Microsoft’s WarRoom will Transform your Virtual Reality

TBD Insider — Product reviews from the Near Future

Building a new product or company is hard. Building it with people who aren’t all in the same room every day is…and here’s where you’d expect me to say, “even harder.” But Microsoft’s WarRoom team would say:

Same room? Really? You built your product with everyone in the same physical room? Are you old or stupid?

The concept behind WarRoom isn’t anything you wouldn’t expect from a virtual reality product. (Yeah, these guys are full-on VR, not augmented reality — that’s HoloLens. Gotta keep this stuff straight these days.) WarRoom is a team room, plain and simple.

You download their VR app to the platform of your choice and connect to WarRoom, which is a Skype-like combination of servers and P2P. Setup from there is a lot like creating a Slack channel and inviting members. Took me about five minutes to get 15 people in a virtual room. Several of them had never used VR gear before.

People love to throw around the term, “minimally viable product,” (MVP for short). The WarRoom team shows that they truly understand the concept. Their VR environment avoids the rock-and-hard-place of minimal viability. On one hand, it’s not a half-baked hodgepodge of bad code (and worse usability); on the other, it’s not one isolated feature polished to within an inch of its life. It’s an experiment to see if they were right about what people working together need — and don’t need — in a virtual team room.

Here’s what they think you need — and I’ll say now, it is so much of what I need that I don’t want to take my VR headset off, ever. (Somebody’s going to have to guide me to the potty soon — no facilities in virtual reality.)

WarRoom gets you into a meeting fast. I’ve tried to set up conference calls that took longer. Accepting the invite takes you right into download and install, then bam — you’re there in the room. No fooling around with creating avatars or setting up profiles. Of course, if you already had avatars and profiles set up with Microsoft, they appear as you’d expect.

WarRoom’s attention to detail is where focusing on just a few features pays off. For example, it lets you add your contacts data with a single gesture. And the self-soverign identity wallet (featured in an upcoming review) made me comfortable doing so. Why is this a big deal? Because people are always late for meetings, and tracking them down sucks. That’s true even on conference calls. But in WarRoom, I could see a list of invited people not yet plugged in. A quick gesture and the system was trying them with text, email — and after a few minutes if those didn’t work — phone call. Yeah, phone call, man. I didn’t have to ask someone, “Hey go find Sean…where the heck is Sean?” And I didn’t have to fish out his contact details. WarRoom took the right initiative, in the right order, in the right way. Perhaps not a very “VR” feature, but it made me realize how much I had hated herding the cats, regardless of the medium. And the ease — dare I say grace — of how WarRoom herded them for me made me weep virtual tears. Ok…they were real tears — which is a problem when wearing a VR headset.

Now for some VR candy. What team room would be complete without whiteboards? WarRoom, not surprisingly, makes everything into a shared whiteboard. You can draw on any surface and, most important, in the air in three dimensions. I’ve seen the shared 3D painting feature many times before, but again, attention to detail and polish pays off. A few minutes with the Fluid gesture interface and you are co-creating with your team with the unbounded energy of a preschool art camp. More virtual tears.

Multi-dimensionality is the third big feature, allowing you to be in the same room while being in different information spaces. You can be working with others on a presentation, and then with a gesture you are alone or with a subset of the team. And there you can work on that HR report without everyone seeing what you’re paying the others. This feature is likely why many people I talked with say they are staying in WarRoom most of the day. You can work alone and then hop back into a team in under a second.

With VR coming on strong, sharing your team’s output to other VR-based teams is a snap, of course, but not everyone in business has yet donned the “helmet-hat”. That’s where the last WarRoom feature comes in. You can type old-school email or Word docs and send them just as though you were on a laptop. And all those “whiteboard” drawings you drew on surfaces and in the air convert to both flat or 3D PowerPoint slides. (I’m so glad Microsoft bought Prezi and mashed it up to turn Powerpoint into the infinite 3D canvas we love today. Moves like this have returned Microsoft not just to relevance but dominance.)

According to the company, even teams that are in the same physical room are deciding to put on their VR gear and jack into WarRoom. And who wouldn’t, when the alternative to reality is a private room where the very air is your whiteboard?

In the 1940s, Richard and Maurice McDonald discovered that hamburgers represented 83% of their sales. So they went “MVP” on the classic drive-in, getting that “one thing” perfect, and delivering hamburgers in 30 seconds. But, while they removed all other main courses from the menu, they kept the fries and shakes. And it still took them three years to get the environment right. WarRoom’s years of effort and considerable spending were hardly minimal. But it was worth it. The experience is more than viable — it’s a perfect balance of simplicity and utility. Burger, fries and a shake.

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This story is fiction, based entirely on our fevered imagination of products and services that could be delivered to market based on current and emerging know-how — given sufficient resource and intent. Any resemblance to people or real products, either released or planned, is purely coincidental.

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