Today, more than ever companies, researchers and scientists are turning to Virtual Reality as a way to remotely connect their workforce, perform research, and hold meetings. In this article we will show you how to get started using VR for remote collaboration, as well as focus on specific use cases. We will also talk about where VR for remote collaboration may be headed in the way of empowering professionals to virtually connect with one another.
What is VR for Remote Collaboration?
Virtual Reality is an incredibly powerful tool for immersing an individual in a simulated environment. With the right hardware and software, you can travel to a completely different virtual world without ever having to leave your desk - while experiencing what researchers and VR users call “presence.”
Presence is a key ingredient for benefiting from a VR training session or immersive media on your own, but what really elevates virtual reality to the level of a “revolutionary communication tool” is co-presence - the ability to share that virtual space with another or several live person(s).
Remote collaboration in VR is simply defined as two or more individuals coming together in a virtual environment to share a simulated experience for work, learning, or play.
Why would you use VR for Remote Collaboration?
When considering the host of different tools available to connect with each other over distance via voice, 2D or immersive 3D, it is worth considering how the mode of communication will impact the overall effectiveness of the message.
Video conferencing gives us the opportunity to see each other’s faces, heightening the sense of personal connection while sharing 2D content such as videos and slideshows. Working together in a shared document enables deep focus while giving feedback on text in real-time. The advantages of these different mediums are more apparent now than ever and make sense for quick tag-up meetings or writing a joint press release. But what both of these collaboration modes lack is the ability to communicate spatial value - they’re stuck in 2D!
Virtual reality is by its very nature a 3D medium. This makes VR an ideal tool to use when communicating concepts that have spatial values. Going a step further, sharing a 3D environment with other people is a closer approximation of face-to-face communication as it mirrors real life. When you are talking with another person in virtual reality you are able to perceive their body language (their posture, where they are looking etc.) and use your hands and body to gesture. Add to that the ability of bringing in models of real world objects, CAD schematics, scanned data and more and you have a powerful tool for business collaboration.
Here are three reasons why you might consider VR as a remote collaboration tool:
The topic of the session requires some evaluation or interaction with spatial information.
A physical meeting is desirable but not practical.
There is a requirement for a high level of engagement with an audience.
Let's look at a few industry examples to see where virtual reality for remote collaboration works best...
Business Applications of VR for Remote Collaboration
First things first - should I be using VR instead of Zoom / WebEx / GoToMeeting for my company meetings? The answer is yes and no. VR is a great way to have more personalized communication at distance due to its ability to approximate body language when talking one on one, or with a small group. It can also be used to create a fun or unique setting to mix up the daily routine of video chats.
One surprising advantage for using VR as a general-purpose meeting space comes from VR’s use of spatialized audio, which is a feature of many multi-user VR platforms. When spatialized audio is enabled the sound of individual participants' voices will come from their relative position in the virtual space, so if a person is on my left I hear them in my left ear. In a large virtual environment spatialized audio can even be used to have breakout groups where individuals who are close to each other but far away from other small groups can carry on conversations simultaneously without interrupting those around them (just like you would at a real-life event or party). This mitigates the “talking over each other” effect that can happen in large video conferences as well as the sometimes socially uncomfortable experience of having to take turns addressing the whole audience when speaking.
However, given that these advantages are relatively marginal in value it probably doesn’t make sense to use VR as the main meeting space for your company unless your team is already easily equipped to do so (i.e. they have good computers, headsets and strong internet connections). For that reason general purpose meetings rate lower on our list of professional applications of remote collaboration.
One slight caveat - VR can still be used to reach a large audience even if they don’t have the right equipment to join the VR session directly as you can broadcast a VR meeting by using a 3rd party conferencing or webinar tool.
Team Coordination & Design Review
Team coordination, especially on projects where decisions about a 3D space or objects need to be made, is where the value of remote collaboration for VR really becomes apparent. Whether you’re designing a new product, planning the layout of an event, or reviewing the schematics for a new facility - having the ability to immerse your team directly in the topic of discussion is invaluable. We have called design review the “low hanging fruit” of professional VR as it is a use case we have supported for many years with proven results.
The main areas of application for coordination and design review in collaborative VR are:
Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC)
Event and facility planning
One area in particular we have deep experience in is healthcare facility planning. Given the high cost of building and outfitting an operating room or patient facility, and the mission critical nature of these spaces, intelligent and intuitive design is literally life saving. Virtual reality enables doctors and nurses, the end users themselves, to walk through a planned space and make adjustments and give feedback before ground is even broken. For more information on this particular use case, please see our case studies on Flad Architects, and HKS Architects and others.
On the manufacturing side, VR is used throughout the product life cycle. This video case study from Deckers (maker of Ugg boots) shows how they have implemented VR to effectively plan new shoe designs and then use scanning technology to evaluate physical prototypes that are manufactured in Asia without having to travel overseas. With the addition of high-accuracy motion tracking you can even perform ergonomic validation and reachability studies.
A limiting factor for design review applications is model workflow - many CAD applications were not designed with real-time VR rendering in mind and artists and designers will sometimes have to go through a process of model conversion in order to bring designs into an interactive, multi-user VR space. However, as new model formats and better conversion techniques become available, this historical issue is quickly fading. See this article on Why the gLTF model format is a huge deal for AR + VR to learn how this world is rapidly evolving.
Conducting online classes using remote virtual reality collaboration can be an effective method for improving retention rates of learned material. Students and teachers can interact with and explore immersive content (e.g. 3D models, point clouds, spherical videos) and 2D content (e.g. videos, documents, images). Teachers or trainers can create learning content and environments, while students use VR to showcase their work or create projects that can be experienced collaboratively.
Since a classroom-sized experience may be difficult to achieve with everyone in VR, one option is to have some users in VR, while the rest of the students can view a 2D version of the session. For tips on how you can conduct a VR session and present it to hundreds of attendees using an online meeting tool like “Zoom” see this month’s techtip.
Running an experiment between a researcher and a participant can be tricky when you are not in the same location. With Vizard, you can publish to an .exe file and then share it with participants so they can run the experiment on their own. After that you can review the data that is saved (an .exe published with Vizard can save out analytical data to a number of formats, such as .xls or .txt). Another option is to use a screen sharing tool like GoToAssist, where the researcher can control the remote participant’s desktop and initiate events like starting an application and proceeding through stages in the experiment. This also allows the researcher to view a 2D mirrored view of the simulation.
If it may be some time before you are able to run a study in a traditional lab setting, this could be the time where you can work on developing your experiment. Vizard allows you to create and test in a 2D desktop mode and you can then convert it to other hardware (such as a VR headset), with just one line of code.
To get started with using Virtual Reality for remote collaboration you will need to have certain hardware and software available. Here is a breakdown on some of the tools you may need.
There is a range of options for Virtual Reality (VR) hardware. The two key components for a good VR experience are the display and the motion tracking system combined with the appropriate processing hardware.
VR displays can be as simple as a PC monitor, TV or even mobile phone. The level of immersion is however limited with general use displays. Displays specifically developed for VR include VR headsets and large scale VR projection systems (also known as automatic virtual environment or CAVETM). In the following section we compare these display types.
VR headsets offer the highest level of immersion. The user wears the headset (in some cases multiple panels) directly in front of the eyes and it covers the entire field-of-view. Combined with a motion tracking system, this allows the user to move freely and look into any direction. ‘Presence’ is created and the user’s brain is tricked into believing that what they see is ‘real’. Numerous studies have shown that presence doesn’t require photorealistic rendering or a VR headset with ultra-high resolution.
VR headsets can mainly be categorized in two categories - standalone VR headsets and PC based VR headsets. Most standalone VR headsets don’t require any additional hardware. The motion tracking, processing of the motion tracking data, and the rendering is all done on the VR headset unit. Rendering quality is limited compared to PC based VR headsets. Some standalone VR headsets, however, allow connection to a PC. Standalone units are generally heavier and less comfortable to wear compared to most PC based VR headsets. Most standalone VR headsets are powered by mobile phone CPU’s and run a mobile operating system. In summary, standalone VR headsets can make a good entry level choice but have some shortcomings when it comes to rendering performance, the comfort of wearing and compatibility with applications and additional hardware.
PC based VR headsets require a PC that meets the manufacturer’s rendering requirements. Usually a basic gaming PC or laptop will suffice. Depending on the application, the PC needed to run the application may be expensive, increasing the overall system cost. That said, the system lifetime can be longer since you may upgrade your graphics later on. Most PC based VR headsets require a cable connection to the PC. For certain applications this can limit the freedom of movement and pose a hazard. There are wireless options for certain VR headsets that can work reasonably well or a common alternative is a backpack PC that the user wears.
Projection VR systems are less common for remote collaboration applications but offer a great advantage for certain applications, especially for businesses. Projection VR systems can come close to a ‘Holodeck’ type experience. They cast the virtual environment either from the front or the back onto screens (or room walls) in front of or around the user. The user wears 3D glasses that are similar to what you wear in a 3D movie theater. The level of immersion is highly dependent on the total screen real estate. It can range from a single screen (typically also referred to as Powerwall) to a full six sided cube or a 360 degree sphere. The complexity of these types of VR systems can be significantly higher compared to VR headset systems. The key advantages of projection systems are that multiple people can view the same VR experience together in the same space. Why is this useful for remote collaboration? Because a team of say 10 people can experience a VR presentation together in one location while meeting with or getting trained by one or multiple other people in different locations.
As for the second key component, the motion tracking system, almost all current generation VR headsets, whether standalone or PC based come with their own motion tracking system. In addition to the built-in motion tracking systems there are solutions like the WorldViz Precision Position Tracking (PPT) system that can augment the VR headset’s motion tracking system to to add a range of additional devices, increase the size of the tracking area or increase the level of accuracy and precision to research-grade quality. For projection systems the motion tracking system options are limited to higher-end standalone motion tracking systems like PPT.
For remote VR applications the network connectivity is a key component. It takes surprisingly little bandwidth to run a collaborative VR session. Since the assets are downloaded beforehand, during a session the only information that is being shared is positional data, interactions, and speech. In most cases you only need around the same amount of bandwidth that would be required to stream videos on Netflix. At a minimum, we suggest 5 Mbps upload/download per user and a latency (or “ping”) of less than 30ms.
You may also run into issues with having a firewall turned on. If this is the case look into allowing outbound connections the necessary ports for whatever application you are running.
If you are in a place where there is no internet, or a very slow connection, you can use “mobile tethering” from your phone.
Mobile tethering can be done either by activating and connecting to a smartphone’s local Wifi hotspot, or by plugging the phone into the computer directly. Perform a Google search for the “smartphone model + mobile tethering” for specific model information.
To build an application for remotely connecting in VR, you will need to have access to 3D assets. These can be either 3D models, 360 videos or images, or scan data, such as point cloud data.
You can acquire 3D models quickly and easily by using an online content library, such as Sketchfab (see our tutorial on how to get 3D models from Sketchfab). Other options are using photogrammetry (where you can take a series of photos of an actual object and use software such as Recap, Meshroom or many others to automatically create a 3D model), using a 3D scanner to generate a point cloud, or creating the 3D model manually using a 3D modelling program like 3DSMax or Blender.
360 Videos and images
360 Videos and images can be easily created either using an affordable 360 camera (like the Gear 360), a more professional 360 camera (like the Insta360 Pro 2), or even capturing a photosphere with your smartphone.
Bringing avatars into your scene (either to represent yourself or “agents/bots” in your application) can vary from program to program. Vizard and Vizible include a few built-in avatars that you can choose from. One option for adding more avatars may be to use an online avatar library, such as Mixamo.
Building a VR Application
To get started on creating a virtual scene for remote collaboration there are a few software tools you can choose from. Here are some quick options.
Vizible™ by WorldViz, is a software designed for easily creating remote Virtual Reality sessions. There is no coding involved and you schedule your session as you would a GoToMeeting type invite. Putting together the presentation is as easy as clicking and dragging in your assets. All interactivity (such as visibility of items, animations, proximity sensors, etc.) is done through an intuitive, right-click method. You can control the progression of your session by creating “slides”, similar to setting up a PowerPoint presentation.
Vizard™ is a Python based Virtual Reality creation application designed specifically for research-focused VR. It easily connects to a wide variety of hardware, from headsets, to motion tracking systems, data gloves, eye tracking, and more. To run Vizard for remote collaboration there is a built-in collaboration functionality allowing users to connect either on a local network, or via VPN if remote, as well as embedded networking tools.
Other Multi-User VR Platforms
There are also a growing selection of online multi-user Virtual Reality platforms one can choose from. Here are a few of the more popular ones being used currently.
Altspace VR - A virtual meeting space where users can do things such as watch play games together, watch videos, open up a web browser and chat with other avatars.
VRChat - Started in 2017, VRChat is a massive multiplayer VR platform. It has extensive support for a large number of hardware configurations. It has gained some popularity due to Twitch streaming and YouTube videos
BigScreen - Mostly a platform for users to get together and watch movies and play games in VR.
Mozilla Hubs - An open source VR chat room that allows users to create their own rooms and invite friends.
Future of VR Collaboration
Driven by the need to work together in a socially distanced setup, remote virtual collaboration is turning from a ‘nice to have’ to a requirement. Next to eliminating the danger of spreading COVID-19, adoption is driven by the desire to reduce travel time and cost when it comes to being able to experience a geometrical setup or object together as a group for presentations or training.
That said, remote collaboration is still fighting with issues including
Connectivity - how fast and reliable is your internet connection
Availability of high-end VR end-to-end hardware and software. Do all participants have a ‘game quality’ computer and VR setup?
Driver stability - basic drivers for all high-end devices still require relatively frequent updates
Firewalls create major obstacles for functional VR meetings in larger companies
5G - Accelerating remote VR collaboration
The rollout of 5G will provide the connectivity and bandwidth needed for every user to connect to a high-quality VR meeting session.
Augmented Reality (AR) participants in VR
Bringing augmented reality devices into the mix with VR devices will allow a more versatile use of meetings.
Better hardware will make the existing VR experiences even more compelling and allow for higher performance:
Eye tracking and foveated rendering in all VR headsets
Focal adjustment for correct focal distance (depending on eye tacking) makes the VR perception close to equivalent with real-world experience
Rendering power in 5G wireless points might allow for real-time rendering without need for weight or power in VR headsets
Are you interested in a consultation for your own remote VR collaboration solution? Please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and our VR experts will set up a call with you.