Virtual Reality Office Work Rising Due to Covid Pandemic : The Indicator from Planet Money The Indicator team has been working remotely for about a year now. While remote work has its perks, sometimes we miss sharing an office space. Can virtual reality help bridge the gap?
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The Virtual Office

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The Virtual Office

The Virtual Office

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC'S "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. It has been more than a year since we at THE INDICATOR started working from home.

GARCIA: Yeah, and it's brought some perks for sure, like wearing sweatpants all day or taking the occasional mid-day nap.

SMITH: Interview. It's an interview.

GARCIA: Yeah. But also, it's not quite the same as being in the office.

SMITH: Yeah. You know, we were talking about this. Like, back when we were at the office, we would just bounce ideas off each other all the time. Like, you know, someone on our team would say, like, hey, did you see this news story? Someone else would jump in with like an economic concept that applied.

GARCIA: Yeah. So these ideas would get better as we discussed them, and our shows would get smarter in this kind of amazing organic way. There's a word for this that everyone hates - synergy.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, I mean, I - it's true, though, right? Staring at a bunch of little squares on Zoom, it's not the same. I actually - I miss the synergy.

GARCIA: So recently we decided to try something - to meet up together in an actual meeting room.

SMITH: Someone else is here. There's Cardiff.

GARCIA: I'm here. I'm here. I'm here.

SMITH: Hi. Woo.

GARCIA: And it was a beautiful space, you know, high ceilings, spiral staircase, huge windows, very like mod furniture, a lot of plants.

SMITH: A nice room, right? What do you think?

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: Yeah, I think I have this pillow. I don't know. Looks like an IKEA classic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2, BYLINE: Where are our lower bodies?

GARCIA: This was a weird meeting.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Yes. We should clarify that this room was not in the physical world. We met in a virtual reality world where, by the way, everyone was just a torso, a floating torso. And meeting in a place like this in a virtual reality conference room is a pretty new thing. But the pandemic has just supercharged interest and investment in virtual reality. VR is now worth nearly $16 billion, and that is expected to almost double in just the next five years.

And recently, a bunch of VR startups have cropped up that cater to companies and universities. They help people meet up and learn and have meetings in virtual spaces. Bhushan Sethi works for PWC. It's a consulting firm. And they've done a bunch of studies on virtual reality.

BHUSHAN SETHI: This will be not just the workplace of the future, but the education of the future.

GARCIA: Bhushan is a true believer. He actually organized a meeting in virtual reality. There was a kind of big international-type meeting that would have normally taken months to put together.

SETHI: It was incredibly immersive. We had breakouts. We had some fun. We had some yoga in there. We imagined ourselves on...

SMITH: You did virtual reality yoga?

SETHI: We did. We actually led the team through a couple of stretches because it's a long period of time.

SMITH: (Laughter).

SETHI: It's not as good as the, you know, breaking bread and having a glass of wine in continental Europe, but it's the next best thing.

SMITH: We've never done yoga at a meeting once at THE INDICATOR...

GARCIA: No, certainly not.

SMITH: ...Or, incidentally, broken bread and had a glass of wine in continental Europe. How have we missed these things?

GARCIA: Well, I mean, so we thought, let's give this a try - not the yoga thing, I mean the VR meeting thing - so that maybe we can try to get back a little of what we've been missing by working from home.

SMITH: Yeah. So I looked around, and I found an app for us that we could all use. They had a little roster of meeting rooms, so I picked the one that I liked the best. I sent out a link to THE INDICATOR team and then also got everyone to order these, like, really cheap VR goggles on Amazon. They're like 10 bucks. You could just stick your phone in to them. And lo and behold, we all showed up to our meeting in virtual reality.

GARCIA: Or at least our avatar torsos showed up.

SMITH: Our avatar torsos showed up.

GARCIA: Yeah. To create an avatar, you upload a picture of yourself, and the app turns it into this animated face. And your mouth even moves a little when you talk.

SMITH: Yeah. And we all, like, met in this virtual room and gathered around a virtual little round conference table.

GARCIA: We're like the Knights of the Round Table here.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Oh, wow. Look. We're at our meeting.

SMITH: It's great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3, BYLINE: This is great. I'm already sitting in a chair.

SMITH: Yeah. I feel like this is a small victory. So we're all here. We're gathered.

GARCIA: Oh, Stacey, you declared victory. That was a bad idea.

SMITH: I know. I jinxed stuff because very shortly after that, things got really weird.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sam just disappeared into the carpet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOLIE MYERS, BYLINE: So, Cardiff, last week, Team Indicator jumped into the world of virtual reality, and we tried to actually do work there. We tried to have an actual meeting run by our editor, Jolie Myers, who was determined to just have a normal, productive meeting.

MYERS: OK. I'm going to start this meeting.

GARCIA: Oh, no.

SMITH: Cardiff just vaporized. It's like rapture or something.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wait. Wait. Guys, did I show up? I can't even tell if I'm actually here.

MYERS: OK. So I'm going to (unintelligible) the meeting. And those of you that hear things, great. Those of you that don't...

GARCIA: Such an inauspicious start.

SMITH: There's some early roadblocks.

GARCIA: So to explain what's happening here, when you're in these meetings, the view is all first-person. Like, you can't see your own avatar. But these avatars presented some challenges.

Are you sitting down? Will it let me sit down? I wonder if it'll let me sit down.

SMITH: Oh, sorry. I think I just walked through you, Alexi.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's OK. That's OK.

GARCIA: Oh, my God. It just gave me a close-up of Stacey. Oh, my God. It's freaky. Everybody in speaker view looks like the guy in "Indiana Jones" who drank from the wrong chalice and then his face melted off.

SMITH: This was a horror show. We spent basically 15 minutes freaking out over how deranged everybody looked and just like howling with laughter. Like, nothing got done.

GARCIA: And, I mean, it was funny and delightful.

SMITH: Yes. But then things took a turn for the sinister.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Guys, is Sam OK?

GARCIA: Yeah. So out of nowhere, our intern, Sam Tsai's (ph) avatar was just hanging in the air above us all with his head all the way over to the side.

SMITH: It was like demonic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Why is he hanging in the air like that?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yeah. Sam, how are you doing that?

SMITH: Did you just turn into a shadow? I think Sam's avatar is possessed.

GARCIA: And it went even more downhill from there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Jamila's head is falling off her body.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yeah. Jamila, how do you keep moving your head back? It's like "Exorcist" style. Some freaky, wild stuff going.

GARCIA: So weird looking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sam just disappeared into the carpet.

GARCIA: And just like that, our orderly 15-minute meeting devolved into a chaotic hellscape.

Who's writing things?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: How are you doing that?

SMITH: Oh, my God. Who wrote red rum? I did not write that.

GARCIA: What's happening?

SMITH: Alexi, your hair's turned gray.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I know. It's so stressful.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I just took a screenshot of me looking over Stacey's shoulder, and I am certain I'm about to kill her.

SMITH: Are we all going to be visited by, like, a curse tonight?

GARCIA: Well, I definitely had a stress nightmare about this because it was about as far from an idyllic, productive meeting with yoga breaks or whatever as you could possibly imagine.

SMITH: And I brought this up in a pretty muted way with Bhushan Sethi of PWC. I didn't give him the whole, like, demonic picture of everything that had happened. I just told him, you know, the technology was pretty challenging, that we kept getting derailed.

GARCIA: And Bhushan responded that technology is always glitchy at first. You just got to hang in there. And he says, better to make your peace with VR now because the old-school way of flying all over the world and booking a fancy hotel for company meetings and business conferences, that has changed forever.

SMITH: And Bhushan says, for him and his, like, super-sophisticated yoga break meeting that did not devolve into like a satanic ritual, the VR did achieve what it promised to, which was an immersive experience. He didn't feel, like, the barrier that he typically feels looking at people through a screen.

SETHI: Us being able to quickly put ourselves in kind of experiences and kind of immersive experiences together, that builds a connection which you cannot do by a two-dimensional video conference or by a conference call and definitely not by an email - wouldn't give up on it. You know, take it as a learning experience.

SMITH: A learning experience.

What we did learn was that our 15-minute meeting took 38 minutes. And we were all exhausted and, like, a little traumatized at the end, I would say, Cardiff.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

SMITH: And in the end, we made the totally unanimous decision to go back to our screens.

GARCIA: When we talk after the meeting, not on the platform.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No. This is horrible. I hate this.

GARCIA: Does anybody know how to leave?

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Dave Blanchard and fact-checked by Sam Tsai. It was edited by Jolie Myers. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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