Technology

Fast, simple and accessible: How WebVR aids collaboration across distances

February 6, 2018

Read time 4 min

Complex, bulky set-up. Hefty price tag. 

Just for fun. All three are the major reasons why VR hasn’t been as widely adopted as many hoped. At least not yet.

The good news is that you don’t have to wait for the tech giants to come up with new goggles or other specialized equipment before making an impact. There is a version of VR that is made of familiar and approachable tech using affordable hardware. Moreover, it can be functional and highly valuable – especially in the context of modern workplaces. Welcome to the world of web-based VR, or WebVR for short.

WebVR offers two distinct benefits when developing virtual reality applications. First, both developing and using a web-based VR app is pretty much as simple as it sounds. For developers, it’s basically developing a web app as per usual, and for users, using the app can be as simple as opening a website. Second, you can easily use WebVR apps with light equipment, such as smartphones. It eliminates the hassle related to more heavy-duty VR setups and makes the experience significantly more accessible and approachable.

These observations, along with my enthusiasm for improving teamwork, were the starting point for my Master’s thesis that looked at how VR experiences could be not only fun but also practical. Remote collaboration, and social VR in general, provides an example of a hugely promising application area.

The starting point: Distributed collaboration, popular but painful

Distributed collaboration across locations is a necessity of modern working life – and often a pain. Video meetings lack the very essence of a meeting: presence. In my thesis, I studied the use of VR for enabling immersive and intuitive remote collaboration among a distributed team of software developers. To understand what solutions actually work in practice, I wanted to find a technology that allowed for quick trialing of core functionalities; thanks to its quick set-up and prototyping possibilities, WebVR fit the bill perfectly.

So why WebVR? For one, the networked nature of web-based VR supports distributed collaboration naturally – it is virtual reality, after all. This helps in surpassing the restrictions imposed by the physical distance between people. This, in turn, enables totally new forms of cooperation and offers a sturdy sledgehammer for breaking geographical silos.

In my study, I created a WebVR prototype application that enables holding a typical agile daily team meeting in a virtual space, including the de facto kanban-style board for visualizing and discussing ongoing work. One of the fundamental drivers behind the prototype was that everything should be made as easy and natural as possible. Smartphones provide a perfect match for this idea: everyone has one, and accessing the shared virtual reality is as straightforward as placing your phone inside a simple headset.

The technology of choice for the prototype was Samsung Gear VR, which includes a handy remote controller. With the remote, people can point at things in the prototype’s virtual environment and use the trigger to drop work items onto the kanban board. The users are represented by abstract avatars, so entering a meeting in a bathrobe if you so wish is possible. And finally, the secret sauce that makes hectic multi-person meetings a little easier to follow: The audio is spatialized – meaning that the audio from each user is attached to the corresponding avatar, allowing the users to identify each other and the current speaker in space. This makes it easier to know which direction the sound is coming from, unlike the cacophony of voices familiar from the traditional audio or video conferencing.

The results: Faster prototyping, more natural interactions

When I evaluated the VR collaboration prototype, something striking became evident: although the app was deliberately developed at a very rapid pace over a short period of time, and was a little rough around the edges, it provided some real benefits over the established ways of distributed collaboration. In terms of features and interactions, there were two especially interesting findings: first, prototyping interactions is really simple and fast in VR – arguably even more so than in many ‘traditional’ formats, and second, the core interactions of the prototype (e.g. pointing, drag and drop) work really well in VR.

Consequently, when I compared the prototype with video conferencing in my thesis – a central comparison due to the prevalence of video meetings – I found that the ability to actually interact with the meeting environment brings remote collaboration one step closer to feeling natural.

Now’s the time to experiment

In my prototype, the central concept revolved around a simple transformation of a handful of familiar interactions to a new format, yet the result showed tangible benefits for teams working remotely. Similarly, the actual killer VR app may start with just a simple idea for which VR provides the needed X factor.

The relative technological infancy of VR is in fact an advantage: low barrier to entry makes this the perfect moment to start experimenting and claim your place in the VR avant-garde.

If you’re planning to try WebVR out, I’d love to hear what you came up with and what you learned while prototyping. You can reach me at petri.myllys (at) reaktor.com. Let’s have a (virtual) chat!

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