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VIRTUAL REALITY BASED CONFERENCING COULD BE THE ANSWER TO ZOOM FATIGUE

The high sense of immersion in Virtual Reality facilitates engagement and focus, while also reducing the sense of isolation. 


Working remotely in a makeshift office space where the lines between home and work are increasingly blurred, has become the norm for an unprecedented number of people since the COVID-19 pandemic began. From work and school to social gatherings we are spending more time on video-calls than ever – a 290% increase from 2019. Interestingly, despite the minimal efforts required in “getting ready”, or travelling otherwise associated with these tasks, people are reporting greater amounts of sheer exhaustion from participating in video calls.

 

Now famously referred to as Zoom Fatigue or Zoom Burnout, experts in the field of organizational psychology ascribe the tiredness, and general sense of anxiety to the design and nature of videoconferencing. While primarily designed to retain face-to-face connectivity, video conferencing does not provide non-verbal cues that are key to human conversation. The attendee is deprived of eye-contact, head-nods, accompanying body language, and naturally emergent group dynamics all of which help deliver the intended messaging. Ironically, this results in the very problem it was designed to avoid - a sense of distancing and isolation.  

 

Video calls lead to a sense of dissonance. The faces are too close, but there is nobody around you, and from your view everyone is watching you but there is no eye contact. At a subconscious level these are perceived as threats and our bodies respond with a cortisol surge increasing the sense of stress.

 

The technology itself may create challenges. Audio lags, or connectivity issues are distracting. Even with a perfect connectivity, there is a slight delay between when a person performs an action and when others observe it – i.e. asynchrony.  Studies have shown that for teleconferencing conversations, even small delays to the tune of 1.2 seconds can create a negative impression – with the responder viewed as being less friendly or inattentive. Additionally, viewing oneself on the screen can be distracting and cause the attendee to feel conscious of their appearance and behaviour. You, also, cannot rely on nudging your colleague to ask a clarifying question privately, so a high level of attention and preparedness is required – which further increases the mental effort.

 

Significantly longer work hours, absence of a distinct work-life separation, and fewer opportunities for natural social interactions due to the COVID-19 distancing policies are additional factors that contribute to the overall feelings of fatigue. 


This fatigue and disengagement can be especially counterproductive if web-conferencing is being used to deliver important training, education, or even therapy sessions.

 

With as many as 73% of organizations and educational institutions in North America planning to continue remote working/learning even after the COVID-19 pandemic is resolved, there is a pressing need to prevent burnout. The virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) industry, have proposed solutions to mitigate some of the challenges with web-conferencing.

 

VR environments allow users to be immersed in the same virtual space (mimicking a conference room) and allows individuals to experience being part of a group rather than staring at a grid of images. The high sense of immersion created by high fidelity and realistic environments, facilitates engagement and focus, while also reducing the sense of isolation. Individuals can appear as full-body avatars, gesticulate, use expressions, gaze towards the speaker, and take turns to talk making it more akin to the natural flow of conversation. Environments can be designed to display features such as names and roles besides the avatar, and even use your own picture to enhance the personification. The resulting improvement in inter-connectedness is associated with the release of oxytocin which improves a sense of bonding and reduces stress.

 

Embodying virtual avatars that do not bear resemblance to the individual may also have benefits. Reduced anxiety and fear of judgement, and anonymity may be advantageous during high-stakes conversations such as interviewing or providing feedback to the organization.

 

Virtual avatars can also collaborate in real-time inside the VR environment with or without headsets. For example, VR environments can allow teams to visualize and work simultaneously on 3D models of new products, make decisions and fix errors. Some VR systems even allow the users to be seated, standing or walking in their homes while still being a part of the session in a bid to reduce the sedentary lifestyle associated with videoconferencing and the pandemic in general.   

 

Its application is not limited to replacing video meetings. Organizations can utilize VR to organize training sessions to upskilling their employees with new hard and soft-skills. Learning new skills during times of financial and job-related uncertainty can improve employee confidence and satisfaction. Compared to the 2-dimensional appearance of participants and objects in video calls, virtual environments provide a 3D rendering which improves the realism. This can be particularly important for product demonstrations or design sessions. Moreover, studies have shown that retention, recollection, and transferability of information learned from realistic and interactive VR sessions are greater than traditional classroom or even e-learning methods.

 

Video calls were designed to be most effective for personal conversations held one-on-one or in small groups situations, or for very large webinars where interaction is not desired but may be counterproductive for everything in between. Virtual VR conferencing retains the advantages of video-conferencing – remote access, global connectivity, reduced carbon emission, but offers other incentives such as reduced burnout, anxiety, and an improved sense of community among the team.


Gayatri Aravind is Dark Slope’s Science Director and Advisor on Learning Science. Contact us to learn more about how your organization can use XR technologies to help improve remote collaboration.


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