Virtual office

Written November 30, 2015

Have you seen some of the amazing offices and co-working spaces out there? I like to think that a well-designed workspace is the true measure that a company has made it. When they can afford to sink money into the architecture, interior design, and artistry of a space that encourages their occupants’ creativity, they’ve passed a threshold where taking care of their employees is more important than tending to a bottom line.

But that got me thinking about smaller studios, independent creators, and remote workers. What a disappointment that they can’t also have the same benefits. And what about those energetic, small teams within massive, inflexible corporations? Getting a stuffy board of directors to sign off on an arthouse-inspired loft for the five of you is less impossible than it is not going to happen even with someone else’s money.

As it turns out, our company is in a similar situation: We’re a creative marketing team working out of an office we not-so-affectionately refer to as “the cave”. So, like any good inventor would, the first thought that came to mind was “How could I make some combination of technology do the work for me?”

Then I thought about the two, major virtual reality headsets coming out soon.

What if the only cost was a headset and the hardware to run it? What if we could peel back the physical walls and create any office we wanted? What if we could chat and toss ideas around as naturally as sitting next to each other, no matter how much distance is in the way?

Enter, a Spaces app

The major hurdle most “virtual spaces” apps run into is that they get too whimsical, too quickly. You can almost imagine the creators saying things like “If we can exist in a virtual space, why do we need a desktop at all? Let’s walk around an island with all your programs neatly organized on shelves!” or the ever popular “A keyboard and mouse are so two-dimensional. What if you could just gesture at things with your hands?!”

These are neat ideas that certainly have their benefits, but they’re trying to solve too many problems at once. We’ve trained ourselves to work on the “desktop and apps” paradigm for well over 30 years, now. There’s a reason cars have had the same method of input for decades; You don’t fix what isn’t broken.

There is also a second, absolutely terrifying pitfall that every virtual spaces app has to overcome: Writing an entire window manager, essentially from scratch, just to give you the same functionality you’re used to.

Let’s create an app designed specifically to virtualize the experience of working at your desk. There is exactly one problem we’re trying to solve: Make each of us feel like we’re in the most perfect co-working space, no matter where we join from.

Here are the tricks that could make it work:

  1. Use remote desktop to avoid reinventing a window manager. Same desktop you’ve always used, just tricked into displaying within a virtual world.
  2. Capture voice in a bubble. When I look up and speak to a coworker who is busy, that message should be captured into a bubble. My coworker is only bothered when they want to be.
  3. Show my real surroundings as ghosts. The physical walls around me, my desk, and (most importantly) my keyboard and mouse should still be somewhat visible so I can correctly position my real hands. A Kinect or a Leap sensor hung above the desk can probably solve this.

Unfortunately it appears that the Oculus dev kits are no longer available. Maybe once I finally get a Vive or an Oculus, I’ll build this.