We are an app and custom software development company that is proud to be 100% office-based. But currently, quarantine has impacted most people all around the world, and Exyte’s employees are no different.
After the quarantine hit, we noticed a sharp spike in productivity provoked by the novelty of the remote work. However, when staying at home became a routine, work efficiency started going down. It turned out that everyone missed the office space and friends.
The solution was simple – we brought people back to the office. But virtually.
Good old meeting room, new reality
At some point, we came up with an idea to create a VR replica of the entire office, so that workers don’t feel like they are away from each other. The first room we built was our meeting room.
The VR room can host up to six participants, who can pass objects to each other, write on the whiteboard, and communicate in real time. It’s like our office but with Oculus avatars instead of real people.
For now, it remains the only part of the office that we have replicated, but we are thinking about adding the open space where we usually work and the kitchen where we spend our Friday night parties. The only thing that stops us from extending our online office is the hope that the lockdown will soon end.
Because of the quarantine, the whole project felt more like a hackathon than work. Our team had one burning idea that kept us moving, and we could not afford to be too careful with technical details.
Since we were one of the first to #stayhome, we had to finish before isolation moodiness overwhelmed us. Everyone that had time chipped in a bit, even our CEO took out his developer hat and contributed.
First, we went to the Oculus store for a work collaboration tool. Unfortunately, there wasn't a single app that would have features of a VR meeting room. There are apps for other headsets: Board VR, Dry Erase, Collab Hub, Think Space, but none of them had a version for Oculus Quest (if you know one, let us know). Researching the existing VR meeting rooms wasn’t a waste of time, though; it helped build a feature list for our project. The development took about a month. By the end of it, we had a fully functioning VR meeting room that enabled multiple participants to use the whiteboard and pass objects to each other.
We picked the Unity game engine as our foundation. The next step was to create a 3D-model of our room. We wanted to cut down time on modelling, so most of the assets are ready-made, but some items we had to model ourselves. When the models were ready, we added colliders and physical properties to every object.
Using the Oculus SDK, we provided objects with interactivity, so we could grab, move, and throw them. We experimented a bit with hand positioning to make holding different objects look natural, i.e., holding a coffee cup isn't the same as holding a marker.
We didn’t test the maximum number of participants since we haven’t held any VR meetings of more than four people. From what we know about Quest's CPU, the limit should be somewhere around six. To add multiplayer functionality, we used Mirror. One of the Oculus headsets acts as a Host, and others connect to it as clients. Ownership of items is transferred between participants with the authoritarian model.
After the first two meetings in VR, we noticed that daily scrums became more fun. It was not only dry shop talk anymore. As simple as it is, just playing ball for a couple of minutes after the meeting boosted the mood for the rest of the day. VR is not a magic pill, of course, but some of the participants reported being more focused and engaged during VR meetings in contrast to conference calls.
Needless to say that the key factor in finalizing the first room so quickly was that our team already had expertise in VR. For the last few years, Exyte has worked with many clients in VR/AR and has extensive expertise in both. Among other projects, we even developed several multiplayer VR games that became quite famous. One of them now is a franchise modelled business represented in the USA, the Netherlands, India, Russia, and Australia. Another one is a free-roam PvP multiplayer designed and developed specifically for Oculus Quest OS.
Most likely, we would spend at least twice the time on this task if we were newbies in the field.
Contributing to community development
A part of Exyte culture is paying back to the developers’ community. People on forums, subreddits, and StackOverflow have helped us many times without knowing it. We too help as we can.
Every time there is a hiatus in between customer projects, our free developers concentrate on a certain problem and fix it. The community pays off with excellent feedback – this is how our company of just 30 software engineers got ahead of Youtube, BBC, and Medium on Gitstar while catching up with SoundCloud and SAP.
This project is not an exception: we assume there are companies out there that have the same need for solidarity during forced remote work.
Vimerum is available for free in SideQuest. The roadmap also has the following additions in later versions:
- Kanban board with customisable columns.
- Mobile applications for iOS and Android and a web application to connect to a meeting without a VR headset.
- Bot integrations with Slack, Discord, Microsoft Teams, and Trello.
Building a new, remote office
The whole thing took us about a month, and as a result, we achieved a new level of connectivity within the team. Also, the motivation and excitement about our work went up. Having a cool side project that you can work on together and see almost immediate results makes a lot of difference in boosting morale and upgrading development skills. Especially when you are stuck at home.
The conclusion is quite simple – there’s nothing wrong with working remotely and we all can keep the productivity high. However, it’s much better to create infrastructure that helps people feel like they are in the office even when they are at home. It will allow workers to avoid psychological problems and stay socialized, and the companies will be able to better plan business performance.