Photographer: Eugenio Marongiu/Getty Images/Cultura RF

How Working in VR Could Make You More Productive

Escape the distracting reality of your open office.

If you’re willing to strap on a headset and headphones, virtual reality can immerse you in another world. This teleportation act is great for gaming, but it also got me thinking: Can the distraction-dimming effects of VR transport the typical office worker out of an open office and away from chatty co-workers, and perhaps help with focus and productivity in the process?

After experimenting with several software applications that bring your PC desktop into virtual reality, and speaking to early adopters who have spent months working in these environments, I’m convinced that VR can make at least some office workers more productive. Think of the technology as an enormous screen that wraps all the way around your head, giving you the world’s largest multi-monitor setup.

“I work in an open office with typical noise and fluorescent lights, and working in VR helps me tune it out and see nothing but my work in the exact environment I want,” says Jack Donovan, a New York-based software engineer who often wears an Oculus Rift VR headset while he works. “I’ve been working like this for about four months, and it really helps for tasks like coding, where I want to be hyperfocused on one thing and avoid distractions.”

Virtual Desktop, Envelop, and Bigscreen are among the most notable applications that can transport your desktop PC into a virtual world. All three programs currently work only with Windows and require a high-end PC-connected VR rig such as an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

Virtual Desktop is the most basic of the trio and gives users a bare-bones VR translation of their desktop. Essentially, it looks like a wraparound workspace that’s far larger than any monitor on the market. As the most straightforward VR desktop app, Virtual Desktop is best for people who want a big-screen experience without a steep learning curve.

Envelop does a better job taking advantage of the capabilities of VR by allowing users to position applications in a three-dimensional space. “If you think of a computer monitor as a window into a virtual world, using Envelop is like being on the other side of that window,” Donovan says. “You’re free to actually ‘touch,’ move, and manipulate your applications” without the barrier of a monitor, he adds.

Bigscreen is designed for more collaborative work. The program creates a shared virtual environment (complete with virtual sofas), where other users in far-flung locations can come hang out and share a screen. “I like that it lets you pick an environment that helps set the tone for what you’re working on,” Donovan says. “So you can decide that you want to work while sitting on a roof, or on the beach, or in a Victorian mansion with a fireplace.”

So what kind of work is best suited for VR—and where does actual reality still rule? The early adopters I interviewed all pointed to visual tasks such as Photoshop as working well in VR. “If you’re designing something like a billboard, in VR you can resize it so it literally seems as big as a real billboard, and you can see what it will look like at this scale,” Donovan says.

The technology still struggles with work that involves heavy amounts of text. While the resolution on VR headsets is improving, it can be difficult to adjust your headset and application windows so that text renders without blur. Plus, you can’t actually see your keyboard or mouse. To get any work done in VR, you have to be an excellent touch-typer, which may be a challenge for some users. Envelop does let you use a webcam to stream a live feed of your hands and keyboard into your field of view, which makes things somewhat easier.

Finally, the headsets themselves can also become uncomfortable to wear after long stretches of time. 1 The people I interviewed all said the Oculus Rift is more comfortable than the HTC Vive when it comes to all-day usage.

Bottom line: The entire VR industry is still in its infancy, but as headsets get cheaper and productivity software gets better, I’d be shocked if VR didn’t grow into a go-to solution for the issues that come with getting work done in an open office. Just be sure to practice your touch-typing.

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