With social distancing now in effect, the barrier between our professional and personal worlds is breaking down before our eyes. This week, I had Zoom calls with a product manager in Israel, a CEO in New York, and a designer in Chicago, and we all took those calls from our houses. By necessity, the world is opening up to the idea of what working from home really means. We’re learning to collaborate over cloud-enabled platforms—like Slack, Zoom, and Google Docs—to do our work together without traveling or transporting ourselves to be “together.”
On the flip side, the collaboration tools we use for work are starting to pervade our personal lives. People are having group FaceTime chats and Zoom calls with friends and family, and they’re asking, “Why haven’t we tried this before?” We’ve always put a premium on physical connection, the ability to sit in a restaurant with someone or across the table in a conference room. But now that these interactions are no longer available to us, we’re starting to consider the question: what does it mean to connect with other people?
What we’ve found over these past few weeks of social distancing is that it is possible to have meaningful interactions with others through the cloud. I’ve connected with some people this week that I hadn’t spoken with in a long time. Technical and non-technical people alike are discovering how to engage with each other in new ways, and it’s surprising. Suddenly, we’re realizing we don’t have to fly to New York to see our friends in order to connect with them.
But we also have to examine the quality of these virtual interactions. This weekend, we had a dinner party with four different families over Zoom, and it was very cool that we could do that. But the social dynamic is inherently changed in a flat Zoom call, where there’s just one tier of communication. Whether you’re at a virtual dinner party or on a conference call, you can’t lean over and whisper something to the person sitting next to you, then come back to the conversation like you would when you’re in the same physical space.
That’s one area where XR can fill the gap, by offering us the physicalization of these virtual experiences. With XR, you’re no longer just a face on a video call. Instead, your whole body is activated into the discussion. Take The Wild, for example, an immersive collaboration workspace for teams. You can communicate between spaces or within one space, move around, and work with your colleagues, not just by sitting in front of a computer, but by being the physical and social person you’re meant to be—all without having to leave your current location.
I wrote an article about a year and a half ago around the concept that XR is here to save us. XR encompasses the full spectrum of virtualization and realities; it’s not about creating a separate virtual world. Rather, it’s about creating a new reality that is both virtualized and physical in nature. I’ve heard about group yoga classes taking place over Zoom. What if, in those classes, we were connected to each other as well as a physical environment? We’re seeing this with platforms like Spatial, through their use of mixed reality, how you can use physical whiteboards to virtualize content and send it back and forth between people. That’s a great example of what XR can offer: effective and meaningful interactions, without having to hop in a car or on a plane to get them.
Whether you’re at a virtual dinner party or on a conference call, you can’t lean over and whisper something to the person sitting next to you, then come back to the conversation like you would when you’re in the same physical space
The other benefit of the virtualization of transportation is the impact it can have on the environment. Sometimes, it takes a catalyst like the COVID-19 pandemic to enact massive transformation. When you’re not trucking people around the world (or even locally), you start to see the dolphins in Venice, the rivers clean up, and the pollution change in Asia and Los Angeles. If we want to have a meaningful impact on climate change, we have to stop burning fossil fuels to move people around, and to see this become a possibility is amazing. There is a beauty to the earth not being swarmed by humans.
All of this holds a lot of promise for XR to play a starring role in the future of collaboration, in a way that people might not have considered before. Right now, XR is at that awkward place where the guy with the hands-free phone headset was in the early 2000s. He was walking down the street talking to himself, and everyone made fun of him. Now, VR headsets are the embarrassing gadgets.
They’re so big! And we haven’t seen a lot of people wearing them. But just like the hands-free headsets, we have to go through that awkward period to get to the other side—meaning, there is something better sitting inside and beyond those headsets, and we have to help people become aware of that. That’s why platforms like The Wild are working to make XR experiences more palatable and accessible.
In this unique and scary time we’re in, the standards are shifting. We have the opportunity to ask, what’s the good that can come of this, when we redefine what virtual connection can look like? Suddenly, we have access to people and experiences that we didn’t have access to before. While we need to be physically separated right now, that doesn’t mean we have to be socially separated. People are seeking to stay connected with others in the midst of physical isolation, and we’re learning that XR and the virtualization of transportation can bring the world right to us.