Cubicles to Pixels: remote work in the age of mixed reality

It was widely accepted that we’d been living in the OOO era for over a decade. Work wherever, whenever…all you needed was a laptop and an Internet connection. In truth, the majority still commuted to a fixed office space, while a significant minority had embraced a coworking model that saw them move between a handful of buildings operated by one provider. By contrast, the current epidemic has enforced remote working on an unimaginable scale. Irrespective of location, size or sector, businesses are having to figure out on the fly how to operate effectively as an atomized unit. One solution undoubtedly lies in virtual space, which allows workers to be in something approaching each other’s presence whilst remaining functionally apart. Here we republish an essay from Frame 126  in which we investigate the companies who have been early adopters of such strategies, and the technologies that allow them do so.

It seems ironic that one of the first companies to entirely replace bricks and mortar with virtual offices, deals in bricks and mortar for its bread and butter. If, however, you consider the evolution of office design, from the cubicle to the open-plan office to the ever more common hot-desk, as the pursuit of maximum productivity – and therefore profitability – per square metre, then eXp Realty’s decision to forego physical offices begins to make more sense. CEO Glenn Sanford founded the real estate brokerage in the wake of 2007’s US housing collapse. Unable to afford the expense of real-life offices scattered across the country – or risk another property price plunge – he sought an alternative to renting or buying buildings for his employees to work in.

43 per cent of the US workforce currently does some work remotely

You only need look at the number of laptops in your local café or the growing number of co-working spaces in cities to know more and more people today are working away from an allocated office. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, by 2020 three quarters of Americans will work on mobile devices. The capacity to work from afar and connect to the internet means that 43 per cent of the US workforce currently does some work remotely; 20 per cent does so all the time. Factor in the escalating costs of living in urban centres and innovation hubs – so much so in the case of Silicon Valley that employers, including Oculus and Mozilla, now prefer to recruit remotely for economic reasons – and the need for tools that enable people to work off-site, dispersed, but still together almost seems obvious. 

The virtual campus of eXp Realty is the primary connecting point for the company’s 14,000 staff. The campus offers a range of different environments, from meeting rooms and auditoria to sports fields and beaches.

Expanded Horizons

Sanford’s solution to the problem is eXp World. Developed with California-based software company VirBELA, and launched in 2016, eXp Realty’s headquarters is a virtual online world similar to Second Life. The digital relocation has proven to be a major growth engine: since eXp World’s launch, eXp Realty’s stock price has surged and having had 6,500 agents at the start of 2018, the company now boasts 14,000. A significant number of employees spend between 20 and 30 hours a week in eXp World. There, they attend meetings, training sessions, receive technical support and collaborate on cloud-based documents.

Getting to eXp World is easy: viewed onscreen, you just download the software to your computer and customise your avatar. Before you know it, you are in leafy surrounds on a sunny, low-fidelity campus marked by two iconic skyscrapers, various low-rise buildings and a riverside forecourt, as well as by a beach, a soccer field and a pirate ship. Walking around – done by pressing the arrow keys on your keyboard – is like strolling through a theme park. There is no dirt, traffic or ambient noise. All you hear are chirping birds and human voices that, thanks to 3D distributed audio, get louder or quieter as you get closer to or further away from other avatars. And if you don’t want to walk, you don’t have to: a dropdown menu will teleport you to any building; clicking on a map of the USA at Brokerage Operations will take you to any state office. eXp World is even fun. On a day in late October, the campus is peppered with spiderwebs, pumpkins and witch’s hats. You can also go on a scavenger hunt: click on any one of nine owls hidden around campus and they’ll reveal a company core value.

Introverted people tend to be more comfortable in the avatar environment

Behaviour Change

Beyond its whimsicality, the virtual world has some distinct behavioural advantages over the real one: ‘Introverted people tend to be more comfortable in the avatar environment. They find it easier to “lean into” conversations that they might not typically “lean into”,’ Alex Howland, CEO of VirBELA, who has a background in organizational psychology, explains. But if you’re working on your laptop from home or at a local café, is the actual design of the virtual space even important? Howland is unequivocal: ‘What the room looks like matters. If you put ten people in the auditorium, there will be less communication than if you put those same ten people in a small conference room.’ Just as in the real world, different kinds of spaces will induce different kinds of social interactions. ‘We used to have dark rooms for people to meet in and people complained it felt depressing,’ Howland adds. Besides the auditorium, eXp World offers a variety of meeting environments, including high-rise offices, waterside glass-fronted pods and outdoor seating. The soccer field, by the way, is handy for stand-around chats – letting other people know they may join in. Employees have also used it for self-organized group exercise classes: they project workout videos on the stadium screen and all do gym from home.

With Dream, Doug Wormhoudt and Idan Beck wanted to create an inspirational but unintrusive environment and instead place emphasis on communicating body language.

Doug Wormhoudt, co-founder, with Idan Beck, of the online collaboration platform Dream, which launched last October, asserts that to be conducive to work, a virtual environment must be ‘relaxing but not too fantastical’. If the designers at eXp World have achieved a pleasant atmosphere with futurist-looking buildings and lots of glass and raised ceilings that increase the semblance of natural light, the developers at Dream realized their ambience less literally. When you meet your workmates in Dream, you meet in a cave that opens onto a lake and a view of treelined hills. There, you gather around a prehistoric stone conference table and an outdoor screen on which you can surf the internet and work on documents as a group. Dream’s emphasis is on the quality of the human interaction. ‘Most communication is non-verbal,’ Wormhoudt remarks. The software works best with a VR headset – Dream is designed for use with Oculus – and hand controls. These carry real data about your head position and hand gestures directly to your avatar. Rather than a limited lexicon of keyboard-operated standard movements – in eXp World, you can clap, wave, shrug and dance – Dream simulates your real head and hand movements while you talk.

Cut-paste and right-click were interactions that somebody had to invent before they became ubiquitous

Mediating Reality

One of the things that makes software design for spatial technology so interesting is that it requires careful consideration of how the digital world should relate to the real one and how, as users of the software, humans should engage with the virtual environment. For Dream, the philosophy is simple: ‘We don’t fall into the trap of novelty. We ask “How do I get the most power with the least cognitive dissonance?” We’re not necessarily after a facsimile of the real world. And if we can’t do something well, we don’t do it,’ asserts Wormhoudt. As a result, since headsets can’t yet provide accurate information on the body’s movements or position, in Dream, your avatar is only head and hands.

Wormhoudt is quick to remind us, ‘Cut-paste and right-click were interactions that somebody had to invent before they became ubiquitous.’ He and Beck found the point-and-click system of most existing virtual keyboards too laborious, so they went to the trouble of creating their own virtual reality interface protocols from scratch. In Dream, you play the keyboard with virtual mallets like you’re playing a xylophone. eXp World’s avatars and interface may seem fey and rudimentary by comparison, but eXp Realty’s Chief Technology Officer Scott Petronis insists there’s a reason their avatars remain cartoonish: ‘There’s psychology to it. People often ask why we can’t make the avatars more lifelike. The reality is that that would be really creepy for people...'

Interface designer Jinha Lee disagrees. He sees a gradually diminishing wall between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional worlds in the evolution of computing. He co-founded Spatial, which launched in October 2018. Instead of an alternative immersive environment, Spatial uses augmented reality to turn any physical room into a 3D collaborative workspace. Never mind being uncanny, Spatial comes closest to realizing experiences hitherto only familiar to us from sci-fi movies, by ushering the digital world completely, seamlessly – and almost tangibly – into our existing space. Designed to work with a Hololens headset, Spatial allows you to conjure all kinds of media in front of you like you are a magician. Photos, websites, post-its, webcam feeds, 3D models, even text and drawn lines appear suspended in mid-air. Everything, whether conventionally composed of flesh, ink, text, image or 3D-illusion, shimmers in high-resolution pixels. And crucially, there are no buttons to click: ‘You just do what comes naturally,’ Lee explains. You grab and arrange digital information with your bare hands, you orchestrate media in and out of the room, you can even swipe data from your phone there. Rather than being a cartoon-like avatar, you are a holographic, photorealistic version of yourself. Your colleagues are in the room with you like genies; they are ghostly apparitions, pictured from the waist up.

Instead of an alternative immersive environment, Spatial uses augmented reality to allow teams of remote and onsite workers to collaborate on projects more intuitively.

Evolving Infrastructure

Doomsayers speculating on the prospect of a future in which everyone is walking around wearing headsets worry that we will become permanently distracted from the real world. They warn of losing our sense of a shared environment and basis in reality. Wormhoudt, Petronis, Beck and Lee, however, are as upbeat as the immersive worlds they have created. They have no doubts about a technology-led future. Wormhoudt believes ‘VR and AR spatial tech has the ability to follow through on the internet’s promise of letting us all work together’. Petronis waxes lyrical about the huge benefits to sustainability by eliminating the daily commute. Beck even believes in VR collaboration software’s capacity to compensate for lagging infrastructure such as public transport. If the technology works the way he wants it to, Lee hopes we will no longer be permanently head down, eyes glued to our phones: ‘We’ll be able to stand up and look straight ahead with our bodies open to the world in front of us.’

VR and AR spatial tech has the ability to follow through on the internet’s promise of letting us all work together

The logical end of this is a significant reduction in demand for brick-and-mortar offices. ‘Instead all we’ll need is a blank white room,’ Lee imagines. But is this what we want? And who will be responsible for installing these minimalist white cells? At the moment, eXp Realty equips all employees with memberships to co-working spaces much like many employers dish out gym memberships. But who is to say, if working remotely becomes par for the course, that the employee, rather than the employer, will not have to shoulder the responsibility for finding a physical workspace?

Looked at another way, working without brick-and-mortar offices could reverse the flow of populations into big cities. Wormhoudt muses: ‘I grew up in a small farming town in Iowa. These days it’s mostly just retirees and people dealing with poverty or drug addiction or both. There’s not enough industry to provide jobs so people can afford to live there. It begs the question what if we could decouple where we work from where we live?’ With the help of virtual and augmented reality, it seems we can.

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