We were promised avatars.
It seems silly, I know, as we sit here contemplating how many systems are failing us during this deadly epidemic, to focus on the failures of virtual reality.
But here in the San Francisco Bay Area, office lights are winking out one by one as businesses send their employees home to work, and everyone’s talking about Zoom and Microsoft Teams and Hangouts. We all know these tools don’t work that well. We can all predict the frustration and miscommunications they will cause over the next few weeks or months (or more?) of remote employment. As this future sails ever closer, I can’t help but think: Weren’t we supposed to have virtual reality in the workplace by now?
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Just a few short years ago, the tech news was full of stories about how VR was going to transform work. We’d do collaborative white-boarding in virtual conference rooms; our avatars would interact germlessly but seamlessly; and somehow, incredibly, with real presence. Virtual meetings would be just as good as face-to-face ones, except your eye rolls and grimaces would happen in your home as a heavy headset slid down your sweaty nose.
This, with a few exceptions which I’ll discuss later, has not come to pass. In fact, like so many of the promises of virtual reality, this has deeply not come to pass. We’re in the midst of what appears to be a profound shift in how we work; and yet decentralizing technology like VR hasn’t yet progressed past the point of giving us slightly-less-annoying conference calls. Zoom’s primary innovation is the one-tap dial-in that actually enters the conference code so you don’t have to. Compared to the avatar high-fives we were supposed to have by now, this is a little embarrassing. Video meetings are fine, I guess, as long as everyone can get the video working.
True story: At my office we recently convened a meeting about how to plan for remote work scenarios as the new coronavirus spreads to Los Angeles and New York; the organizers forgot to start the Zoom meeting, and then couldn’t get it working, decided it was too much work, and said they’d fill in the team in New York later.
We have so, so far to go.
Given the breathless articles of even two short years ago, I’d have thought that, by now, scientists around the world would be virtually collaborating on a coronavirus vaccine by squeezing droplets of virtual blood into simulated petri dishes and projecting their analyses, hologram-style, onto digital walls. Maybe the accumulated data of all those scientists’ work would slide into view like the miles of weapons and other necessities that snap into place when Neo visits the Matrix training program. We were literally supposed to have smell-o-vision.
As the Los Angeles Times pointed out recently, the closest we’ve ever gotten to this future is in Second Life.
VR fans (and some companies) will tell me progress has been made. Some training and support programs are happening digitally, for instance. HTC, Google, and Facebook-owned Oculus are all selling or developing VR headsets for the workplace. Yes, they’re great for flight simulations—I heard you! Analysts predict that despite a slow start, the use of VR in health care, architecture, retail, construction, and engineering purchases will all start to pick up very soon. This will all be helped along by the arrival—any day now, really–of 5G, leading to a VR boom by 2024.
ABI Research principal analyst Michael Inouye told Computer Weekly just last month, in fact, that “virtual meetings and productivity will become increasingly common as hardware and platforms improve and evolve.” OK, but based on similar quotes from analysts in 2014, it seems like we should be quite a bit more evolved.
Oh, and yes, I realize that augmented reality is the hot new thing—that we’ll soon combine a virtual workplace with some basic awareness of the world around us, so we don’t have to worry about walking into walls, for example. The best of both mostly nonexistent worlds. That’s the newest thing coming from the Google Glass division, according to a weirdly prescient flurry of future VR product announcements made in February.
I mention all of this not just to dunk on the perpetual overpromise that is virtual reality, although that is giving me a perverse pleasure this late in the evening. The point is that depending on how long these work closures last, and how severe the virus gets, and how much remote work starts to happen across the country and even the world, we may find ourselves reevaluating how (and maybe even why) we go to work. And we’re going to find that we need a lot more technology.
The internet era was supposed to free us from drudgery of all sorts. We wouldn’t have to cluster together in increasingly expensive cities on the coasts (all the better to spread viruses in). We could do customer service, collaboration, training, talent acquisition, prototyping, advertising—anything, really, and from anywhere—all thanks to tools like email, virtual reality, augmented reality, and telepresence robots.
Truth be told, we’ve mostly used such tech innovations to outsource customer service. According to research released just last month, about 3.4 percent of the US workforce works remotely. That is a lot of humans, but it’s a very small proportion of the workforce, considering what might have been achieved by this point in the digital revolution. Despite the hopes of greater geographic diversity, the reality these days is that most people who work remotely are highly paid employees in high-income areas. The norm for most people, other than a day or two of WFH perks each week, is cold, clammy offices and long commutes.
But necessity may be the mother of kickstarting this tech in the rear. It’s possible that we can never replace the simple face-to-face meeting; the sharing of pheromones and eye contact; a meal; a coffee; a walking meeting. But whether it’s on account of the novel coronavirus or just the housing crunch in a few overcrowded and absurdly expensive cities, we’re going to need something better than a better conference call. The time to evolve is now.