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Stepping into the collaborative workplace in virtual reality

Some see immersive, 3D collaboration spaces as an upgrade from video conferencing because they offer better opportunities for socializing, brainstorming, onboarding and training.

Amid the endless rounds of generative AI-supported tools entering the enterprise tech market, a quieter collaborative workspace transformation is brewing. But you might need a headset to see it.

Since the pandemic pushed workers out of offices in 2020, organizations around the world have been investigating ways to work together while physically apart. Many vendors began offering virtual messaging, whiteboarding and video conferencing tools for hybrid workers, all of which are widely used today.

But there is sometimes a lopsided aspect to these tools that can give employees a fractured meeting experience. It's particularly fraught during video calls that mix in-office workers who are sitting together in a conference room with out-of-office workers who are presented with their own squares of space on the screen.

Vendors including Cisco and Zoom have unveiled tools to ameliorate this problem of screen disparity.

Yet many workers still yearn for an out-of-office collaborative experience that's more social, allowing for those chance encounters and lighthearted quips that foster friendships and ultimately build better trust between team members.

Thomas Brannen, an analyst at OnConvergence, is one such worker. He became interested in virtual reality (VR) during the pandemic.

Video conferencing tools often are not suitable for casual conversation within a large group of people. Video conferencing is fine for meetings that are one on one -- or one on many, with one person leading a group -- but they aren't equipped for many on many, in which everybody can talk to everybody individually, he said.

"They're not social," Brannen said of video conferencing platforms.

That's where virtual reality is different, he said.

VR's capacity for long-distance social engagement is just one of the reasons why it could be the collaboration tool of the future.

Different types of digital realities

VR falls under the broader category of extended reality (XR), which includes VR, mixed reality (MR) and other immersive realities. VR is completely immersive, requiring users to wear a headset, while MR includes a range of views combining the virtual world with the real one.

In some cases, MR users can enter a 3D reality on a computer screen and manipulate their avatars with a mouse and keyboard. Other times, MR can be accessed on a headset just by dialing back the VR world so that users can also see their natural surroundings.

An experiment in global communication

Like Brannen, Rob Homburg, lead solution architect at multinational IT vendor HPE, became curious about VR during the pandemic, when Zoom fatigue took over, he said.

Homburg's global, eight-person team started using Glue, a virtual collaboration platform, to meet with each other. They used it not only for team meetings, but also for meetings focused on strategy and the vendor's services portfolio. On video conferencing platforms, these sessions were typically "pretty painful," according to Homburg.

It really made a difference. It gave us a better feeling of shared presence.
Rob HomburgLead solution architect, HPE

"[Glue] really made a difference," Homburg said. "It gave us a better feeling of shared presence."

Homburg and his team found that this collaboration style also led to higher-quality results, which inspired them to use VR in their services portfolio for various enterprise applications at HPE, he said.

Homburg's team in particular offers enterprise digital transformation workshops to support clients during technology changes with minimal risk, according to Homburg. HPE has long used visual collaboration platform Miro to guide clients through these facilitated discussions, he said.

Last month, HPE adopted a new integration that lets users create Miro boards in VR. The integration is between Miro and Naer, a VR and MR platform provider. Essentially, Naer provides the virtual backdrop for people to brainstorm and collaborate using Miro tools.

Naer's integration with Miro is one of many tools making work created inside VR accessible outside VR -- for example, users can access materials created using Miro in Naer on a computer. Homburg said it is an efficient way to connect new coworking technology with customary platforms. He says it is the way of the future.

"It is bundling the traditional way of working with the traditional tools that Miro has, but then in an innovative, sexy way that is appealing to Generations Z and Alpha, which are coming into the workplace in a couple of years," Homburg said.

Meanwhile, Sean Winters, Miro senior platform architect, first learned about Naer when someone posted about it on an internal product discussion channel. It was featured on App Lab, Meta's platform that lets users safely distribute and test new apps.

"I saw the video, and I was impressed," Winters said.

He got in touch with Naer CEO and co-founder Sondre Kvam on LinkedIn, and after a series of meetings, they decided to collaborate. Last month, the Naer integration for Miro was released for purchase on the Miro Apps Marketplace.

'A retreat on your head'

Naer released its virtual and mixed reality platform for collaboration from any location in September.

Kvam's strategy with Naer was to build a world that takes workers out of the office and into a forest, or an island, or a cave.

"It's not trying to simulate a corporate environment," Winters said. "Going into virtual reality, being in another office or kind of conference hall -- it isn't conducive to brainstorming."

Naer's graphics are deliberately noncorporate and draw inspiration from the art style of fantasy cartoonist Jean Henri Gaston Giraud, also known as Moebius, according to Kvam.

Winters described Naer as a dreamlike island with different locales. Users can switch between different times of day, making the sky dark or bright. They can set a timer for a brainstorming session, and a clock is beamed into the sky for all to see. Naer's world is like a company retreat experience, which is good for swapping ideas and building relationships, he said.

"Basically, you're able to put a retreat on your head," Winters said.

Naer's integration with Miro brings Miro's capabilities, such as its sticky note tool, into the Naer landscape. Co-workers can gather together in the cave or on the grass and summon a Miro board for sticky noting.

To create a sticky note, users hold down a button and speak their ideas into a microphone, and they are transcribed onto the sticky note. From there, users can simply throw an arm up into the air to attach the stickies onto the board. This is all using headsets and hand controllers.

Screenshot showing employee avatars collaborating on a virtual whiteboard through the integration of Naer with Miro.
The integration of mixed reality platform Naer with visual collaboration tool Miro enables co-workers to brainstorm with sticky notes in an outdoor 3D workspace.

The supposed might of mixed reality

Some XR developers such as Kvam view MR as a major access point to enabling more enterprise use of virtual realities.

Because MR using a headset overlays the virtual world with the real world, it offers a visual experience that is still rooted in familiar surroundings. There also have been advancements in hardware that support this technology.

Meta in September released its first MR headset, Meta Quest 3, at a relatively affordable price point of $499. Meta last month also launched Meta Quest for Business, a subscription service offering XR device and app management and customer support for commercial use of the Quest 3.

"There are these breakthroughs in enablement," Kvam said.

Meta has competition in the virtual world of the metaverse, the term for environments that host the emerging class of XR technologies.

At Microsoft's Ignite conference earlier this fall, CEO Satya Nadella highlighted the tech giant's VR and MR platform, Mesh, and its Microsoft Teams integration, immersive spaces. By bringing Mesh to Teams with immersive spaces, Microsoft is "reimagining the way employees come together and connect using any device," Nadella said during a keynote.

Microsoft's approach to MR and VR lets users engage with Mesh with or without a headset, according to Yancey Smith, general manager of Microsoft Mesh customer experience product management. Users can manipulate their 3D avatars using a keyboard and mouse, if they choose. said it's "essential" to give Teams users this option to inspire more activity in immersive spaces.

Most VR enthusiasts recognize that there is hesitation around VR because of the need for headsets.

Not only are the devices expensive, but they are also physically cumbersome. Some people might feel motion sickness, or confusion about their body's position in space, with their field of vision getting overtaken so completely. Even people who enjoy VR might be embarrassed to have others watch them interacting with headsets and controllers, especially in the office.

This hesitation is evident in the current lack of adoption in enterprise software.

"I haven't seen any widespread traction," Metrigy analyst Irwin Lazar said. "For the most part, the vendors I talked to in the communication [and] collaboration space are not treating this as a major focus."

"It's undoubtedly the case that VR collaboration has been disappointing in terms of its adoption," said J.P. Gownder, a Forrester Research analyst.

But VR has been more popular for particular applications. These include meetings that require travel, onboarding trainings, instructional sessions on how to handle hazardous materials or equipment, and interacting with digital twins.

Perhaps VR's adoption would increase if the price of fuel were to rise dramatically; if governments started cracking down more on carbon emissions, rendering travel expenses too high or environmentally harmful; or if another global pandemic struck, according to Gownder.

"It needs some incentive," he said.

In the future, headsets will be as light as a pair of glasses, making VR a lot more approachable, Smith said.

"Getting an immersive experience is going to be just as natural as video," he said.

For Brannen, there are many benefits to headset-supported VR.

He said he likes joining VR meetups with people from around the world and getting to walk throughout the virtual room and chat. He likes being able to call up a wall of multiple screens to visualize information, without the need for multiple monitors. He likes leaving his laptop at home when he travels on business, because his applications are accessible through his headset and tablet.

Many tech industry insiders see the potential benefits, Brannen said. But the public still needs some convincing.

"I think a lot of the skepticism is people that really don't understand it," Brannen said.

Microsoft, for one, is aiming to get more people interested. By bringing Mesh into Teams, which has millions of users, the vendor is giving people an entry point that doesn't require any extra hardware, according to Smith.

"We're seeing 3D immersive experiences at work that aren't reliant on the headset, but are super amazing when you have the headset. I think that's where you see the magic happen," Smith said.

Mary Reines is a news writer covering customer experience and unified communications for TechTarget Editorial. Before TechTarget, Reines was arts editor at the Marblehead Reporter.

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