Financial Industry Embraces Virtual Reality to Make Remote Work More Interesting

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(Reuters) — Once the preserve of gamers, virtual reality (VR) has been seized upon by the financial industry as a way to enliven working from home for lone traders or isolated executives and to replicate sales, networking, or training in the real world.

With 90% of employees at some of the world’s biggest financial firms now working from home due to a resurgence in coronavirus infections, more companies are experimenting with virtual reality.

Some practices could last beyond the pandemic, especially as working from home becomes more widespread.

At investment manager Fidelity International, executives experimented with a VR auditorium, answering questions from colleagues and even strolling the aisles.

“Working from home has dramatically accelerated interest in virtual/online spaces,” according to Stuart Warner, chief technology officer at Fidelity International, which manages $3.3 trillion in assets.

After internally exploring VR and augmented reality (AR) technology – which, unlike VR, is not fully immersive and involves computer-generated elements viewable through a smartphone screen, for example – Fidelity aims now testing VR for its sales teams’ interactions with customers.

“It gives it a little life,” Warner said.

For London-based Ed Greig, chief disruptor at Deloitte Digital, virtual reality has sparked conversations with potential clients and colleagues in distant cities during office meetings.

“The other day, I was finishing up a VR meeting with someone, and as I walked out of their office, I came across a person who was coming in for another meeting. And that interaction of a few minutes turned into into a real business conversation later,” Greig said.

Virtual reality can be useful not only for scheduled meetings, but also to help alleviate feelings of isolation and give some employees the office buzz they crave and thrive in.

Swiss bank UBS has experimented with distributing Microsoft HoloLens smart glasses to its London-based traders, which it says allows staff to recreate the trading floor experience at home.

Zoom fatigue

VR headsets allow users to see and interact with others in the same digital room, and movements like turning the head correspond to how the person’s avatar moves through space.

Recreating the feeling of human interaction is what gave impetus to the push of virtual reality.

Executives say they’re battling so-called Zoom fatigue — the exhaustion caused by a daily barrage of video conferences, meetings and messaging through tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, which have replaced face-to-face interaction face to face.

The hope is that VR spaces rekindle team spirit, especially when hiring new employees.

Marc Bena, who leads the digital audit business unit at PricewaterhouseCoopers UK, said:

“In a virtual environment, you can hear multiple people talking at the same time, which is different in a Zoom meeting… when you wear these headsets, you’re transported to a giant room with a whiteboard and office furniture, and you join your other colleagues to brainstorm ideas.

“You can look around and interact as if you were in an office. It recreates the feeling of being together.

After a virtual session, he and his colleagues took virtual drinks to another area and were able to move from table to table.

“You could recreate the exact same environment as if you were at cocktail parties with your avatar. The only downside is that it can get quite intense after a few hours,” he said.

A PwC study in June found that participants in a virtual reality workshop were 3 times more confident about what they had learned than those who learned via traditional classrooms or even via e-learning courses. .

The cost of training 13,000 executives in a corporate classroom is 8 times more expensive than via a virtual reality course for the same number of people, according to the study.

PwC and American Express use VRtuoso, a virtual reality presentation platform that uses headsets made by Pico Interactive for training and increasing sales.

So far, most real-life business applications of virtual reality have been in medicine and retail, including training department store salespeople to deal with difficult customers.

Julie Ask, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, a US-based market consultant, says more widespread adoption is inevitable.

“I think the adoption of VR technology will continue to grow over time,” she said.

The cost is reality

The immersive work experience comes at a steep price – Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 headsets cost $3,500 each.

But the financial sector is getting ready to spend. Fidelity says technology spending is up “100% to 200%” this year compared to 2019, and it will stay at that level of spending for a year or two.

David Ripert, chapter president of the UK branch of the global VR/AR association, said the growth in demand for VR was a “silver lining” to the pandemic as people used the technology to recreate physical events and canceled conferences.

“Using virtual reality for these networking events is really cool, because you get that sense of belonging and connection that you don’t necessarily get with flat 2D video,” he said.

Advances in immersive technology could save banks up to $1.5 trillion by 2030, including nearly $500 billion from virtual reality applications alone, PwC estimates, through the use virtual reality training or business meetings.

Deloitte estimates that 19% of UK businesses invested in virtual and augmented reality in 2019 and a further 31% will invest in these technologies by 2021.

Citibank first created an experimental simulated trading environment a few years ago when it reviewed Microsoft’s HoloLens. At a bond conference in Munich last year, Finnish bank Nordea offered investors a virtual tour of its Copenhagen trading floor via VR headsets.

But while there is momentum in the industry, to be fully effective VR technology must overcome constraints such as limited display size, processing power and battery life.

This is where a slew of startups are trying to break into the market with cheaper and easier ways to make remote working easier. Platforms such as Sococo and Gather offer virtual versions of physical spaces online, where employees can move around and interact without headsets.

“The laid-back socializing aspect of work is hard to achieve when you’re doing everything on Google Meet or Zoom,” said Phillip Wang, who founded Gather with his university friends.

Gather has organized everything from weddings and parties to meetings and conferences, with 30,000 people coming to virtual spaces in more than 100 countries every day.

As startups grow rapidly, established leaders launch new innovations.

Zoom Video Communications said it expects virtual reality and augmented reality to become a bigger part of online communication in the future.

This could include further enhancements to alter a person’s appearance to make them more suitable for work, hiding sportswear, for example, and translating real-life details into the virtual space, such as the possibility of shaking hands.

Microsoft said it has seen an increase in opportunities to use virtual reality this year. Google declined to comment.

“I think the pandemic has changed people’s perception of what’s possible and what’s doable,” Fidelity’s Warner said.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft and Saikat Chatterjee, editing by Alexandra Hudson.)

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