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Virtual Offices are the Commercial Office Sector’s Biggest Threat

“The Oasis. It’s a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination. You can do anything, go anywhere,” Wade Watts says of the technology at the heart of the bestseller Ready Player One. The science fiction epic tells the story of a world living online, cut off from most human contact, living and working in the digital world. Sound familiar? 

An entire virtual world with the complexity of The Oasis is still just science fiction, but the book’s vision of the future offers a glimpse of where the virtual spaces we’re creating could be headed. With office work already inextricably linked to the computer, virtual offices are more science than fiction. The implications of viable virtual offices will shake the commercial office sector down to its bedrock. There’s no bigger threat to the demand for office space than technology that can replace it. The future isn’t as far off as you think.

Our great pandemic-induced work from home experience is redefining the office faster than any time in modern history. Largely unable to access traditional office space, employees have been forced to be flexible, working from the couch, the kitchen counter, and even the closet, creating what little workspace they need where they can. Coffee shops, parks, hotels, and other public spaces with WiFi have become an escape for workers stuck at the office at home. For office workers, ‘workspace’ is wherever you’re using your computer. Creating a digital workspace is the future of flexible office design. Virtual 3D modeling that creates digital workplaces can already create truly flexible offices that go far beyond rearranging basic office components like desks, chairs, and conference rooms. 

Watch a webinar from the top of a mountain, send emails from the Library of Congress, attend a meeting at the beach. The limits of virtual office design are your own imagination. Creating virtual spaces for people to gather is not new. Designers have been creating online meeting places with 3D modeling for over a decade. Right now the technology is being used to visualize build-outs and architectural designs but is quickly transitioning to render entire virtual offices inhabited by remote workers. 

Outside the world of office space, the technology has been flourishing for nearly two decades. Second-Life, released in 2003, was a massive multiplayer online virtual world full of places for players to gather, connect and chat in an effort to create a digital replication of the modern world. Second-Life’s functionality pales in comparison to Ready Player One’s vision, but technology is quickly catching up. 

Companies like Spatial and Spaceform are developing virtual spaces for people to meet through augmented or virtual reality and ‘shake hands’ with a coworker miles away, ‘no hand sanitizer required.’ 

“We’re working with gaming engine technology that allows you to create real time 3D models that we can all experience simultaneously,” Squint/Form Director Jan Bunge said. Bunge’s team is developing Spaceform into virtual conference room space. “At the moment there’s the most insane virtual spaces for having parties and social gatherings, all in a purely virtual setting. The need to create those settings in an office is there.”  

It all comes down to the limitations of video chat. Nearly a year into this, we’re all acutely aware what Zoom and others are lacking. “Video chat is a tool that was basically good for two things: very personal conversations in small groups or big webinars where you don’t need to interact,” Spatial Head of Business Jacob Loewenstein told Wired. “But for anything in between it breaks down, and that’s where we see Spatial really being a much more interactive and much more personal collaboration solution.”

Virtual or augmented reality allows participants to move around a space, use their arms and head to gesticulate, interact with virtual objects in the space, share your screen, upload presentations and collaborate on documents or 3D designs in real-time. Workplace bias and harassment are nearly impossible in the virtual space, presenting a solution to issues drawing increased scrutiny. Studies show VR’s immersion increases attention span, meaning the new technology could be a solution to low employee engagement when working remotely. Imagine several 3D avatars in a board room around a model of a new building project, turning, expanding, and highlighting various parts of the model when collaborating on the design like Tony Stark working on his Iron Man suit prototype. 

For some the world I’m describing is a new level of hell. Burnt out on Zoom, meetings in virtual reality sounds like doubling down on the suffering. The prospect of wearing a VR headset for an extended time gives many a headache just thinking about it. Despite improvements in VR tech, developers have yet to create a headset device suitable for long-term use. Right now, wearing a VR headset for even half of an 8-hour workday is out of the question. 

Journalist Esat Dedezade recently tested this new reality, spending close to $7,000 for a top-of-the-line VR headset and computer to operate it. Using the Virtual Desktop app, he was able to work anywhere, from a high-rise corner office to a serene forest. It wasn’t long before he hit the first snag: typing. Being unable to see your keyboard and fingers as they move across it was a serious setback. More technology steps forward to solve that problem, a different work app uses a webcam to display a real-time overlay of his real-life keyboard. Even with the solution, it quickly became clear that working with a VR headset for even an hour is a challenge. After adjusting his approach by only using the VR headsets for tasks requiring serious focus and taking frequent breaks, the technology began to click. Online meetings were better and administrative work was more tolerable. 

“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,” Dedezade wrote. “That’s a precious feeling that I hadn’t precisely realized 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.”

Obviously, the technology is extremely limited in its current use. Enormous upfront costs, adverse effects from prolonged usage, and underdeveloped applications are major hurdles to overcome if virtual office spaces are ever to become mainstream. If there’s one thing the 21st century has taught us, it’s that you can bet on technology becoming cheaper, safer, and more developed. 

Should virtual offices become a viable solution for the masses, the implication for commercial real estate would be biblical. Co-working and working from home have long been considered looming threats, shrinking the demand for office space real estate empires are built on. A viable virtual office doesn’t just shrink demand, it eliminates it completely. The technology, still in its natal phase, will grow up sooner or later as tech giants pour billions into research and development. It’s no stretch to say that virtual offices are an existential threat to the entire industry. The property business has already given way to software, what happens when it gets eaten by it? 

For now, virtual offices remain mostly science fiction outside a few specific use cases but the progress is picking up speed. If you look closely, the future isn’t hard to see. Centralized offices are being shed and distributed workforces adopted. What will be the value of a physical office when it can be replicated, pixel by pixel, in a VR headset? The answer to this question will determine the future of the office industry. Best to start now, the programmers already have.

Associate Editor
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