evening

If the concepts only demonstrated an aspect of collaboration and facilitation, but didn’t convince the participant’s subconscious to suspend disbelief and be present in the environment, then the experience becomes a novelty rather than a viable new place where meaningful interaction can flourish.

Let’s take a look at these concepts, our hypothesis for each, and then we’ll get to the responses from our attendees.

The Carnival Grounds

The landing zone for everyone entering the event was the carnival grounds. Attendees were greeted by an autumn night in the countryside, windmills and hay bales in the hills beyond. Tents lined the perimeter that led to each of the concepts, surrounding a pair of stealth concepts we’d built into this lobby-like environment.

Carnival tents acted as the portals to each concept’s unique world

First was a massive “body polling” station where a pair of competing concepts were randomly flashed on signs at each end of a segmented platform. We didn’t tell anyone what this was or how it worked, but it was clear that something was going on. As people filed into each session and saw the station, they would instinctively follow their curiosity and step onto the platform and see the large meter above it tip in one direction or another. The more people on either side, the more the needle moved.

Suddenly, a small crowd became larger as people voted with their bodies on Pepsi vs. Coke, Cats vs. Dogs, The Movie vs. The Book, or Pineapple on Pizza vs. No Pineapple.

Did you see the trick here? With no instruction, no complicated mechanisms, and no request to engage with the environment, people were suddenly primed to be present. They wanted to race to stand on the Pepsi end of the platform vs. the Coke, and any thoughts of being in a headset or home office vanished as people colluded with each other and raced back and forth to make sure dogs won over cats.

And we hadn’t even started the event yet! This is the suspension of disbelief we were going for, hooking people into a moment of communication and collaboration (to make sure your side won) without calling attention to“being in VR”: you were just there, and the emphasis on using the virtual body helped participants psychologically take ownership of it.

Now that we’d started that process of moving people’s minds from the physical-world reality of their home offices and living rooms and into the virtual-world reality of the Mural Fall Carnival, the real engagement and co-creative experience could begin.

Concept 1: Rose Thorn Bud

The first stop on the carnival tour was our Rose Thorn Bud concept. This was a lightweight, starter concept that took the popular retrospective activity where highlights were placed as Roses, lowlights or pain-points as Thorns, and new ideas or opportunities as Buds. Typically, these are sticky notes put into a Mural canvas, or could be real-world sticky notes stuck to a wall.

However, in our VR concept, the simulated city-park environment served as the canvas, with picnic tables and rose bushes color-coded to match the sticky notes. The host playing the role of facilitator explained the event and demonstrated how it would work, and participants each could comment and take a turn. The goal of this concept was to try porting over a popular and successful framework into an interactive VR environment and see what happens when we let people act “within” the activities framed in 3D space.

Turns out, the learnings here acted as a great control group. While the activity itself has proven merit in its traditional format, without real content and real team members to interact with, the core value was lacking, and the virtual sticky notes were an underwhelming contrast to the virtual environment, taking people out of the moment and unsuspending their disbelief.

It was an important learning experience for us. An activity like this required far more real world context and interaction than a simulation could provide. And, like good scientists, we took this as a positive, learning about something that didn’t work as well as hypothesized and taking those insights back with us.

And that’s okay! We still had seven more concepts to learn from.

Concept 2: The Wilderness Campfire

The next concept was one with no prescribed activity or structure, only a dark forest night and glowing campfire. Participants teleported into the world and were greeted by the chirp of insects, a dark sky, and a small bunny rabbit hopping about. On a nearby camping table, a flashlight and lantern waited.

Instantly, people grabbed the props and formed a circle around the campfire. Any suspension of disbelief we lost in the previous concept snapped back into place as people began holding the flashlight under their avatar’s chins, telling stories, and conversing around the fire. On small plaques near the ring of stones encircling the burning logs were suggestions of different conversation topics or games. For most of our sessions, however, no prompts were needed as people were eager to discuss what they were experiencing and the contrast between the previous world and where they were now.

That was a magical moment; people were doing the thing the concept was meant to encourage. Having a productive conversation that brought people together around a fire the same way we’ve gathered since the discovery of human-made fire itself.

The attention of attendees was captured once again, simply by letting their minds settle into a place where the environment and context made the space. It fulfilled the same requirement in any collaborative organization or team: a venue that is conducive to meaningful communication, focuses attention, and encourages sharing.

In each session we led through these events, pulling people away from the campfire required several gentle prompts from the hosts. People simply forgot about time and that they were supposed to be on a schedule, and simply wanted to be present around the campfire with a purpose-driven conversation.

Concept 3: The Sailboat Retrospective (on a Sailboat)

For the third concept, we wanted to experiment with the power of blending the literal with the metaphorical. The Sailboat Retrospective is a popular tool that can help a team look back and identify different aspects of a project or time span: what helped (wind in your sail), what was in your way (rocks up ahead), what was your goal (the island in the distance), and what slowed you down (the anchor below).

We built an actual sailboat with space for everyone to gather on, with another miniature sailboat on the deck to act as the activity zone at arm’s-length, while also allowing people to generate ideas on sticky notes and place them on the actual sailboat.

There was an easter-egg in all this, one that changed the entire nature of the experience. During each session, invariably one person would manage to fall overboard… and discover that the entire underwater part of the world was fully fleshed out and navigable. Once one person heard or saw the splash, others would jump in and discover that there was an actual chain and anchor hundreds of feet below, and that a “deep dive” on the topic could be conducted amid an actual deep… dive.

One delightful side effect of this “world scale” experience was a comment about the anchor that stretched from the boat to the underwater space far below: anchors don’t slow you down, anchors keep you safe. What a wonderful twist on the metaphor-turned-real as we all gathered around the anchor in our diving helmets below.

Once again, it was this type of delighter that surprised both us and them. It wasn’t just that we could do a Sailboat Retro on an actual Sailboat, it was that when you wanted to do that deep dive, you could jump in the water where a diving helmet magically appeared on your head, and in the depths were the world above vanished, you could focus on a topic and feel the comfort, or terror, of the grimy deep. And like the campfire experience before, the hosts had to remind people we still had five more concepts to go and needed to keep moving.

Concept 4: The Question and Answer Genie

The next stop on the exhibits was a simple game adapted from several common workplace icebreakers where people are given a random question and invited to answer. Some were silly questions like “What is your most bizarre food craving?” Other questions were intense like “When did you last cry in front of another person? Why?”

The concept itself was simple: people could pick up one of three different shaped and color-coded objects (representing their “intensity”), and toss them into the genie’s fire. A question only they could see would appear in their field of vision, at which point they could choose to answer or not. But there was a catch: each time an object was thrown into the fire, the flames would change color to match the question’s intensity: green, blue, or red. If you saw a red tint appear and didn’t hear an answer, you knew someone had chosen to remain silent.

Now, remember, Mural is doing this for the first time just like our participants, being good scientists and just letting things happen and observing. It turns out, we didn’t have to give instructions for this game. Within moments of entering the world, people would see the enticing bins of colorful objects, and experiment to see that they were grabbable. It doesn’t take much to infer that the giant roaring bonfire a few feet away might be a good target for said objects. The curious people would try it, and see the flames change color. Then, someone would speak aloud the question, and answer it. This caused others to try and do the same.

Suddenly, everyone was grabbing objects, tossing them in, answering their questions, laughing, cringing, cowering… all without any instruction or prompt. There was no sense of being in a demo or a research project, they were there, present in this embodied activity, not interacting with the fire and the genie, but with each other.

The secret ingredient wasn’t our concept or the technical utility of VR, it was the delightful realization and suspension of disbelief that you could actually believe you were somewhere else with people doing something that would have been impossible otherwise. The participants were hundreds and thousands of miles apart, some on different continents, and yet strangers were now friends as they tossed question totems in the fire.

Hmmm… sounds a lot like what happened when suddenly you could travel further than a horse could take you in a day by boarding a train. Something out of reach was now possible, and at no point were there any comments about the fidelity or realism. Even if you were to recreate the game on a video call, you can’t gather around a fire with a genie’s lamp and see the colored firelight reflecting on the people standing next to you, hear their voice, watch their body language as they realize they got the question about their first kiss; and in a physical-world scenario, you can’t have a color-changing fire where magical questions appear only to you without anyone else knowing, giving you the agency to answer or not.

And just like that, this VR concept did something new and novel that neither alternative could do alone. The VR experience, in this case, wasn’t a poor substitute for either a conference room or a video call, it was something new entirely, a desirable third toption.

But… let’s keep moving, we still have four more concepts to explore.

Concept 5: The Thinking Hats

This concept was a facilitation tool to be used within the context of a larger conversation or activity, something that could be summoned as needed if a facilitator or activity required additional structure or guidance.

In this case, it was Dr. Edward Debono’s “Thinking Hats” exercise. Being effective in your job doesn’t always mean you know how to be effective as a facilitator, and often in groups with a healthy feeling of equality and democracy, people may be called upon to fill roles they aren’t experienced or comfortable with. The thinking hats help guide people toward specific properties of a discussion, letting them focus on just a slice of the overall breadth of potential perspectives.

The hypothesis we had here was a blend of narrative and the Proteus effect, best summed up as: when a person takes on the physical or representational traits of an avatar — such as a color-coded hat with instructional clipboard — they will feel empowered to take on the behavioral traits of the role they are playing.

We built six color-coded hats and clipboards and placed them in a storefront, allowing people to see them and go inside and become curious. The labels of each hat were clear, and the instructions prompted each person to adhere to a specific way of thinking: creativity, benefits, feelings, process, facts, caution.

However, this won’t work without a narrative goal, so our hosts created a roleplay where the attendees with the hats were presented with a problem they needed to discuss, but only from the perspective of their hat’s cause. This was another activity where the lack of a real team and problem could have hurt the process, but it still proved effective and resilient: the act of constraining one’s thinking to the facet of the hat encouraged the intentional use of a technique and guided the mindset and behavior.

Even though the narrative and request in this concept were fictitious, the muscles being exercised were real. The color-coded hats were a strong reminder of how group dynamics can be shaped, and how facilitation tools can take something lacking structure and add enough of a framework to make meaningful forward progress in a discussion.

Concept 6: This or That Showdown

The sixth concept was an experiment in taking a common, standardized methodology and building an interactive experience that produced the same output. In this case, we utilized one of the Luma System’s most versatile frameworks, the prioritization matrix. With the matrix, criteria are evaluated along an axis in something like a stack rank, with each axis typically being sorted individually. This is then interpreted on a two-by-two grid, and you get the classic four quadrant matrix that balances two axis criteria like effort vs. impact, or speed vs. difficulty.

Leaning on the advice of one of our Luma pro facilitators, we iterated on the idea of having a 1-vs-1 comparison of single items against each other. Each item would have the chance to be ranked higher or lower than the others, and at the end a stack would appear that could be applied to the axis.

What better way to create an interactive experience of ranking two sticky notes at a time than creating a full-blown boxing ring arena? The “This or That Showdown” was born.

The environment of this activity was meant to elicit an overwhelming sense of excitement and presence, to contrast with the simplicity of the task: see two opposing criteria presented to you and evaluate them based on the prompt, then push the large, color-coded button right in front of you!

We themed all the data around being on a superhero team, with prompts like “power best suited for helping during natural disasters” as the axis, and then the criteria would be presented two at a time. Mind-control vs. Super Strength, for example. By being forced to choose one or the other, the stack ranking happened in the background, and were this a fully fleshed-out and coded VR app, the prioritization matrix would be created for you as you went, and ported out to your Mural canvas.

This was another concept that had some polarizing feedback. The environment was rich and immersive, but could feel overwhelming and “too much” for a simple exercise. On the other hand, the utility of being able to focus and be “facilitated” by the activity was an appreciated factor, since the normal method of using the prioritization matrix on a two-by-two grid is often misunderstood, and this helped keep the method on track and focused.

Plus, it was a chance to see how people reacted to purpose-built environments that were rich and elaborate, as one of the unknown factors of what makes a VR-based experience more desirable than its comparatively simpler, but less engaging, counterparts.

Concept 7: Precarious Peril

Concept seven was a test of a known experience, tweaked for VR purposes. Mural is a popular tool for icebreakers, warmups, and other games that can be played at work, as it is a flexible canvas where multiplayer interaction is easy and fun. One of the templates that is most popular for these types of large-team games is a “quiz show” template that may or may not be similar to a certain TV game show where you’re in jeopardy if you don’t present your answer in the form of a question.

We present “Precarious Peril,” the game where you are given a clue and answer in the form of a question. The hypothesis here was testing if we get the same sort of engagement and enjoyment from a proven Mural template taken into VR. Obviously, we did not invent the game or change any of the rules of this popular game show, and the environment was built to be as close to a real TV studio as possible.

Participants entered and the game began, as did the surprises. We quickly learned that while some people were fully engaged and excited to have their chance on the big stage, some were reluctant to be in the spotlight and forced to answer questions. This touched on the notion of peer pressure and social anxiety, where most ice breakers and warmups were more round-robin, show-and-tell style, Precarious Peril put people’s anxieties in jeopardy by bringing the singular attention of the groups to the contestants.

It was good learning for us at Mural. While these large-team experiences, games, and warmups might be well-received when on a 2D Mural canvas and people are safe behind the protective layer of the webcam video conferencing grid, being on an actual stage, standing at the podium, and having the host call on you was an experience some love, and some hated. And this is a great facet for us to remember about the implications of co-present, immersive experiences: while the game of Precarious Peril might have functioned the same as it does in the 2D Mural template, the added factor that VR of being “there” on the stage, facing the host, with the audience behind you, introduces an entirely new psychology we have to consider.

What does one do when the safety of the video conferencing grid is gone and you’re simply there with others?

Concept 8: Sculptionary Creative Expression

Our final Mural-created concept ended the tour with a breath of simplicity and calm. Taking from several different simple icebreaker and team building activities, we wanted to make something where there was no structure, no time limit, and no rules: just easy, intuitive creativity. Out of this intent, Sculptionary was born.

The concept here was to give people simple primitive shapes, some buckets of paint, and a few intentionally constrained tools to change scale and length. From there, it was up to the individual to use their imagination to create an exceptionally simple sculpture to express a thought or idea.

This is another proven method used in workplaces in many different formats, from using LEGO, to spaghetti sticks and marshmallows, to simple improv games with no props at all. The big learning for us, however, was how quickly people began building things, observing each other, and having fun and treating this concept as if it were actually happening.

As with all the concepts we built, we were always testing a consistent hypothesis about what makes an experience succeed in suspending disbelief. Sculptionary was another that rose to the top of that list. Where some of the other concepts elicited a response where the participants were more play-acting and cooperating than they were really engaged, with Sculptionary they were actually engaged without needing to play-act. No one was pretending or roleplaying how they would act with this activity, they were really doing it.

There were no headsets, no polygons, no research projects, all of that faded away as people became immersed in this exceedingly simple, but sophisticated, activity of co-creation and play. And, like Mural’s Creative Scientist and worldbuilder Paul Tomlinson says each session, “play disarms fear.” Sculptionary proves both of our hypotheses: play does disarm fear, and active creative engagement with other people is quicker to immerse someone in a VR event than engagement with props or the environment.

Sculptionary was so popular, in fact, that one of the participants brought their team back later to conduct a real creative work session. How’s that for proof-in-the-pudding?

The Winter Carnival: A tour of the customer submissions!

With the main, Mural-created concepts successfully demonstrated during the first week of events, the call went out to our participants to submit their own ideas that Mural’s pro Horizon Worlds worldbuilders would create for them, and then Mural would facilitate inviting all our participants back to experience these user submissions at the re-themed Mural WINTER Carnival in early November!

And what submissions they were! While Mural didn’t have a formalized hypothesis for these, each submission had an intent and outcome we wanted to observe.

User-Submission 1: Jim’s Tower Building

Participant Jim proposed recreating the “reverse jenga” style of tower building activity in VR, similar to the marshmallow challenge. Teams of three were formed, with each team trying to work together to build the tallest block tower. There was a timer and an automatic height meter giving constant pressure, as well as the noise and action of the other nearby teams!

This was another example of a concept that became the “real thing” as soon as it started. No one here had to pretend to be building a tower with their small team, they really were. Shouts, laughter, and cries of encouragement could be heard in the large geodesic-dome room, and all notion of being in a headset or piece of software was gone; again, people were present and believed what they were doing was actually happening.

User-Submission 2: Alpine Hike Memory Game

Participant Clara’s submission was next. Combining conversation with subtle memory cues, the Alpine Memory Hike was a structured experience that let teams get to know each other through a planned series of “icebreaker” questions of increasing personal disclosure, all while wearing alpine hiker backpacks with color-coded sleeping bags.

Upon reaching the final summit and mountaintop lodge, teammates were surprised with a “spin that wheel” where a color that corresponded to the sleeping back color would indicate which other teammate’s answers they had to remember. This doubled down on the original question and answer game by forcing recall, and the team members collaborated to piece together the correct answer.

This activity was purely focused on the other team member’s statements and stories, with the memory component forcing everyone to think of what the person said, not anything to do with the environment itself. While low-tech with regards to the execution, it was high-engagement due to the usage of memory and the content generated by the other human players: their story. This was a consistent finding in that any time people interacted with other people–vs. Interactive with a prop or environment — the delight, retention, and engagement was more pronounced.

User-Submission 3: Not-quite-LEGO Serious Play

Participant Christine was trained and experienced in LEGO Serious play: “The LEGO SERIOUS PLAY®” method is a facilitated thinking, communication and problem solving technique for use with organizations, teams and individuals.” While we couldn’t replicate it exactly, the spirit was there.

This activity adapted the fundamental benefit and value into an experience inside of Horizon Worlds where players progressively used creative skills in a series of stations, ending in a combined station where the creations could be viewed and discussed as part of the process.

The combination of a recognizable brand with an activity that encouraged a playful, creative process stood out as people were able to discover the creative abilities in each station and see how they built on one another, and how the final surprise at the end with the large-scale rendering of the creations floating massive out over the ocean was a major delighter. One aspect of this concept, as was seen in the Sculptionary concept, was that heads-down creative work renders people silent as they think, draw, sculpt, create, or paint, which is a salient point to remember when designing concepts meant to foster discussion. If an activity requires quiet work or contemplation first, the energy level and attitude would need to be recalibrated with something else to redirect energy from outward to inward.

User-Submission 4: Sales pitch training simulator

Not to be outdone by other popular simulation games, like driving a truck or farm equipment, Participant Mark submitted a fully-featured series of escalating scenarios where one pitches their company to potential parties of interest, based on a training course the submitter does in their real world work.

Progressing from an elevator, to a coffee shop, to a board room, to seats on an airplane, to a large auditorium, the participants received text instructions on how they should outline their pitch, with recordings of simulated conversation starters from their mannequin partners. In addition to the participant experience, each station had a 1-way mirror where the other “coaches” could watch and listen, invisible to the participant.

Even as a simulation of a simulation, the impact on the participants was striking and instantly noticeable. Even while roleplaying, the act of having an environment, a mannequin prop, and a coaching script helped people detach from their anxieties in the moment and give the rehearsal a real shot. The visual cues combined with the instructions and pre-recorded conversation allowed people to instantly feel real emotional reactions to the simulated vignettes, which was a surprise to all of us. A wonderfully effective concept that had some of the most vocal interest in a follow-up.

User-Submission 5: 1–2–4-All Jungle Adventure

Our fifth submission comes from Participant Chris, a professional facilitator who had an idea to use an existing activity adapted to a larger-than-life VR environment.

1–2–4-All is a formal exercise where participants start out in silent, solo contemplation about a question, having the time to work out an idea on their own. When the time is up, they’re joined with a partner to discuss and combine and iterate on their idea as a duo. When the time is up again, one duo then joins another, and the conversation grows as the ideas are combined again, and again, in a bracket-like system where the final conversation involves the ideas from everyone.

This format gives everyone the same opportunity to share and listen, and we combined that with a series of jungle caves and rivers that came together as each stage progressed.

Adapting real-world activities that normally relied on the imagination to enforce their flow felt particularly well-suited for VR. The 1–2–4-All jungle adventure was immediately effective at guiding people through a structured process, where space and isolation guided the thinking and idea-combination process, offloading those cognitive tasks from the individual to the environment, a recurring pattern we observed through the breadth of concepts.

User-Submission 6: Conversation Fishbowl

To moderate the amount of time spent speaking in a structured conversation, the conversation fishbowl adapts the concept to having a “budget” of minutes in the form of a SCUBA tank, and each second spent speaking reduces your available oxygen. As everyone has the same amount of oxygen divided evenly from the total time available, everyone has the same amount of time. Submitted by Participants Anya & Catherine, this was a multi-purpose concept to be used as a facilitation tool alongside many other concepts as an addon.

The fishbowl and the oxygen tanks help everyone have their statements heard in the discussion, but also helps train people who over- or under-talk to monitor their surplus or deficit in oxygen and contribute more or less. For discussions that need light guidance but want to encourage equal participation, the fishbowl is a way to put the onus of timekeeping on the props and environment instead of a person as timekeeper.

The visualization of the budget of time left to speak, and the feedback of how much others have, or have not, spoken (shown as bubbles rising from tanks in use) is a novel way to move the burden of timekeeping from an individual to the process itself. While the effect was constrained by Horizon’s scripting limits, the parts that did work were instantly recognizable and understandable by the attendees.

The difference between Mural’s and User’s Concepts

One of the biggest takeaways from the user submissions were how different they were from what Mural had created. Where our concepts were driven to test facets of a hypothesis and specific ways people reacted, the user submissions were a wonderful shift toward more holistic, complete experiences that each would have been standalone “games for work” in their own right.

This was another important learning for Mural. Seeing what early adopters submitted as concepts of “VR for Work” painted a picture of where minds go when envisioning a future they’d like to see brought to life in VR.

And to add to our growing pile of evidence that VR can be a 3rd alternative alongside in-person and video-conference, each submission carried a special nuance where the same experience could not be had in a real-world conference room or on a video call. For each concept, the VR version allows you to do things neither traditional alternative does. It’s not a watered-down compromise, it’s a blend of paradigms that, when combined, make something greater than the individual pieces.

Video calls lack the presence, embodiment, and immersion.

Conference rooms lack the magic, theming, environment, and the “laws-of-physics-breaking” capabilities.

And… if this is true, then the XR-enabled teams of the future may opt to put on their devices regardless if they are in-person or remote, as these technologies offer something that can only be obtained by blending access to both embodied, real-world experiences and the XR technologies that are evolving by the minute.

It’s YOUR turn to join us…

Overall, Mural as a company and we on the XR team could not have been happier with the results. Not only did it work, it surpassed our expectations. Our NPS score was a 71, and immediately we had participants asking if they could visit some of the worlds with their teams… one going so far as to hold their remote-company Christmas party in one of the concepts!

Mural’s native VR app, codename: Wilderness Camp

As for our research, we got more data and insights than we could have hoped for, and many hypotheses refined, refuted, or given enough evidence that we can choose to roll that into our ongoing development work on our own native VR app currently in development.

That’s right: Mural is working on their own VR experience for use in the workplace, and it goes far beyond just virtual whiteboarding. The learnings we took from all the VR research events we conducted throughout 2022 are being rolled into our design and development efforts.

Want to be a part of our ongoing explorations in VR and our February event?

➡️ Use this link to let us know ⬅️ and soon we’ll be posting what we have in store for this next VR event, which is going to include some exclusive beta-testing of our native VR app! You will be among the first to see what we’re up to, so sign up and let’s all go on this Metaverse adventure together!

Let us know here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSc7WpYlLeMNWGnrAxoj7wNzCs7HHGQpIvZTkQeE4WhPsQyn3w/viewform !

See you there!

A big thanks to Meta for helping us navigate the ever-evolving world of VR, for their hardware, and giving us support to conduct this exploration and adventure. And another big thanks to everyone who showed up to participate. We are confident that when our VR is ready and released, it will be something that takes everything we’ve learned and creates what we hope will be the world’s best-in-class VR for work experience.

Mural has long believed that creative collaboration, co-equal contribution, and instant convenience leads to better ideas, quicker progress, and an overall more human experience. This has been seen for the past decade in our virtual whiteboard product, and we hope to continue to champion that ethos is our VR products.

Because work isn’t a place, it’s what we accomplish together. And if we can accomplish things together, better, despite distance and disconnection, then maybe VR and the Metaverse can be a viable new option for where that accomplishment takes place. We certainly think so.

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A look into the world of XR at MURAL, experiments in presence technology, immersion, and collaborative intelligence in the metaverse.

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