When autonomous driving company Five wanted to tell its staff about its latest re-brand, it decided to ditch the Zoom call.
Instead, workers were invited into a virtual “game” world built specifically for them. Using software called Gather.Town, staff could walk their avatar over to a colleague and immediately start a conversation.
“You entered this virtual world and you could chat to the people next to you, but people four or five rows away were too far away to chat to,” says Stan Boland, the company’s chief executive.
“I think people had forgotten how much they had missed meeting each other and it really was much, much better than we had expected.” The company had around 160 people gathered in the space that also had a virtual games room and a beach bar.
Five staff are among a vast array of workers across the country that have been ported from their make-shift offices into a virtual world.
Last year, Swiss bank UBS issued Microsoft HoloLens smart glasses to a select group of London traders to see whether they could use it to combat the loneliness of working from home and recreate the buzz of a trading floor.
Such virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets allow users to see and interact with others in the same digital space, such as a trading floor. Movements, such as turning one's head, correspond with how the person's avatar moves in the space.
In the oil and gas industry Baker Hughes is using it to simulate its facilities within training rooms. BP has done similar in its efforts to recreate the conditions faced during drilling activities.
Meanwhile surgeons are making use of an extra pair of eyes through British-based Proximie . The VR kit allows surgeons from anywhere in the world to "scrub in" and share insights about the ongoing operation.
Consulting firms like PwC and Deloitte are also part of a host of big name businesses banking on the commercial success of VR.
“Because we use a virtual office, and because there are avatars, it does allow you to bump into colleagues in a way you can’t do in organised video conferencing,” says Ed Greig, Deloitte’s chief disruptor.
"When designing offices, people now look to increase the 'collision coefficient' that allows different teams to bump into each other and have casual conversations that can often spark new ideas.”
Deloitte’s virtual office has seen its usage spike since the start of the pandemic. Greig says the technology was “small-scale experimental” before the pandemic but that the pandemic had “massively accelerated” it use.
UK-based VR firm Mesmerise hopes to take advantage of the advent of remote working that has been driven by the pandemic.
"We envisage a future where virtual reality is a critical part of working from home," says Andrew Hawken, the Mesmerise chief executive and co-founder.
"So when you book a meeting or an event, you'll have a VR headset on your desk and will be able to join a meeting in VR as quickly as picking up your phone."
In September, the company hosted hundreds of people in its "Gatherings" virtual space for the annual conference of financial services giant Morningstar.
New use cases for both virtual and augmented reality are cropping up repeatedly and seem some distance from a technology that was originally pigeonholed in gaming.
"Don't let past experiences and outdated perceptions of these technologies shape your thinking," said Louise Liu, PwC's head of operations, in the company's "Seeing is Believing" report on the sector .
PwC has tipped VR and AR to add $1.5 trillion (£1.07 trillion) to the global economy by 2030. In the UK alone, the technologies could add up to $69.3 billion to the country's gross domestic product and enhance more than 400,000 jobs.
"Headsets are now lighter, cheaper and more comfortable to use and there are significant improvements being made around the field-of-view, resolution and software," PwC said.
Price has long been a stumbling block to adoption but the recent release of the Facebook-owned Oculus Quest 2 hopes to alleviate that. The Quest 2 was released in October with a £300 price tag, a sizable reduction on the $600 cost associated with the first Oculus headset from 2016.
For Mesmerise's Hawken the adoption of VR will only become more widespread as the technology becomes more affordable and more efficient.
"The earliest adopters are most likely to be global businesses, whose events calendars have been displaced by the pandemic and who don't want to lose the ability of being able to engage with their global workforce in a more intimate setting," he says.
Among those early adopters is professional services firm Deloitte, which already uses VR for training and to on-board new employees.
"Initially we were looking at immersive collaboration tools as a way to reduce business travel," says Deloitte’s Greig.
"Over the past year, it has been a way to provide a change of environment for teams working together, to stimulate different ideas, inspire new ways of thinking, while also relieving traditional video-conferencing fatigue."
Indeed the future of work is likely to rely on a host of new technologies to try to create some level of togetherness among employees that are widely dispersed.
Holograms are another technology that is increasingly making its way into the workplace . Once the preserve of Star Wars and bringing dead musicians back to life, holograms are now being used by companies like Canada-based AHRT Media to "beam" presenters into real-life meetings and conferences that they may not have been able to attend. Other firms like Spatial meanwhile rely on holograms from inside virtual environments.
In the short-term, VR is likely to have the more pronounced effect and according to Mesmerise's Hawken it will soon be thought of in the same way cloud computing is, ubiquitous.
"There are no tail lights to follow right now – it's about creating an entire new category – and that's very exciting."
Will virtual reality revolutionise working from home? Tell us in the comments section below
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