Now that we have settled into a world where virtual interaction is a fundamental cornerstone of how we work, organisations are looking at new ways of improving the virtual experience by leveraging new technology that can simulate in-person collaboration.
The brainstorming sessions that your team leader argued couldn’t be held on Teams can now be facilitated through virtual reality (VR) and the Metaverse, albeit in the comfort of your own home and not having splurged the £30 subsistence cost of a day in the office.
As this technology becomes more accessible, does it make us question the value of the physical office again? Could we be living in a world where you’re provided with a VR headset in your ‘new starter’ pack, instead of a noise-cancelling headset? At what point does the development of the virtual experience go too far?
Virtual reality is a welcome innovation in the world of design, but if the ‘reality’ involves people being mimicked by avatars that are ultimately just pieces of software, then I would question how ‘real’ that interaction can be.
You may be able to achieve the desired outcomes in a workshop held in the Metaverse just as effectively as you can in person, possibly even more efficiently, but what it lacks are the human, non-verbal cues of seeing your colleagues face-to-face. You can often gauge your audience’s mood or response just by reading facial expressions and body language – these cues can determine the direction of travel for a workshop and allow you to ‘read the room’, and it is this grasp on the atmosphere that can enable you to tailor your approach ad-hoc. This makes the interactions between participants feel more organic which has benefits that are two-fold: getting to the genuine crux of a problem that may not have been apparent from the beginning, and building better interpersonal relationships in the process.
Face-to-face interaction and collaboration are essential for developing social and emotional skills such as teamwork, empathy and communication. Beyond the development of people skills, there is also the trust, camaraderie and sense of community on which successful teams can be built. If we start replacing in-person, active collaboration with virtual reality, the ability to build strong bonds and cohesive teams may be severely hindered.
You then have to consider the practical implications of participating in a VR workshop: How do I take personal notes if I have a controller in each hand? How much space do I need at home to participate? How do we provide tech support at home for such complex hardware? How much is this all going to cost?
Humans have evolved to have a visible white sclera – the ‘whites of our eyes’ – and this is a trait that is unique to humans and believed to be crucial in communication. The eyes are not just for seeing others, but for connecting with them, so from my perspective a VR headset is just a glorified blindfold.