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Jenny Baker
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VR Technology in Organizational Management: Natural Disaster or Perfect Storm

Diana R. Sanchez, Anand P. A. Van Zelderen, Kentaro Kawasaki, & Brian Trinh

Virtual reality (VR) is currently a multibillion-dollar industry (Lupinek et al., 2021), with increasing interest from experts in workplace management who continue to explore potential applications for this technology. There is a growing interest in employing VR for research within professional work environments. (e.g., Aguinis et al., 2001; Alcañiz & Giglioli, 2018; Cipresso et al., 2018; Haber et al., 2023; Hubbard & Aguinis, 2023; Sanchez et al., 2022; Weiner & Sanchez, 2020). However, the current research in this domain remains constrained, as evidenced by the scarcity of VR-related publications within I-O-relevant journals (e.g., Highhouse et al., 2020). In a preliminary search using Google Scholar of 38 prominent, I-O-relevant journals, only nine articles have been published with the term “virtual reality” in the title since 2013. Virtual reality has only been mentioned less than 200 times. Given the growing interest with limited research on VR for workplace management, we pose an important concept that threatens many emerging technologies: Will VR for workplace management become an obsolete technology over time, or will VR succeed as a sustained and established technology? We consider two potential outcomes of VR. The first entails a trajectory resembling a natural disaster headed toward obsolescence; the second envisions a perfect storm of factors that will lead to the establishment of VR tech in workplace management. We close with recommendations for the consideration and effective utilization of VR within applied settings of workplace management.

VR as a Natural DisasterBecoming Obsolete

In first considering VR as a potential natural disaster, we highlight several areas that may contribute to the technology becoming obsolete. In considering the problematic concerns about VR, we focus primarily on perceived inaccessibility, creating a poor user experience, and unclear benefits for organizational adoption.

One challenge that VR technology has had to overcome is the preexisting concept of what VR entails. Many people draw to mind an image of the 1980s VR system (see Figure 1), with the limited features and functionality of what 1980s technology had to offer. This fails to convey the modern VR experience, which is far more streamlined than its 1980s counterpart. The historical VR system had limited mobility with large, heavy pieces of equipment that were attached to large computer systems and often impractical and restricting to wear. The hardware limited mobility, which was the primary function of the software, to mimic movement in a virtual work. Counter to this, modern VR consoles like Oculus Rift, Meta Quest, and HTC Vive are portable and allow users freedom of movement. Additionally, the historical VR systems were difficult to find and expensive to purchase, making the historical versions of VR inaccessible to most everyday consumers.

One of the areas for improvement in VR lies in enhancing the user experience to ensure its reputation as a highly immersive and satisfying technology. This area for improvement also stems from early perceptions of dated VR technology, where the virtual environment lacked realism and prevented having an immersive experience. This lack of realism hindered the practical applications of VR technology and made it seem impractical to the general public, limiting its commercial success. For example, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy in 1995 failed to gain mass adoption because it was expensive, had poor graphics, and couldn’t contend with higher quality non-VR gaming alternatives (Zachara & Zagal, 2009). Although the realism of VR is largely a concern of the past, modern concerns still exist surrounding concerns over users reported motion sickness, eye strain, and fatigue. Ongoing research has focused on addressing these issues (Martinez & Checa, 2023), and many VR experiences now incorporate comfort features to reduce these negative experiences and mitigate the risk of motion sickness (Hirzle et al., 2022).

Another challenge for VR development has been the lack of establishing clear evidence for the benefits and outcomes that VR can offer organizations. Given that VR has to contend with inexpensive, alternative technologies, other options may overshadow any perceived effectiveness of using VR. Taking a risk and investing in a new technology needs to have obvious benefits for an organization. Choosing between different technologies presents a further challenge for organizations as VR development has lacked standardization in its development. Different organizations and developers have pursued their own approaches, resulting in a fragmented landscape of VR technologies. This highlights the need for collaboration and shared understanding to ensure long-term sustainability. The uncertainty on how the technology can be established and implemented, and not knowing how management and employees will be prepared and trained for the technology, leaves a lot of uncertainty for organizations. Virtual reality as a new medium of instruction also raises a concern of content creation; as a novel medium of delivery, there does not exist a precedent on how to effectively use virtual reality as a medium of training, instruction, or application. This raises a concern on how virtual reality ought to be included within existing workflows.

As virtual reality technologies attempt to simulate real life with as high fidelity as possible, another issue that virtual reality contends with as its graphics increase are sensory and perception issues related to human cognition. An example of this would be motion sickness that accompanies poorly tuned virtual reality experiences, in which an absence of physical motion combined with visually perceived motion results in nausea, dizziness, or sweating (Kennedy et al., 2010). Furthermore, when attempts to replicate reality with high fidelity fail to be convincing, individuals may experience eeriness and discomfort in the form of the uncanny valley (virtual images resemble humans to the point that it creates a sense of unease; Stein & Ohler, 2017). The uncanny valley references a sudden drop in likability when a virtual image is almost human but not passing as human (see Figure 2). When a simulation is real enough that it feels plausible but too scripted that it is disconnected from reality, a sense of unease is created in the user. Although this was not an issue that was pressing in older virtual reality models, as the low-fidelity simulations created a clear distinction between the simulation and reality, as technology develops to improve visual displays, the line between a simulated world and the real one continues to blur.

Historically we can observe several technological challenges that hindered the proliferation of VR across workplace settings. Although many of these have been addressed and helped grow the VR industry to where it is now, many challenges―both old and new―remain and may cause VR to become obsolete.

Figure 2

Emotional Reactions Toward a Virtual Image Generally Become More Positive as the Human Likeness of the Image Increases

 

 

VR as a Perfect StormEstablishing Success

Technology might be a perfect storm of factors that leads to the continued growth of VR. Meaning, there are a number of reasons for the rise of the current generation of VR. VR today is different from the VR technology from the 1980s and 1990s. As we mentioned, the previous generation of VR was limited in a number of ways the current generation of technology is not. For example, modern VR equipment is relatively accessible with a variety of systems available for purchase off the shelf. The equipment can be inexpensive with commercial VR systems starting at around $200 USD and upward of several thousand dollars depending on the features and capabilities desired. Set up is also user-friendly, requiring a similar degree of technological knowledge and skill as using a cellphone or other mobile device. These factors make purchasing and using a VR device a relatively easy task for individual users.

An additional factor of current VR systems is that they offer consistently high-fidelity, realistic environments. The degree to which users can feel present and immersed in the virtual environment is unmatched by other technology today. Presence is the degree to which an individual feels transported to the place and time of the VR environment (Vankov & Jankovszky, 2021). Other technologies rarely replicate this feeling of truly being in the virtual environment. Moreover, VR can enable a user to embody a character or avatar in a VR environment. This so-called Proteus Effect (Praetorius & Görlich, 2020) demonstrates that a user can embody a virtual avatar within a short period of time by synchronously matching the avatar’s movements to the movements of the user (Gonzalez-Franco & Peck, 2018). This unique VR feature is something researchers have gravitated toward (Szolin et al., 2022) because, prior to VR, simultaneous stimuli such as brushes on an arm (e.g., the rubber hand experiment) were a common method for generating a sense of embodiment or ownership (Riemer et al., 2019).

One measurement challenge we face in workplace psychology is collecting accurate information from people and avoiding error from social desirability, faking, or inaccurate self-awareness. One potential benefit of VR is that depending on the design of an experience, we may be able to collect authentic information about people while avoiding the error mentioned above. Although research in this area is limited and results are mixed, there is some support to show that individuals may behave in authentic ways depending on how they are primed for the experience (Moon, 2018). Improving instructions on how users should behave, reducing the transparency of what is being measured, and limiting the time a user has to consider and form a response are all methods that can be designed into the VR experience.

Although the research is continuing to grow, the technology itself is also evolving. VR availability of software and individuals with expertise in VR systems is growing, meaning the ability to build and customize VR environments is expanding. We argue that VR is a perfect storm of modern technology. This doesn’t mean that VR will inevitably succeed, as there are a number of reasons technology can become obsolete. However, we believe that the benefits mentioned here contribute to the likely success of VR technology moving forward. VR has the potential to progress and grow but is currently in its developmental stages contingent upon other moving factors and contexts.

Recommendations

Building on the elements discussed above, we consolidate the past disasters of VR, and its potential, as an opportunity to develop innovative studies broadening our understanding of employee behaviors and organizational phenomenon. Concretely, we highlight several crucial steps and challenges that need to be undertaken for VR to truly take off during this perfect storm.

  1. Interoperability: To facilitate the seamless integration of VR systems, software, and devices into organizational research, VR researchers need to have the ability to work together and exchange data effectively. By running VR studies using the same infrastructure (i.e., code and data formats), research findings, methodologies, and best research practices can be shared effortlessly across different teams and universities. Moreover, it allows any VR study conducted using one VR system to be replicated and validated on another system. Although this is a prerequisite to enhance the quality of VR research during this perfect storm, interoperability also ensures that VR studies become more accessible and cost friendly to researchers as they can extend upon, or customize, existing VR studies using one’s own developed virtual assets (or combine assets from different studies into one new study). Most importantly, there will be less dependence on multiple VR systems and headsets that can each run a distinct type of VR study. Instead, interoperable solutions allow researchers to leverage existing VR creations—and integrate open source solutions—encouraging the proliferation of VR technology for organizational research. We therefore recommend VR researchers to share their VR creations on GitHub and provide a link to their assets in their manuscripts. Similarly, aspiring VR researchers ought to consult GitHub and open source VR development platforms for access to validated VR research tools. 
  2. Portability: VR allows researchers to conduct studies and gather data in real-world environments outside of traditional laboratory or work settings. Modern (all-in-one) VR headsets allow researchers to carry their entire laboratory with them and bring immersive virtual experiences to people and locations, such as workplaces, factories, or public spaces. This flexibility enables organizational researchers to empirically study hard-to-reach working populations that would otherwise not visit a lab on the university’s campus. Some VR researchers have, for instance, visited professional conferences and workshops with their VR equipment to collect data on site. Moreover, in the event that the VR experiment is interoperable (see previous point), it would allow any researcher around the world to replicate the study in the exact same experimental setting where they please, removing potential confounds between identical study setups.
  3. Context and consistency: One of the primary reasons to conduct a VR study is to enhance the ecological validity of the research findings (Aguinis & Bradley, 2014) through the creation of immersive and believable VR environments and scenarios. Although researchers may customize the VR experience entirely to their liking, it is imperative for participants to experience a world that is consistent with real-world concepts. For instance, we can envision a VR study in which employees are tasked to collaborate with intelligent robots; however, if these robots defy the laws of physics, participants will feel disillusioned and the research findings will be compromised. In other words, participants require a virtual world they can understand, although it does not have to be realistic per se.
  4. Urgency: Instilling a sense of urgency in participants during a VR study could serve to elicit more authentic employee behaviors. Although several traditional research methodologies provide participants with indefinite time to respond (e.g., cross-sectional surveys, vignette experiments), VR studies can be designed to prompt participants to react immediately to time-pressured situations. This may prompt participants to respond more authentically and realistically to the elements presented in virtual space, providing them with less time to generate a socially desirable response. Moreover, employees experiencing a sense of urgency are more likely to give their full attention to the study.
  5. Familiarization: We recommend researchers allow participants—especially those participating in a VR study for the first time—sufficient time to acclimatize to their new surroundings. VR environments can be disorienting at first, particularly if the avatar the participant embodies may be different from their own real body (Guegan et al., 2016). Moreover, if the VR study requires the use of additional equipment (e.g., controllers, tracking devices), participants require extra time to familiarize themselves with the controls and virtual interactions. By allocating sufficient time to the so-called embodiment phase, VR researchers ensure that their participants feel a strong sense of presence during the study—bolstering the accuracy of research findings. 
  6. Cybersickness: Finally, most aspiring VR researchers are overly concerned about the potential symptoms of cybersickness participants might experience during their study. A legitimate concern a decade ago, technology has since improved to allow for smooth VR experiences with high fidelity, thereby inhibiting cybersickness that old technology and/or poor design induced. To guarantee a safe and pleasant user experience, researchers must limit unsynchronized movements within the VR study (e.g., driving a virtual car while one is seated in the lab in real life), as these may still induce nausea. Moreover, we recommend limiting the VR study to a maximum of 20 minutes, as prolonged exposure may lead to more severe disorientation the moment participants return to reality.
  7. Measurement design: As the ability to recreate meaningful experiences in a VR environment improves, researchers and practitioners may be able to rely less on traditional methodologies. For example, in traditional paper and pencil style assessments with written questions, results may be confounded with individual differences such as reading level, attention span, or cognitive ability. Designing an assessment experience within a VR environment might reduce these confounds. A further improvement that could be designed into the VR environment could be issues with cognitive load and fatigue. Based on the design of the environment, the experience could be designed to reduce user fatigue and cognitive load by offering information through a variety of media (e.g., sight, sound, and touch/haptics).

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