Working in Virtual Reality: A Review

For the past three days, I started ex­per­i­ment­ing with work­ing in Vir­tual Real­ity. I’m quite im­pressed. My guess is that it’s not good for most peo­ple yet, but that 1 to 10% of peo­ple read­ing this would gain a 2 to 20% in­crease in com­puter pro­duc­tivity by us­ing a VR work­ing setup. The up­per end is for peo­ple who get dis­tracted eas­ily or have a difficult time with SAD.

This feels like the most rad­i­cal ex­per­i­ment I’ve made to my setup so far, so I’m quite happy with how it’s worked out. I’ve used to dream of similar se­tups and it’s re­ally cool that the tech­nol­ogy is ba­si­cally there. I’ve given de­mos to a few peo­ple in my house who haven’t been close to VR and their re­sponses varied from fairly im­pressed to in­cred­ibly im­pressed.

I’m fairly con­vinced that there’s an ex­tremely promis­ing fu­ture for work in VR. The VR ecosys­tem seems to be im­prov­ing much more quickly than the al­ter­na­tives. It strikes me as sur­pris­ingly pos­si­ble that within 2 to 5 years, VR work se­tups will be the gen­er­ally recom­mended work se­tups, at least for “peo­ple in the know.”[1] This could both lead to di­rect im­prove­ments and lead the way for rad­i­cal re­think­ings of what work se­tups are pos­si­ble.

My Setup

My spe­cific setup is an Ocu­lus Quest 2 ($300), a 2016 Mac­book Pro, and the ap­pli­ca­tion Im­mersed VR. Im­mersed works us­ing WiFi. My router is around 15 feet away from my head­set, and my com­puter is con­nected di­rectly to the router via Eth­er­net. In the app I use two “mon­i­tors”; I down­scale a 4K mon­i­tor to 2048x1280 and use a side mon­i­tor of 1920x1080. It’s sug­gested to keep re­s­olu­tions rather low both be­cause the Ocu­lus Quest 2 doesn’t it­self have a high re­s­olu­tion (1832×1920 per eye), and be­cause higher re­s­olu­tion means higher la­tency. You can have up to five “vir­tual” mon­i­tors with Im­mersed, but I pre­fer one or two big ones.

This is me edit­ing this post. My setup is pretty sim­ple when writ­ing. I have a sec­ond screen on the right, but I’m not us­ing it at the mo­ment. I typ­i­cally have the main screen a bit closer to me, but zoomed it out to make this image more in­ter­est­ing.
Me brows­ing LessWrong in the Space­ship area.

I think I used this setup for around 5 work­ing hours on Wed­nes­day, 6 on Thurs­day, and maybe 2 so far to­day (but it’s still early). It didn’t seem to get par­tic­u­larly tiring over that time.

I’ve been get­ting la­tency of around 5ms to 15ms, but ev­ery minute or so there are some frus­trat­ing 1-5 sec­ond hic­cups. It’s pos­si­ble to watch videos but I have seen large de­creases in frame rate from time to time. They have in­struc­tions about us­ing WiFi di­rect to make things smoother. I’ve or­dered the nec­es­sary mod­ule (it’s around $25) and should be get­ting it shortly.

I’m not sure how long I’m go­ing to con­tinue us­ing it. I find the Quest a bit un­com­fortable to wear for long pe­ri­ods and some­times a bit tiring for my eyes. I’m go­ing to con­tinue tin­ker­ing to try to make it bet­ter.

Benefits

Focus

I have a room­mate now and find vi­sual stim­uli dis­tract­ing. I’m also in a room that’s a bit of a mess. I like hav­ing a lot of things (a lot of small ex­per­i­ments), and that makes it difficult to have a clean workspace.

VR se­tups can iso­late away ev­ery­thing that’s not the mon­i­tors. There’s an op­tion to see a key­board, but I don’t use it (I recom­mend spend­ing effort to not need to). There’s a hand­ful of de­cent vir­tual room op­tions. On Im­mersed there seems to be a few that promi­nently fea­ture space and space travel.

Light /​ SAD

LessWrong now has a full tag on light­ing, with 6 pop­u­lar posts on the topic. I’ve been con­sid­er­ing set­ting up a sys­tem my­self.

I’m not sure how to best mea­sure the amount of light ex­pe­rienced in VR vs. the sun, but things seem rel­a­tively bright to me with the Quest. VR glasses use curved lenses and a dark en­vi­ron­ment to fo­cus the LCD light on your eyes, un­like reg­u­lar mon­i­tors that are meant to be visi­ble at any an­gle. So even a rel­a­tively VR small screen can pro­duce more eye-lu­mens than some­thing much larger. I re­cently pur­chased a 350nit 4k mon­i­tor and found that that hasn’t been quite enough for some parts of the day. With the VR head­set, I of­ten turn the mon­i­tor bright­ness down.

The only thread I could find on the topic was this one on Red­dit, but it doesn’t seem that great to me. I found this be­gin­ning of a sci­en­tific study on “VR for Sea­sonal Affec­tive Di­sor­der”, but no com­pleted ver­sion. I’d hy­poth­e­size that liv­ing mostly in VR would have some sig­nifi­cant benefits for some peo­ple with sig­nifi­cant SAD (if you’re in VR, how does it even mat­ter what the sea­son is?), though I could imag­ine that it has some down­sides too.

Ergonomics

VR head­sets can be a bit heavy, but be­sides that can be highly er­gonomic. In vir­tual en­vi­ron­ments you can con­figure screens to be any­where you want them. I have a de­cent mon­i­tor arm that I find de­cently sub­op­ti­mal. I of­ten have a hard time bring­ing my mon­i­tor just where I want, so move my neck to com­pen­sate (a bad idea!). It can also be fairly shaky when my desk is in stand­ing mode. In VR I can eas­ily po­si­tion and repo­si­tion my mon­i­tors ex­actly where I want them in the sizes I want them, it’s great.

I’ve pre­vi­ously thought about try­ing to work while lay­ing down, when my back was par­tic­u­larly sore. There are some in­tense $6k++ se­tups for this, and gerry-rig­ging solu­tions can be quite awk­ward. With a VR head­set you still would need some solu­tion to po­si­tion the key­board, but the mon­i­tor is­sue is of course dra­mat­i­cally sim­plified. I tried read­ing a bit while ly­ing down and it worked fine.

Portability

One of the worst things about mon­i­tors is that they are a pain to trans­port. They’re quite large and heavy, and I’ve had a se­quence of bad luck mov­ing them with­out caus­ing at least some con­sid­er­able dam­age. The way things are go­ing, with a VR head­set, you could have a stel­lar setup any­where at all, which is un­heard of. Maybe out­door se­tups on warm days would be pos­si­ble, though of course, you’d have to re­place the vi­su­als with some similar or su­pe­rior theme on your de­vice (You’d still get the sounds, sent, and breeze.) Per­haps at some point lap­tops will forgo the screens, or maybe all the hard­ware will be in the head­set and you’d carry a sep­a­rate mouse key­board combo.

Coworking

I haven’t tried this yet, but ap­par­ently, you can cowork with Im­mersed. I be­lieve you get the benefit(?) of be­ing able to see the screens of other cowork­ers. The op­tions are quite con­figurable de­pend­ing on the pro­gram.

Cowork­ing in VR has the ob­vi­ous benefit of al­low­ing peo­ple to live any­where, but also the ob­vi­ous cost of not be­ing able to see peo­ple’s faces. In Im­mersed there is one fea­ture where you can have a “digi­tal we­b­cam” that uses an avatar of you in a for­mat that’s ac­cessible for on­line video chats in Google Meet and similar. It’s neat but faily ba­sic.

Face­book has an im­pres­sive demo of Pho­to­re­al­is­tic Face Tracked Avatars, but I imag­ine it won’t be re­leased for a while.

Negatives

Re­s­olu­tion & Latency

As men­tioned, the re­s­olu­tion is rather poor com­pared to mod­ern mon­i­tors. The la­tency is sig­nifi­cantly worse, though Wifi di­rect should help, and Win­dows se­tups with di­rect con­nec­tions should be fine. This seems quite bad for high-band­width tasks like video edit­ing or video games, but use­able for typ­ing and a lot of cod­ing.

Discomfort

VR head­sets are still a bit un­com­fortable to wear for long pe­ri­ods. I imag­ine this will im­prove a lot over time. I think that fu­ture pro­to­types look a lot like sun­glasses. Ap­ple ap­par­ently is get­ting into the space, so I imag­ine their take will be par­tic­u­larly lightweight.

Face­book (Quest only)

The Quest 2 re­quires Face­book lo­gin and the op­er­at­ing sys­tem is heav­ily in­te­grated with Face­book. To share a screen­shot of my in-game setup I ac­tu­ally had to post it to my Face­book wall, then copy and paste that image. In gen­eral the on-sys­tem OS is use­able but quite ba­sic.

Other Discussions

There are a few neat videos of peo­ple show­ing off their VR office se­tups:

  • This one is a nice overview of Im­mersed, though it’s about a year old.

  • This video shows off the Im­mersed we­b­cam fea­ture.

  • This one shows off Vir­tual Desk­top with a wired con­nec­tion.

  • Face­book is work­ing on “In­finite Office” which seems in­ter­est­ing but isn’t yet available. It at least demon­strates their op­ti­mism and ded­i­ca­tion to the area. It’s pretty easy for me to imag­ine it be­ing bet­ter than Im­mersed af­ter it launches.

Here’s a dis­cus­sion of some­one who didn’t find work­ing in VR par­tic­u­larly us­able, in part be­cause they needed to see the key­board and ap­par­ently had a lot of in-per­son dis­trac­tions.

The Im­mersed Blog is in­ter­est­ing, though short and bi­ased. They claim that their team works for 8+ hours a day in VR, and point out that ap­par­ently, some users re­ported us­ing VR to effec­tively live in differ­ent time zones.

There’s an Im­mersed Dis­cord and it has most of the dis­cus­sion I’ve seen from ac­tual users. The setup is highly bi­ased to fa­vor pos­i­tive mes­sages, but there is a long list of very en­thu­si­as­tic users. Gen­er­ally, peo­ple are most pos­i­tive about the fo­cus benefits and the use of ex­tra mon­i­tors. There seems to be al­most no dis­cus­sion from users who have used it for col­lab­o­ra­tion; most have used it solo.

Conclusion

Work­ing in VR is clearly in its “early days”, but it’s definitely hap­pen­ing. There seem to be at least dozens of peo­ple work­ing full-time in VR at this point, most have started in the last ~2 years. The tech­nol­ogy is already quite in­ex­pen­sive and use­able. The ad­van­tages go­ing for­ward are nu­mer­ous and sig­nifi­cant.

I’d ex­pect the VR head­sets com­ing out this next year to con­tinue to get bet­ter, so wait­ing a while is a safe op­tion. But I sug­gest keep­ing an eye out and plan­ning ac­cord­ingly. If you’ve been think­ing about buy­ing a fancy mon­i­tor setup or SAD light setup, you might want to reeval­u­ate.

[1] By this, I mean what I and many smart star­tups would recom­mend. Often very good ideas take a long time to be­come pop­u­lar. Pop­u­lar­ity seems harder to pre­dict than qual­ity.