Not long ago, I decided to try to write an article in a virtual world. This was not the first time I had this idea. In the spring of 2016, a student in the computer-science department at Georgetown University set up an HTC Vive virtual-reality rig in a conference room and offered to give demonstrations. I volunteered and was impressed by the experience. He started me in a mad scientist’s laboratory, cluttered with equipment and whizzing gadgets. I crouched down, looked under a desk, and inspected the pipes connecting a sink to the wall. The next demo featured an underwater world. At some point, a whale swam overhead. I remember being startled when I looked up to see it so close and apparently so large—my first moment of convincing virtual presence.
The timing of this demo was fortuitous. Earlier that year, I had published a book,“Deep Work,” that was a mix between a manifesto and an instruction manual on the importance of undistracted focus. During this period, I was thinking quite a bit about ways to enhance concentration; this explains why, soon after my experience with the Vive, I wrote a speculative essay about how virtual reality could aid creativity: “Imagine, for example, that when it comes time to . . . tackle a new chapter in your science fiction novel you can place yourself in a quiet room in a space station with a rotating view of the galaxy twinkling outside your window.” A captivating virtual environment, I argued, would help us resist the “addictive appeal of inboxes and feeds” and potentially access “massive amounts of deep work-fueled productivity.” I even gave this concept a suitably techno-optimistic label: immersive single-tasking.
My excitement level was high, but my options to act were limited. The system that the student had demonstrated was expensive and required the virtual-reality headset to be tethered to a powerful computer. The setup was also complicated: the student had to place and calibrate infrared sensors around the room. As a young professor with small kids at home, I lacked both discretionary time and income, and it didn’t seem practical to become involved in experiments in virtual productivity.
Then the technology improved. Last May, I wrote an article for The New Yorker about the power of novel environments to improve concentration. I reported on Peter Benchley’s escaping the distractions of his attractive carriage house in Pennington, New Jersey, to instead work on “Jaws” in the back office of a nearby furnace shop, and Maya Angelou’s retreating to hotel rooms, where she would remove the artwork from the walls. Describing these examples of analog immersion got me thinking again about the potential of digital tools to create the same kind of productive cocoon. A bit of Googling revealed that in the half decade since I wrote about this topic, virtual-reality systems have become significantly cheaper and more powerful. For less than three hundred dollars, you can now purchase an Oculus Quest 2, a fully self-contained headset that can be used right out of the box. Also, I was clearly not the only one thinking about applying virtual reality to the realm of work. The Oculus app store now boasts an entire section dedicated to productivity. …….