Before I go any further, I should tell you not to try this at your workplace. Keeping yourself in virtual reality for that long at a time, especially without frequent breaks, can be taxing on your eyes and possibly even your mental health.
I started my day with our usual editorial meeting and then plugged in an Acer Mixed Reality Headset to my office-issued Dell XPS 15. Setup was a breeze, but then I had a decision to make. I needed to keep my mouse and keyboard if I wanted to maintain my normal workflow. We had the motion controllers in the lab, but I might hit my colleagues next to me and behind me. Since I like my colleagues, I opted for an Xbox One controller to move around the Cliff House. After all, I had to stay at my desk, facing forward.
I picked a spot in the virtual house with two walls (one in front of me, one behind me) and a beautiful lake view with a tree and some floating islands. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to a corner office. On both walls, I started to open a few windows, and there was my first hiccup: You can use only a few apps from the Microsoft Store.
To get around not having HipChat, I logged in through the Edge browser. But my bookmarks and tools are in Chrome, so I had to open up a virtual version of my desktop and place it on a wall. I also use TweetDeck, Firefox, Sublime Text, Photoshop and a number of other apps that don’t work natively in Windows Mixed Reality. Since I use three monitors at once, I placed them on both walls and turned as necessary to see them.
If this sounds tiring, that’s because it is. Eventually, I made one big monitor my main view and switched it between my three desktops with a dedicated button as necessary. Of course, that meant I missed out on some emails and messages. While Outlook’s notifications are built into Windows, HipChat’s aren’t, so they didn’t pop up in the Cliff House.
When I was writing in a Google Doc, the system was usable. The text wasn’t all that crisp, and I could see the pixels, and the Acer headset’s 1440 x 1440 lenses have blurry peripheral vision. But it was only when I needed to use multiple programs at once that the experience got hectic. At first, I would flail wildly with the Xbox controller, researching, then typing, and back again. Whether I did that or clicked back and forth between monitors, it was kind of a mess. You can have only one virtual desktop running at a time, too. The rest go to sleep unless you click on them and actively use them.
Of course, before getting to do any work, I was constantly adjusting my distance from the document, as it was too big or too small. Eventually, I hit my Goldilocks position and tried to stay there as much as possible.
And there were other hiccups. When viewed through the headset, my desktop just didn’t respond to some clicks, or needed to be clicked multiple times. I couldn’t tell you why, but sending a new email in Outlook required multiple tries, as did creating a new Google Doc.
At one point, I needed another browser window. I tossed Edge on a wall over my right shoulder and had to walk over to it when I needed to reference it. When I came back, I lost my Goldilocks spot and had to find it again. And every time I tried to place a cursor somewhere, the VR keyboard would pop up, even though I was using a real keyboard, and I swatted it closed like I was squashing a fly.
Once, when I was researching a product on Amazon, I hit a key combination and the entire website fell off the wall. I couldn’t pin the site back, so I deleted it and created a new version to pin it back against the wall where it belonged.
All of this, of course, slowed me down. I wasn’t as productive as I would have been with proper monitors, and, perhaps, proper socialization.
Besides all of the technical issues, there were social problems. We have an open office, and I sit among all of my colleagues. While I could hear their voices with the headset on, I couldn’t see them, and I felt isolated from the rest of the team, trapped in a dream-house-turned-prison. I was lonely. I didn’t dare put headphones on, lest I lose my grip on reality entirely.
It’s also strange to go that long without seeing your hands, especially when using a keyboard and mouse. I’m a pretty solid touch typist, but without the peripheral vision of my own appendages, I started to disassociate the touching with the typing.
At one point early in the morning, I grabbed my water bottle, only to find that the headset jutting off of my face blocked the bottle from reaching my mouth. Luckily, I could flip up the visor without taking the whole headset off.
Remember when I said you need breaks? By 12:30 p.m., my eyes were dry and tired, and I was never happier to go get a salad in my life. Since it was a break, I took half an hour without the headset. I felt better, and besides, I couldn’t see my salad in VR.
Otherwise, I was in the headset unless I had to leave my desk. I learned to savor any time when someone needed me on the other side of the office, though that was infrequent. Bathroom breaks were a chance to rest my eyes. When I looked in the mirror while washing my hands, I noticed a big red mark at my hairline, where the top of the headset was resting. I was quite uncomfortable.
By 3 p.m., I was wondering, “Should I have consulted with an ophthalmologist first? Why didn’t I elect for our company’s vision insurance benefit?” As the day went on, the image and pixelation looked worse.
Speaking of the time, it’s tough to hit a deadline in VR. The Cliff House is like a casino — it has no clocks — so it’s hard to tell how much time you’ve spent there. My options were to hit the Windows key, which brought up a version of the Start menu; open an empty desktop to see the task bar; or, in my descent into madness, frantically type, “What time is it?” into Google.
Unable to see the outside world, I opened myself up to all sorts of practical jokes. Many colleagues took photos of me working with the headset on. Senior writer Caitlin McGarry posted one on Twitter (have you ever been on Twitter in VR? It’s awful), which was then retweeted not by other colleagues, but Tom’s Guide itself.
— Caitlin McGarry (@Caitlin_McGarry) November 1, 2017
Of course, there were a few positives. Once the oddity of me sitting there in the Acer headset became more normal to my co-workers, there were fewer points during the day when they bothered me unnecessarily (though I would’ve welcomed the interruptions, considering the loneliness thing). I could also goof off a bit if I wanted. Edge browser windows in the Cliff House that aren’t on your desktop don’t show up to anyone but you, so no one would know if I was wasting time (which I totally wasn’t, Boss, I swear!).
At the end of the day, with a bit of headband sweat and tired, dreary eyes, I managed to write out one last article: this one. Now, I’m going to take this headset off, shut down my computer and spend some time outside with real people. Maybe tomorrow I won’t see pixels anymore.