“Have you tried virtual reality yet?” asked my brother.

“No. I’m not really into games.” But my brother knew that. So I wanted to know more of why he’d asked.

Productivity. It has some applications that make productivity come more easily to some kinds of people.

Like I often do, I went down a research rabbit hole. And when I found there was likely something to this, I made the speculative investment on a Meta Quest 2 headset. And what I found was an enormous potential, only slightly realized.

What this is not

This isn’t a product review. I’ll mention products, but only inasmuch as they help each other to help me.

What this is

I’ll tell you about an experience that I’m enjoying, and how you might enjoy it, too.

Enter the Matrix

From Matrix movie, reflection in Morpheus' reflective sunglasses that show Neo choosing between the red pill and the blue one.

I’m not Morpheus. I’m not going to offer you pills. But if you haven’t experienced modern VR, you might not have enough context to fully grasp what I’m about to talk about. If you disbelieve what you’re hearing, or you just can’t see it, that’s because Virtual Reality is cognitively a step too far for most who haven’t experienced it before.

Meta Quest 2

I paid extra for the upgraded version with more storage, knowing this was almost certainly going to end up a gaming headset for my kids (I was right about that). All-in, I think I paid about $600. But that includes things like a 5m long USB-C cable so I could stay in VR without worrying about battery life.

The Quest 2 was more than adequate for checking things out. My nits with it generally could be boiled down to this:

  • It was very front-heavy.
  • It was harder to wear for longer sessions.
  • The straps and controllers were a little sloppy/clunky.
  • The fresnel lenses resulted in small fonts being harder to read.

With those caveats in mind, this is currently the “budget” choice for untethered VR experiences in North America. Since I purchased this, folks in Europe and potentially Asia have gained access to the Pico 4 which might mitigate some of my concerns (particularly the one about the fresnel lenses).

Meta Quest Pro

My main beefs with the Quest 2 were largely addressed by the Quest Pro. It’s balanced well. The controllers are a thing of beauty and simplicity, and feel substantial (but not bulky) like a really nice pen would. The pancake lenses offer much clearer view of small fonts on virtual screens (like my current view of this article being edited in vim in a Linux shell screen).

Yes, the Quest Pro is absurdly expensive at $1,500. And yes, it’s the headset that I recommend if you want to work from inside of VR. This is one of those things that you’ll forget about the high cost of entry once you’re inside. Particularly if you have to go back to the Quest 2 for any length of time.

The Apps

This is such a different paradigm from what we’re used to, I had to just mess around for a little while and see what was out there. I’m going to make some massively reductive observations here, not to write off or give a pass to any one app… but just to tell you which ones I’ve found useful and which I’ve just more or less forgotten about.

  • Horizon Workrooms - This is the first-party productivity option straight from Facebook. Err… “Meta”. I haven’t had an opportunity to collaborate with anyone in it yet, and I think that’s part of the value proposition. Working solo in there is not ideal because there are a lot of limits around how you can customize your solo working environment. This is one worth watching, but I think it’s still far from ready for me to use it.

  • VirtualDesktop - Hard pass. I can’t see my keyboard. This seems to be an app catered to gamers, and those who feel really confident about their ability to use a computer while never ever seeing their keyboard. Because they are definitely not lifting the headset a little and sneaking an occasional peak. That wouldn’t be very 1337 of them. Most of the virtual environments put the screen at a fixed size, in a fixed position, and you only ever get the one screen. I’m not using this and I don’t see it developing in a direction where I’m likely to use it.

  • vSpatial - I never really got a chance to use it. It only works with Windows. And I’m a Mac user. It may have a problem similar to Horizon Workrooms whereby it’s really limiting you in how you can set up your displays.

  • Noda - OK this is an entirely different sort of productivity app. And it’s both blowing my mind and disappointing me (only because the potential is massive but the momentum seems slow). This is one of the apps my brother was telling me about to get me hooked into VR. NODA is first and foremost a 3D mind-mapping application. You’re dumped into one of a few different virtual workspaces, where ambient binaural beats music is pumped in, and you can drop little 3D shapes in the air that stay fixed in space. You can put labels on them, emojies, have click-throughs to more verbose data. You can make different shapes, and different colors, representing different types of thoughts (or whatever you want, really). I could see myself really getting sucked into this more if it weren’t for a few things…

    • It’s really hard to get other people in there with you, unless they are also in VR and also using the same software.
    • It’s really hard to bring data in from the outside world. They give you a web browser as your connection to the outside world, but there are no integrations with other apps like JIRA, Asana, Aha, etc.
    • It’s really hard to get your mind maps out into a useful format. So you’ve got this gorgeous mind palace but no useful way to get it back out again into the real-world places that you use for collaboration.
  • Immersed. OK let’s stop here. Immersed is something special. Let’s give Immersed its own heading.

Immersed

Immersed is a little startup company that has a serious hustle behind it. They’ve got the requisite strong social media presence driving buzz about their product. But they also maintain a community, via a really reasonably active Discord mostly. And employees are in there at all hours, day and night it seems. If you submit an idea for a new feature and there’s something to it, you’ll probably get some kind of acknowledgement.

If you report a bug, you’ll probably get some kind of interaction. And if you go into the help channels, you’ll probably get help… but not necessarily from an employee. Because other users (like me) are in those channels, too.

Setting up Immersed is about as easy as it can get for an app that has some rather complex relationships with other devices. You install it on your VR headset, then you install an agent on your PC (Windows or Linux) or your Mac. It doesn’t take long to get them talking to one another, and the software helpfully guides you through it. It also supports having agents on multiple machines, so right now I’m typing this from my personal Macbook inside of immersed. But during the workday, I spend a few hours (or more) inside of immersed from my work-issued Macbook.

But what does it do?

Oh, I’m so glad you asked.

Immersed fundamentally takes a mirror image of any physical display you have attached to your computer, and presents it as an object in 3D virtual reality space. Once it’s in there you can resize it, make it flat or curved, and you can set its fixed position in the VR world. So the display I’m typing this on right now looks to me like it’s about 3 feet tall or so (about a meter) and set in portrait orientation. But here’s the kicker…

The display I’m typing this on doesn’t exist in the real world at all.

Virtual Displays

Immersed is also capable of creating virtual displays that only exist in Virtual Reality. But as far as your attached computer is concerned, they are real.

You can have a total of up to 5 displays in Immersed, with some combination of physical and virtual in there.

Immersed can create its own virtual displays, but someone in the community chat told me about BetterDisplays, which takes it to a whole different level.

BetterDisplay

BetterDisplay basically gives me great control over physical and virtual monitors attached to my Mac. It calls its virtual displays “Dummies” (forgive the ableist language; it’s not my term). You can create one or more virtual displays, mirror them to physical displays, or have them not mirrored in the physical world at all. You can set whatever aspect ratio you want, in whatever orientation you prefer. If you want a 1:1 square monitor, they’ve got you covered. If you really want a 32:9 ultrawide display, they can do that, too.

Once you create a virtual display in BetterDisplays, you have to connect it. Once you connect a BetterDisplay provided virtual display, your Immersed app flashes for a few moments while it reconfigures itself and then suddenly you’ve got an extra display floating in VR waiting for you to size it, locate it where you want it, and pin it in place.

The main downside to BetterDisplay that I can confirm is that if you don’t remember to disconnect the virtual displays it provides, they are still out there when you leave Immersed, and you may have no way of navigating to running apps on those displays unless you remember to disconnect them.

The secondary downside that I cannot yet confirm is whether or not the virtual displays provided by BetterDisplays gains the benefit of GPU rendering or not.

Virtual displays - final thoughts

BetterDisplay works well for me when I need a really custom display aspect ratio that Immersed can’t natively provide. But that’s the only time I use it.

I tend to go for more conventional displays, set to modest resolutions, and let Immersed manage them.

Also, looking at this on 2D screen captures (whether those are stills or videos) is really boring. You’re missing the point. You really need to experience this from inside of a headset to appreciate what a great way this is to dial into a productive work environment and get shit done.

Network

Latency can be a real pain in the ass in this domain. If you’re on an 802.11ac network that seems fast for web browsing or watching Netflix on your 4K smart TV, you might find it limiting when you’re streaming multiple displays in Immersed to your VR headset. If you can possibly swing WiFi6, you’ll be much better off. Better still, if you can swing WiFi6E and you’re on a headset that supports WiFi6E (like the Meta Quest Pro), you’ll gain the massive benefit of the newly opened 6GHz band.

Immersed does support WiFi Direct, whereby your laptop only uses its WiFi adapter for a direct wireless connection to your VR headset. I’m not yet in a place to comment about this because I’m catching a bug in macOS Ventura that won’t let me force 5GHz WiFi for network sharing (the ability to specify which channel to use stopped working, and if I don’t pick one macOS defaults to 2.4GHz for WiFi Direct).

Coworking in the Metaverse

Yeah, you read that right. Immersed isn’t just about putting up big screens in VR. You can also join public coworking spaces. For example, they have a cafe and a space station that are both pretty popular with the coworking crowd. You get to see real people (or their real avatars, anyway) working all around you. And, if you would like, you can unmute your mic into the coworking space and have a real voice chat with nearby people. I’ve found this to be a really friendly way to work socially in a space that can otherwise be very isolating.

Nobody can see your screens unless you explicitly share them. And you can’t see the screens of others.

Your avatar can come from one of several places. Most people seem to use the Meta avatars, which have a more primitive cartoony look to them but they also tend to be far more expressive when used with a Meta headset. Particularly with the Quest Pro that can track eye movement and facial expressions. You can also use a slightly more sophisticated looking avatar from ReadyPlayerOne but I tend to not use those as they tend to be less expressive.

Sadly, you can’t (yet) go bonkers with the avatars. So, for example, I can’t show up at the Immersed Cafe in the form of a gorilla. I have to more or less look like a person, but I can get really silly with the clothing options if I am so inclined. In truth, I think my avatar dresses the way I wish I could.

Private coworking

You can also set up private collaboration rooms and send links to coworkers who also have Immersed. They just have to get into Immersed, click on the link you send them while they are logged into the PC that is being presented inside of Immersed, and they will instantly be transported to your coworking space.

Shared Screens

The shared screens in a coworking setup are pretty cool. Once you share your screen, everybody gets their own version of the screen that only they can see. They can resize and reposition it to a place that is comfortable for them. So all seats are good seats when it comes to seeing shared content.