“CloudHEAD” The All-Day Remote Office: Part 1
Sick of videocalls yet? Why are you sick of them? Why does this technology fall down so hard for so many people during this new era of work-from-home? Why does this all feel so draining and impersonal?
Like many other creative industries in a post Covid world, Cloudhead Games quickly found itself faced with the specter of fully remote work. And while we made sure to keep everyone safe and sound, in their PJ’s at home, with all the gear and support they’d need to function remotely, an Elephant slowly pushed its way into the room. Turns out, the tools we use for video calls and sharing information were never intended to be used “all day long”. Not only that but they were missing a huge amount of not so obvious functionality to truly reconnect us with any meaning.
What is Cloudhead Labs?
So first things first; Cloudhead Labs (subdivision of Cloudhead Games) was created in 2019, to deep dive into experimental VR mechanics and concepts, in order to identify ideas worth pursuing. It consists of a work-group outside of other “normal” projects (re: Pistol Whip, which is FULL-SPEED ahead with 2089 update on the way!!!).
As we explored various potentials Covid decided to turn the world upside down. We’ve always had remote co-workers at Cloudhead Games but the bulk of our workforce was “in-studio”. When the global pandemic seized the world, we knew we had a new mission. Can we help the team feel more connected and work more effectively? Can we do better than cobbling together old tools and pretending everything is AOK?
So What’s the Solution?
What we came up with for our team is “CloudHEAD” (your head in the digital cloud, get it!?)…
CloudHEAD is an “all-day” digital work environment which enables deep social cues, company culture, collaboration and play between you and your co-workers. It is a workplace MMO for having fun and getting stuff done!
- A persistent workplace MMO: Co-workers can spontaneously interact, collaborate, create, socialize and play.
- Real Faces: The real you! Your real-time emotional face via webcam, your personal workspace, your watercooler talk, your comings and goings.
- VR & 2-D Compatible: Works in both 2-D Desktop & in Virtual Reality (when it makes sense!).
- Tool Consolidation: Consolidates video & text chat and incorporates common productivity tools within a familiar environment.
You’ve probably navigated a minefield full of supposed “virtual office” concepts before but our approach is human-centric and we’re dialing up the idea of persistence in a way that to our knowledge has never been done before. You will see and hear the “real” person on the other end of the office, going about their day, in a format that doesn’t feel intrusive or alien. And we’re not overloading you with having to “think about” how to navigate the world. Point-click you’re there! Low mental load rules the day here and that’s something I think game developers are uniquely positioned to bring to communication tools in general.
But remote work doesn’t need this does it?
Ok…zero commuting, PJ’s, stained t-shirts and walks around the block are great but having worked at my prior company for 10 years completely remote, I had an inkling of what we’d be facing. I knew there would be distraction but that’s actually not the issue. I knew that while it’s possible to work 100% remote, there are deficits that aren’t immediately apparent but creep in over time.
Working organically, efficiently, in a creative team setting (while being a subtle/empathetic/social/HUMAN BEING) is possible but the tools we use can end up isolating us over time more than they connect us. Being stared at all day by a wall of faces is fatiguing, unnatural and eventually a thing many come to dread. No one wants to feel like they are facing a jury each and every day, all day, and no one can truly sink into creative collaboration-mode when things are presented in that way. Staring at a wall of threads & text can feel like wandering around in the dark, hoping to find a human hand to grasp. And despite good intentions, every video client and chat app let us down because they were never designed for a post-Covid world. They can’t convey the hidden landscape of subtleties, of social agreements, that being present together gives us. Sure, you can dress them up but they will never be more than glorified telephones and typewriters standing in the way of new ways to think about group communication. Humans working together need a sense of place and a familiar mental framework to anchor all of their human complexities to.
So this is a VR thing right???
BIG topic. We’re pursuing something we call “Seamless VR”. It is our strong opinion that VR needs a bridging medium for “all-day” usage but let’s break down the issues a bit before we talk about that…
- Comfort: We have seen many recent attempts to create VR-only collaboration/meeting tools. VR as an “all-day” work tool still has major challenges with respect to comfort and the general ubiquity of the hardware itself. A couple hours at a time in a headset is tolerable for some but impractical for most. And that is likely not something that will change for a couple more generations of hardware.
- Being “Human”: We have also seen many attempts at creating surrogates/avatars within “virtual offices/spaces”. But when collaborating with coworkers, “uncanny valley” issues are at a premium because of the importance of reading subtle human emotion. Across the spectrum of social, creative, strategic, concentrated meetings, the last distraction people need is nightmare-ish, plastic versions of the person(s) we know, gesturing like string-puppets. Body language has a larger margin of acceptable cognitive error but without seeing all of the nuance of facial expression, you’re losing a huge amount of data about tone, intent and general mood. Here again, the basics of the technology are being worked towards and will one day facilitate deep facial re-mapping techniques but we remain generations away from that.
So from our perspective workplace VR needs a bridging medium. An “all-day” application that lives in both flat screen and in VR, which allows people to work in and out of the medium whenever they want. A framework that can grow with VR as it becomes more sophisticated but uses the thing most of us already own (a webcam & mic). Internally, we call this approach to utilizing VR “seamless VR”, because at any time you can pick up a headset and just be there…no thought required. Or take it off and you’re still there, on cam, for all to see. VR in this context is a tool that we never force upon you, you use it how you want to use it.
When can we see more?
Cloudhead Labs is focused on building this tool in an attempt to help the Pistol Whip team feel more connected, more “together”. After 8 months of production, we’re roughly in Alpha and we do have plans to share our work with trusted peers in order to better understand how effective this is for them too!
We understand that our needs likely align with the needs of many others during this excruciatingly turbulent period in history. So maybe our thing can eventually help you be better at doing your thing 😉 We’ll catch you up soon on our progress and musings with Part 2!
Hang in there people!
~ Denny Unger
Creative Director | Cloudhead Labs | CEO | Cloudhead Games