Seven Billion Heads are Better Than One

Virtual Reality and the Future of Collaboration

With ultra-socialized millennials taking over the workforce, team and project based work is quickly becoming the standard operating procedure of most organizations. And good thing too. As the complexity of the problems that businesses need to tackle increases, multiple brains working together seems to have a much higher chance of success.

Yet despite the urgency for increased collaboration, organizations are still challenged by the greatest obstacle to communication: distance. Even with an ever-increasing number of communication tools, teams are still at their most effective when they’re working in the same room.

There’s simply no substitute for the ease of conversation and therefore problem-solving that comes from talking with someone face-to-face. This becomes even more important the more people involved in the conversation. Slack and Skype are great but they don’t allow you to interact with each other or with your work in a natural way.

Most face-to-face meetings rarely involve tiny people in boxes. Image courtesy of Justin Marty.

Thankfully there’s a technology that excels at making digital interaction more realistic: virtual reality. Rather than talking through a screen, virtual reality allows users to collaborate as if they were in the same room. Not only that, but the virtual room itself can be designed to reflect the problems people are working on. With virtual reality, distance will no longer limit collaboration but encourage it.

Social VR

The biggest limitation of digital communication today is that it all takes place on a screen. Whether that screen is a five and a half inch iPhone or a multi-monitor telepresence array, it acts as a barrier between people. Video-conferencing between groups of multiple people rarely feels like a natural conversation. Not only are all the participants cramped on a small screen, you can’t interact with objects or show them to other meeting participants like you could if everyone was sitting around a table.

That’s because screens today are 2D by nature and we’re used to interacting in a 3D world. We like to work with people in circles so that it’s easy to turn to each individual speaker. We like the ability to be able to pick up objects and manipulate them. So far, digital communication has only been able to provide a cheap imitation of 3D collaboration.

Even if the equipment itself is super expensive. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

But now we’re at the dawn of Social VR, the first way to interact and collaborate with other people in a 3D space. Social VR is the idea of having multiple people, connected by VR headsets and represented by digital avatars, interacting and talking with each other in the same virtual space. It takes the power of a VR headset to convince you that your surroundings are real and makes you believe that the people in that virtual space are real too.

So far, Social VR has largely been used as a hangout tool. Rather than Skyping with friends, you can talk with them in AltSpace or VRChat. Games like Rec Room essentially allow you to play Wii Sports-type games with friends around the world. But this technology when applied to the business world will fundamentally change the way we work.

Business Communications

Communication is often cited as one of the biggest problems in business. Since the days of the telegraph, companies have been trying to figure out how to coordinate businesses that span multiple cities, states, and even countries. But even as technology has improved from the fax machine to email to Slack, it seems like businesses still can’t figure out a good solution.

And sometimes we keep relying on the old solutions.

But with Social VR, business communication becomes as easy as putting on a VR headset. In Social VR, employees can discuss issues, plan projects, and generally work together as if they were in the same room.

Although the technology has been rapidly improving, right now it’s still in its early days. Avatars, or the 3D representations of users, don’t generally look like the user. Facial and motion capture technology is in its early stages. It’s difficult to capture the full range of human expression necessary for a truly lifelike conversation.

Still, the simple power of feeling like you’re actually talking with someone face-to-face is incredibly powerful. It forces you to pay attention to what the other person is saying and take their ideas seriously. Discussions with multiple people no longer result in people talking over each other and don’t rely on shifting video-conferencing windows. Despite its current limitations, Social VR still feels more like a real conversation than any previous communication technology.

Virtual Collaboration

Still, the benefits of VR for collaboration go far beyond lifelike conversations. In virtual reality, you can interact with any object or environment in full 3D. This means that any meeting that involves the creation or manipulation of any 3D object is actually better in virtual reality than a traditional in-person meeting.

Think about planning out a new retail space. In a real meeting, you would draw out what the space would look like. You might show some pictures of possible furnishings. In virtual reality, team members can place and remove furniture at ease, resize the room, or go to another location entirely, all at the push of a button.

When combined with augmented reality, the tech becomes even more powerful.

This same approach works for everything from designing a new engine to interpreting a complex data visualization. GIS models, architectural blueprints, and product designs all become far easier to manipulate and interpret in VR. Virtual reality makes the interaction seem far more natural and intuitive than traditional tools allow. Plus, everyone in the environment can work together.

At Agora we’ve been building these type of virtual collaboration environments for viewing and interacting with standard 3D models. Our tools allow animators, product designers, and engineers to discuss their work with colleagues around the world. In time, we plan to add new forms of interaction that will allow these conversations to move from discussing 3D objects in VR to creating and changing them.

Virtual collaboration environments are going to become increasingly common as our work involves more teamwork and more complex 3D interaction. It’s the perfect combination of video calling, the open office, and screen sharing. And as our problems continue to grow in complexity, it’ll be nice to know that we have more than seven billion people we can bring together to help solve them.

Matthias McCoy-Thompson is a co-founder and COO of AgoraVR. We create tools for companies, organizations, and individuals to present and share their ideas in virtual reality.