Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash. An individual wears an Oculus VR headset.

Is Virtual Reality the NextNew Normal”?

After a year of working out of office, does sharing a physical space even matter anymore?

Apr 28 · 3 min read

It’s been more than one full year since businesses worldwide shut their doors and sent their staff home to work from their kitchen tables. While there are hopeful signs on the horizon for returning to some form of business as it was, it’s clear by now we’re facing a permanently altered landscape that blends the flexibility of working from home with the collaborative environment enabled by shared offices. It’s no surprise, then, that Microsoft announced a collaborative platform called Mesh. It’s a fully virtual space that can simulate the in-person experience. Finding ways to make WFH feel more like the office is a top priority for Fortune 500 companies, but is a virtual environment the answer?

Per Emerging Tech Brew, 50% of the Fortune 500 has purchased at least one HoloLens 2, the device Mesh is designed to operate off of. It’s clear that in Microsoft’s estimation, at least, their Fortune 500 customers are ready to look at out-of-the-box solutions to the feeling of being trapped in a box via video calls all day. But what about their employees?

According to our recent Robots Among Us survey results, the odds are not in Microsoft’s favour. VR Headsets ranked #47 out of 70 surveyed technologies, and VR Workplaces fared even worse, coming in at #54 with only 23% of respondents surveyed stating they feel comfortable using the technology.

As ever, there’s more to the story than simple stats can reveal. A follow-up study on AR & VR trends showed that exposure plays an enormous part in people’s comfort level. With no exposure to any mentions of the technology, the discomfort score hovers at roughly 65%. But with even one easily-recalled mention, that drops by about half and at 2 mentions it drops by half again. Similarly, with no prior opportunity to try the technology, discomfort is well over 50%. By the time an individual had 2 separate instances to test it out, that number drops below 10%.

Microsoft (and others) may be facing an uphill battle in getting employees on-board for mixed reality (MR) experiences, but it may not be as steep as it first seems. With the right opportunities to try the technology out, the path to adoption could be much clearer than the currently high rates of discomfort suggest.

“You can actually feel like you’re in the same place with someone sharing content or you can teleport from different mixed reality devices and be present with people even when you’re not physically together.” — Alex Kipman, Inventor of Hololens

Survey results from other technologies and sectors have shown that a compelling use case plays a major part in improving comfort rates and ultimately, adoption rates. Novelty tech attracts immediate interest, but the novelty is quick to fade if it’s not providing value for the users. With a tool that can help tackle some of the major challenges of working remotely, from lack of shared workspace for collaboration to lack of a sense of connectivity when you no longer share a space, there may be a compelling enough experience to draw employees in.

Could it be that the stars are aligning to bring MR experiences to the mainstream?

With Fortune 500 companies already testing out the hardware and exploring how it works at such a high rate, the opportunity to test the experiences out with employees at a larger-scale is already close at hand. Advances in the VR experience, like what Mesh is offering, make those opportunities more interesting for employees and employers alike. And the timing couldn’t be better: workers have spent the past year navigating around the complexity of “making it work” in thrown-together work-from-home scenarios. A device and experiences pairing that can help them keep the flexibility of working from home with fewer of the complications it entails could be the raft that brings us all to new, more adaptive shores. There is good reason to believe this could be a sea-change moment for MR workplace experiences (and MR tech in general).

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