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Coronavirus sent us home. Will VR bring us back together?

Companies have been speeding adoption of VR and AR solutions during the pandemic. Will they stick around once life returns to normal?

An office party in VR

Is this what the future of office parties look like? Spatial thinks so.

Photo: Courtesy of Spatial

The pandemic could've been VR's moment.

With work teams around the world stuck at home, Zoom and other video-chatting services exploded. That same wave might have been caught by immersive systems that can connect you with your colleagues and replicate some of the finer details of the office, the lab or the factory floor. But in reality, VR systems have remained a niche product (mostly explored by gamers), and their AR counterparts even more so. And COVID-19 crumbling supply chains didn't help.

Even still, in this time of startling transformation, some companies have launched or accelerated efforts to get workers collaborating in virtual environments from the comfort of their homes. While they've found enterprise communication tools to be invaluable, chatting on Slack, Zoom or Microsoft Teams doesn't have the same impact as sitting in one room in front of a whiteboard.

When offices open back up, some teams say, they may ditch the physical office for VR spaces.

Earlier this month, Spatial, a VR meeting-room tool, announced that it was opening up its platform to just about any VR or AR headset, as well as people calling in on regular computer webcams. When I set up a meeting to talk about the shifting future of the technology with co-founder and CEO Anand Agarawala, he invited me to talk in one of Spatial's meeting rooms. I used an Oculus Quest headset the company provided, while Agarawala connected through his own rig at home. A member of the company's communications team dialed in on her computer, clicking a link and diving in, as you would on a Zoom call.

Agarawala took me through a slideshow he'd loaded into the room, showing me still images of new meeting spaces the company is designing — which I could walk right up to, take off the wall and enlarge. He showed me how to use the search tool, which lets you find images or 3D models that are available online (or that you've uploaded yourself). After we searched for cheeseburgers (it was lunchtime, to be fair), we blew up giant 3D burgers and left them hanging in mid-air. There was also a model of a T. rex sitting on a chair, just because.

Agarawala said companies are using the rooms as a way of seeking a bit of the shared joy that might've come out of a company all-hands or happy hour.

Filling the collaborative void

But Spatial isn't just about fun. Agarawala showed me a feature that teams are using to design new products, in which they can make annotations on virtual models that stay with the model even as it's manipulated. He showed me backpacks that designers had been working on in the app; given that my avatar had arms, I could actually try on the bags.

Some companies, including BNP Paribas Real Estate, have been using Spatial for a while to convene teams spread around the world. Others, such as the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine at Cornell's medical school, have adopted it to cope with stay-at-home orders. Alexandros Sigaras, a professor and researcher at the institute, told Protocol that after his lab shifted its focus to hunting treatments for COVID-19, researchers and clinicians began using Spatial as a way to remain connected.

Cornell COVID meeting in VR The Cornell team looking at their COVID-19 work in Spatial.Photo: Alexandros Sigaras/Weill Cornell Medicine

"It creates this brainstorming room that I could prepare my battle plan, put all the literature, all the scientific publications for the hypothesis that we want to test next," Sigaras said. "And in tandem to that, I can bring all of my clinicians in that very same room and brainstorm together."

Clinicians in hospital wards at Cornell are using Microsoft HoloLens 2 or Magic Leap AR headsets. They wrap the devices in protective equipment, which allows them to stay linked to remote colleagues while doing rounds, Sigaras said. His team has built custom medical AR and VR apps over the last six years, enabling doctors to visualize cancer genes or how drugs interact with specific cancers. Now, Spatial has become a place to convene to think of ways to combat coronavirus.

"It is essentially to bring all the people in sync because we already have that hardware — they could be in their office and log in, and even if they join a few minutes late, they will be able to see all the work that's being portrayed," Sigaras said. "It's not like a share-screen scenario, but more of a share-world scenario."

Protocol editor Mike Murphy, at right in glasses, interviews Spatial CEO Anand Agarawala in a virtual space.Video: Courtesy of Spatial

Even before the pandemic, multinational corporations struggled to connect their employees in productive ways. "It's a major challenge just for us to interact with each other," Kevin Cardona, head of innovation at BNP Paribas' real estate division, said. Conscious of the carbon footprint of constant overseas flights to broker corporate deals, BNP looked into VR as a way to bring teams as well as clients together. Spatial allows agents to develop 3D models that they can manipulate and even make life-size, allowing them and their clients to walk through the building or office. "It's great in PowerPoint — it's better in 3D," Cardona said.

Beyond the meeting

Other companies are using this moment to develop new ways of working. On March 13, soon after Ford told workers they wouldn't be coming back to the office the following Monday, the company's VP of design, Moray Callum, asked Design Manager Michael Smith how soon he could get VR technology into employees' houses. The automaker had been using VR for design reviews for a while, but the sessions were primarily in the office, rather than remote. "COVID came along and hit the accelerator pedal on the initiative," Smith said.

Ford uses an Autodesk program called VRED to review photo-realistic renditions of future vehicle models in VR. Much like Spatial, you can make notes, and people are represented as avatars. "You suddenly get stuff back that you missed," Smith said of virtual meetings. "Now you have emotive movements, you have people pointing or throwing their hands up saying like, 'What gives?' or, 'Come over here!'"

VR can't replace the physicality of clay modeling, which Ford still uses in its design work. But Smith's team is researching technologies that might bring some of that hands-on artistry to digital work, such as haptic-feedback gloves, and programs like Gravity Sketch, which allows users to turn rough VR sketches into product designs. "That's an example where it's quite literally creating cars in VR together," Smith said. "We make 3D cars — we don't sell two-dimensional pictures."

Ford Mustang Mach-E in VR Checking out the new electric Ford Mustang design in VR.Image: Courtesy of Ford

There are other VR companies looking to capitalize on the remote-work trend. Primitive, for example, lets VR users review code as a group to see potential points of failure. Doghead Simulations offers Rumii, The Wild and AltspaceVR for social collaboration and visualization. Venture capital dollars appear to be flowing back into VR at a rate not seen since the earliest days, before Facebook bought Oculus, suggesting that more solutions for existing together virtually are in the pipeline.

Limitations, for now

Part of the reason VR has not made a true pandemic splash is that, for all the advances of products like Spatial, there remain limitations in what the software, and the hardware it's running on, can provide. My avatar in Spatial, created by uploading an old Twitter profile photo and overlaying it on a 3D model, looked extremely disturbed. My glasses wrapped around my face, and my hair stopped about a third of the way back on the top of my head, like Brazilian striker Ronaldo. (Also, I was in black and white, because I didn't realize I was supposed to use a color photo.)

Moreover, most headsets on the market today are bulky and "socially awkward," according to Munjeet Singh, transformation SVP at the consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton. He told me we're likely to see only incremental improvements over the next few years, which jibes with what chipmaker Arm recently told Protocol. Most headsets on the market range from around $500 to $3,500, with the highest-resolution headsets from Varjo costing nearly $10,000. While that might be an acceptable add-on IT cost for corporate executives, it adds up when rank-and-file staff are considered.

Until the tech improves, VR and AR headsets are going to be a tough sell for all-day work. They need to be light enough to wear for hours and high-resolution enough that you don't strain your eyes reading text through the built-in displays — and without this, they likely won't be ready for the mainstream. Singh projects, though, that we're not far away from that. By mid-2022, he said, smaller form-factor devices should start hitting the market. "If this pandemic had happened two, three years from now, I think VR/AR would be having its heyday," Singh said.

Is the future virtual?

In a not-too-distant future, when we not only have more powerful headsets but robust wireless data networks across the U.S. (that's a whole other problem), will we be virtually collaborating on presentations, our avatars laughing at our colleagues' avatars' jokes? Many of the experts and users interviewed by Protocol seem to believe so. "In a post-COVID era, we're not going to return back to what we used to think," Cornell's Sigaras said.

Ford's Smith and BNP's Cardona echoed that VR setups, and more-modern approaches to collaborative digital work, will be critical to hiring talented employees who are either seeking more flexibility or live far from company hubs. Smith noted that this year's group of summer interns on the Ford design team won't be limited to southern Michigan. "We'll rely on their cool toys that they have in their houses," Smith said. Two of the students, he said, have VR setups that the team will use. "We get to leverage that and hopefully in a nuanced way learn by example and by doing other modes of virtual working," Smith added.

Booz Allen's Singh has seen enthusiasm from newer staff entering the workforce, even around relatively quotidian meetings taking place in VR. "They just get excited and they get pumped up for something as lame as an all-hands meeting," he said.

Sigaras said he can see using technology like Spatial even when life gets back to normal. "At Cornell, we have different campuses in Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn," he said, "so for a clinician to be able to be an expert and aid in all these different scenarios, think of it like teleportation."

Cardona said VR "will not ever replace the physical meeting, but that's really not our aim." With budgets tightening and international travel limited, he said, "We are truly convinced that we need to invest in the technology because it will help us to be a company active in 50 countries around the world with clients all over the world that still want to buy real estate."

New devices and platforms will bring new opportunities. While reporting this story, another headset emerged: The former CEO of HTC, Peter Chou, unveiled the XRSpace Mova from his XRSpace startup. It's reportedly lighter than any of the competing standalone headsets on the market, and will come with 5G support when it launches next quarter. It could be what VR is missing, or at least another step along the way to a break-through and the mainstreaming of VR. Until then, there's always the alternative to look forward to: endless Zoom calls.

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