Microsoft and Facebook believe that the future of collaboration lies in a virtual office where employees meet to regain a sense of presence and lost camaraderie in remote work.
This month, Facebook has launched its virtual reality collaboration product, Horizon Workrooms, in open beta. The app uses Facebook Oculus Quest 2 VR headsets to place remote workers in the same virtual space, where they interact using 3D avatars.
In the spring, Microsoft released a preview of its Augmented Reality (RA) and VR platform, Mesh. Microsoft highlighted the potential of technology for business collaboration, demonstrating how workers could come together to discuss product design while viewing a full-size 3D model as a reference.
Industry observers said it would be years before the technology is refined enough for widespread use by businesses. When it is, however, companies could use virtual collaboration to save money on real estate and office travel, while retaining some of the benefits of meeting in person.
Technology companies are positioning themselves to benefit from an expanding market. Research firm IDC projects that spending on AR and VR will grow 54% annually, from $ 12 billion in 2020 to about $ 73 billion in 2024. IDC believes that training and industrial maintenance will drive growth, and that each will cost $ 2024 million.
Greg Sullivan, director of mixed reality at Microsoft, said he sees artificial reality and virtual reality as part of the continued evolution of technology toward ease of use. He cited the change in the MS-DOS command prompt in the Windows graphical user interface as an example of this trend.
“This simple transition made computing much more accessible to a large number of people who were intimidated by the command line,” he said, adding that virtual reality and AR represent a similar transition.
Some companies have already taken their first steps into the virtual world, believing that its benefits are beyond video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Teams. The Accenture consultancy is one of these companies. It uses Microsoft’s AltspaceVR platform to create the “Nth Floor,” a simulated office space for training, recruiting new employees, and conducting corporate events.
Jason Warnke, head of Accenture’s digital experience, said the company never had a corporate campus and relied heavily on collaborative tools to keep its staff connected. In fact, the business is considered the largest business user of Microsoft Teams. He said virtual reality seemed like the next step for collaboration; therefore, it made sense for Accenture to experiment with these technologies.
Warnke emphasized the use of virtual reality to build business culture and foster a sense of presence. For example, Accenture usually holds its incorporation sessions at conference centers or hotels, offering new employees the opportunity to interact in person with their colleagues. When COVID avoided such large meetings, the company used virtual collaboration to bring together new employees.
“[The VR onboarding] it feels like when we could walk into a hotel and there would be the main presenter on stage, but you could chat with your neighbor, ”Warnke said.
Virtual world provider Virbela believes that a sense of presence and the benefits of creating a virtual reality culture can be cost-effective for businesses. The company’s co-founder, Alex Howland, cited the example of Virbela’s sister company, eXp Realty, which has a virtual headquarters provided by Virbela rather than a physical one.
“His [eXp’s] the economic model makes sense because they don’t have that fixed cost of brick and mortar, but they still have that sense of community and culture, “he said.” We think it’s very important from a cultural point of view to have that human connection and to feel like you’re there together. “
However, the technology is not yet ready for the company. While employees can access virtual worlds through their desktop computers, VR and AR headphones provide the most immersive experience. Sullivan said Microsoft is committed to bringing VR and AR to various types of devices, including smartphones and tablets. However, he acknowledged that the experience would not necessarily be equivalent.
“If you drive on the back of a rickshaw, it’s different from riding on the back of a Rolls-Royce,” he said.
Like Rolls-Royces, VR headsets are expensive. Facebook is charging $ 799 for the business version of its Oculus VR headphones, while Microsoft’s Hololens 2 starts at $ 3,500. It is questionable whether companies will buy the devices on a large scale.
Warnke said Accenture provided headphones to the test groups, but he doesn’t think that will always be the case. He expects costs to be reduced and employees will one day use their personal headsets to securely connect to the corporate network.
“We’ll probably feel more pain in front of us than the others behind us,” Warnke said of Accenture’s early adoption of the technology. “We know we have to do it first, so we can help our customers do it.”
Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen said he expects virtual collaboration to complement, not replace, other business communication tools such as video conferencing and chat. Over time, employees will pick up headphones and choose to meet in a virtual space when it best suits their needs.
“I think these kinds of experiences are an inevitability,” he said. Still, he added that there are still years to go. “Over time, I think we’ll see a more widely applicable version of virtual reality, but I think we’re a long way from that.”
Forrester Research analyst JP Gownder said technology companies want their collaboration tools to look more realistic than Zoom, Teams and Webex video boxes.
“A little bit of [the companies] it will fail, but it is the flourishing of experimentation and creativity that will lead to success at some point, “he said.” The reason I’m a believer is that I think a model of naturalistic interaction is needed for a world that is likely to be permanently less office-focused. “
Mike Gleason is a reporter covering unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the Massachusetts MetroWest region for Milford Daily News, Walpole Times, Sharon Advocate i Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and has been the editorial editor of Patch. It can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.