Long before the pandemic, Google’s Kaggle team had already been working fully remotely. Normally, they could still count on a week together every six months, for which everybody would fly to one place in the world to meet up, talk strategy, and get to know one another better. With travel constraints, circumstances have obviously changed, though. Google adapted by turning to virtual reality (VR).
New Meaning to ‘Virtual’ in Virtual Team Building
“Our last time around we tried using [video-calling application] Gather.Town, which was a bit of a step up in terms of feeling like we’re in the same place [relative to teleconferencing apps], but we wanted to try something different this time around. That’s where VR came in,” said Myles O’Neill, a Design Manager on the Kaggle team, a former data-science start-up of roughly 50 people that is now part of Google Cloud.
There is no shortage of virtual team-building ideas on the web, especially in light of how the world has transformed over the last year. One possible solution is to visit another world altogether, even if it wouldn’t technically be real in the strictest sense.
“I guess we thought, ‘Hey, what would be really interesting is VR,’” he said. “So, we started looking around for solutions, and I think Remio popped out because they were the only group that I could find that was focused on VR events for remote teams.”
As O’Neill explained, Remio is itself a start-up, shipping out VR headsets and accompanying controllers to clients, instead of hosting groups of people in a single location. Users then return the equipment at a later date. As one might expect, O’Neill found Remio through Google Search, he and his team ultimately enjoying what he called a “fantastic” business relationship with the team-building solutions provider.
From Productivity to Paintball
Having just started out over the last year, the San Francisco-based Remio is growing organically, largely through word of mouth. Over 25 companies have tried it out since testing began in Summer 2020. The official launch came in January 2021.
Remio CEO and Co-Founder Jos van der Westhuizen told 6GWorldTM the initial plan was to develop virtual productivity tools, even before COVID-19. Through client feedback during the pandemic, Remio pivoted to also incorporate team-building games into its product. It’s been their bread and butter ever since.
“We can use this team-building request that a lot of these companies have and give them that solution, and then also show them the productivity tools that we were already interested in,” said van der Westhuizen, referencing the whiteboard, JIRA planning board, and presentation room, among other features clients can access through their virtual campus.
“Honestly even just that – being in the same space together, being able to interact – was really cool and they have these games you can go into,” said O’Neill. “The two most popular ones were paintball and this tower-defense one where you have bows and arrows on the top of the castle, shooting at orcs and things. Both of those were a lot of fun.
“It was just so simple for everyone to join and be in the same space, whereas most other games, if you want 20-plus people in the same space, it’s really quite complicated to do that in VR or [they] just don’t support it.”
O’Neill also singled out the way the voice works in Remio as a stand-out feature, where the environment mimics a room in which groups of people are having different conversations. O’Neill illustrated by explaining you can hear people who are further away, but more quietly than someone (virtually) in front of you.
For their hardware, Remio has partnered with manufacturers like Pico to provide clients with its Neo 2 headset. Van der Westhuizen meanwhile credits Co-Founder and Vice-President of Engineering Derrick van Schalkwyk as being the “genius behind all of our software.”
“There are a lot of mechanics built in that you wouldn’t have in a normal game to encourage a lot more communication and team building. That’s one of the hats we always wear,” he said, adding that while a lot of the content is made in-house, Remio is starting to branch out.
A Future So Bright You’ll Need a Headset?
A few externally created games, like table tennis and golf, are also available. Remio hopes more developers follow suit, eventually getting compensated based on how often clients play their respective offerings. Van der Westhuizen sees ample opportunity moving forward, even if the threat of the pandemic lessens as vaccines roll out worldwide.
He cited three reasons why Remio can continue to expand. For starters, he doesn’t believe everything will go back completely to normal, as many companies seem to be maintaining some work-from-home flexibility. Secondly, Remio has already had clients who have fully returned to the office.
“It’s still something you can use even though you’re not remote. Also, the headsets are starting to cost less than a computer monitor and we see a future where, instead of actually having an office filled with computer monitors, people can just have this headset with them or [augmented reality; AR] glasses and just work like that at their screen,” he said.
Finally, like Google, some companies with which Remio has worked have been fully remote even before the pandemic. O’Neill even said his team might check back in with Remio for their next scheduled team-building meet-up six months down the road.
“It really created a sense of immersion and I think it was pretty unique. I’m excited by what they’re going to develop next. I think their platform has a lot of room to grow. It’s still very beginning-stage, but I feel they tackled some of the important stuff early,” he said. “I got so much feedback from people on my team saying, ‘This is so great. Thanks for making this happen. I was skeptical of VR, but then we tried it and actually it’s way better than I thought it was.’”
Technologically, van der Westhuizen sees room to grow for the sector as a whole, which would make it all the more enticing as an option. For example, he said ideally hand tracking, which Oculus Quest users get to experience, will become more widely available as a feature.
He also mentioned further development of monitor extensions, with which users can see their desktops via VR, but there’s more progress needed on that front. For people to ultimately adopt such a solution and actually work virtually as he envisions, the “monitors” can’t be as straining to the eyes, when there’s a perfectly good one for them to use in the real world.
“Increasing resolution is just one thing… in terms of just getting people to use [VR] as a work tool. The other thing is tracking your body and facial expressions,” he said. “There is definitely a lot of technology out there doing this like hardware extensions, but, if it’s all built into one device, that would be extremely cool[…] enabling next-level remote interactions, both social and collaborative, in VR.”
Feature image courtesy of adriaticfoto (via Shutterstock).