I’m at my standing desk, typing this note. But instead of looking at my 24-inch monitor as usual, I’m wearing an HTC Vive headset. And thanks to the new VR productivity app Space, I’m surrounded by six giant, 70-ish-inch screens. To my left, a small tower of YouTube videos. On my right, CNN’s latest on Brexit, and the Trump campaign page loaded just for a laugh. And in the middle? I can look up to see my Gmail and down to see this very document sitting below.
You know Dinesh’s absurd monitor wall on Silicon Valley? The one that parodies workplaces that are adding more and more screens to workers’ desks in a quest for efficiency? I’m putting that to shame right now in reality. Well, virtual reality.
Okay, this is getting harder as I fill out the page. I actually have to look down to see this text, as if I’m gazing at someone’s belly button.
Now we’re to crotch territory.
I’d better scroll and fast.
Space is being developed by the Shanghai-based software firm Pygmal Technologies. While most VR applications thus far have been focused on video games and simulations, Space is focused on the ultimate end point for VR: “Space is a computer operating environment that could be the future of work,” says Xiao Jia, founder and CEO of Pygmal Technologies. “It’s useful for anyone who needs multitasking for web pages, videos, native Windows applications, even 3-D models. Because all this happens in your VR headset, it means it doesn’t have the constraints of a physical monitor.”
Indeed, Space is trying to solve one of the biggest problems in VR–how do you mix 2-D web pages with 3-D VR content? Space will make it possible to click on a 3-D model in a 2-D browser, then have that float in full virtual space for you to look at, or even touch with motion controllers (which Space does not yet support).
Jia also imagines future versions of the software that will allow full collaboration–imagine if you didn’t just have six screens, you had 12 or 18, and you were sharing them all remotely with other people. I wonder if it’s possible to adapt to this much display. Confession: I’m only using two screens to write this piece. Glancing to the other four just seems distracting, and pulling up my Facebook account or additional research in one will hurt my neck. I feel like I’m witnessing the upper limits of the argument that more big screens result in better efficiency. On a real desktop that approach makes sense–but I bet you still don’t know anyone who sits 12 inches from a 55-inch screen, do you?
The more I neglect those side monitors, the more I honestly think I’d prefer two screens with the option to use tabs. (Tabs are something that Space doesn’t support yet, either.)
But it’s hard to really tell how I feel about this virtual screen world because I can’t see my hands, keyboard, or mouse, so I have no feeling of presence in it. Also, because I don’t know this standard Dell loaner keyboard as well as my beloved Mac’s, I have to peek through a tiny crack between the Vive goggles and my nose to recenter myself. My neck is killing me already. Also, this text I’m typing, which seemed sharp enough at first glance, gets blurrier and blurrier as it drops down the page into knees and feet territory. Is it the geometry? The headset’s lenses? I don’t know. But I’d trade this 70-inch screen for my 24-inch screen staring ergonomically into my eyes.
And ugh, why can’t I just angle one screen perfectly in front of my face?
Wait, I just looked around at my castle of virtual screens again. WHOA. I feel the sudden, stubborn resolve of a guy who bought a TV too large for his mantel, and so he decides the only solution is to keep the TV and find a new apartment, spouse, and dog. I don’t know if this setup is efficient, no. It’s stupidly amazing, however.
Xiao tells me his stamina for Space’s VR experience lasts about an hour a day. The dissociation from one’s hands and input devices is easier for him and his fellow coders, he tells me, because they’re so used to touch typing anyway. Indeed, my fingers are already humming along as I adjust to this strange keyboard. But my neck. For the love of god, my neck. I tried rearranging my typing window to the top row, and it now it just feels like I’m writing this article on a sports bar television. Why did I choose this stupid headline? Why didn’t I write something like, “I wrote the introduction to this article in VR?”
Space is going to be intriguing, and widely adored beta software for the early adopters of VR. It will be free for the Rift and Vive, and its cool factor–which imagines a ring of virtual screens, so convincingly if not ergonomically–is through the roof. The text is generally more legible than I’d thought it would be, though it looks like 1992 next to my Retina display. (Xiao tells me that they are experimenting with some anti-aliasing algorithms that should make the text as sharp as possible, though the low resolution of VR headsets is the ultimate bottleneck.) Down the line, the company plans to keep consumer versions low-cost or even free, while making their money off of businesses. It’s basically the Microsoft Office or Dropbox model.
But Pygmal Technologies has a long way to go before any business could responsibly incorporate Space into its workflow. As much as my teenage self loves his little igloo of monitors, as a man in his 30s, I’ve done enough recreational abuse to my body to know that workplace ergonomics are paramount.
So now that this article is complete, I’m going to make my revisions in good old reality, if that’s okay by you.