Rather than sitting at a desk, Paul Tomlinson dons a headset and spends up to 40 or 50 hours a week working with a view of Earth from space, with different shutters open for coding, messaging and Spotify. Or maybe he’ll overlook a tropical lagoon and rummage through his emails.
While the rest of us work with a view of our co-worker sipping coffee, he’ll be attending meetings around a campfire or atop a submarine. That’s because Tomlinson has been spending so much of his workday — his workweek — in virtual reality (VR) for years now.
Although he’s been using VR for entertainment since 2014, in 2019 he saw he could use it for work as well – and he jumped at the chance.
“In a week, I cleaned up my entire office, got rid of all the monitors and all the clutter, and just had my entry system, peripherals, a drink, and a box for my cat. “, he says. “All I have now is a chair and a keyboard.”
For Tomlinson, and a growing number of other professionals, working in virtual reality has proven to benefit their workflow and productivity.
“For me, it’s very liberating. I can resize, reposition, add or remove as much screen space as I need. I don’t have to squint or bend over, straining my neck, looking for an app window I just opened, or having trouble finding a place for something,” says Tomlinson, who wrote about his experience working in virtual reality in a blog that went viral called Working from Orbit.
Tomlinson currently works two to three days a week strictly inside the virtual world in his Oculus Quest 2 headset. He said it has improved his focus and productivity because he can compartmentalize a physically separate space in which to work, which limited distractions and put him in the zone using different VR apps like Immersed, Spatial, Horizon Workrooms, Noda, etc.
In addition, virtual reality gives him new abilities that cannot be replicated in the real world.
“Your whiteboard space can be endless and include objects, images, and things far beyond just grabbing a marker. You can scale things up and down – you can even resize yourself,” said he declared. “You can change the whole venue to have a meeting around a campfire or on top of a submarine.”
Tomlinson is one of more than 1,400 members of the XR4Work Facebook group, a community of people who share tips, experiences and industry news about working in the world of virtual reality.
Group co-creator Rick Casteel said members span a wide range of industries, including writers, developers, real estate agents, car designers and more, all of whom use virtual reality in their daily work.
Casteel said one particular use case he was seeing more and more of was using virtual reality for onboarding, giving the example of an airline that uses virtual reality to train new recruits.
Especially when it comes to onboarding remote employees, virtual reality makes perfect sense. According to a Nestlé Purina case study, the company saved $100,000 a year in travel costs and lost productivity by training 10 salespeople a month in virtual reality. Another PwC study found that virtual reality courses helped employees train up to four times faster than traditional methods. Other companies that have used virtual reality include DHL, Johnson-Johnson, Hilton and others.
Of course, working in a virtual world isn’t for everyone, and Casteel said it would take some time and some improvements in the space before critical masses embrace it.
“We’re still a bit in the gold rush era of this industry,” he says. “Once you start challenging people to take what they’ve been doing for so long on a flat screen and do it in 3D, that’s a different way of thinking and working, and that’s going to take some transitional time.”
Even when Tomlinson started working in VR on a daily basis, he said there were hurdles to overcome. previous versions were difficult to use and the headsets got too hot without a desktop fan to cool them.
“Right now, if you’re going to work in these environments, it’s work to get the job done,” Casteel says. “There are all these sorts of rough edges.”
However, Tomlinson says the experience is getting better as VR technology improves. But to really reach the masses, he said some improvements needed to be made in both hardware and software.
“Technology is moving in the right direction, but it will take time,” he says. “We need better displays that have to look more like a pair of glasses. It has to be convenient, comfortable and persistent.”
And while working in virtual reality isn’t the future of work for everyone, it could be the future for certain types of work environments and professions. Tomlinson argues that virtual reality will be commonplace in the workplace five years from now, especially as part of the shift to remote working.
“It shouldn’t replace human or physical connection, but I would see it replacing travel to future meetings and business functions at work,” he says.
Casteel encourages the curious to pick up a headset to see for themselves if you can benefit from working in VR.
“I put on this headset, and all of a sudden I’m sitting on top of a spaceship above the Earth, on a beach, or on top of a mountain. And, you know, that might sound a little cartoon. But after using VR for a while, you put your mind to it,” says Casteel.
“You really buy into it and you start to hear the hum of the spaceship. I can look to my right and see the Earth spinning. I’m alone and isolated in this space with this material I’m working on – I think its best.”