Going to Work in VR Will Actually Be Pretty Great—We Swear
Video conferencing is awkward. You can’t make eye contact. You end up keeping your head unnaturally still so you can see the monitor. And that little box with your face in the middle reminds you how quickly you’re aging.
But according to some workplace utopianists, you won’t have to rely on video conferencing for much longer. Microsoft, Magic Leap, Facebook and a host of other companies are developing wearable face computers that may well banish the 2-D computers of today to museum exhibits of offices past. Rather than slogging through traffic to the office, you’ll sign into mixed and virtual reality spaces to collaborate with peers via 3-D avatars.
“My dream is for us to look back at my dad’s hour-long commute each way in a row of boxes the way we look back smoking in hospital beds,” says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
In this idealistic future of work you will communicate via digital personae that look, sound, and act like your professional selves—but better. Restless leg syndrome or resting bitch face? Filter them out with algorithms! While you’re at it, let’s get you into a nicer shirt.
Maybe the virtual workplace of tomorrow will allow everyone to do away with the distracting self-presentation that takes up so much time. Instead, you’ll all project consummate professionalism while wearing ice cream-stained jammies at 2pm IRL. Once your perfect avatar is set, you can focus on actually doing your job.
Crossing the Divide
Versions of this already exists. A week ago, Philip Rosedale launched the sandbox version of High Fidelity, a VR world not unlike Second Life, which Rosedale founded in 2003. The same day, AltspaceVR, a startup backed by Google Ventures, announced a Slack plugin for its VR conferencing product, VR Call. (Think the VR version of Giphy—just type /vrcall.) These are other tools out, and more coming.
To those already using social networks professionally, VR meetings may not seem like a huge leap once employers buy the headsets. But the Luddites of the world will take longer to warm up to the idea, but will come around once they see how much time it buys them for, say, picking up the kids or getting to the gym because leaving the office will be as simple as logging off.
More trepidatious VR workers might opt for products like AltspaceVR, whose avatars steer clear of the “uncanny valley.” AltspaceVR’s avatars are cautiously cartoonish, reminiscent of Pixar’s 2015 film Inside Out. They feature 90 customizable features, like skin and eye color, so people can feel like themselves in VR. But the avatars look more like wonky robots than people to avoid turning anyone off with poorly executed realism.
“In VR every detail you add heightens the experience. But if you add something wrong the brain is only able to focus on what’s wrong,” says Eric Romo, CEO of AltspaceVR. The company’s received $15.7 million in three rounds of funding.
High Fidelity’s avatars, on the other hand, jump over the valley altogether. The company used 91 cameras (total cost: $100,000) to photograph two models in underwear to accurately mold and cast their VR copies. “Our aspiration is to create a really photorealistic looking person so it’ll be like looking into the virtual mirror,” Rosedale says. “The more that looks like a real person, the more stunningly compelling it is to use it.”
He might not be crazy to think so. Bailenson says growing anecdotal evidence suggests photorealism in VR isn’t too far off. It’s possible that the versions of themselves that people present in VR might not be much different from their real selves.
Comfortable in Our Skins
In many ways, putting forward your more perfect digital self is something people increasingly are comfortable with. You probably remember how awkward it felt uploading your first profile photo. According to Techinfographics, people upload more than one million #selfies every 24 hours. An Instagram search for #selfie yields more than 289 million results. Photoshop and plastic surgery, once reserved for the rich and famous, have become commonplace. Fashion magazines and the Kardashians have made vector graphics, filters, and photo editing apps like Perfect365 and FaceTune quotidian. If you’re not physically editing your photos you’re still choosing which photo to upload (the one from your good angle), and which photo to leave no digital trace of (the one that US Customs and Border Protection machine snapped after your 15-hour flight from Spain).
“Even the passive filtering demonstrates that people really don’t like showing you how they actually look right now,” Bailenson says.
In other words, if the medium allows for the right kind of self-tweaking, a lot of people will make it part of their selfie repertoires. From Snapchat selfies to Instagram photo filters to LinkedIn, so many of us are virtualizing ourselves anyway. Taking that process to the full-immersion frontier kind of feels like a natural progression. As we workers become comfortable in our VR bodies, the gap created by the uncanny valley may start to close. Virtual work will just be work. And commuting will be as simple as taking off the headset.