How VR Gives Us a Glimpse of the Future of Work

Work is evolving. The rise of the digital native workforce is transforming the workplace. According to a recent Gallup poll, 37% of American workers have experience working remotely. Just a few short years ago, fully distributed companies were somewhat of a rarity. Now, remote startups are popping up at an exponential rate. Telecommuting is here to stay, but it may not stay the same. Virtual reality, once a technology relegated to science fiction lore, is poised to change not only how telecommuting is done, but the future of work in general as well. 

Advancements in both software and hardware have made the mainstream use of the powerful processors and complicated programs needed to transport us to virtual environments a very real possibility. 

With each passing day, VR becomes more affordable, accessible and appealing. “The goal is to make VR and AR what we all want it to be: glasses small enough to take anywhere, software that lets you experience anything, and technology that lets you interact with the virtual world just like you do with the physical one,” Zuckerberg explained in a Facebook post touting the power of the company’s VR gloves. If Facebook truly can deliver on its promise to allow users to interact with the physical world using virtual reality, it would be conceivable that most jobs could reside in this blurring of realities. 

Facebook invested $2 billion into Oculus Rift when they bought out the burgeoning VR company in 2014. Now, three years later, they are still excited about its infinite number of applications as they begin sharing their plans to roll out their social VR platform. 

“The idea is that virtual reality puts people first. It's all about who you're with. Once you're in there, you can do anything you want together -- travel to Mars, play games, fight with swords, watch movies or teleport home to see your family,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post about the technology. At a recent F8 conference, he provided a peek into his VR platform, highlighting that users could swap between virtual lounges and real world locations. 

VR, until quite recently, was largely viewed as a toy. It is not until Facebook unveiled his specific plans for VR did it become apparent to a much larger audience that the technology may have a place in more than just enhancing existing forms of entertainment. Indeed, in his demo of the technology, Zuckerberg showcased an avatar version of himself looking around the offices of Facebook, which -- perhaps inadvertently -- provided us with a glimpse of what may be possible if social VR could in fact be married to work. And, as revolutionary as the technology may sound, Facebook’s social VR is only the beginning. 

“I have experienced the future of remote work, and it feels a lot like teleportation,” Christopher Mims wrote in The Wall Street Journal, chronicling his experience with a VR-operated robot, DORA. DORA (a clever acronym for Dexterous Observational Roving Automaton -- and most likely a reference to the eponymous hero of the popular children’s show Dora the Explorer), is a creation of a handful of University of Pennsylvania engineering students that allows users to feel as though they are inhabiting the body of a robot. “The whole idea was to make the experience as immersive as possible,” one of the creators asserts in a video interview with Mims. 

DORA acts as a shell for its host. Utilizing a VR headset, users can control the robot’s movements and receive visual information from DORA’s 3D cameras. It can rove around the office, interact with objects and even greet coworkers. “It has a kind of body language that could be used for the social aspect of using a telepresence robot in an office.” 

Facebook’s social VR platform and University of Pennsylvania’s telerobot could change how we define being “present.” No longer would we be constrained by time zone or location to report in to work, we’d only need to pop into the office with an avatar or on-site robot ready to boot up. We could warp into work from the comfort of our home without losing the tangible benefits of interacting with colleagues

Humans have long endeavored to inhabit alternate realities through the power of VR. What if we could use this technology to augment an existing reality -- the reality of the workplace -- instead of merely employing it as a means of escapism? We’re already seeing software developers create VR platforms focused on the social experience. Engineers are applying virtual reality to robotics, resulting in a technology that could allow for a fully distributed workforce to be united in one physical location. Virtual reality could profoundly reshape how and where we work, if we’re willing to embrace it. Who knows, as the technology rapidly progresses and as adoption surges, we may have no choice.

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