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Working in the VR: Fewer distractions, but not great for productivity, says study

The metaverse in the office might happen, but does it mean we'll get more work done, or less?
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Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer on
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Image: Getty/Rebecca Nelson

Big tech companies have grand visions for virtual reality (VR) and the metaverse redefining the future workplace, but the concept might struggle to take off with business users if it doesn't bring much in the way of productivity benefits.

New research led by Dr Jens Grubert, a specialist in human-computer interaction at Coburg University, Germany, suggests that there is still more development work to be done before the systems are ready for the majority of workers.

"The study reveals that, as expected, VR results in significantly worse ratings across most measures," Grubert and the research team note in the non-peer reviewed paper Quantifying the Effects of Working in VR for One Week.

SEE: Six ways to stay productive when working remote

The study involved observing 16 people over one work week. Half of the participants used VR headsets at work for eight hours per day over five days and the other half used a desktop setup. Each participant then swapped to the other setup. 

The goal was to quantify the effects of exchanging a desktop work environment with an average VR setup. 

For the desktop side of the experiment, participants had a browser and Chrome Remote Desktop to connect to the work computer. On the VR side, the researchers picked the Oculus Quest 2 because it can track a user's hands. The keyboard for the experiment was the Logitech K830, with an integrated touchpad. 

All subjects were employees at the university. 

Those using the desktop reported higher perceived productivity than those using the headset. VR users also had a significantly higher score for frustration than desktop users. The researchers also measured presence, "negative affect", wellbeing, anxiety, visual fatigue, and heart rate. Desktop users fared better in all measures except heart rate, where there was no meaningful difference. Two participants dropped out on the first VR day, due to migraine, nausea and anxiety.

The research also looked at typing speed and found that the desktop users were significantly faster. Participants reported disliking the weight of the head-mounted display and the pressure against their faces. They also reported disliking time spent removing the headset when drinking or eating.  

Some of the VR users, however, reported positive experiences. Four of the VR participants enjoyed the experience of trying VR in a work context. Some took pleasure in "taking a break and looking at an empty space". 

SEE: Remote workers want new benefits. This is how employers are responding

Nine participants said they liked that the isolation in the VR condition allowed them to concentrate more on the tasks at hand, because they were not distracted, especially in combination with music from their headphones. However, this could also have drawbacks, and three participants said the VR condition was "a bit scary", because they could not see the presence of other people in the real world. 

Only three of the 16 participants reported preferring VR. But all participants said they could imagine using VR for work in the future if some conditions are met, such as having lighter displays with higher resolution and being able to have multiple displays. Also, all participants mentioned that they could imagine using VR for a limited amount of time.

A week after the experiment, participants were also asked if they observed any other effects after completing the VR week. One participant mentioned that sometimes during the weekend, she felt as if she was still wearing the headset, while two others said they were "amazed by how detailed the real world is" after removing the headsets.

But in the end, the researchers conclude that technology for the metaverse isn't ready for mainstream use for work over a full week. The researchers noted that given the limitations of current technology and the fact that VR provides a virtual approximation of the real environment, they did not expect the VR condition to outperform the physical condition – something that was also confirmed by the results. 

"Nevertheless, there was some indication that participants gradually overcame negative first impressions and initial discomfort. Overall, this study helps laying the groundwork for subsequent research, highlighting current shortcomings and identifying opportunities for improving the experience of working in VR," they said.

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