How virtual and augmented reality will impact the workplace

By: Marc Tracey
Immersive technology could change nearly everything about the way we work.

With the virtual and augmented reality revolution gaining steam just as many companies are already recruiting remote workforces, it makes sense that the two trends could soon collide. Immersive systems that allow multi-user environments and real-time interaction are expected to benefit companies and employees, and bring people together for more productive collaboration.

What will the future workplace look like once VR is widely adopted? For one, it may not be a physical location at all. "Today, we have to get ready and drive to work in the morning," says Christian Egeler, Head of AR, VR and 360 Product Development at Verizon Labs. "We have to deal with traffic, parking and getting settled down," which, he says, is time that could be better spent collaborating. "If you had the ability to put on a headset and establish your office in virtual reality, you could create as much workspace as you wanted. You would be able to connect to others and work with them collaboratively in any environment you choose."

Of course, plenty of companies already have remote workforces, but VR can go beyond conference calls, messaging apps and videoconferencing, and could take the place of many of the in-person meetings that are still a crucial part of office life. Instead of entering a physical meeting room, employees could don headsets and "sit" around a virtual conference table with the avatars of their co-workers from all over the world. "You can take on whatever persona you want, and you can dress however you want," says Egeler. Instead of a whiteboard or PowerPoint presentation, employees could write on walls in virtual space. Eventually, Egeler says, with full movement tracking technology, "you'll be able to do things like gesture, walk around and make eye contact with other people in the virtual conference room."

There will be much more potential for human beings and machines to participate together to get work done more optimally.

VR has especially exciting applications when it comes to presentations. Egeler points out that VR will allow us to express ourselves in ways that wouldn't even be possible in the real world. He uses the example of an inventor pitching their invention to potential investors: "So much work goes into prototyping a product just to present it," he says. "With VR, you can create a virtual 3D model of a product. You can even demonstrate the product's functions through the prototype without having to spend a lot of money creating a physical object," Egeler says. This innovation would break down barriers inventors face trying to get their product from concept to prototype to pitch.

Egeler says VR and AR also have big potential for work beyond the office building, particularly when it comes to training and monitoring. Egeler uses the example of a factory worker using an AR headset with visual guides overlaying their work and "showing them exactly what to do and giving them easy to learn on-the-job training." He also predicts that AR glasses that overlay reality with data will be helpful in jobs where machines must be monitored, such as hospitals or construction sites. "The machines will actually be doing the construction or medical work," he says, "But you still have to have a human being monitoring and controlling what the machine does." AR glasses will make this human-machine collaboration easier, Egeler says. "There will be much more potential for human beings and machines to participate together to get work done more optimally."

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