Ready Player Productive: On Virtual Reality and Cognitively Demanding Work

Location-Boosted Cognition

A few days ago, I wrote about the converted barn where Simon Winchester writes. By working in a quiet and scenic location, surrounded by books and nature, Winchester is leveraging a key principle of attention capital theory that I call location-boosted cognition.

Put simply, this principle claims that the details of the physical space in which you perform cognitive work can substantially increase the value of what you produce.

Many writers swear by location-boosted cognition. I include myself in this category (the above picture is from the mini-library I built in my new house to support my deep work.)

This shouldn’t be surprising. Writers make their living almost entirely based on the quality of their thoughts, so they tend to care a lot about maximizing what they get out of their brain.

A point I made at the end of my Winchester article, however, is that many other knowledge work endeavors might also benefit from leveraging location-boosted cognition.

Organizations that depend on elite-level thinking — tech companies, law firms, high-end advertising boutiques, and so on — already spend fortunes to hire and retain top talent, and to provide them access to the best information and tools, so it’s only natural that they might deploy extreme work environments to further increase productivity.

Unfortunately, this idea is plagued by logistical obstacles. As a reader noted in the comment thread of my Winchester post: “not everyone…has the resources or possibilites to buy a farm with a place like that [to work].”

He’s right. As our economy increasingly shifts toward advanced knowledge work, location-boosted cognition in the style practiced by writers like Simon Winchester simply doesn’t scale. There are only so many fantastical huts, forest sheds and personal libraries available for the aspiring deep workers of the world.

Virtual Depth

It’s here, however, that I want to return (tentatively) to an idea I first floated two years ago: using virtual reality (VR) to create similar immersive single-tasking experiences.

As I outlined here and here, one of the little-discussed professional applications of VR is its ability to transport the user to a setting that might be capable of enabling some of the benefits of location-boosted cognition — without the need to actually travel to a new physical space.

To make this concrete, let’s consider an example…

Imagine a programmer working from her apartment. Her goal is to master an advanced graph algorithm that she needs to improve the performance of a module she’s coding.

Now imagine that she has a room-scale VR setup (like the HTC Vive) in her apartment living room. She slips on the helmet, picks up the motion-tracked wands, and finds herself transported to a small wooden hut, cantilevered off the side of a snow-capped mountain, overlooking a scenic valley below.

Perhaps her view is something like this:

The clever use of mounted sensors allows the table and chair from her apartment living room to be replicated in the virtual scene in such a way that she can walk over, pull out the chair, and sit down simultaneously in the real and virtual settings — making the illusion of the virtual room exceedingly convincing.

On the virtual desk is a wooden half-lectern, of the type used to hold up large pulpit bibles. When our programmer looks down at the lectern, she sees a page from an algorithm textbook. A swipe of her hand, flips the pages.

Because it’s room-scale VR, she’s free to stand up and wander the hut when stuck on an idea — looking out the windows, and hearing the wind and birds through her rig’s stereo headphones.

Killer App…

The hope is that entering this awe-inspiring scene would allow the programmer in our example to learn the hard material more effectively than if she had simply cracked a textbook in her apartment, at the same table where just moments before she had been web surfing on her laptop, and where, in an hour or two, she’ll eat lunch while watching TV.

The VR, in other words, is meant to enable the same type of location-boosted cognition that Simon Winchester leverages to write smart books.

From a practicality perspective, note that the room-scale VR technology required to implement this scenario already exists, and the image resolution of these systems is rapidly reaching the point where reading dense text in a virtual world will become comfortable.

The table/chair sensors I mentioned don’t exist exactly as described, but similar tools are available and wouldn’t be hard to adapt to this purpose. We are also not that the far from the availability of tactile gloves that enable typing on virtual keyboards, or the use of high-speed internet connections to enable multiple remote workers to collaborate in the same virtual space.

Based on current prices, systems of this type would almost certainly cost less than $ 10,000. If they produced significant and sustained productivity boosts for elite knowledge workers, this would be a bargain for the individual and organizations that deploy them.

…or Weird Techno-Novelty?

The reason, however, I used the term “tentatively” above when introducing this concept is that it’s also possible that immersive single-tasking simply wouldn’t work.

We don’t yet have evidence that a virtual scene can induce the same state of location-boosted cognition generated by real world environments such as Simon Winchester’s writing barn.

It’s possible, for example, that the programmer in our above example would feel silly putting on a helmet and wandering around a virtual mountain hut like a kid in a video game.

It’s also possible that location-boosted cognition leverages other factors not captured in immersive single-tasking. Perhaps, for example, a big part of the advantage Winchester gains from his writing barn is the chance his brain gets to relax on the long drive from Manhattan to the western Massachusetts farm where the barn is located.

Worth a Closer Look

To summarize, leveraging VR to enable location-boosted cognition is both promising and risky. It might be a killer app for VR in the professional space, or it might be a silly diversion.

What does seem clear, however, is that it’s an idea worth further exploration.

Which is to all to say, if you’re a VR company that’s interested in experimenting with immersive single-tasking, drop me a note — as a promoter of attention capital theory, and the interesting intersections between tech and productivity this theory will inevitably create, I’m particularly eager to learn firsthand what happens when we attempt to shift our deep efforts to deeply inspiring virtual locations.

Blog – Cal Newport

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