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3 minute read

Technology

Virtual Reality Goes To Work

A proof-of-concept demo on futuristic work spaces and the weird ways we'll manipulate stuff on our screens.

Virtual reality (VR) has long been full of promise, but mass-market immersive experiences, such as that offered with Google Glass, trade in augmented reality, not virtual reality. Until now, any serious applications have been limited to simulation technology for military uses or institutional prototypes, or vertical applications such as flight simulators.

We've been titillated by the crazy possibilities in movies like The Matrix and in gaming headsets like the Oculus Rift and subsequent offerings such as the Avegant Glyph, Sony's Project Morpheus, and the latest new kid on the block, True Player Gear. But VR hasn't hit prime-time (official consumer versions are still nowhere near ready for the shelves), even in the tech-progressive entertainment industry. Ubiquitous it's not.

Little is said about using VR in the workspace. Letting VR replace the desktop monitor would bring physical benefits, such as freeing up desk space and giving you a wider spatial and more customizable area in which to arrange your applications—and you wouldn't need several monitors to do it. An unintended consequence is that it would let you work distraction free. Cubicle walls would no longer be necessary because you'd be "walled-in" by a VR headset.

A handful of companies have tried to revolutionize our work spaces in ways that are eye-catching but not geared to everyday office work. There's Fujitsu Laboratories' projection and gesture-based system, though this would be difficult to set up for various users.

Then there's Jinha Lee's experimental SpaceTop 3 D display. SpaceTop imagines the desktop environment as we currently use it—but with depth. So you'd get more space in which to control your material with physical gestures. (For example, you'd point, then pinch, your finger to select and transfer text from one window into another document.) It's a hands-on (no pun intended) way of working, which, theoretically, represents a more natural approach. (It's easier than memorizing tons of keyboard shortcuts.) But it, too, suffers from the same problem as the Fujitsu Laboratories system—you'd have to set up tracking cameras (to detect gestural input) high on a wall. And it would be expensive to develop.

Neither is it clear how practical each system might be in an array of applications. The concepts are still niche, even if they're technically advanced or advantageous for specific tasks. Most likely, these concepts will seed others that that, one day, will have mass-market implications.

What will that world look like? First, it will probably involve a VR headset. (Financially, that's more feasible than standalone VR desktops.) Those VR headsets also have the ease of mass-production—the protocols behind today's VR headsets has benefited hugely from smartphone technologies that have given us ever-evolving high-definition displays and other components.

Some reality will be useful: Our expectations of a VR workspace are hatched from our experiences with computer games and science-fiction movies. (Think smooth, flashy minimalism.) It's much more difficult to imagine the reality of virtual reality—how it could sit with the interfaces we use today.

Oliver Kreylos, who works for the Institute for Data Analysis and Visualization at the University of California at Davis (and who is proficient on the subject of VR and 3-D graphics), has put together a startling demo of what the functionality of such a workspace, with today's operating systems, might look like.

In the following demo, we see 3-D captured data of an office from the point of view of a user with an Oculus Rift headset. It shows you how 2-D desktop software applications would be placed within the headset's VR environment.

What's most startling is the idea of using our familiar interfaces in an unfamiliar working dimension. The video shows you could resize windows or move them around, or watch YouTube videos in 3-D. You might, say, capture a space in 3-D, measure it, and enter those measurements into an Excel doc. And even though you'd perform these kinds of actions with an ordinary keyboard and mouse, you'll be able to (stick with me here) maneuver inside the information you're working with. Let that concept sink in, and you'll soon see that it's not far fetched to imagine how other data (graphs, presentations, reports) could also be created or presented in new ways. Imagine, for a moment, Microsoft Office 3-D.

The virtual office is still in the works, but hopefully it opens up our minds (and developers' minds) to ways in which we might work with computers in the future. For those with the ability to read between the lines, it's a business opportunity waiting to happen.

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