How we’re using virtual reality to look after our teams during lockdowns
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Why VR now?
Following two lockdowns, with the second time being a bit more prepared, we started looking into ways to help our teams stay in touch in ways as close as possible to being in person. Zooms and all the video platforms have been great, but simply speaking, nothing replaces hearing and interacting with someone present in the physical space. Even if it’s just passing a coffee, tossing a ball, doing high-fives. I am using my body, moving about, rather than staring at a screen all day long.
So here we are, gifting every staff in our company a VR headset.
Having run a couple of pilots and just placed a mass order of headsets, I am keen to share this journey with others who are thinking about VRs help their own teams through the pandemic. VR technology is not new, and it is maturing very fast, meaning it is now very realistic and enjoyable to play and interact in VR, and it will be here to stay and transform the future. However, I can see the many barriers to implementing them at this stage. Being a startup COO, naturally I wear many hats, from IT to marketing to HR leads, so I see the challenges and benefits from all these perspectives. Here are few pointers to consider, and we will also discuss the roadmaps and some free templates that you can use for your team.
Use cases and apps
The most compelling reasons for us are to help staff feel connected through team building activities, unwind from work, stay fit through fun VR physical exercises, and enjoy being in meetings more (or hating them less!). Other possible use cases are pair programming, hands-free remote learning and assist, to spatial planning, design, and visualisation. Given the additional administration and costs required to manage new, non-standard devices with access to work resources, we decided to mainly use these headsets for fun, meetings and some screensharing only.
In our pilot tests, these apps are fantastic:
For watching movies: Bigscreen. Remember the time when you go watch movies with colleagues, share a popcorn, discuss plot holes? Bigscreen is a VR app to be together in the same cinema theatre.
Big screen VR cinema (live multiplayer, free app plus ‘movie tickets’ ~£3.99/show). Image source: https://www.bigscreenvr.com/
For social: VRChat and Alcove. VRChat offers a range of environments and interactive experiences. It caters for pretty much everyone from folks who like to meet up over a coffee in nice sceneries to those who prefer to do paintball, escape rooms, to climbing instead. Some people have met the love of their lives on VRChat; this application is out of scope for us though!. Alcove on the other hand feels like gathering with your family in a holiday home, doing a bit of chess, movies to doing a quick Paris bus tour together.
Image Credit: AARP Innovation Lab
Alternatives: Recroom (this one feels a bit campus-y for me with very young players; however game-wise they can be better than VRChat), vTime XR (16+ only, and you can control who can join your chat circles and the environments; but the interactions are very limited. It also asks a lot of permissions).
For staying fit: Beat Saber (now owned by Facebook) and Eleven table tennis. I like how fun Beat Saber is and it’s a game that will build up hand-eye coordination for everyone. With Eleven you can talk to your opponent player, and so far I have made a few friends around the world who can play with me regularly as a friendly sport.
Beat Saber now comes with fitness tracking. (Image credit: Facebook)
For meeting and collaboration: Spatial VR, immersed VR. Spatial VR offers beautiful virtual workplace rooms and collaborative tools so you can do standups, meetings with unlimited whiteboards, screenshares, projections… I really like that the app turns your 2D headshots into photorealistic 3D avatars in 2 clicks in case you don’t want to turn up to meetings in cartoon-y avatars or anime costumes. Immersed VR on the other hand offers virtual co-working cafes (with strangers around the world!) as well as private co-working offices and inlaying your paired real-life keyboard for a fully immersive, no-controller working experience in VR all day long. If only the virtual coffee and croissants were edible.
Image credit: Spatial VR
Image credit: Immersed VR
We have chosen Oculus Quest 2 for the ease of it, since they are great standalone without high performance computers, and we’re only using the Quests for entertainment and meetings (this blog is not sponsored by anyway!). The main ‘issue’ is it requires you to have a Facebook account, and losing a Facebook account after owning the Quest can mean losing whatever you have paid for in the app. We pay for the devices plus initial accessories / apps, then our staff can use it with their own accounts and get additional apps however they like.
There are many other headsets (HP Reverb 2, Microsoft Hololens, Magic Leap) much more capable, allowing you to see mixed reality like in the picture below, but they are way more expensive (£2,500 plus as of writing), so we will be only buying them for shared / specific uses like customer demo, office planning (post-pandemic, of course), in-office training, 3D designs.
Here are key steps that we have been doing:
1. Have a proposal for the management team – usually by IT lead
2. Prepare a communication plan – usually by HR + management team
3. Prep a ‘happiness parcel’ – usually by HR + management team
4. Prep getting started guides to ensure your team can make the most straightaway – usually by IT lead
5. Line up events and activities for people to look forward to – usually by HR + marketing team and also any early adopters / VR evangelists you have in the company
6. Measure adoption and other impact metrics – usually by IT / HR / marketing
Everyone in our team is excited about this new initiative, and personally I really think VR is the future. We’re barely scratching the surface here of what is possible as use cases, and it will keep getting better as more contents, apps, hardware, groups, communities are launched – just like the evolution of the internet. We will learn a lot as this journey unfolds, and will share them as much as we can, so stay tuned!