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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.

39 thoughts on “Ready Player Productive: On Virtual Reality and Cognitively Demanding Work”

    • Couldn’t agree more. The only thing one needs to create deep work is focus.
      Focus for however long you can hold your attention, take a break, and focus again.

  1. I’d be all into it until the first time some jokester scared the daylights out of me by grabbing my shoulders while I was “in my space”.

    What makes magical writing huts magical is their distance from pesky humans.

    • You’re on to something there Greg. My instinct was that because you know you’re in your apartment, it might break the spell.

      There would need to be a certain placebo effect of some kind. With movies we suspend disbelief. We accept we’re watching something happen in an alien world. The director proposes the world to us, giving us time to get acquainted with it. Could we introduce the same cues and suggestions a Hollywood director might? Could we have an introductory phase? We could drive from Manhattan to a farm in Massachusetts for that exact effect in this virtual world? Again as Cal describes, the entire experience could be that drive to relax the brain!

  2. To be honest I would be really scared to use such a system as I am not sure if I could control all the possible temptations it would bring. Sure, I would be able to get immersed into an optimal deep work environment, but with just the push of a button I could also get extremely attention-grabbing and addictive entertainment. The potential distraction of such a tool would be at least as huge as its usefulness. But maybe we will just have to learn how to use this new medium.

    • Agreed. And even if the tool blocked access to distracting things, I hypothesize that it will still make our brains “jumpy”, simply because we have that sort of crude association/conditioned response to anything in the category of “digital technology”.

  3. This is a fascinating idea. I know that Facebook employs a number of psychologists on the Oculus team, which suggests that they’re investigating the cognitive effects that being in a VR experience induces.

    On another note, I wonder if haptic feedback suits can be incorporated to make the virtual experience more realistic.

  4. This is something that I *really* want, and have been paying close attention to. But the text-legibility problem is not to be underestimated; it’s not really clear how long it’ll be until we get consumer HMDs that can display text close to as well as a monitor. Unfortunately it’s not just a resolution problem, and looking at the resolution spec isn’t sufficient to tell whether the problem is solved, because there are also issues with optics and chromatic abberation that can lower the effective resolution below the panel resolution.

  5. How wonderful! Now, where do I get $10,000 and the space in a living room to do my work? How about a nice poster and earbuds? The majority of us needing cognitive boosting have to settle for a simply a chair and a flat working space. George Beinhorn (first comment) says it best. It’s the space inside your head.

  6. Awesome idea– worth trying and testing. I’d be concerned that it adds a layer of mechanization to the user, which may counter concentration efforts.

  7. I am more interested in the look of the library than the VR outdoor image… call me weird. Love the minimalist setup.

  8. I would probably find VR to be as much of a distraction as a web browser. There would be too much to explore. I already have a dedicated workspace in my home and I have let it become a dumping ground of distractions. The photograph of your mini library has inspired me to reclaim my workspace!

  9. I like that term; “location-boosted cognition”. I use it myself, almost always getting my best work done when I have a spare day at a hotel.

    Some other examples would be Maya Angelou renting a hotel exclusively for writing, or how Peter Shankman booked a round trip flight from Newark to Shanghai in order to write.

    Looking forward to your next book.

  10. I suspect that actual daylight and fresh air from a desk by a real window, even if it just looks out onto shrubbery (like yours) might do more for clarity of thought & focus than VR. There are studies showing the good effects of greenery and natural light for mood, thought, and vision. But I’m old-school. VR might work well for those who want to use it.

    • Interestingly, there is also research showing that merely seeing pictures of nature can have some of the same stress-relieving benefits as actually walking around in nature. Still don’t think there’s any substitute for the real thing, but even getting close can offer some cognitive benefits.

  11. Great post. I like this topic, even though I work in common spaces more than alone; away from pesky humans.

    Now, if we could only create virtual reality deadlines . . . I’d get a lot of work completed more efficiently . . . not better, just more efficiently. And some work just needs to be done to create time and space for deeper thought.

  12. There are limited in-computer examples of this; I’m thinking of minimalist programs like OmWriter that eliminate many features of word processing that are unnecessary at the drafting stage, while featuring a supposedly “relaxing” background. I do think that limiting digital clutter like desktop icons helps with maintaining a clean working environment: it’s not much good if your physical desk (which you never look at) is clean, if you can’t quickly find what the program you need among a million desktop files.

  13. Thank you for your post, Cal! It is a very interesting read.
    However, I would like to offer some of my thoughts on this. In order to optimize productivity, or quality of contents produced, location-boosted cognition does not have to be complicated. If it is all about maximizing deep work, I think individuals should look at their personal offices-where they perform cognitive work-to see what they have and need to get a greater boost for their work, then fix, customize, or modify them accordingly. It could be some books arrangement, cleaning the room, or just simple decluttering their office tables. That way, they do not need to spend excessively on unnecessary technological devices and services, yet still get better results. Technological advances are generally great, but they are sometimes an improvement on unimproved ends. I hope this makes sense.
    Thank you!

  14. I can’t comment whether it’s truly effective, but I can attest to the psychological benefits of spaces customised for different work.

    When I write blog posts I tend to opt for easy listening ambience and whenever I get the chance, a park bench or a good couch and a cup of coffee.

    When coding at work or looking at an analysing data sets I listen to cyberpunk, chiptune and 8bit, super nerdy stuff, and I opt for dark backgrounds and workspaces as much as possible from my bash environment to text editors.

    Nothing makes me wanna code more than feeling like a midnight uberhacker while I’m working (even if I’m only a lowly PhD student copy pasting simple bash scripts written by my supervisor!).

    Love the post Cal, very interested to hear the developments of the VR optimisation idea.

    Personally I’m still dreaming of an electricity free shack surrounded by gum trees, but if life throws me another bone I guess we’ll see.

  15. I tried VR meditation at the 2018 biohacking conference. even though the resolution was bad, and I was on a super noisy convent floor, it was immersing! Deep work VR seems pretty possible after that. maybe with noise canceling VR/headphones and a separate VR device (1 for work, 1 for play) it could work.

    link to the specific product:

  16. As long as the person is aware that he´s under the “spell” of a special VR program, it will lose its intended effect.

  17. The idea is just out of the world actually!
    But like the idea let’s ‘imagine’ some possible future outcomes of such a technology. When the smartphones or hyper connected productivity were introduced, people thought that it will help them as an aid in their daily tasks(here its a cognitively demanding task) . They thought they can reach anyone, they can search for anything, they can use enormous amount of tools to help their tasks and they are still using these gadgets for the aforementioned purposes. People created their own virtual world in ‘tools'(just consider it like that for now) like social media. But we the “Deep Work Army” knows that those weren’t not just even helpful to everyone but had an adverse effect.

    • Like father like son, in future with the advent of a new ‘tool’ (VR) for those purposes, each and every one may be cultivating their own virtual reality worlds in those systems or may be carrying them in their gadgets too! May be the their facebook page contain a new tab ‘Go to his VR world’ and people will be hyper connected in VR too. Getting lost in VR for hours may cause anxiety issues about the real world out there! So constant switching between VR and the real world still cause the ‘attention residue’.

    • Moreover I don’t see VR being sold in market without any intervention by the tech giants like google or facebook and they will be promoting their products and advertisements based on your VR data.(may be!)
      So my point is that VR cannot be a ‘purest’ choice for the ‘deep work’ task in a capitalist economy when compared to a table and chair near the window to my backyard.
      These are just pure imaginations about such a future and I am really optimistic about the possibilities of what VR can have in the days to come!

  18. I’m a VR game developer and let me tell you that when your wear HTC Vive HMD and enter a beautiful scenery like what you posted, it feels you are there. My windowless office room is cramped and full of cellphones, tablets, and wires running everywhere but the moment I enter the beautiful mountain scenery from “The Lab” (made by Steam), I feel immediate relief and peace of mind. It’s so fresh that I take a deep breath everytime I go there and don’t want to go back to the reality, my gloomy depressed office room. Having said that, two main issues come to my mind for using this tech for deep work:
    1- If your deep work involves typing, as you said, there is no easy way to type currently. But people are working on it.
    2- The headset is bulky. You start feeling pressure points on your face and neck, and soon your face starts sweating. However, the headsets are getting smaller and lighter every year.

    Overall, it is definitely worth to try this idea, and I personally welcome that.

  19. I don’t know if I could really appreciate VR in the same way I do the real thing – maybe one day when spectacularly real VR is more common to the everyday person than it is now. But currently, I think my mind would be more intrigued by the VR environment than it would be focused on deep thinking. Of course, I’d love to at least try it once.

  20. It seems like the most common concern in this comment thread is that VR’s simulation of a new reality is too low fidelity to “trick” your mind into accepting it — at least, accepting it enough to trigger benefits to cognition.

    I used to share that skepticism. But after demoing several major VR units a couple years ago, I was really surprised by the degree to which I could feel lost in a setting, even though I rationally knew I was seeing the world through VR goggles.

    As I later learned, this effect is well-known. Jaron Lanier, among others, did work on this back in the early days of VR in the 80’s, where they found even crude representations of a virtual world could create profound psychological effects.

    What seems to be happening is the following: the high-functioning frontal cortex may figure out that you’re looking at a virtual world, but many of the other systems in your brain that take in visual input don’t know this to be true. This is why, for example, if you add a virtual limb within a VR world, the user can actually feel this limb as if it exists, or why falling off a virtual ledge can trigger a (moderated) panic response, even though you know for sure you are not falling. This ability is why VR has been used successfully in PTSD desensitization training for years. Etc.

    If location-boosted cognition is due entirely to the frontal cortex and its rational assessment of where you are, then VR won’t help, as I absolutely agree that you’ll know the VR scene before you is fake and that you are actually still sitting in your office.

    On the other hand, if many more primitive systems are involved in calming the mind and supporting focus in awe-inspiring locations, then VR might help to a surprising degree.

    This is what I think this is a worthy experiment…

  21. Virtual reality for business may be risky but it has own advantage because it make scope of business expatiation at gobble level.
    Only you need to focused on some area and build the trust for you customer and user.

  22. It reminds of Korean ???, which is a small room that people rent with the purpose of studying for government-administered exams.

  23. Mr. Newport – I agree that it is a worthy experiment. Eventually, virtual reality will be so immersive that it will be definitely be helpful to aid in concentration. The software isn’t there quite yet – but in a few years I believe it will be.

    I am such a believer in virtual reality that I am seriously scaling back my accounting practice over the next 6 months to focus on C# programming and the Unity game engine (the preferred program to build 3d environments)……until next tax season rolls around anyways 🙂

    One coder who codes and builds digital environments in Unity referred to his work as “bending time and space.” That comment I found equally amusing and inspiring.


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