WE ARE VR PART THREE: WORK

PART THREE: WORK.
So you have completed your augmented-reality education, graduated from your virtual university and now you are ready to enter the job market. But what kinds of work will await you in a world where computer-generated fantasies blend seamlessly with reality?
Predicting the future of work is tricky, because there are many technologies that could conceivably dramatically change the job landscape. What kind of work will exist when biotech equipment evolves into convenient desktop devices? When robotics and AI have automated a large percentage of jobs? When IT and communications technologies have further deepened our ability to overcome distance and work together while apart?
In this part, I shall describe a few ways in which businesses are already using VR, and then present a way in which it might be used to change the way we think about work.
CURRENT USES OF VR IN WORK.
VR is not exactly a new thing in the world of work. Of all the VR systems out there, the one people are most familiar with is probably the flight simulator. Flight simulators consist of an enclosed unit whose interior matches the cockpit of an airplane. The unit itself is mounted on hydraulics that can move the unit so as to accurately recreate the movements an aircraft can make. As the pilot operates the controls, force-feedback provides realistic tactile sensations, and the view outside the window (which are actually monitors) shows a virtual landscape rendered to display precisely what you would see at that point in time. All of this combines to produce a simulation of flying that is so accurate they can be used for ‘zero flight time’ training, meaning commercial pilots complete all of their training in simulators, with no need to fly the real thing until their first commercial flight.
The automobile industry has also been a user of VR. As you may well imagine, there are dramatic savings to be made when one moves from building physical prototypes to playing around with virtual vehicles. Ford’s Vice President of Engineering reckoned that VR saves six months in product development time. The Ford VR centre is an arm of the company’s product development division. At IEEE VR 2009, Ford VR’s manager- Elizabeth Baron- described several ways in which VR has been used to help design and test automobiles. All vehicle manufacturers have to deal with ‘human scaling’ which basically means fitting cars to people, taking into consideration specifications such as interior size, seat ratio, and the placement of the steering wheel, pedals and other components. Obviously, using trial and error to get human scaling right is very much cheaper when done in VR, and it also allows one to do things that would not be possible in the physical world. For example, Ford VR’s centre was able to test whether a particular sun visor would block glare for drivers of different heights by repositioning the Sun. 
Perhaps the greatest potential for cost-savings lies in that form of market research known as test stores. A test store is, as its name suggests, a mock-up of a supermarket or some other store which companies use for focus testing. One such company that uses VR test stores is the Fortune 500 corporation Kimberly Clark. Kimberly Clark uses virtual stores to design and test product placement, layouts, displays, and other aspects of a store that can affect shopper preferences. When it comes to market data collection, VR proves very effective because it can capture so much useful information. It can record exactly where customers walk, where they are looking, what they pick up and what they purchase. Once VR headsets become commercially available, companies that use virtual test stores will have a preferable alternative to traditional methods of finding focus groups. The way this is usually done is that market researchers will go to a mall or some other place where people congregate, single out those who appear to fit the demographic of interest, and put together a sample group of ten or so people. But once VR becomes widespread, there will potentially be a much larger pool of consumers, one that’s more closely representative of the actual population of interest. Furthermore these consumers could be sampled randomly, which would help to ensure statistics gathered are more accurate.
It it were a physical test-store that was being built, it would of course be impractical to construct more than a few. But VR test stores impose no such constraints, making it possible in principle to design products and stores individually tailored to every consumer. Shopping malls of the future might be the result of thousands of variations sampled by millions of focus groups. 
As we shop in the stores of the future, it is possible that we will be served by assistants that use VR to give them superpowers. We saw in the part on education how VR can augment a teacher’s ability to engage with an audience, and it can also be used to make salespeople more effective. We may one day be served by avatars employing the ‘Chameleon Effect’. This was a term coined by social psychologist Tanya Chartland, following experiments that demonstrated researchers tasked with conducting interviews preferred actors who (unbeknown to the researchers) mimicked their gestures.
Blascovich and Bailenson also conducted experiments in the effectiveness of mimicry, this time using agents rather than actors (an agent is an avatar controlled by an AI rather than a human). In one condition, the agent mirrored the head movements of participants about four seconds after they occurred. In the other condition, the agents’ head movements were not repeats of the participants’. Less than three percent of participants were aware that they were being mimicked, and the mimicking agents were rated as being more persuasive, credible, and trustworthy. Blascovich and Bailenson commented, “a virtual car sales agent might be programmed to mimic potential car buyers’ movements in a digital showroom. A human salesperson could do this as well, if they took time to learn the same acting techniques the interviewees used in Chartland’s experiments. But avatars and agents can do something which no human can, and that is mimic several people at once. This would be achieved in a similar way to how a virtual lecture hall can allow many people to sit in the same seat: the user’s computer rendering the avatar or agent tailors the viewpoint so they interact with a salesperson uniquely tailored to be persuasive to them.
Before people try out for a job, perhaps people will hone their interview techniques in virtual settings? The company SiMmersion provides one such virtual interview room, along with ‘Molly’, an agent that can draw from a script of hundreds of standard interview questions. The replies she receives influences her moods, with good choices making her more encouraging, and poor ones making her more blunt and abrupt. The interview can be set to several different difficulty levels, allowing the challenge to rise as one’s skills in interviewing increase. In a virtual setup like this, mistakes that could cost one a potential job become useful guides for improvement. Par for the course with VR, the system is recording everything so it can be replayed for review purposes, and Molly can be personalized to suit individual educational backgrounds, work histories, and other personal details.
Maybe one day, it will become standard practice to conduct interviews with AI-powered avatars. But there is a possibility that VR will do a lot more to change the nature of jobs. Currently, the word most closely associated with ‘job’ is ‘work’, but in the future it may be ‘play’.

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