Working in VR is more stressful and lessens productivity. Big surprise

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Companies like Meta have been putting a lot of weight into the idea of a digital exodus. There’s a lot of talk that working in distraction free, virtual environments (opens in new tab) could be the future. But as it stands today, researchers say, working in virtual reality is not only more overwhelming and frustrating, it doesn’t rank as highly for usability or productivity as we might’ve been lead to believe.

The paper, ‘Quantifying the Effects of Working in VR for One Week (opens in new tab)‘  (PDF warning) takes a deep dive into the viability of working long term in a virtual environment (via New Scientist (opens in new tab)). Participants, all of which were employees or researchers at a university, were asked to work in VR for an entire week. 

The results were less than positive.

Participants were asked to work using Chrome Remote Desktop, which if my personal experience is anything to go by was likely half the usability problem. Jokes aside, the researchers opted for an Oculus (Meta) Quest 2 (opens in new tab) VR headset, so participants could use the hand tracking with a physical keyboard—a Logitech K830 with integrated trackpad if you we’re wondering, nothing fancy. 

Part of the reasoning behind not using the absolute highest spec headset around, was to go for “a setup delivering a comparable experience to working in the physical desktop environment.” 

Most people, as it happens, don’t have $2,399 to drop on a 12K Pimax VR headset (opens in new tab), let alone the PC spec to run it.

Before they even got into the bulk of testing, the study notes “concerning levels of simulator sickness” and “below average usability ratings.” Two subjects even dropped out on day one because they were experiencing nausea, migraines, and anxiety. Not a great start.

Those that were left worked eight hour days, with 45 minutes to recuperate and inhale some lunch. Each of them scored their VR working experience against working in a physical environment, and it turns out many felt their task load had increased, on average by 35%. Frustration also shot up by 42%, the ‘negative affect’ stat was up 11%, and anxiety went up by 19%.

All in all, mental wellbeing was reported to have decreased by 20%. Putting a number on this sort of stuff is tough, but that doesn’t sound like a particularly healthy score. And the physical side of things wasn’t much better. Eye strain was up 48%, and VR ranked 36% lower on usability. On top of all that, participants self-rated workflow went down by 14% and their perceived productivity dropped by 16%.

The research will help the process as we move into a more VR-laden world, by “clearly highlighting current shortcomings and identifying opportunities for improving the experience of working in VR.”

Last year we put to record six things VR is really good at now (opens in new tab). The list included fitness and wellbeing, and even virtual travel—work, unsurprisingly, was not on the list. Now we have research to back up our decision to omit it, though we’re planning to punish some of the PC gamer staff with the metaverse, just to be thorough.

Maybe not for an entire week, though, since we do have actual jobs that need doing.

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