Covid-19 has been a very busy time for Jeremy Dalton, leader of PricewaterhouseCooper’s VR/AR team. As the challenges of a working world without international travel or even physical workshops became apparent, inquiries flooded in. But while there’s a lot of excitement around virtual, augmented and mixed reality, it’s fair to say that lockdown hasn’t led to a mass adoption or implementation of the technology. For the world in 2020, videoconferencing platforms have been the tool of choice for remote working – but what Covid-19 has done is opened the business world up to the possibility and potential of VR.
For one thing, we don’t know how long the disease itself will require businesses to close or re-close offices. For another, the possibility of new pandemics feels rather more real. Disease aside, it’s also likely that straitened economic conditions and the continued drive for businesses to be more environmentally sustainable may drive many to drastically cut costly international travel. And, if the past six months have taught businesses anything, it’s that rapid adoption of new technologies and platforms en masse and at speed, across a workforce is more achievable than they might have imagined.
“Now it's a much easier conversation and people are more open to this technology. They're more open to the idea of using it for remote working. That itself is a great win,” says Jeremy. “If nobody believes in VR and AR, nobody's willing to try it. Then the industry is dead. However, the more people that are open minded about it, the more people that try it.”
Virtual Reality Gets Real
PwC has been fielding increased interest and inquiries into VR and AR from clients in 2020, though that’s been matched with an increase in the number of VR projects the consultancy rejects. They don’t see portraying virtual or augmented reality as a silver bullet or capitalising on initial, kneejerk panic from industry as a productive route forward. And, for now, there are many cases where current videoconferencing platforms work well enough. Moreover, the investment of acquiring headsets and getting a workforce comfortable with the tech needs to deliver actual value.
That being said, this summer Jeremy’s team has been experimenting with a hybrid virtual office, one that can be accessed by laptop screens, augmented reality headsets like the Microsoft Hololens, and VR headsets like Oculus. The platform they’ve designed is Spatial and has been designed to make people feel that, although they’re working remotely, they feel like they’re inhabiting a shared pseudo-physical environment together. Co-workers appear as digital avatars and depending on whether one has a VR or AR headset, they appear within a CG environment or pop up in your living room.
“The real benefits of this way of working is that humans are very social creatures,” says Jeremy. “Part of the equation of connecting is when we can share a space together or share an experience together more generally. This technology allows you to have that sense that you are sharing an experience and a space with others, that you've got something that connects you together, that you can talk about.”
Augmenting Your Meetings
Understanding when to deploy these technologies and tools is teasing apart the different outcomes that are possible on say, a Slack channel versus a Zoom call. Where VR excels is the ability to facilitate the kind of live, whiteboard brain storming that’s a cornerstone of consultancies like PWC – replicating that physicality and the utility of sharing ideas in a three dimensional space. And that applies to other sectors too, from architecture to automotive.
“When it comes to, ‘when should you use VR and AR technologies?’, one of the answers is when you've got some sort of spatial visual element to it. So you're trying to design a vehicle, building the interior of a house and you want a large number of stakeholders to see that or experience that vision as close to reality as possible, but without having to spend the resources and the time that you would to get that going in the physical world.”
Jeremy talks enthusiastically about the physicality that VR workspaces offer. As most of us have been chained to our laptops throughout lockdown, typing into shared Google docs with the constant, distracting presence of one’s web browser, the prospect of wielding a marker pen and writing in a shared space is appealing. Add to that the extra functionality that comes in a digital space – the ability to move and swipe and position items without being confined by the rules of physics. You can also bring in Google documents, PDFs, videos and digital spreadsheets, combining them with the looser virtual whiteboards – allowing groups to overcome the faff of switching between paper sheets and laptop screens during brainstorming or ideation sessions.
Not only is the VR team working on requests from external clients, they’ve also been busy implementing the technology internally. And it’s not just to test or showcase meetings in VR – teams are using VR to facilitate meetings on real client projects. Jeremy’s team is based in the UK but they’ve been getting engagement from PWC offices across the globe, from Canada, Italy, Spain, Australia and Dubai. The consultancy sees this technology as a long term prospect for the business.
“It's not just about lock down. We don't know the shape of the pandemic, and we don't know how easy or difficult travel's going to be for at least the next year, really realistically. So there is like a longer tail,” he says. “I'd say on that point, VR and AR is, is not just for Christmas… It's not just for Covid either!”
On a practical level, these internal sessions have run more smoothly than Jeremy had hoped. “I have been quite impressed by the willingness of lots of teams to engage with virtual reality from a workshop perspective,” he says, describing a 20-person session where most of the participants had never used VR before. One key worry for Jeremy was that they might struggle setting up the headsets on their own, without his team on hand to physically help them – but it turned out to be pretty straightforward for the non-experts to navigate from home.
Avatars and Other Sticking Points
Looking further into the future of VR and AR in the workplace, there are some interesting challenges on the horizon. For now, the challenge is helping people adapt to the technology and weaning them off the traditional office set up. However, the unignorable Gen-Z has grown up accustomed to socialising and collaborating in online, virtual environments – and a summer of lockdown has made that truly mainstream. The virtual shared spaces of the past – The World of Warcraft or Second Life for example – were pretty niche and nerdy. Compare that to the island worlds of Animal Crossing and Fortnite.
What happens when the next generation enters the workplace with their own view of what professionalism in the virtual workplace looks like? Will businesses allow their employees to adopt creative, expressive avatars? Or will they be smooth and simple, or even photorealistic? One person’s creepy, uncanny valley-inhabiting dead-eyed zombie is another’s sober and non-distracting place marker.
"How do you represent yourself digitally?" says Jeremy. "Some people really like the idea that you could be very abstract and cartoony. Um, but other people don't connect to those types of advertisers. And they say, well, I don't want to talk to a cartoon. Some people would say, I want to see those realistic looking avatars, other people find those too creepy. And they're like, ‘no, this is just weird.' The facial expression, doesn't quite feel right. Uncanny Valley sort of stuff. I don't think we have a conclusion on that necessarily, and I think that shows by the number of platforms that have different approaches to this."
Another longer term challenge is that VR or AR might be able to address the lack of spontaneity that has plagued remote working. Recreating those water cooler moments won’t be easy, though potential solutions maybe creating social ‘rooms’ within a VR environment, where spatial audio can ensure that one-to-one or group discussions are kept within a group, or AR headsets, that allow people to be present in their physical environment but with colleague avatars milling around in the distance. And, a level of complexity up from that is the prospect of virtual reality conferences, where people can attend talks but also navigate networking events held in virtual worlds. Thanks to Covid-19 Facebook’s annual VR conference was held entirely in virtual reality – and on August 22nd, DC Entertainment is due to host its first ever comic convention within the virtual world of Fortnite.
It’s still early days – and the conversation in many workplaces has now turned to when or whether it will be safe to return to the office. But the experience of lockdown has opened business’s eyes to the practicality and potential of a technology which had, until now, languished as the novelty wore off. So while Covid-19 hasn’t seen a mass implementation of VR, it has dumped a whole load of fuel into the adoption curve.