Over the last 10 years the office has undergone one of its most significant transformations since the introduction of open-plan working in the post-war era, as emerging technology and a need for more flexibility present new opportunities for businesses around the globe.
According to Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect who created the first open-plan office design, his buildings — set against a backdrop of political extremism in the 1930s — represented the “architecture of freedom and democracy”. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and many of the world’s biggest companies still subscribe to Wright's vision of the democratic workplace, albeit with the addition of huddle areas and foosball tables.
And it’s these companies, including the likes of Meta, Google, Atlassian and Apple, which are now following in the footsteps of early pioneers such as Wright. They are transforming the spaces in which we work - using mixed reality to reimagine how their own offices are designed and created - and they are exploring how these immersive technologies can provide better digital collaboration for their employees.
VR and digital collaboration
In 2022, the PwC US Metaverse Survey found that 21% of companies were already using VR within their business, with 34% saying that the biggest future use case was “a more effective way to develop and train our people”. This was the case for Trello in 2021, when it harnessed virtual reality as a new way to bring its employees together.
“Trello, which was acquired by Atlassian in 2017, has always been a tight-knit team,” explains Liz Leary, the company’s Employee Experience Manager. “Across teams, oceans, time zones, and through an acquisition, we continued to sustain this bond. Then Covid changed the world.”
While not being solely responsible for the demand for more remote collaboration, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the need for flexibility, with more immersive tools becoming increasingly important.
“At the end of 2020, during the height of Covid, my manager and I were on a call and I mentioned the VR hangout on his calendar,” says Leary. “He and other members of the Trello leadership team had set up a VR hangout every Friday afternoon. I told him how much I wanted a Quest headset for Christmas so I could join them. But what I thought was a casual joke about equipping the Trello staff with headsets was actually a plan already set in motion. From there, Trello Together: VR Edition was born.”
The goal for TTVR21, as the project was known, was to recreate a digital representation of Trello’s New York office so that employees could meet in a virtual space using a VR headset, or via a web interface on desktop and mobile.
To achieve this, Trello selected Frame (a digital collaboration platform created by Virbela) as the environment ‘engine’, which would be accessed via Meta Quest headsets, 250 of which were supplied to employees around the world.
“The result was an immersive and realistic digital twin that surprised and delighted our employees,” says Leary. “Newer employees got an accurate sense of the office’s look and feel, while those who had been around pre-pandemic said it felt like going home.”
Creating such a large environment with multiple visual elements did pose some challenges, though, and many assets could only be included as flat PNG files. With 250 people connecting at one time, extra servers were also required to provide a satisfactory level of interaction. And the large number of attendees meant that guests needed to be grouped into batches of 30 and assigned a link to nine separate versions. But Trello turned this to its advantage.
“We developed the idea for a ‘Wall of Portals’ — virtual doors that you could simply click to bring you to another link with a different group of people,” Leary explains. “It was epic!”
Within Trello, Leary says that the event had an “incredible impact” on the company’s team-building practices. Following TTVR21 employees continued to use their headsets for virtual offsites with their teams. “It has had lasting effects on our culture and connection,” she reveals. “And I ended up organizing three more VR events for different teams at Atlassian.”
Despite the success of the Trello event, digital collaboration is still an emerging use case for VR. However, its application in how our workplaces are being designed is now far more mainstream. And in a survey of the UK’s biggest architecture practices (known as the AJ100), researchers found that 52% were using virtual reality in their work.
VR design for offices
Hawkins Brown is a London-based architecture practice, which is currently embedding VR technology into its latest projects. In 2022 Hawkins Brown completed the world’s first social science research park (sbarc/spark) within Cardiff University’s Innovation Campus in Wales. The 12,000 square meter building was designed to provide a variety of work and recreational spaces, as well as labs and exhibition areas.
At the heart of the space is a sculptural staircase that rises through the full height of the seven-story building. Dubbed the ‘Oculus’, the staircase is the key entry point to the building, with seating placed on either side. As part of the design process the team used Dynamo, an open source visual programming language for Revit, alongside a real-time game engine. This enabled the team to walk around the model and assess the impact of design changes, either on screen or using a VR headset.
“Using VR in conversations with a client can lead to new outcomes,” says Jack Stewart, Associate, Digital Design at Hawkins Brown. “On the ‘Oculus’ staircase, the client felt it was really important to be able to stand at the bottom and see right the way to the top to achieve a visual connectivity through the building. The contractor suggested shifting the staircase’s position slightly and making it more vertical. But that would have meant losing that ‘through the building’ viewpoint. By using a VR headset, we were able to show what that would have looked like.”
Beyond client engagement and community outreach, Hawkins Brown is also looking at how virtual reality can be further embedded into its practice in the future, both as a collaborative and authoring tool.
“We’re looking at how digital online environments can be used in the most immersive way using virtual reality,” explains Samuel Wheeler, who is currently undertaking VR research at Hawkins Brown. “We’re exploring what we can do with VR, including what we think we can do in that environment with real-time 3D design. We’re excited about how VR headset technology can open up a new kind of environment for us.”
Exploring every corner with VR technology
Despite being a contributory factor for companies such as Trello, which turned to VR following the impact of Covid-19, the pandemic was less of a factor in the adoption of VR technology within architecture, where it has been used by many firms for over 10 years now.
“The adoption of VR was obviously accelerated by the pandemic, but we were already working in the collaborative metaverse beforehand. That's just the way we were already operating,” explains John Cerone, Principal at SHoP Architects.
SHoP Architects is a New York-based practice, which has worked with some of the world’s most innovative companies, with projects including Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the new Uber Headquarters in San Francisco, and the recently opened Collins Arch complex in Melbourne.
SHoP is also currently working on the Atlassian HQ, which will be the tallest hybrid timber tower ever built when it is completed in 2025. The practice is using VR design to visualize spatial relationships, as well as showcasing the results of its design to clients and stakeholders.
“We create buildings that exist in the physical space, and nothing replaces the in-person visit to a site. But before a project is built it’s all a virtual experience, so VR is an incredible way to have people participate in design, digital collaboration and the coordination of projects,” explains Cerone. “If you're going to invest in something that is going to be realized in maybe five years from design to occupation, clients should be given access to every corner of a project.”
A major milestone for SHoP was when the Meta Quest headset became untethered, which Cerone describes as a “huge moment”. This reduced one of the major barriers to using a VR headset. The practice also utilizes an array of different technologies to present its work, including a special viewing room, which enables larger groups to participate in real-time collaboration.
“The 360 room [developed by UK-based company Igloo Vision] was a way to get around this disconnect you can have with VR,” says Cerone. “It's not stereoscopic, and it's not immersive in the same sense as VR. But it is more collective. You can have a lot of people in one space, seeing the same thing, and you get a nice sense of scale, so it really helps with communication and making decisions. It's another window into the project.”
Democratizing the design process with mixed reality
Architects are trained to understand plans and 3D models, but for most people it’s hard to make the leap from architectural design tools and envisage how a building will actually look. Because of this, architects are increasingly using mixed reality technology to move beyond 2D plans and on-screen CAD renderings.
“VR allows for more participation and intuitive access,” Cerone says. “Before VR, it was very difficult for non-architects to look at a floor plan and envisage how that space will actually look and feel. But anyone that puts on a VR headset can immediately walk through and experience the project and have an opinion.
“It's all about intuitive access and participation,” he continues. “We've had safety and fire inspectors walk through our projects in VR and point out where cameras should be and highlight where the issues are going to be in terms of access. Clients walk through a project in VR and they can participate in the project because they're experiencing it intuitively. It's democratizing the design process.”
The work of Frank Lloyd Wright and the use of mixed reality technology in the office may be separated by a hundred years, but there's a clear connection between the two. Wright’s ultimate aim — to bring freedom and democracy to the workplace — is now being taken on by the likes of Trello, Hawkins Brown, SHoP and many more to create the offices of the future. And his words from the previous century, describing a vision of what an office space could become, still resonate and conjure up striking parallels with where MR is now taking us:
“The light came in where it had never come before. Vision went out. And you had screens instead of walls. Here, the walls vanished as walls. And the box vanished as a box. And the corner window went around the world.”
There are endless possibilities to explore when it comes to VR design. To learn more about how you and your business can utilize Meta for Work to help with creativity and design, check out our work solution pages for the latest innovations.