Welcome back to the blog, friends! With this post, I’m launching a four-part series titled, The Case for VR and Productivity. I’ll be discussing why virtual reality as a medium will allow far, and measurably, better productivity tools than are currently available.
This first part of The Case for VR and Productivity answers the question: In general, why is VR a better medium for productivity tools than desktop computers or touchscreen devices? I’ll address this in four steps. Step 1: Identify the goal of productivity tools. Step 2: Identify the role of technology in achieving those goals. Step 3: Identify some problems and inefficiencies with existing technology-assisted productivity. Step 4: identify the ways in which VR addresses those problems/inefficiencies. Let’s dive in!
Step I: Identifying the Goal of Productivity
If evidenced by nothing other than the plethora of available task-management tools, we (people) have many, many tasks that cross our paths for work, learning, or other endeavors. In making progress on these tasks, we communicate with other people, navigate complicated data sets, and consume and produce information in the forms of text, spreadsheets, sketches, etc. The goal of productivity tools, then, is to make it easier for us to do all of these things – this is true whether we’re talking about the printing press, or the latest and greatest update to Slack.
Step II: Identifying the Role of Technological Productivity Tools
People use a combination of hardware and software to make the Goals of Productivity easier and more efficient, and to create better outcomes for these tasks. Some examples of existing tech productivity solutions: Google Docs (collaborative word-processing); the iOS Notes app (individual memos/notes/sketches/images); Edmodo (a learning management social network). In general, the hardware we work with puts constraints on the kinds of software that we can build. As a concrete example, touchscreen tablets enable us to build applications with drawing, and fast-paced interactions (such as those between a student and educational content), because fingers directly controlling a screen are much more dextrous than either fingers controlling a desktop via a touchpad or a point-and-click mouse.
Step III: Problems and Inefficiencies of Existing Productivity Technology
Here are four (of the many) general problems or inefficiencies with existing technological productivity tools; there are plenty more for any given sub-domain of productivity.
- Boredom: productivity tasks, like updating a spreadsheet, can be rather monotonous and boring, made worse by the fact that you have to repetitively manipulate applications on your computer/phone.
- Too much damn information: we work with too much information for our brains. Plain and simple. I have ~50 browser tabs open on my laptop right now, and ~15-20 on my phone. It can take months for me to cycle back around, and I’ll forget I even had a tab open in the first place. This overloading storage of, and our brains’ struggle with concurrently processing, the information we can and do access is a fault of the interfaces with which we retrieve, manipulate, and store our information.
- Tool silos: integrations between different productivity tools are added as features, and aren’t a ubiquitous part of the user experience. This slows down workflows, and forces users to make tradeoffs about which tools they want to use, therefore wasting time and money (but gaining frustration!).
- Distractions: every time we have to switch between one of our siloed tools, we could also let our fingers type out “facebook.com” into the browser search bar. There are many, many technological distractions when using technological productivity tools.
Step IV: What VR Brings to the Table
As I pointed out earlier, hardware places constraints on what kinds of software we can make. With virtual reality hardware, the software constraints are very different from existing technology. The software constraints are: “it will look like the real world, but it absolutely doesn’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) behave as such!”. It’s exciting! And, it means we can address these four productivity inefficiencies (and lots more, as I’ll explain in Parts 2-4 of this series).
- Fixing boredom: VR can place the user in beautiful and compelling environments, let the user partake in fun physical interactions, and/or show them both fantastical and science-fictional things that look and feel real. Interesting environments and interactions, in essence, add a layer of enjoyment onto whatever it is that you’re doing. Even boring repetitive tasks can be made rewarding by properly designing their corresponding UI/UX in VR – this is something that’s enabled by the physicality and interactivity of virtual reality.
- Fixing our information overload: (stay tuned for more on this, it’s something we’re actively working on) we already use the physical world around us to store tons of information. Picture yourself wandering through your house, and think about how much knowledge is triggered at any given location, such as the recipes you remember when you’re in front of the spice drawer. People already use 3D space to partition and store information, and we never feel overwhelmed by it. VR’s spatial interface opens up the unique ability to design productivity tools that take advantage of this phenomenon to mitigate information overload.
- Fixing tool silos: even with a new spatial interface, this is fundamentally a problem that software engineers and designers have to put in extra effort to solve via coordination with one another. However, the interface for how silo abolishment might work will be dramatically different in VR: we can now represent information, like an email address or an image, as physical things (like a sticky note with an email address, or an image pinned to your corkboard, or a newspaper you set down on your table). If—I think this is a must—VR productivity companies focus on making sure the smallest items people work (like cards on a digital Kanban board) are interoperable with other software, maybe via a standard API, then we can start treating elements of a VR productivity tool like we do the newspaper. We can put any newspaper, from any publisher, onto our table, next to any other newspaper from any other publisher, by reaching out and moving the newspapers with our hands.
- Fixing distractibility: unlike your laptop screen which occupies only a small fraction of what you can see around you, VR is everywhere. So, the user only sees what the developer wants them to see…which means that the only thing the user can focus on is exactly what the developer wants them to focus on, or gives them the ability to focus on.
In Part 1 of The Case for VR and Productivity, I’ve argued that virtual reality productivity tools can solve four current productivity tool issues: boredom, information overload, silos, and distractibility.
I talked about most of this stuff in the abstract. Stay tuned for Parts 2-4 of this series, which address concrete use-cases of VR for productivity: The Case for VR and Brainstorming, Note-Taking, and Organization; The Case for VR and Remote Collaboration; The Case for VR and Educational Content.
Questions? Comments? I really look forward to hearing from you!