Virtual Reality in the workplace: the use of immersive technologies for internal communications
— June 27th, 2017
Immersive technologies include virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR). Over the last year, each has had its moment of fame in the public imagination, most notably Pokémon Go, an AR game that caught on to such an extent that public warning notices about safety had to be constructed.
This blog sets out to explore what role these technologies might have within an organization - how can you take the same power and capability that immersive technologies offer the external world, inside a workplace?
Any kind of digital media is a form of virtual reality; from cinema to TV to video streamed via mobile. These media enable us to engage with content that takes us out of the current time and place and puts us mentally somewhere else. Defined in this way, VR (and AR and MR) are merely extensions of these now traditional media, executed in a more powerful -one could say more obvious - way and harnessing more of our senses to do so.
What are the main differences? Interface: immersive technologies bring with them heads-up display (no more burying our heads in mobile phones or tablets), gesture activation, voice control and the ability to be able to track our bodies in space (through the reach of sensors embedded within the platforms). In short, they respond to our natural communication inclinations.
Immersive technologies represent to me the beginnings of a new way of computing, a new way of being connected, and signal the way we will be online in the future. The interfaces we have spent so much time on, and attention designing for, will be replaced by new forms of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) which accommodate a world beyond screens and clicks.
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From a communications perspective, this is the world that immersive technologies are preparing us for. How will immersive technologies help drive engagement, provide a competitive edge in the ‘war for talent’ and drive behavior change? How will immersive technologies change the way we run conferences, organize learning, conduct meetings, make a difference to collaboration?
A good example is L’Oréal’s ‘Beauty Lab’ which uses a large VR screen to enable internal teams to try, explore and discuss manufacturing and marketing strategies using digital prototypes of 47 products, speeding up the process of R&D to product launch from months to weeks.
Virtual conferences, or even the humble video conference call, may be replaced entirely by social VR apps where through virtual reality you will be able to join your colleagues and fully interact in VR space. Since Facebook acquired Oculus (a VR hardware manufacturer) in 2014 they have been investing in the idea of social VR experiences, meaning the barrier many people experience of being ‘cut off’ will be resolved. Facebook Spaces is a prototype environment whereby using the Oculus VR headset you log into your Facebook account and can interact with people and content within VR. While the content and concept are still currently cartoony you can see the drift toward live real-time collaboration in VR is becoming technically possible, at scale.
We often bemoan the speed at which internal communication teams are outpaced by technology adoption outside the working day and wonder how can teams deliver relevant communications content in a frictionless way while still respecting company policy and security compliance.
I remember the fierce debate that raged about BYOD; should we allow consumer technologies into the workplace? What is the risk? What is the reward? How can we accelerate and streamline the way internal communication happens, how can we make it more like ‘real life’ outside the workplace?
Working often with marketing communications teams, we observe that immersive technologies can help brands overcome what INITION’s CEO Adrian Leu describes as the problems of ‘signal, distance and time’ – how you get your message to cut through the noise, how to be always present in the customer journey and how to maintain connection with customers or consumers for longer. You can find some of his thinking on this here.
Much has been made of the ever-blurring distinctions between internal and external communications. If the challenges of the marketplace mirror the challenges of the workplace then there are common solutions that can be applied. There is a less gradual shift about to happen, however.
Just as millennials changed the world of work, bringing their expectations of digital fluidity and more meritocratic structures, in another ten years in the developed world expect a generation of people coming into the workplace who have been brought up as immersive technologies have matured.
The next generation will expect to be able to collaborate in real-time on design within a virtual framework, they will move fluidly between physical and augmented realities, they will know how to navigate these new digital interfaces seamlessly and have advanced digital identities that are personalized not only to the extent of visual recognition, but very probably biometric recognition as well. They will likely bring with them their own devices – consoles, headsets or whatever replaces them.
This generation will have integrated digital assistants into their lives, in the form of consumer grade Artificial Intelligence. They will have not only the world at their fingertips through the internet, but the ability to parse quickly and move far more deeply within it than we currently achieve through a search bar and a browser screen. They will likely have dispensed with having a mobile device, preferring their digital information to be accessible to them via wearable technology and they will prefer the virtual interface as a more natural and effective way to communicate.
How can workplaces and communications professionals prepare for that future?
Just as mobile technologies transformed the world of work in the last decade, immersive technologies, in tandem with Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), will transform the way we think, make and collaborate.
Innovation drives hiring – people want opportunities to adopt new tools, where such tools have proven-use cases. In technical areas such as architecture, engineering and manufacturing virtual reality and augmented reality are already being used to improve the design process. In VR you can quickly prototype an environment and explore its features; equally useful whether you are a designer, or tasked with community engagement, or sales.
In advanced manufacturing, augmented and mixed reality platforms are being used to be able to quickly share and iterate designs, often then using iterative manufacturing methods such as 3D printing to both speed up and make processes more cost-effective. Any industry that has ready access to 3D data finds the move to VR or AR platforms relatively easy since immersive technology uses 3D models of the real world as its basis. That encompasses a wide range of industrial applications.
Within the world of communications and marketing there are likewise changes already afoot. Just as social media mapped our social worlds and brought them online (creating new communities in the process), immersive technologies are the portal through which digital and physical realities will gradually map one another, creating a more blended sense of where the physical and digital start and stop.
When you put on a HoloLens headset, for example, you can see digital content within the room you are standing in. Let’s use for example a digital car. The car is three dimensional and scales, becoming smaller the further away I walk from it, and bigger the closer I get. It is also interactive – I can make it bigger, smaller, rotate it or change its color. It is like responsive design for three-dimensional space. If I am a designer or an engineer I can be in discussion with my colleagues in the room around me, and if they were also wearing headsets we would all be able to see and interact with the same car. Subtle directional speakers allow me to hear audio from HoloLens, while still being able to conduct a conversation in the room.
We see the move toward real-time 360 live streaming with Facebook’s development of Oculus’s platform; the trend toward video becoming immersive by default through YouTube360 and Google’s expansions into affordable headsets with Cardboard and Daydream. Add to that the expansion of gaming consoles such as Sony PlayStation VR into living rooms and bedrooms and the infrastructure to access VR content is there.
In the future, you might use your PlayStation, or Facebook Spaces or HoloLens (or the contemporary equivalent of what all these platforms become) to research, connect or collaborate with colleagues for work-related tasks, just as we currently use Skype. If that sounds farfetched, we should be reminded that the ‘personal computer’ was initially dismissed by established players such as IBM, which famously and falsely predicted that there would be a world market for around five computers in 1943. Never say never.
Just as Pokémon Go brought AR into the mainstream, technology companies such as Apple are very likely developing AR-native versions of smartphones, which will enable us to access digital content layers as we move about. The implications of these changes for workplace management and employee engagement should not be underestimated.
Imagine the kinds of workplace content that could be unlocked if every smartphone had native AR integration. Internal communications messaging that currently goes via desktop for office-based employees, or video or face to face for the non-desk based workforce could be unlocked or activated as people move through buildings, directly to their devices.
That content could be truly useful and help employees by making suggestions and alerting them to changes: at lunchtime, for example - that a lift is out of order, to menu planning, to learning and development sessions taking place. As employees build digital profiles, that content can be personalized and made more useful to the individual throughout the working day. Company-wide targets, such as reduction of C02 emissions, or reminders about company values or health and safety information can be unlocked in appropriate places.
The success measure of most internal communications activities are engagement and behavior change. In an external communications marketing context, immersive technologies increase engagement, whether that is measured by emotional response, dwell time or impressions, likes and shares. Behavior change has also met with trackable success. This can be largely linked to immersive media’s ability to act as an ‘empathy machine’, putting audiences into the shoes of other people and enabling us to experience the world in a different way.
Currently, internal communication teams use video to do this, effectively exploiting the power of film craft to provide both information, but also an emotional, human connection to other people and other places. Webcasting and other incarnations of broadcast media moved onto the boardroom agenda and most leadership teams engage in some form of direct video exchange with their employee base. Virtual reality can take this one step further, enabling colleagues to become immersed in another context, place or situation.
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In contexts such as management training, or crisis simulation, VR can provide a platform where scenarios can be constructed in a way that more accurately mirrors how events unfold in the real world than through single-screen video content. Through VR interactivity you can measure and monitor the choices an individual makes and play those choices back to them offline.
Where we have empathy or compassion for others, we are more likely to make changes in our own lives. We have seen the effect of this in our work with Charities, Nonprofits and NGOs for awareness raising and fundraising, but these are benefits that internal communicators can easily leverage to build both engagement and behavior change within workplace communities by enabling individuals, and increasingly groups, to experience the perspective of colleagues as well as bringing international sites closer virtually.
In this way, immersive technologies can take the dual role of both expanding workplace understanding and driving engagement as well as shrinking the distance between remote locations.
Whereas media such as single screen video or imagery can connect us to stories through the power of visual communication, immersive technologies enable us to literally be the change we want to see.