By Payal Dhar
If there is one myth that’s been dispelled over the past two years, it’s the notion that work can only happen in offices.
In this brave new world of remote technologies, the possibilities offered by extended reality (XR)—the catch-all term for virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR))—seem particularly favorable. For instance, the travel and tourism industries have already embraced XR with enthusiasm, as have education and sports, among others.
But what would it take for VR to become mainstream in terms of collaborative workspaces?
Imagining the virtual workplace
Urho Konttori has been dreaming of a world where everything is digitized in real time since 2016, ever since he co-founded Varjo, a company specializing in VR headsets. The Finland-based developer is designing a platform that can support immersive virtual environments with human-eye resolutions for users to scan themselves into, meet and interact with similar virtual avatars of colleagues from around the world, make presentations, manipulate 3D models and collaborate.
Known as the Varjo Reality Cloud, the platform would be the world’s first cloud service for streaming human-eye resolution VR and XR content. “[Reality Cloud is] a cloud rendering solution, which enables any headset to run any VR application in the cloud instead of running it on a PC next to you,” Konttori says. “This enables great scalability as you can have almost infinite compute from the cloud available to you, multiple GPUs, up to 100 CPUs, up to one terabyte of RAM—on demand.”
The service is scheduled to roll out in the second quarter of 2022 and will be the backbone of Varjo’s forthcoming technologies, including virtual teleportation.
The real potential of the idea hit home in 2020, when Konttori and his colleagues “realized that none of our engineers [could] actually go to the factory [because of the pandemic]. We needed to almost blindly instruct the manufacturing people how to start assembling, how to create the test equipment, how to do the validations, how to interpret the results, how to figure out when something is wrong.” That was when they decided it was time to actively start solving the problem. “[Back then]we didn’t think about the concept called teleportation, [but the ability to do things remotely] has been a long time brewing.”
While he is reluctant to commit to when the virtual teleportation service will be available, he explains how it will work: “[The idea is to] have high-resolution cameras, LiDARs and other instruments that digitize the world, and then they stream it over the network to a different place where other people can then see it with their VR headsets. The premise here is to not only make a video stream but to also have the full three-dimensionality of the content in it.”
Virtual fieldwork in educational settings
Laura Shackelford, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, started using immersive VR to teach archaeological fieldwork a few years before COVID-19 would render travel difficult. Using a VR headset and two-hand controllers, students have the freedom to move around in a relatively large space, performing the same movements they would in the field.
“If you’re at an archaeological site and you would be down on the ground digging, then the students are doing the exact same movement,” Shackelford says. “And so, I can teach them not only the theory of what they’re doing. They get to practice that in VR because they are completely immersed in a surrounding where the environment responds to them.” In other words, when they “dig,” the dirt disappears, and they “find” artifacts. “They [then] have to uncover them and treat them appropriately, because if they don’t, then those things will break.”
If you’re at an archaeological site and you would be down on the ground digging, then the students are doing the exact same movement. You’re navigating the entire landscape without really going anywhere.
—Laura Shackelford, professor of anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Shackelford and her developer partners have created the entire environment along with a story that students uncover over the course of a semester. “You’re navigating the entire landscape without really going anywhere.” They are now working to make the virtual environment wheelchair accessible.
She also believes there is a great deal of possibilities for the use of VR in informal education. “I think it’s sort of the next iteration of what we’re going to do—take some kind of technology like LiDAR, completely recreate a space and then you put yourself in it. And once you’ve created the bare bones of a space, you can fill it however you want to.”
A roadmap for the future of work
“I think XR will have [an] An important role in the future of work,” says Joanna Bergström, who focuses on human-computer interactions at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She believes that the pandemic has also boosted the technology: “The consumer-level technology [for XR] was launched in the years just before the pandemic, but I definitely see [it] has increased scientific output on this.” She imagines that this could bring about commercial success, as well.
Bergström feels that as XR becomes more popular, researchers in human-computer interfaces will have to think about interacting in 3D rather than with flat 2D screens. “Another large change is that in VR/AR, we can interact more directly by simply moving our entire body. So we do not need to be limited to our fingertips.” What is especially exciting, she says, is to see how the sensation of touch will develop in this new reality.
Teleportation à la “Star Trek” might be an impossibility in the foreseeable future, but with developments in XR technologies, we might at least soon find our virtual avatars being beamed up into virtual spaces for a fully immersive experience.
Lead photo by Minh Pham/Unsplash