I spent two weeks working in VR and now I’m not sure what’s real
I open a blank document and start typing. I can hear my son making loud, experimental new sounds as he’s getting changed on the table next to me. A few metres away, the TV is blaring. A person is making a vapid comment behind someone’s back on a godawful show called Married is Blind Australia, and I want to gouge my eardrums out. The only thing missing is a cat stepping on my keyboard.
Living and working in a one-bed flat during a global pandemic is hard enough, but throw a new baby into the mix – my partner is on maternity leave, I change nappies and play with him in-between calls – the WFH utopia has, for me, become a lawless jungle. Like many people, it takes me a while to get into a flow at the best of times. And these are definitely not the best of times.
The upshot of all this is that I’ve lost my mojo. I struggle to maintain focus, let alone start, and when I do miraculously start feeding the insatiable blank page a few crumbs, I’m immediately interrupted and distracted. It’s no one’s fault, but like many of us in these crazy times, my mental health is taking a hit.
While none of us can hope to miraculously get back to pre-pandemic productivity levels, I’ve attempted to scrape back some semblance of control after months of aimless drifting. To kick things off I tried a dedicated desktop work timer, while attempting to get in the zone listening to a mixture of rhythmic Gregorian chanting and polyrhythmic drums. I’ve even microdosed psilocybin with some positive effects, but none of these things have miraculously sprouted a private sanctuary where I can get my head down and think. Noise-cancelling headphones help to an extent, of course, but they can’t block out everything that’s going on around you.
One morning as I sat at the table with a blanket draped over both the monitor and my head to create a desperate, makeshift tent, listening to monks chanting on an ambient noise generator website, it dawned on me. I could travel anywhere I wanted to. I could reply to emails on a beach. I could join Zoom meetings from a rooftop terrace. I could, even, write these very words in the infinite, silent expanse of space. All I needed was a VR headset, and my problems would be solved.
After spending two weeks working in other realities, I’ve returned to the real world with a new perspective. And slightly sore eyes.
Leaving this earthly plane to explore the wonders of the virtual expanse requires the right gear. To get the best, most immersive experience possible, I opted for a proper desktop VR headset in the form of the HTC Vive Pro Eye, which has a high-res screen, full body tracking, a fast refresh rate, and built-in headphones — everything one needs to comfortably escape from the outside world. Such specs don’t come cheap, though. This will set you back €1,439.
To give my brain the absolute best chance of immersion and reduce risks like motion sickness, I needed everything to run at the highest possible resolution and frame rate. Enter the MSI Aegis Ti5 — a £3,799, monstrously powerful gaming PC that resembles an ancient alien artefact, complete with pulsating lights and an overall sense of something you shouldn’t touch for fear of waking The Overlords from their millennia-long slumber.
The price of this extremely high-end setup is, in total, just over £5,000. That’s an obscene amount, but you don’t need to spend anywhere near that much to escape from reality. For most people, the untethered £299 Oculus Quest 2 provides the easiest way to jump into a quality VR experience, without the costs and hassle associated with a monstrous gaming PC.
I’ve made a huge mistake
Loading up Virtual Desktop on Steam to begin my New Life of Some Productivity is an exciting experience, to say the least. Headphones on to firmly shut myself off from the outside world, I spend quite a while zipping in and out of different spaces, trying to decide where I’ll start my new existence.
From a high-rise office overlooking the view of a sprawling city, to a serene forest and the cavernous interior of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, I’m spoilt for choice. I settle on the latter for its inspirational grandeur, and marvel at the domed ceiling.
The last time I put on a VR headset was quite a few years ago, and the experience was nowhere near as bright, crisp and immersive as this. The pokey west London flat I’m sitting in is already a fading memory, and I stare wide-eyed as the virtual sun’s rays stream through the glass, highlighting a pile of gorgeous leather-bound books. Nice touch.
Floating in front of me is a giant screen, displaying my desktop. I spend some time meticulously adjusting its size, height and curvature, so that I’m left with a generous 40in screen around an arm’s length away. I’m sitting face to face with a gigantic rectangle, a portal to the mystical world of productivity I’ve longed to reach for so long. I grab my mouse and open Gmail to test out this new-found power.
Clicking compose, I begin to type, and… my dream crumbles. I’m incredibly slow, and the email is filled with errors. Being able to type without looking is something I obviously considered before diving into this experiment, and, as far as I knew, I was a decent touch typer. It’s immediately obvious though that wearing a headset totally kills my ability to type without looking.
Taking the headset off, I start another email without looking at the keyboard, and it’s totally fine. As I continue writing random sentences to figure out what’s wrong with me, I realise that I do occasionally glance down to get my bearings, without even realising it.
With the headset on, this imperceptible crutch is no longer there. After a little digging online, I come across a reddit thread where some of the comments mention this exact pitfall. This magical solution to my work woes appears to be a little more complicated than I thought.
Searching around online, I begin to worry that I’m going to have to brute-force my way through and accept that I’ll be a horrible typer for a while until my brain adjusts. And then I find it. An app called Work in VR promises to rescue me with an ingenious solution that uses a webcam to overlay a real-time video of my keyboard into the virtual world.
It takes a while to set up and get the angles right, but it works. I can look down and recentre my hands where they need to be, without leaving the comfort of my virtual cocoon. There’s a bit of lag, which throws me off, but it’s infinitely better than typing blind. The experiment is back on, but it’s not long before the next hurdle turns up.
My incredibly ambitious plan for this experiment was to work in VR from 9am to 5pm every day (minus food and bathroom breaks), to replicate jetting off to a proper office. Within the first few hours of checking emails and researching another story though, I began to notice a few things.
Firstly, while not incredibly heavy, the weight of the Vive Pro Eye headset is noticeable, and I can feel inklings of pressure around my face. My eyes, too, feel dry and tired, as I’m blinking less and they’re being blasted with light at point-blank range. The worst thing, though, is the heat. The foam padding, while comfortable, does not make for a cool or dry experience. It’s not long before I’m sweating. I find myself taking a break every hour or so to grab a drink, which helps.
After a whole working day spent in VR I once again readjust my expectations. There’s no way I can work eight hours a day, five days a week in this thing. No headset is designed to be worn for such long periods of time, and I’m a little freaked out by how fast my hands seem to move in the real world after spending the majority of my day in a non-corporeal form.
They move at what feels like 1.5x their normal speed, presumably because the Vive controllers have an imperceptible lag compared to what mother nature gave me. On more than one occasion I catch myself hesitating when grabbing a cup of coffee to make sure I don’t overshoot. It sounds crazy, but I’m not the only one experiencing strange brain/hand dissociation after spending time in the virtual world.
For the next two weeks, I have a new approach. The virtual world will be treated as a home study. I won’t lock myself up in there for the entire day like a recluse. Instead, I’ll pop in and out, using it for those times where I need to really focus during calls, writing or brainstorming new feature ideas. This, it turns out, was exactly what I needed.
After two weeks, I can say that the virtual study method is as good as it’s going to get. Without the pressure to force myself to be uncomfortable for the sake of it, I’ve only ventured into VR when I really needed to focus on certain tasks – and it works.
The benefits became apparent on day three. Having worked all morning on my VR-less PC, I decided to attend a virtual press video briefing in Microsoft Teams using Steam’s Bigscreen — an app that mirrors your desktop while letting you collaborate and play games with virtual friends (or their 3D avatars, to be more precise), in real time. After making a few mid-air whiteboard marker doodles to kill time, I teleported myself to a rooftop garden overlooking a virtual cityscape before the call properly kicked off.
It was distracting at first. Partly because it was surreal having a Teams call in such a different environment, and partly because I discovered the ability to magically summon infinite tomatoes and popcorn buckets, both of which can be thrown at the screen with a satisfying splat.
After a while, though, I simply sat back and listened to the presentation, completely forgetting the fact that I was sitting less than half a metre away from a pile of nappies and a cat licking his nether regions in the real world. Success.
Following the call, I was curious to see what actual VR collaboration would look like. A few days later, a friend with an Oculus Quest joined me in Bigscreen. We had no actual work to do, mind, but it was a good way to test out how we could share our screens and talk, mimicking a real face-to-face meeting.
The screen sharing worked well enough, but there were a few audio issues to start with which wasted some time. Like all those years of Skype all over again. The worst part, though, was staring at his cartoon-like avatar’s wide, lifeless eyes, which filled me with an uneasy sense of dread.
It was fun high-fiving and throwing tomatoes at each other for a while, but I can’t see such an environment being as productive as a video call, where actual faces provide a much better, less distracting way to connect. There are other, better dedicated work collaboration apps out there like Spatial, which lets you upload your own face (with terrifying results), but it’s not compatible with the Vive headset I was using. If I want to horrify the rest of the world with my Spatial avatar, I’ll need a Quest, Hololens, Magic Leap or smartphone headset. Hooray for closed e
By the end of the second week, I began to plan out this very feature in an app called Think Space. I found myself scribbling away on a whiteboard placed on a beautiful beach, while waves pleasantly lapped the shore behind me. If my neighbours happened to look through the window, they’d have see a scruffily bearded man furiously making strange motions in the air, with the occasional yelp as he accidentally rapped his knuckle on the bookshelf next to him.
Day nine saw me tackle something I’d been putting off for a while: admin. The bane of my existence. Choosing to float in empty space with an asteroid belt littering the void beneath me, I dealt with horrible things.
I emailed the upstairs landlord about our concerns following their application to extend the loft. I filed invoices in Xero. I even checked my student loan balance for crying out loud. You must understand, I never do these things until the procrastination-bred fear is so strong that I’m physically forced to comply. And yet, floating in space, listening to some music on Spotify, I nailed my admin list with far less stress than usual.
Just yesterday (Day 12 at the time of writing), I tried editing some videos in a swanky virtual penthouse office. It’s a new skill I’m trying to learn and I’m terribly slow (partly why I’d been putting it off), but clearly there’s something about a change of scene and new environment which makes even dreaded tasks seem novel and less soul destroying. Sure, the novelty wears off after a while and you get used to the beach, the asteroids etc, but that’s fine – you just get on with the task at hand, with nothing else to distract you.
Despite all this, it’s important to note that all of these activities, bar perhaps video calls and admin tasks, could be carried out quicker in the real world. It would’ve even been faster to jot down notes for this feature in an actual paper notepad, for example, but there’s something invigorating about standing up and scribbling away on a beach that got my creative juices flowing again. After a year of staring at the same walls, no holidays, and memorising every single inch of the local park, my brain had something refreshing to explore again.
Ultimately though, I still wouldn’t write a feature in VR. I wrote the intro to this piece surrounded by a virtual forest view, but it would have been a struggle to slog through typing out the whole thing, so I switched to my regular PC and finished it the old-fashioned way. For focusing on less demanding tasks such as admin, emails and brainstorming, however, VR really does seem to help.
The most powerful feature of working in VR is the fact that you are totally shut off from the outside world. Wearing the headset, I feel untouchable. If you see someone with a screen strapped to their face with headphones over their ears, grinning maniacally as they type on a keyboard while a webcam dangles perilously above it, would you want to disturb them? I certainly wouldn’t — and neither did my partner.
To clarify, I haven’t been ignoring my family in the pursuit of attaining a greater power. I have more than enough breaks in the day to play with my son and make sure he’s as happy as something that tiny and innocent can be. The headset only goes on when I really need to get something done, for an hour or two, before I return to reality.
The future of work?
Despite the rocky start, I’d say this experience has been a success, in more ways than one. Increased productivity aside, this ‘journey’ has also helped my mental health during lockdown. Aside from work, I’ve visited mountains, flown through canyons, saved villages from orcs, and defeated gladiators in a blood-soaked arena (all outside of work hours, of course).
Having said that, I decided to save the gaming for the weekends after the first three days of heavy use took its toll on my eyes, not to mention my body. Twenty minutes firing arrows to defend a castle is, apparently, more than enough to earn a stiff shoulder.
Whether it’s for work or play, after a few hours in VR I can take the headset off and feel like I’ve actually been somewhere. That’s a precious feeling that I hadn’t precisely realised I’d even lost, but with so many of us stuck at home for the foreseeable future, it’s an invaluable benefit that I never even considered.
It’s worth noting that you can overdo it, though. After three straight days of heavy use, I found myself waking up briefly in the middle of the night genuinely not knowing where I was for a few seconds. I lifted my hands up, verified that I could see them, then settled back to sleep, making a mental note to take it a bit easier the next day.
For those of you who have a place of solitude in your home already, working in VR probably won’t add much beyond a novelty. For the rest of us living and working in a single room, however, I’d say it’s not as zany an idea as it first seems, offering some much needed solitude from this crazy world, if nothing else.
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