Collaborative work: enriching interactions through immersive reality

Start your workday by putting on a virtual reality headset. This idea may sound like it's straight out of the future, but it's already part of the daily routine of a team at Orange Silicon Valley. Since the end of 2022, an experiment in collaborative work in immersive reality has been conducted by two engineers, James Li, Principal, Technology Group and Extended Reality lead, and Wilson Lau, Principal, Business Group and Future of Work lead at Orange Silicon Valley.

Videoconferencing and mixed feelings

More than one in two Americans have the ability to work remotely, according to a McKinsey study. While the benefits of hybrid work are no longer in question, working remotely is said to be responsible for a loss of connection between employees and a weakening of cohesion in teams. A Microsoft survey comparing employee engagement before and after the pandemic shows a disconnection with their teams and their company.

While videoconferencing has gradually replaced face-to-face meetings, it still has its own share of inconveniences:

  • Disappearance of informal conversations
  • Absence of eye contact
  • Difficulties in concentrating or even understanding

What is the result? Very often, a feeling of isolation.

Recreating links between employees

This is why Orange Silicon Valley decided to conduct an experiment to assess the effects of immersive reality on interactions between employees.

The initiative for this experiment came from two American engineers who wanted to observe the effects of the introduction of a new immersive workspace in the daily lives of employees. “One of the things we wanted to see is if this new immersive working space could help to keep the team cohesion, and be able to engage employees and continue development, or at least maintain the employee–to-employee relationships within the company,” explains Wilson Lau, who is convinced that the metaverse, which promises to offer the experience of the same closeness in virtual reality as in real life, can be an answer to the loss of connection in the workplace. At the same time, the duo is also in charge of developing new tools to improve productivity and team engagement.

Multi-phase deployment

To date, there are several types of immersive technologies:

  • Augmented reality, which has the ability to enrich reality with digital content
  • Virtual reality, which immerses the user in a 3D environment
  • Mixed reality, which allows the deployment of a virtual overlay in a real environment

Some companies are already using immersive technologies to communicate or train employees. In the case of Orange Silicon Valley, the experiment focuses on the introduction of virtual reality (VR) tools for the purpose of collaboration. All participants were equipped with headsets (Oculus Quest 2) and VR-compatible keyboards and invited to use them whenever they wanted, at least during a weekly meeting.

The usual videoconferencing tools (Teams, Zoom, etc.) were replaced by virtual meeting rooms. Two platforms were chosen for this: Horizon Workrooms, the professional world of Meta (ex-Facebook) and the virtual meeting solution Engage VR. The experimentation was first held within a reduced team (six people) before being rolled out to all of management (marketing, accounting, IT, etc.), which includes 12 people. (The plan is to give all ~30 OSV employees a headset to collaborate.)

The advantages of virtual reality: concentration and interaction

“Compared to traditional meetings, meetings in the metaverse are more or less the same,” says Wilson Lau. “The main difference is the experience that the user would gain through those tools. If I talk to you through Teams or Zoom, I can see you, but I would not feel that you are in the room with me. The virtual meeting in the metaverse is able to replicate the in-person feeling.” The Future of Work lead is confident that “metaverse meetings will be able to help recreate this in-person feeling. This is something that we want to test in our trial.”

Although the experiment is still underway, and no end date has been set yet, some lessons have already been learned:

  • A positive reaction from the participants, despite different levels of familiarity with the virtual world, some having already experienced it and others being totally new to it
  • A higher level of concentration from the team due to the fact that they are wearing masks, as it is not possible to do two things at the same time (such as answering emails or checking their cell phones during meetings)
  • Simplified collaboration with Remote Desktop, which offers the ability to share documents and work with multiple people in the same online workspace
  • More engagement and ease of conversation with colleagues as they appear to be in close proximity

The challenge now lies in the ability of engineers to measure the concrete benefits of VR on team productivity. This is a challenge that Orange Silicon Valley aims to meet with the help of the University of Pennsylvania's Mack Institute for Innovation Management program, which specializes in research related to the professional world.

Still many limits to democratization

Although they seem to bring concrete benefits through their ability to generate greater interaction between the various stakeholders during meetings, several obstacles still weigh on virtual reality tools:

  • The discomfort of wearing the mask, mainly because of its weight, which limits the duration of use
  • Being cut off from the real world: contrary to the principles of augmented reality or mixed reality, virtual reality projects the user into a 100% virtual world. The user can no longer see what is happening around him in the real world
  • Motion sickness: many users can be affected by cyberkinetosis, nausea and dizziness related to a dissonance between the movement perceived by sight and the inner ear
  • The lack of realism of avatars: users complain about the design of their digital alter ego, considered too basic. However, "There are solutions out there that can easily turn your picture and yourself into a realistic avatar," says James Li, who anticipates their future integration into virtual reality platforms
  • Adding an extra step: having to put on a headset to access a meeting is an extra step that is an obstacle to its adoption

All these issues should disappear as virtual reality headsets evolve to become more powerful: lighter, more manageable, more intuitive, offering better image resolution and with greater autonomy.

Securing the metaverse

Several major questions related to the development of meetings in the metaverse remain unanswered for the moment:

  • Will it be necessary to establish specific codes of conduct for virtual worlds? Human resources must ask themselves what rules to establish within the virtual workspace. Several scenarios must be considered: "For example, the dress code for the avatar. We don't want people to put on a crazy outfit for a business meeting," says Wilson Lau. "Can we allow employees to create an avatar of a different gender, or a different race?” The engineer, who anticipates risky situations for the company, says he prefers a conservative environment, at least initially. “I think this will probably evolve in time as we get more experienced and as we learn from other companies, on a larger scale. The industry itself has to develop some kind of common understanding about best practices, and that will take time.”
  • What kind of information can be shared on these platforms? Is there a risk of hacking and leakage of sensitive information? Is the encryption of meetings by the platforms sufficient to protect the content of virtual meetings?
  • What are the guarantees of privacy and data confidentiality? Because through his avatar, the user gives access to data never collected until now (facial expressions in particular), so projects in the metaverse must allow Internet users to protect their biometric data.

These questions must be anticipated by companies right now to allow the proper development of these tools. Still in its infancy in the professional world, virtual reality already promises to revolutionize the way we work remotely.