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What is this sorcery?

The light had a magical quality as I stood on the terrace overlooking the sea to the cliffs beyond. To my right, an amazing collection of hanging chairs and comfortable three-seaters begged me to relax there for a few hours or days! 

It was utterly beautiful and serene. The most gorgeous things gathered together in one place and then sprinkled with magical dust, just for me. 

But just like Hogwarts, it wasn’t real

About a week ago, I read a post from Simon Knocker on Linkedin. I’ve known Simon for over 25 years and he was describing his recent experiences with virtual reality. I’m a business guy,  an entrepreneur and a shameless tech nerd so I jumped right into the conversation to try and find out more. 

When we spoke on the phone, Simon told me he was researching the world of VR because it seemed to him like there must be great scope for businesses to adopt the technology and improve the experience of working together and collaborating now that it’s so much harder for us to physically get together and deliver as a team. 

His logic seemed impeccable and I was delighted when he suggested that I join him to take part in his research experiment. He’s gone all-in and purchased three Oculus Quest 2 headsets and is inviting people of dubious character to join him and help evaluate the best that cutting edge virtual reality has to offer. 

So it was that I found myself astonished and speechless, standing on the terrace, while Simon explained how to navigate the user interface and load the first application he had planned for our dive into this strange world. 

I suspect most Oculus owners are in it for the ultra immersive gaming experience. Not us. Our interest is collaboration in business and Simon had selected three packages for us, at three different points on the price ladder.

  • Arthur – A virtual environment created by a German start-up that provides many tools with rich functionality. Pricing details are available from the supplier but you should expect it to reflect the quality of the collaboration toolset
  • Glue – From another start-up with similar tools that worked very well but somehow seemed to lack some of the deep functionality of Arthur
  • Spatial – This application comes from a well-established provider and we were specifically looking at the Free-To-Use offering 

This isn’t a feature by feature comparison but my first impressions after the guided tour this morning. 

In short, all of the packages allow us to:

  • Meet with groups in virtual meeting rooms that are extremely realistic and convincing
  • Individually move around the room / rooms  (sophistication and customisation increase as we ascend the price ladder)
  • Observe and interact with the artefacts that have been placed there by the facilitator 
  • Create sticky notes and put them on the walls (or leave them hanging in mid air)
  • Open internet browsers and visit websites to demonstrate things to our colleagues
  • Find quiet corners to have a more private conversation (The soundscape is designed so that thing far away in the room are quieter and things close by are louder)

This list is not even close to being exhaustive. We can do many, many things that are technically amazing in the rooms. 

I know that lots of people find a list useful (as do I) but here it feels too reductive and I suspect there is no alternative but to find a way of experiencing these things first hand. 

I sort of lost track of time somewhat but by the end, I think we had been in there for something like 90 minutes. Towards the end, my mind was spinning with the possibilities and my senses were becoming overwhelmed. 

When I lifted the headset (pretty light, comfortable and easy to wear) from my eyes, the contrast was amazing. Suddenly I was back in my Wendy House (my garden office for the uninitiated!)  and I’d left that incredible world behind. 

As I reflected on the experience, it wasn’t so much the collaboration tool sets (whiteboards,  big screen presentations, post it notes etc) that came back time and again; It was the 15 minutes that Simon and I spent just chatting in a corner as we chewed the fat, shot the breeze and generally kicked things around. Of course we can talk on the phone. We can even use video calls like Zoom or Meet or any of the others. And those things are incredibly important, they transform our conversations. But there was something different about that 15 minutes. It was relaxed and real. Although we have known each other for a long time, there are of course, long periods of silence. In those 15 minutes, I somehow felt that we reengaged. 

A few years ago, my business at the time had just won a big new client and wanting to start things off in the best possible way, I engaged with two professors from Warwick University (Julia Kotlarsky and Ilan Oshri) who had significant expertise in remote collaboration. 

One of the key messages from the client workshop they ran for us was the importance of actual face to face communication. When we physically spend time with the people we work with, the effectiveness of all types of communication (email, instant messaging, telephone, video conferencing etc.) increases immediately afterwards and then slowly deteriorates as the days since our time together turns into weeks and then months. Their research highlighted the importance of spending some regular time physically in the same space to give a short term boost in the effectiveness of subsequent communications through any medium. This is particularly critical when pulling groups together that don’t know each other really well already.

Of course I haven’t seen any research but, from first hand observation, my conversations in that virtual world were so close to a physical meetup that my brain could not tell the difference. In the ebb and flow of the conversation my brain was completely tricked. 

If all the technology can achieve is the naturalising of distant and temporary work based relationships to improve our ability to collaborate then it will be an amazing achievement. 

I suspect it will be able to do that and much, much more. 

If you’d like to get a better understanding of how VR could be deployed in your business and the business benefit you might expect, please give Simon a call.

Author: Peter Brookes-Smith, Curious problem solver, business developer, technologist, and customer advocate