Working in VR – A Viable Way to Boost Productivity?

By on January 22, 2021

Working in virtual reality is a concept I badly want to be viable. I love writing, and nothing gets me more in-the-zone than being in the right environment. One of my favorite memories of working, was sitting in a bar in Croatia and listening to spacey music from Schiller, while watching people walk along the cobbled streets outside. I was there with a friend, sipping beer, and soaking in the atmosphere while writing.

working remotely
Ah memories

Pre-Covid, I would always visit coffee shops to work and enjoy the hum of people talking in the background. I have a favorite spot in Oxford where I can sit in the window and watch people passing outside. When I lived in London, I would work near famous landmarks – sipping Starbuck’s outside St. Paul’s Cathedral and coding.

Virtual Worlds

The promise of working in VR is that you can enjoy these types of scenes wherever you are in the world. Slip on the headset and you can be sitting in a hotel lobby listening to a live pianist (who might actually be a real pianist somewhere) or orbiting the Earth in a giant space station.

How about sitting in a cozy, glass cabin in the woods while rain patters down on the roof outside? Among other real people, quietly working away on the other side of the room?

Moreover, VR could present new ways to enhance productivity and output. You could work from any number of virtual monitors simultaneously, collaborate remotely in a very natural way, sort through files in a filing cabinet, or pin notices to the wall. You could stimulate productivity or creativity with light and sound changes, or you could create entirely new forms of input.

So, is Working in VR a Thing Now?

Working in Virtual Reality

Using some Christmas money this year, I decided to buy myself and Oculus Quest 2 (like a whole lot of other people it would seem). This is the latest VR headset from Oculus (Facebook) and has, by all accounts, been a huge success.

Where this model is different from the competition, is in its ability to offer “inside-out position tracking.” That means it can tell when you’re walking around your room by using cameras mounted to the front of the headset – no external “base-stations” necessary. It’s also an all-in-one unit, meaning that it doesn’t need to be plugged into a PC to work. It even has hand-tracking, meaning you technically don’t need the included controllers and can instead interact with the world using your own mitts.

All this means that you can slip on the headset, wherever you are, and jump into fully-explorable VR. It’s affordable too, at 299GBP for the base model. There are some caveats: like a limited IPD slider (essentially meaning a small percentage of the population may feel a little cross-eyed using it, depending on how far apart their eyes are), but on the whole, it’s a very compelling VR product with commercial appeal.

I’d tried working in VR in the past, using a G1 Oculus Rift, but the low resolution, lengthy set-up, and heavy, stuffy gear all made it more hassle than it was worth. So, how is it now?

Immersed VR

I decided to find out using an app called “Immersed VR.” The app streams your PC desktop to the Quest 2, displaying it across multiple monitors (I’ve had at least 5 on the go but I think it goes higher). You can take these monitors into a variety of virtual environments, ranging from cafes, to spaceships, to snowy log-cabins.

Immersed VR

You interact with your mouse and keyboard as you usually would, so the ability to touch-type is highly recommended. That said, if you turn no hand-tracking, you have the option to utilize a virtual keyboard overlay. This works by positioning the virtual keyboard to the point that your fingers are as you type each letter, thereby lining up with the real deal. It’s a great idea, in theory.

There are tons of other features, too. You can meet other users in a virtual space to collaborate (there’s a whiteboard, too) and you can even use a virtual “web cam” that will show your avatar in the virtual setting of your choice. It’s all pretty smart and there’s an excellent community.

Will I be Working in VR?

While writing essays and articles, I found this to be a great experience. I can kick my feet up on the couch, with my laptop on my lap, and get a fair amount done once I’m in a comfortable position. Meanwhile, my mind is far away in a snowy log cabin or a bustling coffee shop.

This is ideal for stimulating creative juices.

This is ideal for stimulating creative juices, or helping you to get into a more relaxed and focused state while working from home – completely free from distractions.

That’s a nice added benefit of working in VR: there’s no need to orient yourself around a monitor (meaning you could put an end to neck cramp). You can even work lying down!

I will definitely be retuning to this safe space for productivity.

Fidelity Issues

But there are issues, that lie more with the technology than anything else. As before, the resolution is still a little low. The Quest 2 uses a single display (rather than the two used by most devices) at a resolution of 1832×1920 per eye. It describes itself as “nearly 4k,” which sounds great on paper.

The problem, is that each virtual screen only takes up a small portion of that 4K panel, meaning they have a much lower resolution. Typically this is around 1080p. But place that on a device that’s right in front of your face and you see the pixels much more easily than you normally would do. This also leaves less room to move things around than the seemingly large screen-sizes would lead you to believe. The Oculus Quest 2 also has some pretty bad lightbleed and glare. Then the occasional lag creeps in, even on the fastest of connections (of which mine is not one!).

virtual reality brain training

There are also some aspects of VR that are inherently headache-inducing: such as the fact that depth-of-field doesn’t work as it should. Your brain believes an object in the distance to be far away from you, but your eyes need to focus on it as though it were much closer. There have been long-term studies looking at the effects of VR on your eyesight, but I’m concerned they’re not long-term enough. There is also some anecdotal evidence of eyesight issues being caused by VR use.

Future Displays May Save Us

Don’t lose hope! There are a number of technologies in development that aim to solve this issue: those that use eye-tracking to alter the image depending on where you are looking and how you are focusing, for example. Others seek to remove screens altogether and instead simply “fire” light at the eyeball, as though it were looking at any other scene in the real world!

Maybe one day we’ll get a direct interface with the visual cortex of the brain…

Either way, headaches still start to become an issue for me after around an hour. That’s unlikely to change in the immediate future.

Interface Woes

The other problem is to do with the AI. The keyboard overlay is a brilliant idea in theory but lacks some polish in execution.

This is partly because the keyboard overlay is a set model – that means it can’t change shape to match the size or positions of your keys. It will never be perfect until the developers adjust this.

Bigscreen VR
A similar app called Bigscreen VR

Even then, I find that although the keyboard moves to the right position for me, the virtual hands still don’t perfectly line up. This must be an issue Facebook’s end, but it doesn’t change the fact that my hands are about 10cm too high while I’m typing. This makes the keyboard more distracting than helpful.

Moreover, using the keyboard requires hand tracking to be on. This in turn means you’ll also be controlling the position of monitors with your gestures, and even controlling a mouse pointer with your fingers. This is great for everyone that ever wanted to channel their inner Tom Cruise and make like Minority Report, but the reality falls a little short.

While typing and moving my hands generally, I would regularly accidentally create the pointer gesture (two fingers pinched together) and close or move monitors. Recently, they disappeared altogether and I couldn’t get them back. Best to turn that off entirely then, and lose the keyboard overlay feature. For now.

Then There’s the Matter of Tea

When I want a cup of tea, I can double tap the headset to activate the pass-through camera on the Quest 2 and locate it in the real world. But when I go to drink, the visor prevents it from reaching my mouth.

If I want to check my phone, the whole headset needs to come off. Same if I want to make a hand-written note. These might seem like minor issues but they can add up and they stand in the way VR spaces becoming truly productive for general work.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that this is – at last – a good solution for bouts of writing or coding. If you don’t need to interact with the outside world, and you’re a confident touch-typist, this can be an amazing experience. Even if it does start to cause a bit of a headache after a while (my advice is to make everything as large as possible).

But for all-day work sessions, there are one-too-many hiccups that slow down productivity. We’re not quite there yet.

But we’re really close. And it’s really exciting. 

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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