The Future of Work and Virtual Reality
Many thanks to Julia Diez for collaboration on the topic of virtual reality in the future of work context and for supporting the creation of this article.
How VR can shape our future of work
Several years ago, if you asked someone what they thought the future would look like, they would often talk about flying cars, the ability to beam anywhere and an infinite number of robots.
It is now 2022 and we are still far away from these scenarios. The world continues to evolve, but at its own pace and in its own direction. Trends that are dubbed revolutionary often disappeared as quickly as they emerged.
One technology trend that experienced its first hype back in the 90s and whose boom was predicted over 12 years ago is Virtual Reality.
It is already known that Virtual Reality has meanwhile revolutionized many things in the gaming world and catapulted the gaming experience to another level. In working life, however, things still look quite different. VR is not a foreign word for most people, but the technology seems to have only really arrived in a few areas.
How VR will influence our working lives and what potentials lie in the future development of the technology is the subject of the following article.
So, let’s take a look at what the future of our work may look like and what role VR will play in it. In the process, a question first arose: What defines the future of our work?
“According to the Society of Human Research Management, the future of work is a projection of how work, workers, and the workplace will evolve in the years ahead.”
Business and work life are the areas where Virtual Reality has already and will continue to have impact. In recent years, many industries have developed a taste for shifting some of their work content to the virtual world. Whether in medicine for the treatment of anxiety disorders, in the construction and furnishing industry for the planning of buildings and rooms or in the education and training sector. Many have already recognized the benefits of the technology.
In addition, our way of working is subject to constant changes or even disruptions due to digitization, accelerating innovation pace, but also crises or global challenges. The workforce itself is changing as well as new digitally savvy generations launching their careers which requires the companies to constantly reimagine the way of working to attract, retain, and delight top talent. And despite this volatile environment, business continuity, productivity, and efficiency as the basis for cutting-edge innovation – especially in the technology sector – need to be ensured as well. To achieve that, flexible work in a state-of-the-art environment is key.
“Let’s create an environment where teams can thrive and achieve great results together.”
Sabine Bendiek, Chief People & Operating Officer, Member of the Executive Board, SAP
So, to strive for a sustainable world with a healthy, strong, and motivated workforce, taking a holistic approach to health, safety, and well-being is the way to go for companies to keep shaping the future of work and the ways we work. As immersive technologies become more accessible to businesses, the metaverse and virtual worlds will offer some new ways to connect with talent, collaborate with each other, and to redesign or advance business applications.
VR and immersive technologies have already arrived in multiple industries, and the trend continues as the technology advances and enables the feasibility of business use cases that were not previously possible. Industries with immersive applications besides of course the gaming and entertainment industry are automotive, healthcare, retail, education, aerospace & defense, and manufacturing industry. In the following sections, some use cases of VR technology are described.
In life science industry, Virtual Reality is gaining ground in both therapeutic and medical fields. VR creates new dimensions for therapists and patients. Psychologists can accompany patients with fear of flying on virtual flights or patients with arachnophobia can overcome their fears in a virtual room full of these eight-legged friends. Doctors can try out new treatment techniques on virtual patients or prepare themselves immersively for serious surgeries. In addition, pain patients who are lying in hospital beds can swim with dolphins in VR and thus recover from their traumas – all this is already possible, while much more is in the pipeline with the continuous evolving technology.
A major growth driver is definitively the use of VR in the industry sector. Among other applications, the technology is used in prototyping. Complex and expensive mockups are no longer needed, which saves money and resources. The future with VR makes costly processes a lot easier, as the technology helps for example in production and assembly planning. More precise and effective planning processes using a VR tool can avoid dangerous work situations or physical damage caused by a lack of consideration of ergonomics. VR or AR can also help to get information onsite when an engineer is in the production plant and needs additional information about the different assets available or produced there. And in case that engineer is at the office, the digital twin of a machine, a production line or the whole facility, will provide detailed insights about what’s going on.
The use of VR for training and educational purposes is also noteworthy. Especially training for risky workplaces benefit from the possibilities of VR headsets in form of experiencing a safe environment while being onboarded. The healthcare industry is using these visual and controlled environments effectively to perform or diagnose the issue. Pilots or firefighters have been using the technology for a long time to train dangerous situations and to instruct their trainees. Work systems to be developed can be realistically simulated in VR and give employees the impression of their future working environment. The virtual scene appears in its natural size, technical processes can be reproduced as in real life.
Virtual Reality is also getting more interesting for everyday office life not least because home office is becoming more and more popular and common. The possibility to work together from different locations is a great advantage for many employees. However, the social aspect of work often falls by the wayside. Virtual Reality changes that. Through collaboration in the virtual world, we no longer only see the heads of our colleagues as the representation changes to avatars. We can interact with them, perceive to a certain degree their body language, and have the possibility to explore rooms, contents, and data together. VR makes remote work more social.
Virtual office environments and tools are already available and will continue to evolve. One example is the Infinite Office suite from Meta shown below, which is basically a collection of tools designed to create a virtual office space – so one is physically in the home office or in a remote location and virtually in the work office. To create such applications or the metaverse in general and especially for business- and industry contexts, companies are collaborating to drive integration and interoperability of tools and immersive environments.
Resulting from the partnerships like that of Microsoft and Meta for example, it won’t matter whether one using Microsoft Teams and another one is sitting virtually in a Meta Horizon Workroom. Both will be able to join the same meeting. So, collaboration & productivity in VR will be driven by enabling collaborators to feel equally present in a shared experience, no matter where they are or what technology they’re using. For more information about VR in work life, check out the Virtual Reality in Business blogpost.
With companies like Meta, Nvidia, Microsoft or Apple, the topics of immersive realities, corresponding research and developing associated devices have received more attention within the last few years. After Meta (Facebook back then) bought Oculus in 2014, the technology increasingly reached the market – first focusing on the gaming industry.
With the evolving technology also the development of further areas of application began for which immersive technologies could be beneficial and useful as well – like enterprises and business in general.
In September 2022, Meta started The Impact Will Be Real campaign in Europe to explore, which benefits and implications the metaverse could have on the digital economy within the next decade. It states that technologies like VR and metaverse could be associated with contributing about $440 billion to regional GDP, assuming similar growth as mobile technology. It remains to be seen whether this will actually develop in this way. Nevertheless, a new market is emerging that will also affect business and enterprises.
Obviously, no one can predict the future or say how things will play out within the next decade. The question remains as how the path for immersive technology might look like on its way into business and industry.
The following outlook is only a vision of how immersive technologies and their potential importance in the corporate context could develop.
Companies like SAP have already successfully implemented several showcases and proof-of-concepts using immersive technologies and brings those showcases to customers or on innovation fairs to explore that emerging market and getting feedback firsthand.
More and more customers show interest in the possibilities of immersive technologies like VR, AR or Mixed Reality to be utilized in new, innovative applications like digital twins of industrial assets for example, that allow the employees to virtually visit a plant to execute maintenance tasks – without the need of physically being onsite while the experience could be similar as to walking through the respective building.
Companies like Meta are iterating on their products and targeting business and enterprise contexts. Examples are the Infinite Office and Horizon Workrooms from Meta or RAUM VR to provide virtual office environment, respective tools and virtual collaboration. Furthermore, Meta launches its new Quest Pro VR headset for enterprise and business use cases end of October 2022.
For 2023, several companies are expected to release new products or successors of their current ones. Apple might enter the market with a dedicated AR device that could bring a more immersive experience to existing apps based on Apple ARKit. Towards the end of 2023, the successor of the famous Meta Quest 2 might enter the market.
In addition, the passthrough functionality of VR headsets like the Meta Quest Pro or the Varjo XR-3 supports Augmented Reality scenarios in great, business- and industry sufficient quality. When it comes to contrast and opacity of augmented objects, AR through these VR headsets tends to be at least on par, or rather better than with pure AR devices.
In the gaming-industry, VR will continue to be pushed as well with the release of Sony’s PSVR2 device for the PlayStation 5 which brings VR gaming to the next level in terms of graphics-quality, handling, performance, and immersion overall.
Companies will continue exploring immersive technologies to increase adoption into the business context. With increasing customer demands to make business more immersive, flexible, and collaborative, enterprises start considering VR as part of their future strategies.
Beyond showcases and proof of concepts with customers in the previous years, first customer projects target productive usages of immersive technologies that are expected to integrate seamlessly in the existing ecosystem of enterprise software and products.
Since new technologies always have their teething problems at the beginning, it is no different in the business context. Overcoming security, authentication, or certification issues to achieve secure and robust use of the new technology critical to the digital and self-determined identity of enterprise users is key to moving to production readiness.
In the day-to-day business of 2023, an increasing number of meetings will take place in virtual collaboration environments like RAUM VR or Horizon Workrooms while integration with established collaboration tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams will become available as well. On the experience side, the virtual avatars will reach their next level with being able to make eye-contact and to transport facial expressions as the latest generation of VR hardware like the Oculus Quest Pro comes with eye- and facial expression tracking.
As immersive technologies continue to enter the enterprise and evolve from niche applications or showcases to operational applications, companies plan to implement immersive applications and solutions in their roadmaps to expand existing portfolios and to develop new products.
Meanwhile, several customer projects using the new immersive technology- and application stacks are live and enable companies and their employees to extend their workday with applications in VR or AR. This development is also supported by the fact that more and more everyday work applications are becoming available as VR or AR versions in addition to their traditional ones.
Working in virtual or augmented realities and developing appropriate solutions requires dedicated devices like VR headsets, AR glasses or a combination of both. Since immersive technologies are becoming more and more part of everyday work, the corresponding hardware can now also be obtained via the normal purchasing process in companies just like laptops and screens.
Another type of controller respectively way of triggering certain actions in virtual environments or applications in general becomes available – right at one’s wrist. Using electromyography (EMG) for tracking motor-neural signals via a wristband, gestures and even conscious micro-movements of wearer’s hand can be recognized and interpreted for the application context, the user is currently in. An example which was still in research in 2022 is Meta’s EMG wristband.
In the second half of the decade, larger enterprises introduce solutions and products based on immersive technologies in their portfolios, which means immersive applications and dedicated devices are becoming more and more established in the market and everyday work. VR and AR have become an important part of many business applications and industries while their importance continues to grow alongside legacy devices such as laptops and traditional screens.
Confirming this trend, for some business applications – especially collaborative ones – the preference of using desktop versions almost completely shifted to their immersive versions. Furthermore, the increasing number of live customer solutions including VR or AR scenarios integrated into established business applications and ecosystems confirm the acceptance and demand in the market. Immersive solutions – especially in VR – for business have become an important economic growth factor for companies.
Technologically, the next generation of VR glasses will also mark the next step in the evolution of avatars as photorealistic “Codec Avatars” (Meta term) will enter the virtual environments to bring digital identity to a new level in terms of self-identification. As long as avatars had artificial looks, it was just some digital asset to represent the user. With avatars really looking like their users, they will identify themselves even more with their virtual representation.
Furthermore, the ergonomics of VR devices have continued to improve in terms of weight, optics and battery life. This enables users to wear them for a longer period of time with reduced tendency of eye fatigue known from previous generations.
Employees spend at least a third of their working day (depending on their role) in the virtual office or attend remote meetings which now mostly take place in virtual environments. Physical screens are still present, but can now be ergonomically replaced with three large, virtual screens in the VR office. Corresponding VR hardware was seamlessly integrated into existing office equipment.
Customer meetings mainly take place in appealing virtual environments, which further reduces travel time and travel expenses in the business context while having a meeting experience with photorealistic avatars, that’s close to reality.
Various industries have also established VR technologies. In addition to office applications, many maintenance and monitoring tasks have been transferred into virtual realities and can now be carried out there based on digital twins of entire buildings, industrial plants and machines. Where in the past field technicians had to physically visit a power plant to check machines, this is now done in VR. Vice versa, field engineers that are onsite, can attend meetings in person virtually without the need of first getting back to the office.
Back to the Present
The future of work under the influence of new technologies, possible paradigm shifts, and the already constant changes is difficult to outline. With new hardware generations like the Meta Quest Pro starting Q4 2022, the focus on business use and related business applications will increase as more companies and industries explore or embrace the possibilities of immersive technologies.
It remains to be seen whether screen work will have a significant VR or AR share in 5 to 10 years from now. The technology may be disrupting the way we work today, and VR headsets will become as commonplace as a 30-inch display in front of us. Equally well, the technology can only assert itself in some industries and businesses for certain use cases or it will remain in a niche until the development of technology and optics has progressed significantly further. The latter for example could be the case in the gaming industry where VR is already available for years but without a major breakthrough so far. This could change when Sony introduces its second generation of VR headsets (PS VR2) for the PlayStation which marks a big leap in terms of quality, handling and immersive experience overall.
In 2006 almost everyone had a mobile phone. A bit later that decade, Apple introduced the first iPhone. Not even 10 years later, almost nobody has a usual mobile phone anymore. Instead, the smart ones took over the market. Whether VR for business and work has similar potential is to be seen – we will all be there live!
Stay tuned: more about digital innovation and technologies