Image: University of Coburg
According to an initial study, working in virtual reality reduces productivity and promotes migraines and anxiety. The immersive office still has potential.
Researchers from the Universities of Coburg, Cambridge and Primorska as well as Microsoft Research compare working in virtual reality with everyday life in a real work environment. The team is investigating the effects on people’s physical and mental constitution. A first study gives the immersive office a weak testimonial.
Study: A Complete Workweek of Virtual Reality
For the study, eleven men and seven women were asked to do their usual office work in a VR environment for a week. However, one man and one woman dropped out of the experiment on the first day. They complained of migraines, nausea and anxiety in the VR environment.
In order to be able to make a comparison, the first half of the remaining subjects started the experiment in virtual reality. The other half began their work at the same time on the desktop computer. Then it was swapped. Each test person completed a workload of eight hours each with a 45-minute lunch break on five consecutive working days.
Comparison: Meta Quest 2 vs. Office PC
The mobile VR glasses Meta Quest 2 were used for the VR environment. All comfort settings were adapted to the individual needs of the participants, and there was also an introduction to how the VR glasses work. The research team equipped the physical workplace with conventional office PCs and curved monitors.
In the VR environment, the subjects saw a virtual curved monitor of a similar size. Both environments used the same keyboard with touchpad. The participants were deliberately not equipped with a high-end VR system. The researchers wanted to create a comparable situation between VR environment and work with a common physical desktop setup for office applications.
Before starting work and then every two hours, the participants filled out questionnaires. In it, they gave their subjective assessments of the task load, user-friendliness of the system, perceived productivity and workflow, frustration or general well-being.
Study: Working in VR leads to worrying levels of discomfort
On average, the subjects felt the workload was higher in VR, although the type and scope of the activities did not differ in the two environments. Ease of use, workflow and perceived productivity also performed better in the physical environment.
Working in VR caused significantly more frustration, anxiety and discomfort among the participants, as well as greater visual fatigue. Overall, the researchers noted “worrying levels of simulator sickness and below-average usability ratings.”
Everyday work in VR: Activities that are actually simple become tedious
The main reason the participants were afraid under the VR glasses was that they could no longer perceive the presence of other people in the physical space.
On a technical level, the participants complained about the low peripheral vision in Meta Quest 2. The tracking of the keyboard could also be improved and was given together with the low resolution of Quest 2 as a reason for the reduced productivity. In addition, many participants criticized the wearing comfort of the VR glasses. It is too heavy and the pressure on the face is uncomfortable.
Actually simple activities were perceived as tedious in the VR environment. Some participants were bothered by having to take off the VR glasses when eating or drinking because they were afraid of spilling something. They also missed the opportunity to jot something down on paper.
Working in VR also has positive sides
According to the research paper, however, there are signs that negative first impressions and initial discomfort can be overcome. The increased feeling of tiredness in VR could be related to the fact that the test subjects did not work so many hours at a time in their normal everyday life.
After the end of the experiment, five participants stated that they had gotten used to wearing the VR glasses over time, two of whom they finally forgot. Nine people found the isolation in virtual reality to be positive, as it facilitates concentration on the task and avoids distractions from the environment.
Four of the participants expressly mentioned that they wanted to try integrating the VR glasses into their normal everyday work. Overall, however, only three participants preferred the VR environment.
Immersive work: the potential is far from being exhausted
Meta should already be aware of many of the shortcomings listed. In addition, the technology is still in an early stage and many functions of the Meta Quest 2 are only a first glimpse of what will be possible in the future.
Meta’s VR office is supposed to be much more than a single virtual monitor. As early as 2020, Meta showed an early version of the “Infinite Office”, in which several virtual screens are also used by hand tracking (see video above). With the pass-through mode, the real environment remains in the user’s field of vision.
In the previously announced VR glasses Cambria (info), Meta will use many experiences gained from Quest 2 to improve comfort and user experience. Office applications are high on the list of priorities. According to Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg, Cambria will one day replace laptops and change the classic work environment. The Apple glasses should also be able to digitally expand the Mac display, so they probably help with productivity.
A lot will happen in the field of immersive work in the coming years. The research team seems to think so too. According to the scientists, the study should create a basis for further research work. It primarily shows current shortcomings and opportunities to improve the work experience in VR and should therefore be seen more as an inventory than as a fundamental criticism. There are also other, higher quality VR glasses on the market – a comparative study with alternative hardware would be interesting.
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