VR Environments in the Workplace: The Cubicle worker
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Article by Virtual Worldlets Network
Copyright 13/06/2008
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This is a dreamscapes story. Dreamscapes are rooted in both current technology and technological/social trends, however they move ahead of current technology 10, 20, 30 years.

They are not exactly whimsical flights of fancy, but they are born out of the knowledge that technology is not enough. Hardware and interfaces are not enough.

The human, and post-human aspect must be considered also. What could life be like, living in a world with sufficiently advanced virtual reality?


The lift doors opened and Mary stepped in. There were a few others already in the lift, but based on the lack of movement out when the doors opened, obviously none of them desired to exit at the lobby. Some were clearly cubicle workers like herself, one was a janitor, and one corner was occupied by a somewhat grouchy robo-porter. Mary kept away from that; the waist-high box on treads was screeching through its grille and blowing uncomfortably cold air out every time someone shuffled too close. The doors closed, and the lift waited for a moment. Mary focussed her thoughts into a visual image of the floor on which she worked. The lift paused for a second, reading her mind just enough to understand her destination, then assimilating that with everyone else's destination to prioritize stops. With a barely perceptible acceleration, they were off.

Mary winced as a blast caught her on the cheek after the janitor, an older man with several skin prostheses, shuffled too close to the porter, which triggered an especially long icy warning to stand back. Obviously its cargo was precious.

Reaching up to adjust her spectacles, knocked loose by the blast, Mary straightened the bun in her normally shoulder length black hair. Her outwards appearance was professional with a pinstripe pencil suit, and low heels. She wore glasses, although in this day and age, no one needed to. She wore them because she felt it made her look more professional. At a diminutive five foot two, it was important to stand out in some way, she felt.

The lift slowed to a stop, and the doors opened. A soothing voice, neither male nor female, and with no hints as to race, announced that this was the marketing department's floor. Immediately the robo-porter began to bleep, and with more hissing jets of freezing air, moved people out of the way as it trundled out. As the porter left the lift, the doors closed. The sensors had not detected anyone standing within range of the lift except the exiting porter, so no reason to stay. The journey continued.

The lift stopped a second time, and the soothing voice from it announced it was Mary's floor. Smiling, she was glad to get out of the lift, but waited till two of the other office workers, one a man well over six foot, got out first. Stepping out into the light beige hallway panelled with imitation wood along the lower half, and speckled with plastic plants, undisguised bare regulation fire doors and fluorescent lighting, Mary breathed deeply, glad to be out of the confined room.

It might be a typical faux-friendly company corridor, but at least there was space.

She passed under the flickering, dimming light of a florescent on its last legs, a subtle reminder of the company's less than stellar views on building maintenance. The clop clop of her heels on the rubberised floor somehow acoustically pulled the corridor in upon itself, making it feel stuffier than it looked. Hurrying a little to lose the oppressive feeling, she followed the other two workers through a double fire door on the left. Once through it, the feeling changed as carpet tiles underfoot soaked up the sound, and lilac paint with white furnishings somehow seemed more soothing.

The tall guy she was following had just passed the security checkpoint, and Mary hurriedly lifted her glasses and stared unblinking at the mirror panel set into the left wall. Behind the panel, an AI worked its machine vision, identifying her facial contours, then zooming in to check her iris patterns, and retinal structure. Behind the scenes, crossing kilometres of wire filament, records were searched through, comparing general facial structure, iris pattern and retinal patterns with Mary's records on file.

Less than a tenth of a second after first looking at the glass, Mary noticed a distinct change as the panel flashed greenish tint a couple of times. She smiled, and turned to walk across the room to the second set of fire doors, crossing several areas where the floor tiles gave way to metal strips. Security countermeasures to prevent anyone who was not approved from easily passing. She did not like to think what would happen if security failed to recognise her. Mary had not seen it, but had heard from others, that one person had actually been caught by the system in her tenure. The accounts were quite sobering. The first strips were not lethal, but if you kept going, they became so, swiftly enough.

Slipping through the double doors, Mary found herself in her normal office environment. Over two thousand cubicles were arranged in double rows throughout this cavernous space, yet relatively few people moved outside of them. Most that did, were either those like herself, just arriving to start a shift, or just leaving one. A 24 hour modern workday meant that for a large company, your work hours could be almost any time you desired; it made no real difference to the windowless office.

Mary continued walking for almost a hundred yards through the nests of cubicles, before she found her own. Slipping into the small space, she settled down into the form-fitting, reclining couch occupying the middle of the almost Spartan cubicle. She4 kicked off her heels, glad to be out of them. Gently, she slipped her feet into the footrests, which moulded over her skin with a slightly warm, ticklish sensation.

Two gloves waited by the chair, both connected wirelessly to it. Mary picked both up, and humming softly to herself, slipped her hands into them, wriggling her fingers at the prickly sensations from within.

Reaching for the headpiece, which covered her eyes and ears, draping a microphone over her mouth but leaving her nose free for safety purposes, she pulled the pins from her bun, and removed the band holding it together. Allowing it to cascade down, she removed her glasses, and set them on a small shelf to one side.

As she slipped the headpiece on, she felt the claustrophobic warmth. The world went dark around her, and all sound ceased. She hung onto this sensory void as long as she could stand it; only her own heartbeat for company until her mind edited it out. Finally, she spoke a single word into the mic.


The computer controlling her chair, and interface accessories, immediately accessed the headpiece's internal cameras, mounted behind the display ports, and took a snapshot of her retina, as the displays flashed brightly for a split second. Her voice pattern was also checked against records. Both matched. No need for a password, the system was now online.

For Mary, all she saw was the flash. Closing her eyes instinctively, a split second later her 'office' came into focus. She was standing in the middle of a jungle clearing, the same setting she usually used. Above and behind her, a tree-borne platform lifted itself off the floor, held by a large stump. Delicate steps left it and wound around slowly in a lazy spiral down to ground level. To one side, a series of fallen trees and stumps had been placed almost exactly to serve as tables. Along the other side, open jungle, and in the distance, majestic cliffs with an impossibly high waterfall could be glimpsed above the canopy.

A mixture of birdsong softly filled the air, and the whole scene marked bty dappled soft half-light coming in through the tree branches above, as the early morning sun rose.

Mary herself was changed. Her body was far closer to five foot ten here, and much more muscled. Still female, still a brunette, she had a deep tan and was clearly no pushover in a physical contest.The couch and accessories transferred every feeling to her, cocooning her physical body, she felt every ray of sun, every whisper of air touch her virtual form as if it were truly her, which in its way, it was. The only thing lacking was sexual stimulation, but of course this was a company interface, designed for work not pleasure.

She allowed herself a half minute to bathe in the morning glory of her true working environment, then, collecting her thoughts, set about to work.

She waved her forearm across the air in front of her At the same time she concentrated on what she wanted in her mind, so that the interface could read it in the same way the lift had. The arm movement simply telling the system how and where to place.. The air shimmered as if under a morning heat haze, and something began to replace it.A list appeared, hanging motionless in mid-air as the shimmer dissipated. All the messages left for her since yesterday, were displayed, along with a summary of topic. She picked two of them out in particular. With each she reached out, grasped it, and slid it off the window. Each time the message followed her hand, until she let go. At which point, finding itself no-longer in a window, a new window formed, opening out from the message, and displaying the contents.

Back outside the interface, her body remained motionless save for her breathing, and the chair's occasional movements to shift her body around. Pressure sores were a no-no and the computer knew that. Each movement of the couch was designed to shift weight so that Mary could remain logged in without health problems, all day long. The interface components detected the nerve commands to the muscles in her legs, feet, toes, arms, hands, and each individual bend of her fingers. They could tell a bend command down to the finest fraction of an arc-minute, and they could block the actual signal from activating the muscle, yet send a fake signal back saying the muscle had been activated, and showing the response.

In this way, Mary and thousands of her colleagues could lay in therapeutic rest physically, whilst their minds perceived them performing all manner of physical activity seamlessly in the interface.

Back in the jungle, Mary read through the first of the messages. Fred Blarges, a colleague in another department, wanted one of the files she had been working on for a mutual client. The message had a picture of Fred's virtual form and some basic details off to one side. She tapped the picture, which glowed, indicating a connection was made. "Voice" she uttered.

A second window, smaller, like a post-it note appeared, fastened onto the first. It blinked 'Mr Blarges is in a meeting, and unable to take voice calls at this time. Would you like to leave a mail?.

Mary shrugged and simply stated. "Memo: Fred, this is Mary from Statistics. Do you still need my files on the McMillan case?". Changing her voice slightly, to be more commanding she continued. "Save and Send". The window beeped and disappeared. A change of data scrolled along the bottom of the original message from Fred - her reply to this message had been recorded.

She turned to deal with the other message she had pickled out. This one had data for her. It was Sandra from sales, dropping a memo off to ask how she was, and to give the latest figures on one of the product lines they had been pushing lately. At the bottom of the message there was a cuddly panda bear toy hugging a wrapped scroll.. Mary giggled a little at that; Sandra was known for her soft toy fetish. She plucked the bear out of the message. Because it was not just a picture, but had 3D data structure, it did not open a new window when she let go of it. Instead, it puffed out, assuming all three dimensions, and dropping slowly, to bounce on a small log table. Mary giggled at its adorableness, and slid out the parchment scroll from its paws.Also rendered in 3D, Mary moved it in her hands, unwrapping it, and opening it out. She smiled, and leaning over the same log table, unrolled the scroll onto its surface. Inside the scroll, a long table of figures, an editable spreadsheet, appeared.

"Chart" she uttered, still holding the parchment with both hands. The data on the scroll immediately began to move, forming into the type of chart she was holding in her mind. A 3D chart of the data was created ,and, possessing 3D data, it lept off the scroll, forming colour-coded mountain ranges pushing up from the surface. Labels for each individual element, along with data values, appeared each time she focussed on that part of the chart. After studying it for a few minutes, Mary waved another window into existence in front of her.

Focussing her gaze upon the new window, she waited the briefest of moments until it glowed slightly, indicating it had focus. Mary spoke to it. "Pull up the last three months data for sales of product code XYJ4697C".

The window immediately filled with data. She broke her gaze, and rolled the scroll back up. As she did so, the mountain range flattened, pressing itself back down to a flat chart. She lifted it, and pressed it against the surface of the window she had just opened.

"Add data" She stated.

The scroll faded out, absorbed into the window. Within moments her hand was empty, and the data in the window frantically rearranged, absorbing the new input, and sorting itself. "Chart." The data swirled into a three dimensional line graph, which Mary rotated with hand gestures, her frown deepening. "Display trend line for sales performance in region 2."

Immediately a new dark line appeared in the graph, showing markedly that region two's sales had fallen by nearly 40% in the past three months, whilst other areas had grown. Muttering to herself, Mary began to work on a report for Sandra on this issue, opening another window, and dictating into it by pressing her hand onto it whenever she desired to add more text. Whilst she did that, she paused several times, using her other hand to rotate the chart window, and to call up other windows, filling them with references to the sales team, and a list of eliminated possibilities, when she found team members to be pulling their weight.

After about an hour's work, and a small forest of windows open within the clearing of her larger virtual forest, she had assembled a report for Sandra on the two members of her team who were statistically not pulling their weight.

Mary looked round her cluttered workspace, with hovering windows to all manner of chart and file open all around the forest clearing. She strode carefully to a less cluttered area, pulling her report and chart windows with her. She used the palm of her empty hand to push the side of one window she wasn't using, turned it to face away from any others. Tapping it she stated "Request voice call with Sandra Smith, Sales Dept manager, product code XYJ4697C".

After a moment's pause, the window filled in with the personnel details of the person it thought she meant, and Mary tapped the 'confirm' option on the window with her finger in confirmation. "One moment" stated a baritone voice "Connecting."

The window faded out and Sandra appeared, or at least Sandra's work persona appeared, with something resembling a cross between a zoo and a toy shop surplus warehouse visible behind and all around her. There were cuddly toys everywhere in the background; some were even moving around on their own; squishy limbs clearly showing no one was inside them.

Mary felt a twinge of jealousy at Sandra's set up. Because Mary often dealt with very sensitive data, she was forced to come into the office and work, to avoid even encrypted data passing over public conduits whenever possible. In return, the company gave her an impressive system, but nothing compared with the freedom to configure your system exactly how you liked it. She had no doubt Sandra's interface was of the fully comprehensive kind, with every stimulation possible. Those AI toys in Sandra's place were wonderful, but far too processor intensive for Mary's slice of the central computer grid.

In fact, Sandra always worked from home, she had no need to ever enter an office, as she did not deal with data sensitive enough to warrant it.

"Hi Sandy" Said Mary. "Have you got a moment?"

"Hi Mary, Sure, what's up? Did you like the bear? I added a new dance routine to him, hope it made you giggle."

"I received your sales figures this morning and worked out your trends. You have a couple of potential problem staff in your department, area 2."

Sandra frowned. "Send me your findings please Mary. "

Mary looked at the two windows she was carrying, away from the session with Sandra for a moment. "Compact", she told them. Both windows immediately shrunk in size to fit within her hand like old palmtops. She placed both to the open portal to Sandra, and said "Save and Send". Both windows vanished, copies archived on the local system, and two new windows opening, Sandra's end. "Um, I got the bear Sandy, but he doesn't dance, just site there. Hasn't moved all morning."

"Got them, "Sandra replied from her end of the line. "Blast. Company must have stripped the AI out of the message. They probably consider it a security risk. I'll have to think of another way to send it to you. " She studied the report summary quickly, her eyes moving over it. "Ok, I see the problem, and will have words with these two. Thanks for this, saved me a lot of grief."

This Dreamscapes article is just a simple taste of what the future of cubicle working and much white collar work may well be like. Whilst it seems extravagant, giving each worker his or her own virtual environment to work within, remember that workers are much more productive when able to choose their own surroundings.

When not limited by the laws of physics as to where to store things, and not having to print out documents to read them as you would read a printed report - spread out over the surface in front of you, each 'page' picked up in your hands, and maybe scribbled with highlighter or notes, then you have an enviable situation.

No classified documents to destroy, little to no ink costs, no misfiled paperwork - a simple verbal call to the search routine will find anything, in any filing system, provided you have authorisation to view it. If you don't have authorisation, you never find it.

Working ergonomically, or spread out on a hammock, or aboard a sailing ship on an eternal sea; whatever gets the user to relax and enjoy the most, also gets them to work the hardest.

Face to face communication via pop-up windows that appear literally anywhere in the surrounding environment is already possible, and for the sake of company relations, recordable.

Users dealing with sensitive data still 'come in' to work, using a biometric system that lets them only have access once the computer knows it it them - that is already starting to come into practice.

Will the future unfold exactly as indicated here? Almost certainly not, but the near and mid future will include many elements, in similar configurations to those shown above.

The purpose of Dreamscapes is to encourage you to think about the possibilities, the human angle, not simply the technology.