Thirteen 3D avatars traversed craters on the surface of the moon, inspected a warehouse for workplace safety violations and walked through the inside of an engine, examining its various components.
Citing "Zoom fatigue" and the opportunity for greater engagement, collaboration and immersion, the local chapter of the Construction Financial Management Association conducted its monthly meeting Tuesday via virtual reality, with each participant in a VR headset working from their home or office.
Instead of sitting at a desk in front of the flat, video-chat checkerboard, association members — finance and accounting professionals in the construction industry — donned loaned headsets and grabbed controllers delivered by Davenport company ChalkBites to use a virtual meeting platform to meet with colleagues as if in a real boardroom. Participants could wander and have private conversations away from the group by using two handheld controllers to navigate.
Think Zoom, but with 3D avatars and completely immersive 3D backgrounds.
"Mind-blowing," said meeting participant Vicky Diamond, chief financial officer for Davenport construction and development firm Russell.
"I found it amazing we could assemble a group of individuals — though physically separate — to be brought together in the same meeting room, able to see and interact with each other, have conversations and move about," Diamond said. "It was easy to become totally immersed in the experience. Applications for this technology are limitless, from grade-school learning to corporate settings."
ChalkBites CEO Kerry Smith said virtual reality in the workplace was at an inflection point, with VR on the verge of ascendancy for job training, sales, meetings and design.
“We’ve moved from novelty to necessity,” Smith said of virtual reality in the workplace.
The company offers live classes in VR, training employees in forklift safety and operations, Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance, fire safety and human resources.
Virtual reality headsets have reached a level of quality and price where tech companies are delivering premium-quality hardware at affordable prices, Smith said.
At the consumer level, the Oculus Quest 2 costs $300, with a small business paying between $600 to $800 for three premium headsets.
And the rollout of 5G over the next 12 months means that headsets will have big data pipes with low latency, Smith said.
Additionally, VR training is developing rapidly, with some studies that suggest it is more effective at a significantly lower cost than traditional training.
"I’m not bound by geography at all with this," Smith said. "There are not travel costs associated with this, other than shipping a headset for a few dollars. No overnight travel. No out-of-pocket and no venue costs.”
And while the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown benefits for businesses that work remotely, video conferencing has its limitations, Smith said.
“It’s a better venue for remote collaboration," he said. "Everyone will be represented by an avatar, and we will be in the same virtual venue. And within the venue, anyone can raise their hand and ask a question at any time. You can have private conversations within the venue. I can give anyone of the participants a (3D) object to see and hold in front of them."
Objects could be a human heart that students can enlarge and walk through its chambers in an anatomy class — or the gear box or exhaust manifold of an engine.
VR also forces participants to be engaged and filters out distractions.
"If we were on a Zoom call with 20 other people, I’d be looking at my phone. I’d be on Facebook. I’d be on LinkedIn. I’d be checking my email, right?" Smith said. "You can’t do that with this. … It requires engagement. It requires immersion. And, if you’re engaged and immersed, the retention is obviously better.”
An increasing number of Fortune 500 companies have chosen to embrace the technology, as companies extend work-from-home policies into 2021 or indefinitely, according to the Wall Street Journal.
CFMA Quad-Cities chapter President Chris Chumbley, a controller at Hahn Ready Mix, sees the potential for VR to improve construction site safety, providing the ability for workers to visualize in 3D on-the-job hazards and learn how to manage real-world threats in a safe and virtual environment, as well as provide a safer, effective way to train drivers at lower cost using VR simulators that require movement and learning by doing.
At Russell, Diamond said the company uses virtual reality to enable clients and team members to step inside their new space before it has ever been built.
"This not only gives them an accurate representation of what the building will look like but also a true sense or feeling of the space," Diamond said. "Our owners and clients are able to view multiple options to aid in decision making. ... Our trade partners are then able to use these models to determine the best installation sequencing and iron out details that are not easily discovered using a traditional 2D drawing process."
She said the company looked forward to expanding into more augmented and mixed reality applications to aid in layout and "as-built verification by being able to visualize the design intent while standing in the actual space."
Chumbley said the technology "is pretty incredible."
"It’s one of those things people don’t get until you do it," he said. "It puts you in a different head space and sucks all your attention."