Call For Comments: The Virtual Office (Only Avatars Please.)

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

From Katya: We’ve recently all been spending more time in virtual space — conference calls on Zoom, happy hours on Hangouts, and I guess somewhere, someone has been making a good old fashioned phone call. Probably. 2020 has made remote living more commonplace for many of us but remote life was already a growing aspect of the 21st century. Before 2020, I was working for a company that was primarily remote and spread across the world. The office was only a figment of Slack messages and video chat. Family time was sometimes jumping onto a game session with my parents and I kept in touch with far flung friends through Instagram and FaceTime. Virtual spaces were normal parts of many of our lives before 2020 forced them into a much more central (and often exhausting) role.

But what happens when we shift more of our interactions to virtual spaces? I’ve been thinking about this in terms of evolving workplace culture for a while but the central issue pervades numerous social interactions. A few colleagues and I have been exploring virtual event and co-working platforms available on the Oculus Quest in response to some issues of office malaise. Negative social trends are solidifying after eight months of social distancing in the US. Would issues like isolation, difficulty transitioning established communication channels to remote settings and, perhaps one of the most annoying things, Zoom fatigue be avoided by a more ‘complete’ virtual office? We’re tired of working behind screens constantly and perhaps even more tired of constantly being on screens.*

We’ve primarily been playing around in Altspace. Altspace is a virtual environment that allows you to create private meetings or events or join public ones like lectures or even bar trivia to experience though an avatar. While it’s primarily for VR headsets like the Oculus it’s also available on PC although the experience would be different according to the interface used.

My Altspace avatar. Am I the only one that thinks avatars always look hella creepy? Or is it just my avatars?

Admittedly, the sample size of three testers isn’t conclusive but initial impressions are… yes, it is sufficiently different and that comes with some consequences. Altspace allows you to move around physical spaces and ‘mingle’ in ways that may feel more natural. Rather than 20 people talking at once, you can have individual groups of people around couches, playing basket ball, or (my personal favorite) trying to shoot each other with fireworks. You only hear people in your immediate vicinity and can hop from group to group in a way that more closely replicates in-person gatherings. If a large Zoom call feels like a room of people shouting at a social event, then Altspace feels more like a cartoon cocktail party. Like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit lounge without the booze and murder.

To get technical, this phenomenon of feeling more ‘real’ is referred to as “telepresence,”  or the sensation of “being there” afforded by a given medium. Telepresence emerged as a more accurate way to describe what was previously called “immersion,” or the sensation of being consumed by an alternative world. Telepresence, among other concepts like flow, is sometimes favored because it doesn’t suggest that you could actually lose yourself in an alternative world such that you believe that it is the actual world. No digital Don Quixotes here. 

Part of the apparent benefit of Altspace and others like it (aside from the Not-Zoom novelty which certainly helps) is an increased degree of telepresence in comparison to the Zoom call because allows you to mimics real world behaviors. Even though the ultimate result (holding a meeting with coworkers) conveys the same outcome (the live audio feed of said coworkers), Altspace offers additional features like the ability to move around and drop in on groups that make it feel at least a little more natural than Zoom. It isn’t the same as turning and looking at your coworker to ask a question- because I’m aware when I turn I’m physically addressing either empty space or, possibly, my cat- but the action feels closer to my IRL behaviors than, say Slack. This increased familiarity may decrease the irritation many of us feel after a day full of Zoom calls if it’s close to a routine we’re comfortable with by, essentially, reducing the effort of translating an experience from one medium to another.

Telepresence only goes so far. As far as legs and sitting, it seems.

Greater telepresence doesn’t inherently mean better or more useful though. For example, Zoom is probably the better tool for most of my work meetings. At this point, it’s more familiar and it’s faster to access. Not to mention, you don’t need a headset (yes, there’s a PC version of Altspace but in an office dominated by Apple products like many research universities this doesn’t mean a lot). Likewise, Zoom isn’t a good tool for a quick two sentence question. That’s for Slack or some other messaging service. It’s faster and sometimes may get you better answers with the added bonus of a searchable record in case you forget when you’re supposed to schedule that meeting for.

So increased telepresence isn’t necessary for a better meeting. But I still wonder if it might be necessary for a more humane one. Like so many things, lockdown threw a lot of our avenues for balance out. When we had a mixture of experiences, from phone calls to Zoom, to actual live meetings and water cooler chats, the flaws of each given medium were less apparent – particularly their impact on our physical and mental health. Now that we’re stuck with entirely remote options, does telepresence and other aspects of design that feel more natural to human behavior become more important? Zoom might be the best tool for the job if we’re trying to have a meeting but what’s the best tool when we’re trying to be human? 

Our recent foray into Memojis for a YouTube scoreboard. Also we have a YT channel…

Culture emerges from exchanges between individuals, groups, and societies as we act in the world, figuring out what all this human business is about. What happens when those exchanges move to virtual media? How do they change? What new kinds of culture and community are afforded and what may begin to wane? How does Katya convince her family to have Christmas morning in VR?

*As a side note, I believe there’s a difference between remote or flex work during socially distancing and during ’normal’ periods where people are able to maintain other habits more easily. There’s also a difference between an organization that was designed to be remote and one that’s having to pivot during uncertain times or for indeterminate period of time. We’ll dig into some of these distinctions on the show.

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