VR headsets: a serious business tool disguised as a games console
I thought that buying a VR headset would be a fun way to turn a crypto windfall into something tangible, and I was not wrong! A modern headset like the Oculus Quest 2 can’t match the graphical realism of a games console, but it makes up for it with a tremendous edge in the sense of presence and emotional power created by immersion in a 3D world — you are in the computer, rather than at the computer.
Stills and even videos of VR apps are extremely misleading. The graphics can seem flat and a little dated. They seem like a fun toy, an impression reinforced by how funny we look to bystanders when we climb on imaginary rocks or fight imaginary monsters. A modern headset (like the Oculus Quest 2) paired with the right app (like Immersed, or Horizons Workroom) is actually a superlative communications device vastly more suited to group many-to-many communication than any alternative bar actually getting together in person, and I’m going to tell you why.
Not long after I bought that headset, I started my own fully-and-forever-remote business (at the time of writing, we are 6 people in 6 different countries — we expect both numbers to get bigger). As a remote company, we have to work harder to create a feeling of presence — we slack, video call and email like everyone else.
One of our rituals is a weekly all-team call with a very fluid agenda, our one chance to all be “on” at the same time, open to all topics — Omah Lay to religious festivals. I love it, I look forward, but I recognise the gap — a 6-way video call means all our faces are on one little flat screen, and the audio gets confusing if more than one person tries to speak.
So, we made a change. On our last team call, we finally escaped from Flatland, our team popping into three-dimensional existence inside a rather nice conference room that was extremely normal — a table, chairs, and a big screen for presentations. After the initial novelty of seeing everyone’s legless avatars, a funny thing happened: we stopped seeing VR and just saw our colleagues instead.
You would think that losing the video and replacing faces with cartoonish low-poly flat-textured avatars would be a big loss, but we gained so much! Because we shared a common frame of spatial reference, normal social cues worked perfectly: when we talked to each other, we turned to address our conversational partners, with spatial audio matching the visual cues. Those visual cues are smarter than they seem at first: the avatars mouths do an amazing job of matching speech, right down to turning up their corners as the speaker smiles. The spatial audio is crucial because it returns what is taken away by a conventional call, which places all voices in the same spatial location: this makes it very difficult to make sense of overlapping speech — turn-taking is difficult, and we resort to mute buttons. In VR, the spatial audio makes it as easy and natural to separate speakers voices as it would in a cafe or at a party. This is a huge gain — you can lose the mute, and just talk.
Having a consistent space (instead of a jumble of video windows) allows avatars to convey attention in a very natural way: when Fabian started presenting from his laptop, I saw Dhruv’s gaze switch to the big screen and instinctively turned to see the content. In meeting rooms, I’m a pacer — which Zoom does not accommodate — but in VR, I could walk up and down the whiteboard, and gesture to my heart’s content (the Oculus can do an amazing job tracking the detailed movements of your hands).
The thing about Virtual Reality is that it is all much more real than a flat monitor (or communicating by IM or email). Even small things like being able to physically point with your actual hand (not a little white arrow) set the experience far beyond what our laptops offer. I had been contemplating buying a company Zoom subscription: this now feels about as urgent as buying a fax machine.
In one call, headsets have gone from “fun experiment” to “serious business tool”. When we get back to the office in January, we’ll switch our team meetings over for good. We are early adopters for sure, but the experience is so very superior that I just spent 3 months’ salary on Meta stock.