What is an office building? Is it a physical structure made of bricks and mortar, glass and steel, or is it a place that companies utilize to bring all their staff together to facilitate the smooth operation of their organization? Is it both or could it be neither?
This month Gartner’s annual Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies has selected three distinct technology trends – out of 2,000 – that organizations should track and begin to implement in order to stay competitive; transparently immersive experiences, the perceptual smart machine age and the platform revolution.
While “the platform revolution”, which includes emerging technologies such as Blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT) and quantum computing, will lay the foundations for our digital future. Transparently immersive experiences and the perceptual smart machine age have, in combination, direct and fundamental consequences for the underlying concept of the office building.
Mike Walker, Gartner’s research director, highlighted the cloud as one of the key pillars supporting a dramatic increase of machine learning in the workplace. “We’re already starting to see the beginning of this because for the first time in a long time, technology is centralized. It’s enabling an enormous amount of innovation because we don’t have to deploy this software in individual data centre’s,” Walker told Information Age.
Machine learning, with its sisters deep learning and artificial intelligence, are creating a kind of responsive workplace where every“thing” is finding ways to be more useful. Be it gathering data or acting upon intelligence derived from that data, everything in the office is getting more involved by being more connected.
“A lot of this [immersive technology] is going to come to them [businesses]. When I talk to facility management companies in office buildings, they say they’re putting an IP address on everything – chairs, walls, tables,” said Walker.
As covered in our previous articles, by connecting everything, workspaces can optimize energy use, increase security, create healthier and more comfortable environments and even make employees more productive.
Furthermore, when looking into the future the Hype Cycle creates, smarter workspaces will attract smarter employees as the tech savvy millennial generation becomes the engine of our economy.
“The next generation, the millennial generation, is going to expect this in the workplace. They’re going to bring a lot of these technologies,” explained Walker. “So the consumer side is to a greater extent influencing the adoption of the immersive experiences.”
Gartner’s examination of transparently immersive experiences not only included this evolution in workspaces but also the emergence of connected homes. A home that is not only connecting disparate systems internally but also connects to its users to the outside world.
Now consider the evolution of building design, namely building information modelling (BIM) – described as a game-changing technology and even a cultural shift for the construction sector. BIM digitally creates the building to optimize design before ground is broken or the first brick is laid. Recent incarnations of the software have taken BIM to the cloud, allowing designers around the world to work on the same project. They all enter the same virtual building in order to influence the project’s design.
So do we really need the physical office, when we could all log in to work in a virtual office from our homes? This future has already been sneaking up on us through the remote working and digital nomad movements. Many companies are forming without need for a physical office; they simply collaborate through online platforms. Add virtual or augmented reality and the lines between the real and the virtual are blurred further.
40 years ago advanced gaming involved playing ‘Pong’, today we have numerous massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG). In such games you can essentially enter another world. An almost photo realistic immersive environment. So at this rate where will we be in 40 years time? Extrapolate out this rate of change over any period of time and we quickly arrive at virtual realities that will be indistinguishable from actual reality.
The image below is taken from one of these MMORPG's, No Man's Sky. It is a virtual universe created through procedural generation using deterministic algorithms and random number generators. This enables the game to have a massively open nature in which the virtual universe includes over 18 quintillion planets. That's the number 18 followed by 18 0's!!
A virtual office is an office, right? In fact, it could be much more. A virtual office could adapt to the needs of the company and the employees with a unlimited supply of meeting rooms, chairs and tables, a virtual office can be one thing in the morning and something else in the afternoon, it can look one way to one person and completely different to another. It can morph into whatever the company wants and allows it to be.
A virtual office can also be much less. Nothing to clean, nothing to maintain, no commute times, no parking problems, no energy systems to optimize nor light bulbs to change. Whether it lacks some intrinsic need for real physical presence and interaction remains to be seen, but the technology can likely advance to overcome that and humans can also adapt to a new way of working.
So what is an office building? It is virtually anything you want it to be.