If you stay up to date with business and technology news, you undoubtedly know about the rise of virtual reality (VR) technology. Though the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR commercials boast the captivating promise of VR in the entertainment and gaming space, VR technology also holds massive potential for the corporate world.
The possible uses for VR in the workplace are endless. From virtual training courses to VR product development and testing, VR’s widespread adoption in the corporate world is bound to dramatically change how we work.
Perhaps the most obvious potential of VR to transform the workplace is in the realm of conferencing and virtual meetings. According to Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, “VR meetings will allow for nuanced nonverbal communication — proper eye contact, subtle cues such as interpersonal distance, and eventually virtual touch and smell (when desired).”
The interpersonal communication that occurs through body language and social cues — information that is lost in conventional audio and video conferences — would finally be accessible in VR meetings, conveyed via sophisticated “avatars” that act as digital stand-ins for each meeting participants.
Business Avatars and Redefining Professionalism
Companies like the Google venture startup Alt-Space VR and the company High Fidelity are heavily invested in creating highly-customizable, sophisticated 3D avatars that users could adjust and adorn to represent their ideal business identities in VR meetings.
As High Fidelity’s Philip Rosedale explained, “Our aspiration is to create a really photorealistic looking person so it’ll be like looking into the virtual mirror… The more that looks like a real person, the more stunningly compelling it is to use it.”
Imagine a world where you could jump into a business meeting while sitting on your couch wearing tattered old sweatpants with unkempt hair and leftover toast crumbs from breakfast dusting your shirt. Meanwhile, your VR business avatar is decked out to the nines in the virtual approximation of a hand-tailored Armani suit with perfectly-coifed hair. Your business avatar would look, sound and even act like your real self – but just a little bit better.
Virtual Business Identities: Empowering Productive, Confident Workers
The idea of these virtual reality “alter-egos” raises intriguing questions about the very nature of professionalism. Everyone has a number of different “versions” of their identity: there’s the polished version that shows up to the office, the cheerful, relaxed version that shows up around friends and probably a few others versions, depending on the person.
What happens when you no longer have to worry about tapping in to your professional side? If you aren’t spending time worrying about appearing professional or riddled with anxiety over whether your boss will notice that you didn’t have time to press your shirt before work, is there more brain power freed up to focus on what really matters — doing the job you love and putting all of your mind and effort into doing great work?
Perhaps VR might usher in a new era of professionalism, encouraging individuals to shed materialistic concerns in favor of a relaxed and uninhibited workplace identity that allows for focus solely on productivity and quality of work because their carefully-crafted “business” avatars will always be the vision of professionalism.
Would VR Avatars Invite the Internet Troll into the Office?
On the flipside, what are the dangers of being able to hide behind a virtual identity? We’ve all undoubtedly witnessed how the anonymity of the Internet transforms some people into virtual monsters who feel empowered by the technology to tear down others.
As The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova noted in “The Psychology of Online Comments”, there is a demonstrated psychological phenomenon called “online disinhibition effect” where a person in an online settings sheds his/her individual identity for anonymity and throws away his/her usual behavioral constraints. Put more simply, by hiding behind their computers, people often feel detached from their normal selves and, therefore, tend to be more vocal (and oftentimes, aggressive) than their normal selves.
While business avatars might not turn the office into a battleground of Internet trolls, being shielded by a VR version of your business persona could lead to more workplace aggression.
Would the pseudo-anonymity of VR business avatars perpetuate negativity and lead to more arguments in the workplace because individuals feel a bit more daring hidden behind their 3D stand-ins? Or would people simply feel more empowered to stand up for their ideas, more capable of navigating the murky waters of office politics because their business avatars give them the confidence to steadfastly stick up for their opinions?
It will be a few years away before we will truly witness how virtual reality technology will transform the workplace of the future. However, it is clear that VR holds great promise to revolutionize how we work and collaborate. For a better picture of what the future workplace might look like, check out the other posts in PGi’s “Future of Work” series: