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CTO TechRadar

Virtual Presence

Immersive collaborative environments

Virtual Presence

Contents

Background

Virtual Presence (VP) is an immersive environment that enables users to feel as if they are physically present at an actual location with other users. It utilizes technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) to deliver this experience.

Possible Applications at GSA

At the time of publishing, we have not identified any current efforts toward providing an immersive Virtual Presence (VP) at GSA. However, innovation in this area across Industry, Academia and Federal entities have been used to provide services that GSA would potentially benefit from. We are currently exploring some of these within GSA and expect to provide additional information as it becomes available. The following possibilities are solutions based on existing technologies highlighted in our Companies and Contracts section.

Some potential use cases we’ve identified include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Office-like experiences could enable teams to interact with each other as if they were actually there in one space. This is not just a Telepresence representation in 2D, but rather the ability to ‘feel’ and ‘respond’ with more than just audio & video like in traditional video mediums. The idea is more like being one of multiple avatars that are a persona of the person present in the Virtual Space.
  • Immersive training rooms would allow the users to feel side by side and ‘present’ beyond the traditional powerpoint and webinar atmosphere currently used to bring a class together for learning. The type of experience that VP would deliver could allow physical aspects to be simulated in a way that breakout sessions, gathering around a whiteboard, taking notes with a digital pen on a virtual pad of paper come to life via sensors and the actions or motions of the participants. Imagine a glove a user might wear that would allow them to virtually hold a simulated pen in their hand in freespace then write on a digital pad they’re holding in the other hand.
  • Building inspections, real estate touring, general maintenance, and other explorations of physical properties in remote locations might be handled remotely with the proper on-site sensors, small to large maneuverable devices controlled with hand motions or other gestures and even simple joysticks. In such a scenario one or multiple senior subject matter experts could remotely walk a junior engineer or technician through an on-site repair.
  • Facilities walkthrough using hololens during the RFP process or during industry day would enable potential bidders to see near-firsthand the exact conditions of a facility. This would eliminate the need for travel and/or multiple building tours.
  • Upkeep, inspections and maintenance of GSA’s large fleet of vehicles. The concept of being able to remotely analyze issues and possibly fix or notify the nearest location and set up an appointment to get under the actual hood might save countless hours of work that normally couldn’t start until the vehicle is physically in the shop.

While these are just a few examples of potential use cases there are definitely possibilities for moving the cultural and strategic thinking in this direction. As with many emerging technologies the implementation and crossing of ecosystems may not always be aligned at the perfect time for all to grasp where the focus should be. This is a large basis for our analysis and working to bring some of the disparate technologies and subject matter experts together to help expedite its adoption within pertinent program offices at GSA.

Adoption

Academia

The COVID pandemic changed learning experiences to include augmented and virtual reality in order to further immerse students within their virtual presence. When the pandemic struck, countries around the world announced or implemented school or university closures, impacting millions of learners of all ages. “Many educational institutions started offering courses online to ensure education was not disrupted by quarantine measures.” (Source)

Virtual Presence is capable of extending teaching presence through technology. Using Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality (AR/VR), a trainer with a fully virtual presence can deliver course content, send announcements, lead discussions, engage with students and grade assignments – all from a computer connected to the internet and connected with students online.

Universities using VR/AR

While the following universities offer VR/AR coursework, they also employ this technology in the classroom itself.

  • University of Southern California: Heavy in VR labs to enhance coursework. The USC Institute for Creative Technologies houses the Medical Virtual Reality Lab (MedVRLab), Mixed Reality Lab (MxR), and the ICT Virtual Humans Group. Areas of specialization for MedVR Lab include Game Based Rehabilitation, Virtual Humans, Neurocognitive Assessment and Training, and Mental Behavioral Health.
  • New York University: Recent projects include reimagining the theatrical performance to develop novel uses of VAR technology for health and wellness.
  • Rochester Institute of Technology: All programs have access to RIT’s Frameless Labs located at the RIT MAGIC Center. Frameless Labs provides a space for the Extended Reality (XR) community to collaborate with a goal to bring attention to research, innovation, and artistic creation in the fields of VAR technology.

Industry

“A PwC report predicted that nearly 23.5 million jobs worldwide would be using AR and VR by 2030 for training, work meetings, or to provide better customer service. According to a report by ABI Research this year, before the pandemic the VR market was forecasted to grow at a 45.7% compound annual rate, surpassing $24.5 billion in revenue by 2024.” (Source)

In a fun example of implementing a virtual presence, LG created an entire virtual world for employees graduating from a professional training program. Students were able to choose a personal avatar and interact with other avatars in the virtual world, participating in games and tours of LG headquarters and the CMU campus before the ceremony. At an event hall on the CMU campus, students’ avatars then received a certificate marking the completion of training. The festivities wrapped up with a party and virtual fireworks.

With the success and engagement LG has seen, they have partnered with other globally renowned universities including New York University, University of Southern California, University of Toronto and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in addition to Carnegie Mellon University in order to implement similar virtual experiences within their current practices. (Source)

In another example, global consulting firm Accenture recently acquired 60,000 Oculus headsets in order to train and on-board their new hires. Accenture’s heavy investment in headsets follows the news that financial services organization, Bank of America, is rolling out VR training across nearly 4,300 locations in the US, giving approximately 50,000 employees access to immersive learning and development opportunities. (Source)

Government

Emerging technologies enabling a virtual presence allows employees within the government sector to collaboratively meet and work while not being physically present in their traditional workplace. These technologies all seek to replicate a portion of the physical presence experience. Similar to the adoption within academia and industry, government adoption takes it further by incorporating real-world policy, rules, and regulations within a fully governing virtual world.

The South Korean government recently invested $186 million into a virtual/metaverse platform. “Funds will be allocated to the development of a virtual world platform called the Expanded Virtual World. The funding will help expand on core technology, education, and for reorganizing the legal system surrounding the technology. By improving regulation and technological capabilities, it hopes to improve competition between domestic and global companies.” With their aim to have a global reach, South Korea wants global users to have a seamless experience collaborating with South Korean businesses.

Overall, “the decentralized metaverse platform aims to create a virtual ecosystem to support the growth of digital content and to create a space for intercompany collaboration. By tapping into the creator economy, the platform aims to expand the virtual growth of education, cities, and media in the country.” (Source)

Government Case Study

U.S. Department of State

Who: The United States Department of State facilities management teams comprised of engineers, trade professionals, maintenance teams, fire protection, and others.

The Problem: Access to embassies by staff is expensive and often limited by conditions on the ground, geopolitical concerns, or the pandemic. Despite those challenges, facilities must be inspected, maintained, and serviced.

What they did: The team purchased Microsoft Hololenses for virtual presence. This allowed non-specialized staff and less experienced engineers to be physically present while using the devices to project the environment back to senior engineers offsite. Oftentimes multiple experts were able to engage on a single Hololens ‘call’ (in one case, as many as fifty specialists!). This process was used for a structural assessment of an old embassy elevator inspections, floor inspections, furniture repair, chiller replacement, and others. Crucially, in some cases the person on the ground was able to execute the required changes rather than just report back.

Companies and Contracts

Disclaimer

GSA in no way endorses or recommends any particular company. The information listed below is intended to provide some centralized resources of current companies actively developing Virtual Presence products. Inclusion or omission from this list merely reflects the limited resources available to the team generating this report. Many of the statements below rely on each company’s self-assertions rather than this team’s assessment of a given capability.

When considering any new technology your first question should be, ‘What problem are we trying to solve?’ In the case of Virtual Presence technology the answer is, ‘How do we leverage new technologies to provide an effective and equitable working environment in an increasingly distributed and digital working world?’ The products are discussed below.

Fully Immersive (VR/AR)

AppliedVR: “AppliedVR is the first company to make virtual reality widely available in clinical care, boasting 30k+ patients in 200+ hospitals. Their aim is to reimagine medicine by establishing therapeutic virtual reality as a new standard of care for pain management.” In one example, “recently teamed up with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to bring their technology to patient’s homes, removing the need for a visit to the hospital.” (Source)

CM&D: Chocolate Milk & Donuts is a full-service VR production studio focusing on creative entertainment experiences such as beyond 4D and storytelling type of applications. Their capabilities include developing scenes across multiple hardware platforms.

Groove Jones: “Groove Jones is a creative technology company that is solely focused on creating next-generation experiences for their clients.” According to Gamers Decide, “the main industries that they focus on are advertising and marketing, sales enablement, and enterprise training. In 2021 they were awarded a silver National American Advertising Award for VR. That was one of their 35 awards for 2021.” (Source)

Immersive Studios: Immersive Studios, the creators of Pokemon Go, have been creating award-winning VR, AR and 360 video experiences. They are based in Norfolk, UK, and have employees working together with all types of clients, from international charities to retail giants. They develop experiences such as virtual property tours, university open days, and driving experiences.

Mechdyne: “The Mechdyne CAVE virtual reality (VR) system is a room-sized, fully immersive VR experience that combines stereoscopic displays, computer graphics, and motion-tracking technology to create a full-body sense of presence in a virtual environment. Their application six screens are used, a CAVE virtual reality environment allows one or more users to become fully immersed in and interact with their virtual models.”

Microsoft

  • Hardware

    • HoloLens2 Features include: “hand tracking, built-in voice commands, eye tracking, spatial mapping, and large field of view. Fully articulated hand tracking, touch, grasp, and move holograms in ways that feel natural.”
  • Software

    • Dynamics 365: This technology may seem familiar to GSA users who have had computer issues requiring the help desk to log in remotely. Dynamics 365 takes it quite a bit further with one of it’s noted capabilities by allowing the technician and user to join a mixed-reality call. In some configurations, it supports fully immersive environments.
    • Microsoft Guides: This technology combined with VR hardware allows step-by-step tasks to be set up for an immersive experience with holographic images only visible to the user, but ‘feel’ as if it’s actually real, and present right in front of their eyes as augmented reality.

Oculus: Owned by Facebook/Meta, their Quest 2 is a headset for use in many applications across the VR space. Their equipment is already in use by hundreds of major brands to bring the Virtual Experience to the users when combined with various software and other hardware offerings when necessary. As a leader in the hardware space, they’ve created Reality Labs Research, which “bring[s] together a world-class team of researchers, developers, and engineers to create the future of AR and VR, which together will become as universal and essential as smartphones and personal computers are today, changing how we work, play, and connect. We’re developing all the technologies needed to enable breakthrough AR glasses and VR headsets, including optics and displays, computer vision, audio, graphics, haptic interaction, full body tracking, perception science, and true telepresence.”

Spatial: Spatial seeks to “get co-workers from across the globe to work together in a virtual environment. To do this, they’ve created an app that allows users to create a lifelike avatar, and then they can communicate and collaborate through Spatial’s virtual environment. To allow for all co-workers to participate, Spatial is available on mobile phones, personal computers, and AR/VR headsets.” (Source)

VIVE: Flow - Immersive VR glasses: “The immersive glasses that have been specifically crafted to enhance mental wellbeing. For everything from mindfulness to meditation, brain training to finding your focus, and productivity to entertainment. VIVE Flow pairs with your phone to offer total VR immersion in a lightweight, portable package.”

Example Immersive Collaborations

Department of State and Microsoft HoloLens

“HoloLens 2 is a mixed reality headset that projects 3D images into the physical space around the user and blurs the line between reality of the physical world and virtual reality of a digital world. The HoloLens headset is a holographic device that uses a natural interface, commands, gaze, gesture, and voice inputs to operate and place the digital content of various windows in a real-world environment.

When paired with the HoloLens 2, the Dynamics 365 Remote Assist application allows users to share their hands-free point-of-view with experts in remote locations via Microsoft Teams. This allows users to collaborate, solve problems, and communicate visually in real-time without needing to be in the same place. Posts and offices can now conduct remote maintenance and inspections. Meanwhile, specialists and trainers can provide remote assistance via live point-of-view video calls to an on-site HoloLens user.”

Microsoft Holoportation: What is it?

“3D holograms of people and transmit them to far-off places” (Source)

According to the article this type of immersion would present the user to a remote location as a hologram similar to many feature films and even concerts or other events where it would appear as a real entity broadcast locally.

Not Fully Immersive

There are a number of companies developing technologies that do not require hardware beyond what is currently available to typical business users. They generally require only a mid-level business laptop/desktop, microphone, and camera. This category of technologies seeks to create a digital world accessible via web browser, or less frequently, desktop application. Users interact with their environment and each other with digital avatars, often augmented by video, chat, or other integrated tools. These are what are meant by the “metaverse” for work. Some advantages to this approach include:

  • Lower startup costs since new equipment is rarely required
  • Lower user burden, since users aren’t required to wear additional hardware all day.
  • Users can participate in equal capacities whether they are at home, in the office, or an offsite location.
  • ‘Fluid Video’ which allows video chat to appear/disappear as users’ avatars encounter each other in the virtual world. Here’s an example from Gather.
  • Higher social and emotional connection to work by recreating the social spaces people miss from personal contact (Source)

Gather - The original mover in this space, Gather is the most well-developed platform and works with all major web browsers. Any user is able to create and customize an environment, though they have an extensive network of partners who specialize in designing spaces for special events, live staff & technical support, and total office replacement. Compared to competitors, their space is perhaps the most customizable. Gather also integrates with many collaborative SaaS tools, offers an API, and has several partners who cater to those seeking custom integrations.

Teamflow - While requiring downloaded software, relative newcomer Teamflow focuses solely on workspaces such as virtual offices and project rooms. Compared to competitors, they offer relatively few integrations.

Bramble - Bramble emphasizes the ‘fun’ nature of its environments and the number of unique activities supported, such as hundreds of games. They also target a creative user base, such as designers, artists, and musicians. They do not appear to offer any third party integrations.

Topia - Topia offers lower fidelity spaces geared more towards special events such as conferences, rather than total office replacement (though that is offered as well). They also provide instructive use cases for experiences unique to their platform, such as classroom field trips and training scenarios. This focus may make them more suited for learning and onboarding applications than the others.

Virbela - The only other downloaded application, Virbela emphasizes Enterprise business applications. Unlike Gather, they offer 3-D environments. Unlike the others, Virbela has existed since 2012 creating 3-D environments. They have only recently pivoted to an Enterprise focus from their original niche catering to education, networking, and virtual tours.

Hybrid Presence

Virtual Presence Robots are mobile robots that navigate a real office environment on behalf of a remote operator. Rather than an avatar, they are physical beings consisting of a screen, camera, speaker, and sometimes other tools. These are ideal for instances where the majority of collaborators are co-located, but one or two individuals must operate remotely.

Ohmni - Ohmni’s robots offer the simplest feature set, but don’t think of them as basic. They carry fully tilting necks, 4K wide-angle cameras, near and far-field microphones, automatic docking, and quiet operation.

Double - Double’s ‘Double 3’ robot offers similar specifications to Ohmni, but with enhanced mobility. Two key innovations in this area include self-driving, self-navigation capabilities, and an augmented reality interface for the user.

Ava - Ava is geared towards much more complex applications such as for doctor visits, facilities inspection, and security (e.g. patrolling facilities). Ava has partnered with Cisco to integrate Webex into their robots for teleconferencing.

Contracts

Current contracts (as of March 1, 2022) referencing technologies in this area include: The Source 8ASTARS3 is 8(a) Streamlined Technology Acquisition Resource for Services (STARS) III - 8(a) STARS III is a multiple award, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (MA/IDIQ) GWAC set aside exclusively for SBA certified 8(a) firms per Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 19.8. 8(a) STARS III provides Federal agencies with customized IT services and IT services-based solutions*, both commercial and non-commercial, as defined in the Clinger-Cohen Act and FAR 2.101.

The category STARS3 ET 8(a) Streamlined Technology Acquisition Resource for Services (STARS) III Emerging Technology-Focused IT Services - This scope sub-area provides for IT services-based solutions which involve emerging technology (ET) innovation to securely accelerate transformation and advance mission outcomes. A task order requirement can fit in this sub-area if it includes IT services-based solutions with ET as the focus.

White House Priorities

The White House Priorities are set by each administration. Currently these are the high level priority areas which are subject to change based on official release by OMB on behalf of the Office of the President. Within the Virtual Presence space, we’ve identified potential alignment within the priorities and how the federal community might leverage them.

COVID-19, Equity, and Climate

As the staggered return to the physical workplace continues, it will be more important than ever to ensure equal experiences across unique working environments. As our overview of Virtual Presence technologies has shown, these tools enable employees to participate on even terms with their in-person colleagues. Further, virtual office spaces can help remote employees more clearly define their workspaces within the home, which may help individuals place stricter boundaries between their work and personal lives. This will be of particular benefit to those residing in smaller homes, who may not have the luxury of a dedicated office space. It may also reduce the commuting burden on individuals who would otherwise spend time and money (not to mention frustration) on lengthy commutes. In the same vein, this will help achieve the Administration’s climate goals by reducing vehicle emissions and potentially heating/cooling for large office spaces.

For further reading regarding the current administration’s priorities see the Biden-⁠Harris Administration Immediate Priorities.

Dependencies and Risks

Dependencies

  • Hardware: At minimum, establishing a virtual presence requires a device that connects to the internet and will allow the end-user to interact within that virtual environment, such as a mobile device or a computer. For a more interactive and immersive experience, a supplemental device such as a virtual reality headset, would be required.
  • Software: Typically, the software needed to utilize the virtual environment would be supplied from the vendor, unless it is a custom-built environment. Virtual reality products such as the Oculus or HTC Vive have their own online marketplace, where developer companies sell their virtual products that end-users can purchase and use. As for custom-built applications, those products would be made available within the organization who has access to download and use it. Generally speaking, the VR/AR market seems to be moving towards third-party studios to create these experiences.
  • Policies / Terms of Use: Currently, there are no existing policies or laws that govern the use of virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality products. It has been up to the vendors and software developers to dictate what is and isn’t allowed. The terms of use for these products vary from one provider to another. Policies should address security, privacy, 508 compliance, and many others. For additional information on policies or laws please refer to our TechRadar - Virtual Presence Laws/Legislation, Regulations, and Policy section.
  • Training: Many applications today are intuitive enough for users to quickly learn and use the product - without any formal instruction and/or user guides. Given the wide variety of products that can be used within the virtual space, it may not be as intuitive as mobile applications. Therefore, it’s absolutely critical that adequate training material and user guide resources be made available to the end-user, in order to maximize success and adoption.
  • 508 Compliance: As with any technology within an organization, it is important to utilize 508 compliant tools/solutions and prevent exclusion of any person with a disability from interacting with users within the virtual space.

Risks

According to legal experts, with the expansion of VR and AR there is a high chance of abuse to include privacy, data and even harassment cases. As with the adoption of any new technology, the applicable laws need time to catch up. Companies, businesses, and organizations need time to determine best practices.

Experts agree that privacy is one of the biggest concerns. “If an employee claimed their expected privacy was breached, they could sue an employer or company depending on their state’s laws,” moreover, “the litany of possibilities of crime and abuse in the virtual world can be imagined transferring” to a wide variety of sectors. (Source)

“Just as the internet created challenges for safety, privacy and security, the metaverse and our virtual presence within it, will add even more challenges. Safety experts worry about stalking, bullying and uncivil behavior in virtual or mixed reality worlds.” (Source) “This new technology represents a paradigm shift every bit as powerful as the emergence of the World Wide Web in the 1990s and social media in the early 2000s.” (Source)

Physical Risks

One of the major health concerns about virtual reality involves the eye. “There are a variety of potential issues,” said University of California, Berkeley optometry Professor Martin Banks, who studies visual perception in virtual environments. “One is how we affect the growth of the eye, which can lead to myopia or nearsightedness.”

Myopia is a growing problem around the world. In the United States, studies show, nearsightedness rose from only 25% of the population in the 1970s to over 40% by 2000. About 10 million American adults are considered “severely nearsighted.” “Looking at tablets, phones and the like, there’s pretty good evidence that doing near work can cause lengthening of the eye and increase risk for myopia,” Banks said. “We’re all worried that virtual reality might make things worse.” (Source) For devices that use eye-tracking, there are technical challenges associated with individuals experiencing a multitude of eye health issues such as astigmatism, strabismus, or the need for corrective lenses. These may also implicate 508 concerns.

Additionally, there has been little study on the health and safety risks associated with strapping a VR headset over your eyes for extended periods of time, such as over the course of a 40-hour work-week. There could be health risks when people are immersed in a fully imagined environment, possibly affecting their physical and emotional well-being. Four areas of concern are 1) Anxiety, 2) Nausea, 3) Eye Strain, and 4) Radiation Exposure. (Source)

Psychological Risks

“Psychology researchers found that playing games in virtual reality creates an effect called ’time compression,’ where time goes by faster than you think. The research team compared time perception during gameplay using conventional monitors and virtual reality to determine that this effect is uniquely linked to the virtual reality format.” This could have serious implications for work/life balance and overall employee mental health. (Source)

Laws/Legislation, Regulations, and Policy

Currently there do not appear to be any Laws/Legislation, Regulations and Policy specifically about Virtual Presence, but the need for identifying certain boundaries and governance is echoed throughout the Technology Industry. With the rapid advancements in AR/VR technology, those with the power to enact laws have a long way to go.

FISMA Compliance

While the Federal Information Security Modernization Act (FISMA) does not explicitly address virtual environments, the same compliance requirements apply to these environments just as they do to any other information system.

In particular, since an AR/VR environment has an unique way of presenting data to its users, one should consider how that data might need to be secured. For instance, if a team is presenting sensitive information in a meeting room within a VR office environment, is it possible for another user’s avatar to approach the room and see the information? These are important policy questions that early adopters will be required to answer.

Further Reading

For further reading on potential legal implications of broad VR/AR adoption:

Supporting Documentation

Below are some additional referenced public articles from various sites, newsletters and media organizations. These have been used to source some of the content of the page as well as provide a central point of reference for just the surface level of information available online. Listing here is in no way an endorsement nor is it meant to claim credit for any of their content. We’ve tried to carefully cite all mentions of examples, charts, pictures and other media referenced from them so that further exploration can be done by anyone interested in a deeper understanding throughout all of our mentioned emerging technologies.

Some additional resources

For Immersive Virtual Presence / Reality:

tech.gsa.gov / Office of the CTO

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