For Years, VR Promised to Replace the Office. Could It Really Happen Now?

Those of us who work on distributed teams have become accustomed to a workplace tool that, even after almost two decades, still feels very sci-fi. It’s cheap, it’s seamless, and it’s ubiquitous: video chat.

Chatting with video has long felt like an inevitability; it’d been featured in popular culture since at least the advent of the telephone. From The Jetsons to Star Trek, many of our utopian visions of the future involved the simple but rather magical concept of broadcasting your face across the globe, if not the galaxy.

And yet, even the best video chat experiences can’t quite match the fidelity of a face-to-face conversation in a physical space. There is so much nuance and context to human communication that is lost, especially when conversing in groups. It’s why many distributed companies still have in-person team meetups and all-company gatherings — technology simply can’t replace the human connection of being together. But in the global economy, it’s not realistic for workers to be present in the same country, let alone the same office. So video chat has been embraced by remote teams as a useful tool that allows them to maintain a semblance of human contact among their members.

John Vechey believes technology can do better. His company, Pluto VR, is aiming to usher in the next big innovation in communications technology. There are a lot of terms for it—VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality), XR (extended reality). Vechey prefers to call it Spatial Computing.

Distributed Podcast: Hear Matt Mullenweg in conversation with John Vechey. Read the transcript.

At the turn of the millennium, Vechey saw a big opportunity. Gaming was a growing sector, but most game developers were competing against one another for a core demographic of young men. These gamers were willing to spend lots of money on the latest technology, and expected their games to take full advantage of the newest graphics cards and game engines.

Vechey founded PopCap Games with the intention to target communities outside the young-male demographic. They released quirky casual games that were approachable, G-rated, inexpensive or free, and available on many platforms. The company’s first megahit, the gem-sliding puzzle game Bejeweled, has sold over 75 million copies, and has been downloaded more than 150 million times — and that’s not counting the three sequels. The company followed this success with Zuma, Peggle, and Plants vs. Zombies, all catering to a mass audience of casual gamers. Over time, the company’s revenue split moved from desktop sales to browser-based sales. When the mobile revolution opened up the casual gaming space to anyone with a smartphone, the company leveraged its peerless library of titles and transformed them into apps. Electronic Arts acquired PopCap Games in 2011 for $650 million. Vechey continued to work for the company for another three years, but he was getting restless in the gaming space. He had spent 14 years of his life in casual gaming, and was ready for something new.

Image Credit: PlutoVR

Redefining digital communication

Inspiration struck Vechey at the 2014 D.I.C.E. Summit gaming conference, where he caught a talk by then-21-year-old Palmer Luckey, the cofounder of Oculus, a VR hardware company. Two years prior, Oculus had made waves in the media for its successful crowdfunding campaign, which raised $2.4 million toward the development of  a VR headset called the Oculus Rift. Luckey made a compelling case that VR tech was advancing quickly, and that the dream of ubiquitous consumer VR was closer than we’d thought. He passionately argued that immersive VR technology had been around for a while, but just wasn’t cheap enough for mainstream adoption. He proposed that VR would not be limited to gaming experiences, but would expand into education, tourism, entertainment, or even work. One slide boasted that “Virtual reality will redefine digital communication.”

The talk ignited Vechey’s curiosity, and he recognized that he would need to move quickly if he wanted to be part of this revolution. He began to ask around about this VR thing. Was it real? Was it really the future? These fact-finding missions led Vechey to Impossible Object, a VR startup tucked away in a Seattle suburb. The cofounders, Forest Gibson and Jared Cheshier, introduced themselves and instructed Vechey, “Take your pants off, and put this suit on.” What happened next changed his life.

I had experienced a bunch of different experiments that they had done, where I could walk around the room, I could look at my own body, I could manipulate things with my hands — things that weren’t possible with the current consumer VR hardware. And so I was like, “That was amazing, what are you doing with this? What’s your plan?”

The cofounders explained that their rig included a $40,000 motion-capture system, so they weren’t expecting to sell the hardware.

They were like, “Well we’re not thinking that anyone’s gonna buy this $40,000 motion-capture system, but we think this is where VR is going so we’re trying to learn as much as we can about the future five years from now instead of trying to think about how to develop for the world right now, which is going to rapidly change.”

Vechey joined forces with Gibson and Cheshier, and together they cofounded Pluto VR. They weren’t interested in staying within the confines of the gaming space. Like Palmer Luckey, Vechey and his new partners believed that VR would transcend gaming and lead to a new form of communication.

We really felt that the power of what was happening with virtual reality at the time wasn’t just that you could go to a place but that you could go to a place with someone else… It wasn’t just like, “cool—I can essentially take a drug and space out.” It was more about like, “Well, what can we do together?”

Humans spend so much time and money to be in proximity to other people. We sit in traffic so we can be near our coworkers. We pay exorbitant fares to fly home for the holidays. We rack up frequent-flier miles to attend industry conferences. We Uber across town to grab drinks with friends. We do this because we value being physically present with others. The communication we share in face-to-face physical proximity is of a higher fidelity than that of a phone or video call, and that intimacy and context makes us feel more connected.

Could we ever get to a technology that was so good at visually simulating the presence and context of a conversation in physical space that we wouldn’t tell the difference? And what if the time and money costs of such an arrangement were minimal?

As Vechey puts it, “It’s nice to be in a car for a little bit, it’s nice to be on a bus for a little bit, but it’s not really serving my life. I could’ve been more present working on something, reading, or just sitting out in the sun.” As he sees it, spatial computing promises not just trippy, immersive experiences for individuals, but cheap and seamless high-fidelity conversations that transcend geographic and other material limitations. They want to collapse the material world and the cost of moving around in it. Pluto VR’s motto is lofty, but they take it seriously: “Help humanity transcend physical location.”

‘Let’s jump on a Pluto’

Vechey believes that VR communications will replace the current use cases for video chat. You won’t sit all day in a virtual environment with your coworkers, but you’ll be instantly whisked into that environment when it’s time to “jump on a call.” Which is a relief: for now, prolonged stretches of desk work in VR can be unpleasant, with users complaining of eye strain and nausea.

For those of us who spend countless hours on video calls each year, the possibility to improve communication fidelity is intriguing. Geographically diverse teams might be able to recapture some of the social capital that is sometimes lost when team members are working remotely.

When we talk about distributed workers, we mostly think about people who sit at a computer all day, tethered to the tools that allow them to work remotely. But in a virtual world, there is immense possibility to go beyond desk work and to diversify the types of jobs that can be performed in a distributed fashion.

Imagine world-class surgeons controlling robotic instruments through a VR headset, performing precise surgeries on patients lying in an operating theater on the other side of the world. Or an HR department conducting interviews with far-flung applicants and giving them a virtual tour of the office, without having to fly them into the HQ city. Or a therapist conducting a virtual practice so patients don’t have to interrupt their work day to get the mental care they require. If the VR community’s most enthusiastic prognosticators are correct, astronauts will train in VR, students will attend VR classes, and shoppers will try on new outfits in the virtual space. When geography no longer matters, all kinds of businesses will be able to coordinate their work and interface with clients and customers without having to think about where they’re located.

The long, long road to mass-market VR

Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly introduced much of the world to virtual reality in the pages of the Whole Earth Review, way back in 1989, when he visited the studio of technologist Jaron Lanier. He strapped on a pair of homemade goggles and a black glove, and entered a cartoony, blocky world of Lanier’s creation. Even back then, the technology was advanced enough to stun Kelly. But here we are, three decades later, and mass-market VR has yet to arrive. Over the years, the textures of virtual spaces advanced in quality, but the cost has remained prohibitively high for mass adoption.

And then came the smartphone, a tiny dynamo of a computer with a high-resolution screen, gyroscopes, and motion sensors. You can carry it around in your pocket, and it’s cheap enough for the masses. These machines lack the oomph to power the most advanced virtual environments, but they are good enough to create experiences that shock new users with their immersive capabilities. Earlier this month, Facebook’s Oculus team released the Oculus Quest, a stand-alone VR headset. The all-in-one system isn’t as powerful as a state-of-the-art gaming PC, but it’s self-contained, so the user is free to move around without restrictions. At a release price of $399 USD, it offers a VR experience that’s more robust than a smartphone-based system, but much more affordable than the price of a headset requiring the additional purchase of a gaming PC.

Vechey describes the experience of communicating in VR as so visually immersive that if your conversation partner were to leave the room and come back using an avatar — a visual representation that doesn’t look anything like their real body — it wouldn’t take long for the person’s body language and conversational style to be recognized by your brain. This is the level of fidelity that might be lost in a phone or video call.

The quality of communication that you can have in the room, the body cues, the visual cues, the pace of the conversation, the empathetic experience you can get in-person is very different than you can get even on the best that video chat can provide.

Sharing presence and context

Vechey separates the elements of a high fidelity conversation into shared presence and shared context. The former is the quality of the conversation. As Kevin Kelly describes it:

Virtual landscapes, virtual objects, and virtual characters seem to be there — a perception that is not so much a visual illusion as a gut feeling. That’s magical. But the second thing it does is more important. The technology forces you to be present — in a way flatscreens do not — so that you gain authentic experiences, as authentic as in real life. People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them.

Then there’s shared context, which represents the information and cues one is able to receive. Kelly continues:

[I]n real life you have all kinds of information to know when and how to engage in a conversation and what’s appropriate or not. Like, we’re all in the same physical office building, [and] you treat it differently than if you randomly run into a coworker in a coffee shop, which is different than if your coworker randomly showed up at your house, right? So there’s all this content you have about physical location that gives you insight and control over when and how to engage.

The Pluto team made the decision to pursue a cross-platform experience because the industry is moving so quickly, and it’s not yet clear what the prevailing hardware will be. Their goal is to allow people with different kinds of computers, headsets, and mobile devices to talk to one another through Pluto VR. Eventually, says Vechey, the industry will have its “iPhone moment,” and a product or platform will arrive that catalyzes the industry and coheres development around that piece of consumer technology. When that happens, the era of spatial computing — when computing understands the physical three-dimensional world — will be upon us.

I think it’s going to happen in a very similar way where you’re going to see all these different things that don’t seem related to each other, or they seem like they’re competing with each other, and then at some point someone’s going to release a piece of hardware that has some attribute — like it’s going to be wearable, it’s going to be always on or always with you… You’re not technically always using it but it’s always kind of on, it’s really accessible to start it, it’s going to be able to do a virtual reality mode and a mixed reality mode. That inflection point is somewhere in the future, call it two to four years, if you will.

Vechey and his team are focused on developing the best communication service that works on all relevant devices (not unlike PopCap’s strategy) so when that inflection point happens, Pluto VR will be ready.

Even though VR is cheaper and more accessible than ever, there are some technical hurdles that still stand in the way of industry coherence. The VR community is nonetheless thriving, and works to provide solutions to such hurdles. For example, Vechey says, the open-standards body OpenXR has created an API as a provisional release.

So things like that are now saying, “Hey, what if, as an application developer, you could just do a spatial application and that could run anywhere?” Right now, if you want to make an…  iPhone Air application, it’s completely different than doing an Oculus Rift application, which is different than a Magic Leap application. But with OpenXR spec, it’s really exciting, because as that gets adopted and more run-time supported, you’ll just be able to make a spatial application and it’ll be able to work anywhere.

Actualizing the virtual future

Pluto itself isn’t distributed yet, but they’re working on it. “So we’re actually actively working on the Pluto 2.0 phase. And that is one where we will be office optional,” says Vechey. His team works with a lot of cutting-edge hardware in their lab, so some of their employees need to be in proximity to that, but he says the company’s moving toward a world where full-time Pluto employees aren’t tied to where they’re physically located. “This is the year of ‘How do we live our purpose?’”

Even before they reach that milestone, Pluto VR conducts all their stand up meetings virtually, as a proof of concept, even though most of them are sitting in the same room. “All the engineers get into VR — actually, they’re often sitting — and then they just go around the room… I do a check-in, here’s what I did yesterday, and here’s what I’m getting done today. And there’s some live troubleshooting of issues if need be.” It’s a perfect glimpse of how such technology might serve distributed teams in the near future.

For more, read the transcript of this episode.

Illustration by Eric Pieper

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