Bringing the 360° VR Office Experience to Remote Workers

For many years, I have been curious about virtual reality headsets, but had never followed through with actually trying one. For one, they were very expensive and two, no one I knew owned one, so the only opportunity to try one out was in my local mall.

The VR gaming space in the mall was in the open—among kiosks, benches for the exhausted spouses of slow shoppers, and the annual Santa’s Workshop. Any time I passed, I would pause to gawk at goofy dads and middle school kids wearing clunky goggles–jabbing and shooting and lunging into thin, mall air with handheld controllers. Although I would chuckle a bit, I secretly wished I had the courage to try it despite the potential gaze and ridicule of passersby like me.

But then my brothers and I decided to take a weekend trip to a cabin in the Ozarks. Every night, we sat around a campfire and talked deep into the night. These talks were nurturing to each of us and to our deep kinship. I wished we could experience this on a more regular basis. When I got home, I began searching the internet for a virtual campfire, and “VR sets” came up. I sorted by price and found an announcement for a new device that would be available soon: the Oculus Quest 2 All-in-One VR Headset priced at $299. TWO NINETY-NINE. I could afford this!

I texted my brothers immediately and said that we should get these! But when I looked a little deeper, I saw the catch: you had to have a Facebook account to use it, and at that same time a popular documentary was terrifying the world: The Social Dilemma. It detailed the insidious means by which Facebook and Google are profiting from our personal information. I had paused my account at that time out of privacy concerns, so I decided to pass on the Oculus.

But like many fears, it subsided over time, and I conceded that any semblance of digital privacy was an illusion. I resumed my Facebook account and bought one. The experience blew me away. I could gush over it in great detail, but there would be no point; perhaps you can’t really understand it until you experience it. I concluded that Ready Player One, a science fiction film that takes place in a VR world, was already in the making! And I, for one, wanted to be a part of it.

One of my brothers is hesitant, but the other bought one and we began a regular meetup around VR ping pong, zombie hunting, and paint ball. I felt as if he were there with me! I mean, I could see his mannerisms in his avatar and hear his voice as if he were right there.

That’s when I began considering workplace use cases. I began sampling various virtual workspaces until I found one that would integrate various collaborative software that my company was already using including white boards, Slack, an agile board, Google Docs, and screen sharing for showing code. I imagined my software team in planning sessions with post its and whiteboarding just like the good old days…except around the virtual campfire that I had set up. “This could work!” I thought, and when I returned to the space a few weeks later, I was thrilled to find it just as I had left it. This war room is in the cloud right now, should I have need of it.

I began mentioning it to coworkers. The response? Mostly blank stares. When I asked for feedback, some humored me a little, but I could see it in their eyes; they were thinking of goofy kids (or more likely dads) in the mall playing games.

I have been working remotely for more than two years now. One thing I really miss are the quick spin up foosball and ping pong matches we used to blow off steam with. I think of how realistic the VR experiences with my brother have been. Is this the perfect entry point use case? And isn’t $299 the price point that could create a critical mass around VR technology? And now Facebook (Metaverse) is moving toward not requiring Facebook accounts.

That’s where it stands, and I am a manager now. I have the power to make this happen with a small subset of engineers. VR and Augmented Reality (AR) are already on the move in the workplace. A quick google on the topic will bring you interesting examples. It’s early, I know. Not everyone is an early adopter, but I truly believe this is going to reach a critical mass soon.

I’ll leave you with a final story. A week before Super Bowl LVI this year, I received a notification from Oculus that an app called Horizon Events would be hosting a live concert directly after the game featuring one my generation’s great bands: the Foo Fighters. I signed up, and although the platform temporarily overloaded from the 10,000 or so participants trying to get in, once I made it into the concert, I felt more certain than ever that the future was becoming the present. I was at a concert with people from around the globe in the middle of a deadly pandemic experiencing something that was not simply virtual, but very real. We began to socialize, dance, cheer, and use our new technology to cause confetti explosions and thumbs up emojis with our hands as we rocked hard to Gen-X 90s grunge.

When the drummer, Oliver Taylor Hawkins, died this spring, I thought back to this show. It has been playing on a loop in Horizon Events—which also provides five other event spaces featuring NBA basketball, MMA, other concerts, aerobics, VR nature movies, etc., and they go into a loop for a limited time after. I hopped in, changed into a virtual black jacket and tee, popped in a black earring, and joined others to memorialize this musician by watching him drum one of his last shows–a show that could only be seen in this virtual venue. I teared up seeing him. I searched his face for any indication that he might soon be found dead in a Columbian hotel. It was meaningful to be with other mourning fans. Although we were in our homes, we were together in a very real way.

VR is happening. With or without us. There are indicators that this may not go the way of other technological novelties. You can expect another blog on the topic when I implement VR in my workplace in some fashion–if only to knock off for a few minutes and play a wicked game of Eleven Table Tennis.

Me waiting in the Horizon Events lobby to see the Foo Fighters live after the Super Bowl