Archimedes needed a wash, Newton needed some shade and Fleming needed a break. From volume to gravity to penicillin, some of the greatest scientific discoveries in human history were the result of serendipity. What is the one thing all of these discoveries have in common? None of these giants of science were at their desks.
In the era of remote working, for all of the work/life benefits and productivity gains that have been delivered, something has been lost in the mail. There are a lot more empty desks, but very few people running naked through the streets shouting ‘eureka’.
We can’t all be geniuses and in more recent times collaboration has been vital to innovative breakthroughs, but the need for a fresh perspective has never gone away. The apple tree gave way to the watercooler, but what replaces the watercooler when there’s no one present to gather around it?
Ivo Vlaev, Professor of Behavioral Science at Warwick Business School, explains the new roadblock to innovation. “When working remotely, one can easily feel disconnected from colleagues, so we need to encourage more informal conversations. If you don't have these spontaneous brainstorming sessions, if you don't have a sense of camaraderie, this can lead to a loss of creative energy and motivation.”
There is a clear need to recapture those infamous ‘office run-ins’. In the shadows of New York’s Flatiron building are the offices of Agile Lens, an extended reality (or ‘XR’ - a catch-all term for virtual, mixed and augmented reality) creative studio that might have the answer.
Constructing a VR architecture firm
CEO, co-founder and self-professed ‘XR-chitect’ Alex Coulombe has had an unconventional career journey. An architect by training, Alex has had a lifelong love affair with theater. In an effort to combine his passions, he joined leading theater planning and design consultancy Fisher Dachs Associates in 2012. It was here that he would become more than familiar with the potential benefits of spontaneous brainstorming sessions, leading to his eureka moment (clothes on) with VR.
“I overheard people talking in the office about our work on The Shed at Hudson Yards. It was going to be very difficult to figure out where to install some specialized equipment that needed four feet of clearance. I offered to put a quick VR experience of that together. It was one of those serendipitous things that only happened because I heard there was a problem and was able to volunteer.”
It turns out some real-world challenges are far less complex in VR. “I put a four-foot stick inside the VR experience. You could literally just walk around and see where the equipment would fit. Simple.”
Alex founded Agile Lens a year later, with a mission to deliver pipeline optimization and cost-efficiency throughout the design and construction process.
Alex explains: “Before XR, you were receiving change orders and fixing things when construction had already started, spending 10-15% of the entire building budget on changes because people couldn’t conceptualize from the plans. Virtual reality solves a lot of that. Now we can just put a headset on a client and they can look around. Everyone on the project gets to see the updates so there are no big surprises.”
What do people expect from a virtual collaboration space?
Having pioneered the use of VR in architecture and construction, Alex is still combining his passions. The Agile Lens team has produced numerous virtual theater experiences that continue to inform their unique approach, developing new techniques to work out what people expect from a virtual space.
“When you start to work more in the realm of designing virtual architecture where it's never going to be built, it's fascinating to think about what should still be ‘skeuomorphic’ [that is, using familiar design elements from the real world to help create a sense of immersion].”
How do they do it: Pixel streaming
Virtual desks and whiteboards are great for helping users adapt to a VR workspace, but the whole point of spontaneous human moments is that they happen when you get away from your desk. The virtual office has the potential to initiate a whole new paradigm in working environments, but where does that design process begin?
Alex explains his iterative approach to XR-chitecture, informed by behavioral data. “Working with virtual architecture and immersive theater environments, we’re able to take someone who will actually work in the space on a virtual tour. People can give much better feedback on their experience compared to if they were just watching an animation or looking at a few renders. It's really informative to see what people fixate on.”
This iterative process goes way beyond subjective feedback and first impressions. Agile Lens is able to track and record user movements and behavior as they explore the virtual environments, pinpointing those design elements that draw the most interest. “We generate thermal maps to figure out what people are looking at and for how long - where they're walking and how they interact.”
Alex and his team are using the behavioral data they collect to inform their design choices. By identifying the most popular areas of the virtual environment, Alex is able to place his virtual watercooler in hotspots that maximize the chance of spontaneous collaboration and innovation.
“It is iterative design but it all goes back to trying to find ways to bring people's attention to something, naturally guiding them, so they feel like they're making all these decisions on their own.”
In the virtual office there is no use for a watercooler, but moments of spontaneous collaboration and innovation often need a fresh perspective and a point of interest. For Agile Lens, these communal spaces and their focal points are constantly evolving. So, where does Alex’s team draw their inspiration from?
“We participate in an XR Social Club, led by Christina Heller and Will Cherry. There's a clubhouse where a bunch of us meet in ‘VR Chat’, which is where, surprisingly, a lot of the most exciting virtual architecture is happening. There are so many incredibly imaginative worlds being created by designers, many of whom aren't trained architects, who are really pushing the possibilities of the medium forward. We take a tour of these every week and get to see what other people are coming up with.”
In the modern hybrid working environment, the watercooler may not be a watercooler, but the moments can still happen. Indeed, in the virtual office, the form of the communal space is limited only by the imagination of the designer with the potential not only to elicit spontaneous collaboration, but perhaps also to steer its direction.
How do they do it: Photorealism
Your next watercooler could be a puzzle, a treasure chest or a Ferris wheel. It might change every week. It might even be an apple tree…
Whether it’s for construction, VR, or both, collecting the data from experiential testing by the people who will use the space offers businesses the opportunity to rethink their entire work environment based on their employees’ preference.
Through the use of behavioral data, workers are showing their employers where they want to be for those eureka moments yet to come. XR enabled, data driven design is helping organizations guide their employees on a journey back to the watercooler, in whatever shape or form it takes.