Distractions, Begone! How VR Could Solve the Open Office Problem

Five virtual reality experiences making your office much more private

The Sensorama: a mechanical “experience theater” created by Morton Heilig in 1962, and a precursor to fully digital virtual environments

Ah, the open office: that great panacea for all of work’s problems!

That was the idea, at any rate. Open-office spaces as we know them started popping up in the 1990s. The promise: nurture creativity and teamwork.

But only a few years later, they were derided as “bullpens” and “monolithic insanity.” These days, headlines decry open offices as productivity killers, privacy snatchers, and, well, “insanely stupid.”

And according to research, open offices do distract.

They cause stress.

They impact your health, kill your privacy, and, of course, they’re really, really loud.

And while some are taking steps to address these things, that movement is slow, and more often than not, companies are left with frustrated workers and low morale.

Enter virtual reality.

What if you could put on a headset and work inside a 3D office environment, thus alleviating some of that frustration and possibly even saving the company expense in the process?

A VR Room of One’s Own

Virtual Desktop, a productivity app for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive

“Physical barriers have been closely linked to psychological privacy, and a sense of privacy boosts job performance,” The New Yorker wrote in “The Open Office Trap.”

Unfortunately, that sense of privacy isn’t the norm. More often, you’re minding your own spreadsheet when you hear your name mentioned on the other side of the room. The distraction is automatic — visually and aurally.

Now consider being immersed in, say, Breakroom’s VR environment, which includes noise-cancelling headphones, or Virtual Desktop. The naturally 3D workstations promise to help you focus, and the headphones promise to block unwanted sounds or name drops.

You may not need real walls if you have virtual ones.

Let’s Meet Up

A view inside AltspaceVR, a virtual reality app for sharing space

Open offices can also make meetings a challenge. Soundproofing panels or glass enclosures help a little, but there’s a reason they call those rooms “fish bowls.”

But nobody else can see into Altspace unless you want to share your 3D-interactive environments with coworkers and friends. Altspace also integrates with Slack and offers 2D immersion, too, for those without a headset.

High Fidelity is a similar program, but also offers facial-feature awareness, which means sensors capture expressions and body language and translate them to onscreen avatars to make interactions feel more realistic. With it, you can catch the kinds of non-verbal communications you aren’t able to see on a pixelated screen or through a conference dial-in line.

The End of Clutter?

SPACE is a virtual reality application which allows users to view, manipulate and interact with multiple screens of any content

WIRED is no longer a pirate ship.”

That’s editor in chief, Scott Dadich, telling staffers in 2015 to clean up their act — no more coffee stains on walls, no more day-old food in the fridges, and definitely no more action figures cluttering desks.

That kind of mess isn’t endemic to WIRED; it’s in a lot of offices. And very few executives want to parade high-profile visitors through a minefield of crap.

So imagine a virtual reality platform where one of your displays held family photos, a favorite quote, maybe even strange memorabilia that inspires you privately but would embarrass you and the company out in the open. SPACE lets you do just that: arrange your different work displays however you like, with a customized backdrop.

It’s still early days for virtual reality at work, but you may very well see some of your coworkers donning a virtual reality headset in the near future.

Soon you may not be hearing “let’s step into my office.”

Rather: “let’s step into VR.”